The (un)making of democracies


While as ideas ‘nationalism’ and ‘democracy’ had local manifestations in a few countries even prior to the 19th century, it was after the French Revolution in Europe that they started acquiring a clearer conceptual architecture. ‘Nation’ in its earliest form implied people. After the Italian and the German movements for nationalism, the term ‘nation’ expanded to include narratives, primarily imagined ones, related to the past of a people and their future. The past, imagined over a very long time span, becomes a challenge to memory and begins acquiring the form of myth, irrationally compressed and imaginatively transformed over time. The future, as against the past, spread over endless time, challenges imagination and acquires the form of a utopia. By the end of the 19th century, the emotive associations of the term ‘nation’ required that there be a known past or a range of myths recognised by the people as their own as well as a fantasy of the future or a utopia shared by the people as their collective destiny.

The 20th century was marked by people’s need to assert their ‘nationhood’. Most new-born nations also accepted democracy as the path to fulfilling their dreams for the future. For people who chose to be a nation as well as a democracy, the two terms started appearing as near synonyms. This conflation of the two terms was not just a semantic slip but a political error too. When India was engaged in its struggle for independence, the idea of becoming a ‘nation’ acquired importance as there was the question of integrating a large number of small and big princely states when British rule ended. However, when the end of colonial rule was in view, the visionaries among our leaders anticipated the dangers of overt nationalism. Aurobindo, who had spoken earlier of the Indian nation as a ‘temple of mother India’, wrote before his death (in 1950) that the future of humanity would be safer if the newly founded UN were developed as a step towards creating an international government. Tagore, whose immortal poem became our national anthem, articulated his idea of a humanity that knew no national boundary. Gandhi was clear from the 1920s that while Gujarat Vidyapith was to nurture young people to fight for national independence, the Sabarmati Ashram was to nurture individuals committed to satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence). These great thinkers, who led India on the path of national independence, knew that nationalism, stretched to an extreme, can be detrimental to the idea of freedom. They had seen that in Europe nations that went down the path of hyper-nationalism—Italy and Germany—ended up creating a brutal fascism.

The end of the Second World War, one imagined, might have brought an end to the tussle between nationalism and the spirit of independence that goes into the making of a nation. Yet, in recent years, the world has seen the rise of nationalism and the decline of democracy. Settled democracies have seen the rise of majoritarian governments unwilling to respect the primary principle of democracy—equality of all citizens irrespective of ethnicity, religion or language. Political scientists worry about the very future of democracy, certainly the kind the world imagined in the twentieth century. To the conventional threats to democracy from illiteracy, corruption, nepotism and bigotry is now added a far more serious threat from the emergence of artificial intelligence, machine control of masses, the use of spyware and the assault on individual privacy. It is a new social and political arrangement, fated to have an uneasy relationship with a mystified past. The historical moment of the arrival of democracy as an arrangement of power coincided with the birth of rationality as the foundation of science and modernity as the default ecosystem of human sensibility. This coincidence further strains the uneasy relationship between Memory and Democracy.

For many centuries in the past, Utopia was seen as the mythical future. In the era of democracy, the future ceases to be a mere myth and starts becoming the source of power, a function memory performed in pre-democratic times. Democracy, with its attendant mental ecology of modernity and its uneasy relationship with the idea of the past, does not easily grasp how it can deal with artificial memory. While it requires the future as a myth, it does not know how to create that myth in the time of artificial memory. Human societies will have to endure this struggle in times to come. Most governments today, including the Government of India, are busy using machine memory to discipline, order and control citizens. To that end, surveillance and ways of exercising control are overriding democracy. Citizens, therefore, cannot any longer be citizens unless they are free-floating digital entities in virtual time and space.

How free are we?

In the 21st century, democracy cannot redeem itself by calling to aid its ‘inner strength’ or through an obsolete mystification of its own history. Politics that seeks to derive its legitimacy from an imagined glorious past is hopelessly out of tune with the historical shifts in the trajectory of memory and its impact on forms of government. Similarly, politics that is entirely technology driven has a view of the future that can only hasten the decline of democracy. In the 21st century, pro-democratic politics will have to bring gods and robots face to face to rebuild the future as a myth and reinvent memory for the people.

Where and what India will be in 2047 depends on how capably we negotiate the man-machine tangle and how we re-articulate the charter of rights in view of the new complexities, so that we do not have a new constitution that begins with the sentence: ‘We, the digitally numbered and Robots of India, hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves…’. Let us pray the angry, winged seahorse of Greek mythology, Pegasus, does not scorch our hard-won democracy, won through the sacrifices of real human lives in a real world. The way forward, the only way forward, for technology-driven powers is to surrender to the idea of nation as people; ironically, at that future point in historical time, such an idea of nation will have exhausted itself politically. The other alternative for such powers is to move towards dissolving the idea of nation by generating a counter-narrative. For people the world over, the future may depend on rescuing the world from the idea of ‘nation as people’ and restoring the idea of ‘people as nation’. It is within that paradox that the new battle lines have to be drawn by those who do not wish to remain bound by overused and outdated political jargon.

(Author is a linguist, educationist and cultural activist. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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