Anything but samvad

Democracy is not about oratorical skills, it requires mindful listening

Anything but samvad

Soul of democracy: Conversations should be a process in continuity. reuters

Avijit Pathak

Sociologist

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as it is said, is an excellent orator. The other day, while laying the foundation stone of the new Parliament building, Mr Modi, with his characteristic style, invoked Guru Nanak, reminding us of the great saint’s message: “Jab tak sansar rahe, tab tak samvad rahe”, and stressed on the need for dialogue to preserve the ‘soul of democracy’.

Mr Modi is right because democracy means a perpetual process of conversations and negotiations. And it would be great if Mr Modi seeks to create a situation that encourages the ruling regime to come out of the Kafkaesque castle, and with humility, listen to those who — for diverse reasons — are not happy with the government. Yet, given the prevalent socio-political landscape, it is difficult to escape a disturbing question: Does Mr Modi actually mean what he is saying? Or is it that words are empty, and what remains is merely an instrumental game of appropriation (and falsification) of noble concepts and symbols? He spoke of dialogue. Yet, without establishing a direct communion with the farmers, and responding to their angst, he can still repeat his monologue, and say (recall his latest speech at FICCI) that ‘the new reformers will give them new markets, access to technology and help bring investments in agriculture.’ This is like giving the impression that the farmers know nothing, and they are a bunch of fools.

Possibly, we cannot overlook the style of functioning of this government. And this is by no means dialogic. There are three reasons for this. First, the spirit of democracy as a collective project has been replaced by the culture of narcissism that projects the supreme leader as a messiah monopolising the grand truth. And this master narrative has been sanctified through the assertive discourse of hyper-nationalism, techno-economic development and ‘Hindu glory’. The supreme leader, it is believed, cannot be wrong. And hence, those who critique the policies of the government, or express even the slightest ambiguity are necessarily the ‘enemies’ of the nation. Second, this leads to the circulation of conspiracy theory — a characteristic feature of any totalitarian regime. Hence, dissent has to be criminalised or ridiculed. This explains the politics of the prevalent vocabulary that characterises the dissenters: ‘urban Naxals’, ‘Khalistanis’, or for that matter, ‘tukde-tukde gang’. These are all negative connotations disseminated through the troll army and politically engineered television news channels. See its implications. Farmers are struggling and agitating. But then, it is said that they have been misdirected by the Maoists and other conspirators; or they are ‘Khalistanis’. Likewise, the entire phenomenon called Shaheen Bagh was stigmatised; and they didn’t even spare those determined ‘dadis’ who enchanted the protest site. When dissenters are seen to be criminals or fools or conspirators, it is naturally assumed that there is no reason to talk to them. And third, democracy has been reduced into the logic of electoral victory. This is like undermining or trivialising the Opposition. Hence, even when farmers are agitating and urging the government to repeal the farm laws, the spokespersons of the ruling regime do not hesitate to refer to the electoral victory in the panchayat elections in Rajasthan, and assert that it means people have voted for these laws. Cherish the mantra of ‘success’; and assume that those who have not won the elections are necessarily wrong! In other words, we find ourselves amid a political culture that confuses monologue with dialogue, power with truth, and narcissism with democracy.

Possibly, Mr Modi ought to realise that democracy is not about beautiful oratorical skills. It requires the profound art of listening — and mindful listening to one’s ideological opponents, or even to those who have failed in terms of electoral mathematics. To listen is not necessarily to agree. However, to listen is to acknowledge the living presence of the other, and respect this presence. And hence, to listen is to cultivate the spirit of humility and openness, and generate a possibility of the fusion of horizons. Mr Modi can learn from the way Gandhi and Tagore, despite differences, trusted each other, and continued their dialogues which enriched both of them as well as the nation. A totalitarian discourse, irrespective of its left or right colour, fears dialogue; it erects a wall of separation between ‘loyalists’ and ‘conspirators’. To respect the ‘soul of democracy’ is to break this wall of separation. Is Mr Modi ready for this jump? Furthermore, with the art of listening emerges the fundamental democratic act of negotiation — the ability to see beyond the tyranny of the free market or the vanguard of the proletariat. Hence, the spirit of collective welfare — not merely the welfare of the Adanis and the Ambanis — ought to characterise the policies of the government. And today, the farmers are conveying this message; they ought to be listened to.

And finally, if Mr Modi is sincere about Guru Nanak and his plea for samvad, it is important for him to cultivate the ecstasy of love and compassion. Think of it. These days, we experience the normalisation of violence. Hence, we are asked to see a cross-religious marriage as an act of jihad; we are asked to believe that all those young/idealist students who express their concern over the CAA are Maoists, and sedition charges have to be filed against them. And we are asked to see nothing beyond biryani at Shaheen Bagh. A poet, a human rights activist, a professor: they suffer in the prison because they sought to look at the world differently. Is it samvad, Mr Modi?

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