While there is an upsurge of right-wing populism across the world, India is one of the few countries notable for its democratic backsliding as a consequence. Even as the government in power pushes through a legislative and political agenda to remake the nature of the state itself, dissent is being criminalised and institutions which should act as a countervailing power on the state, are being bypassed or are acting as legitimating tools of the government’s agenda. As a result, citizen dissatisfaction is unable to find a viable institutional outlet and is spilling onto the streets. We have thus witnessed widespread and sustained sit-in protests in peak winter by citizen groups — first Muslims and now farmers — in the national capital for two years in a row. As citizens dissenting against real or perceived injustice of the state, these overwhelmingly peaceful protests have demonstrated remarkable forbearance and have elicited deserving admiration from various quarters. However, those concerned with the trajectory of Indian democracy as opposed to the outcome on a single issue, need to develop a theory of change which goes beyond expression of dissent to restore contestation for power of the state itself.
There’s much to love about these protests — the indomitable will of ordinary citizens, their forbearance and energy which affirm the democratic spirit of India. However, the protests should be seen as one element in the longer, wider process to restore political contestation, not as a harbinger of revolution because this government is not an unpopular government and the act of speaking out is not a revolutionary act in democracies as it is in dictatorships. It is true that the government is employing increasingly authoritarian tactics to suppress dissent but it also continues to enjoy support among a sizeable cross-section of the population. Consequently, the protests represent not the people versus state (as in revolutions) but become people versus people. This gives the government cover and much room to manoeuvre in a script we have seen play out multiple times.
First, the government has enormous staying power and can simply wait out self-limiting protests, like the anti-CAA protest which largely drew upon the finite Muslim minority to sustain itself. Inevitably, such protests will start to flag as exigencies of life exert themselves. Moreover, sustained sit-in protests become susceptible to disruption and de-legitimisation because the peripheries of street protest are, by definition, very loosely defined — and it is impossible to authoritatively differentiate between an undisciplined supporter and motivated disruptor. It was not just the pandemic that wound up the anti-CAA protests but the riots in Delhi which allowed the government to paint protestors as criminal elements and hound them through its investigative agencies in revenge. A similar attempt to delegitimise the farmers’ protest was made after the violence by a small unrepresentative group on Republic Day. To propagate a narrative, one does not need truth and facts as long as there are willing believers (people versus people).
It is thus important to find ways of stabilising democratic energy of these protests into organisational form to inter alia find non-confrontational ways of mobilisation, feed into the institutional processes of democracy and to convert people’s energy into political power. That the farm protests appear to be faring better than the anti-CAA protests is not just because it is more difficult to vilify farmers than Muslims in popular imagination, but because the former are backed by better organisational strength and clearer leadership. In the face of a state gearing up for repression, existing forms of organisation — farmer unions and panchayats — were able to mobilise a show of strength. There is also better coherence in the political opposition, with 16 opposition parties together boycotting the President’s address in Parliament and speaking in one voice against attempts to de-legitimise the protests after January 26. The difference in the government’s stance is evident too: Escalating repression mixed with concession (temporarily suspending the laws) to try and defuse the situation and find some face-saving way out.
The way forward is evident. The 2019 election has shown that attempts to aggregate discontent with the government through serial protests without building organisation or linkages with institutional democratic processes is a losing proposition. However, almost two years after the election, in the face of deepening divisions and attack on our constitutional values, there remains a complete organisational vacuum on the ground to mobilise public opinion for peace, fraternity and rule of law. Protests are necessary but they are an assertion of power of those already on our side; what we need right now is outreach and organisation to accrue and aggregate power. Moreover, it is not clear whether all anti-government protests are necessarily incompatible with majoritarianism. This is evident from BJP victory in Surat and Mandsaur. despite being racked by huge protests on GST and agrarian crisis respectively.
In a democracy, political power comes not from sporadic protests but from the ability to act in concert at important junctures. This is possible only through organisation. There are many instinctively liberal people who need a platform but may not be comfortable with protests. We need to give them accessible non-confrontational ways to participate. This is possible only if the Opposition — civil society and political — first hammers out an agenda around which different sections of the society can coalesce and develops programmes to enable volunteerism and mobilisation for organisation at the local level. In the present context — the popularity of the current government, its authoritarian tendencies and polarisation in society — this means too that the Opposition needs an agenda beyond opposition.
The writer is former national in-charge for the student wing of the Congress Party and advisor, Samruddha Bharat Foundation. Views are personal