By Avani Bansal:
Over the last few days, we witnessed what some may call dramatic events. No change is overnight. It is slow, brewing underground until one day, it’s out there for everyone to see. In India, Modi announced the replacement of the old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes in an attempt to bring out the black money from the coffers of Indians. The nation was awe-struck at the surprise that came with the announcement, as reflected in the over-flooding of comments on Twitter. Whether this action of the government will really help curb the black money problem is debatable and only time will tell. It’s been hailed as ‘revolutionary’ by banking industry leaders, as an adverse hit to the small and medium-size businesses, and motivated by political reasons than economic, amongst others. It’s short and long-term effects may be debatable but it is not unfair to describe it as a bold move, given its wide reaching impact on every person in the country and the swiftness with which it was implemented.
On the other side of the globe, Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States of America has attracted sharp reactions from around the world and across political divides. The run up to the elections and the final outcome had the world watching with bated breath. US presidential elections always attracts attention from media around the world but this time it was nothing sort of historic. The political campaign of Trump made it clear to anyone who was listening that one can expect policy reversal on some key areas and issues including the Affordable Care Act, climate change, rights of immigrants, LGBT rights etc. Now that Trump is elected, perhaps we need to give him a chance to lead, in Clinton’s words.
But why should we pause and take note of these two extra-ordinary events, one in the largest democracy and another in the most powerful democracy of the world? These two events present the need to go back to the basics of democracy. What we see unfolding is bigger than the Modi and the Trump of the world. Irrespective of what we think of these two events, we are witnessing a dramatic shift of our own fates. We are watching the forces of democracy undergoing a churn. These events present a question – is democracy the best form of government? Can we, the people, trust ourselves to rule ourselves?
Democracy means rule by the people and it is as good as the people themselves. The reins of our country are always in the hands of the people. It is not enough then, as ‘the people’ to sit in peace with our opinions based on the simplistic narratives presented to us but to look carefully at the forces that define the popular discourse, and to influence them in the desired direction. It is important to look beyond what’s obvious, for hidden motives, forces at play, real beneficiaries of a move and to always ask – “Why?” than just “What?”
Yes, Modi’s move is bold but it’s timing cannot be neglected. There are several arguments on the table that needs to be kept in consideration. First, it can be argued that this move ahead of the U.P. elections does win a political vote in favour of BJP over other parties. One can also argue that it cannot be ruled out that BJP party insiders would have seen this move coming and arranged for the black money to be converted into white in preparation for the upcoming elections. The money in politics aside, one may say that the political mileage in terms of the popularity of the move cannot be discounted. But on the other hand, it can also be argued that this was a risky move that could have either helped BJP win next general elections or lose it.
It’s about reading the nerves of the majority right and playing to it. Trump did exactly that. The insecurities of the average white people, the growing inequality in the American society, the backdrop of the financial crisis, a distrust of the insiders in politics are all factors that explain to some extent the electoral victory of Trump.
As different as these two events may look, they are also remarkably similar. They force us to re-think the role of populism in democracy. If winning an election in a democracy is all about numbers, can we really hope for long-term, systematic social changes? Should our leaders say and do the things that the majority wants to hear and see, or should they do ‘the right thing’? What is ‘the right thing’ is debatable. Further, whether it is right as per the collective conscious of the majority, or as per the conscious of the leader is another layer of complexity inherent in the debate. But if democracy is to survive and emerge stronger, then we as people need to go deeper, beyond simplistic narratives. We need to engage with the complexities and nuances of every proposition.
Do we really know if this move of the government will be effective in curbing black money? Do we really know if and how Trump will ‘make America great again’? Today, politics seems to have become replaceable with populism. What is easy is what sells. What sells is what’s sold. Common people don’t usually engage with the complexities of an issue. Politicians are hell bent on explaining every problem like they were explaining it to ‘a six-year-old’. But democracy cannot survive only amongst six-year-olds. We need adult conversations.
As ‘the people’, we wouldn’t do our duty if we only relied on what the media feeds us, or what social media shares tell us. We need to apply our minds independently. We need to understand that the under-written rule of democratic elections is that one needs to win the next election before one can ‘save the world’. Winning the next election requires focusing on short-term objectives, even when they may come with long term costs. Who cares? But we can make the government care. We can ask tough questions, we can keep the debates on, we can ask for assessment reports by the government to check on the feasibility of a project/proposal. You will read opinions of all kinds but what we need is that you engage with the issues, try to understand what’s happening and not take a simplistic ‘they know best’ approach. We need more inputs by the experts and we need to trust those experts. And yet, relying on experts alone is not the solution. Ultimately, we need to choose leaders who have a strong will, a powerful soul and who will ‘do the right thing’, not withstanding the pulls and pressure of politics. They will be like the lotus in muddy waters – in it but not affected by it. The challenge is, will we choose them and will we stand by them?
A democracy cannot rely on leaders alone. It is you and I who make a difference. So keep your eyes and ears open. Look for what’s behind the game. Stand for the right move, and rise above party politics. Dare to say the right and be with the right. Let politics play its role but let it never be above your soul. In the meantime, give a long hard look at democracy. It’s come a long way and now finds itself at cross-roads. Where is democracy heading and why, and where do we want it to go and why, are questions we all need to be asking today.