Saturday, January 05, 2008

Stray thoughts on the Modi election

[I know, I know, this was weeks ago. But I've been away.]

Okay, so you can't fool all of the people all of the time. So what? You don't need to.

The real question is: can you fool enough of the people enough of the time?

***

It's always seemed to me that the chief virtue of democracy is that it does the least harm. I don't believe for a moment that the exercise of individual franchise will result in outcomes that are optimal for society, but I do believe, or would like to believe, that it will result in outcomes that are not morally heinous. The underlying assumption is that human beings are, well, human, and that a government that represents the will of the people, however approximately, will never have the same appetite for atrocity and suppression as one run by an individual or set of individuals, simply because the will of the people is too weak.

Watching Modi return to office, though, I have to wonder if that's really true. If we lived in a world of frustrated, self-hating, morally apathetic bigots, would democracy still make sense? What if the verdict of the people is something we cannot reconcile with our own conscience?

Not that I'm suggesting that this is the case in Gujarat. Yet. I'm going to continue to believe, like most people, that Modi's re-election is mere foolishness, a choice made by people who don't realize what they're doing. It's an ingenious hypothesis, and the only one I can bring myself to accept.

But what if (and again, I'm not saying this is true or likely to happen, I'm just speculating) this really were the will of the people? What if in the coming months the state government of Gujarat passed laws that were openly discriminatory to Muslims, and the people approved? What if a majority of the people of Gujarat knowingly and deliberately wanted religious minorities discriminated against, even killed? Would it be right for us to overrule the verdict of the people? Where, if anywhere, does democracy end and humanity begin?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well Falstaff, you are very much entitled to have your views probably backed by enough data and statistics, but then you can't really shy away from the fact that there is a broader aspect to Modi getting re-elected again and these aspects have more to with the development that state has seen under his rule. The state has seen unprecedented growth in all areas, the so called red-tap ism is virtually non-existent, apparently the man has a very clean and honest image-and probably this concerns the masses much more than his religious views. I am in no ways saying that i agree with Modi, all i am trying to imply is that he has done a lot of good for the state and so be it. You have spend 2 years in that state, so you are very much aware of the ground reality and if some-one has done to improve the lives of people, that should be appreciated.

arZan said...

Hi Falstaff.

Sorry for junking your comment thread. However I did not know how else to get in touch with you.

I wanted to say "Hats Off" to you for the clarity you bring in thinking at the DesiPundit post on which sakshi and now melody are trying to further put their foot in their mouths.

Have been a long time reader but commenting the first time.

Thanks for the clear logic.

Anonymous said...

>>What if in the coming months the state government of Gujarat passed laws that were openly discriminatory to Muslims, and the people approved?

This is why we have a constitution. any law like this would be illegal. Comments like this are nothing but fear-mongering. I don't think India is going to fall into genocidal politics anytime soon.

In fact, the level of protection given to minorities in India is unparalleled in the world. Our 'secular' country has separate penal codes for different religions, we subsidize religious pilgrimages like the haj but not equivalent ones for the majority; talk to any successful Muslim, they'll tell you that the only real discrimination in India is based on merit, not religion. Unsuccessful people will always find someone else to blame.

But that being said, the scariest thing about the Gujarat riots is to show how India is on the verge of blowing up; the "aam aadmi" is frustrated with how minorities have been treated and how vote-bank politics have perpetuated archaic policies crafted in the years following the partition in 1947. For that or otherwise, a large chunk of the population obviously supports, atleast passively, what happened in Gujarat.

Falstaff said...

anon1: I don't claim to know enough about Modi's achievements around Gujarat's developments, so I'll take your word for the fact that he deserves credit for making a difference there. But that's more or less my point isn't it? What if a majority of the population were to say, to hell with minorities, as long as the man continues to deliver economic prosperity to us he can do what he pleases to them? At the risk of running foul of Godwin's law, that's exactly the argument that made the rise of Hitler possible.

arzan: Thanks.

anon2: You know, I was worried about this whole fear-mongering thing, which is why I clearly said the bit about "I'm not saying this is true or likely to happen, I'm just speculating" - evidently I was relying too much on the intelligence of my readers, at least in your case.

And yes, yes, I know there's a constitution, blah blah. That's not the point. The point is should a legislation that is supported by a majority of the population it affect be deemed illegal? In what way is that democratic?

You say yourself that people are frustrated, are looking for a convenient scapegoat, and passively support what happened in Gujarat (which btw, was what I meant by 'frustrated, self-hating, morally apathetic bigots' - you really weren't paying attention were you?), so the point I'm trying to get at with this post is - how much sense does it make to base government on 'the will of the people' in that context? (and just to be clear - that isn't a rhetorical question, and I don't have an answer, I just think it's worth thinking about).

Anonymous said...

anon1 here: Point well taken, but then isnt this the picture almost everywhere in India. All the political parties do the same, some under the garb of secularism, some openly- but essentially everyone resorts to politics of caste and religion. Look at what happened in Nandigram and probably the leftists would still end up getting re-elected. If judiciary intervenes, then all the parties come together criticizing the judiciary of overstepping their responsibilties. Point is- are we supposed to then believe all we supposed to believe that all we have is actually something like pseudo democracy existing in India. I really dont know for sure whether i side-tracked from the central theme of the post.

Space Bar said...

Anon 1: Re development in Gujarat, if Modi has been successful at anything, it is in pushing that notion to everyone outside Gujarat: please see this for an alternate perspective.

Also, the win in Gujarat was more narrow than we imagine. Anhad has a break up of the margin of win for each constituency, but it's easier to point you to Annie's post, which has the breakups.

Falstaff: Where, if anywhere, does democracy end and humanity begin?

Sigh. Indeed.

Anonymous said...

Space bar: I appreciate what you are saying. And i completely agree with you, my only concern here is isn't this what every political party does, claiming they are secular and all that but when it comes to elections, it ultimately comes down to caste/religion based politics. So how is Modi different from Left or Congress. And why is it that we should single out Modi. We need to view everyone under the same microscope. How are the atrocities committed in Godhra different from what happened in Nandigram.

Space Bar said...

Anon1: I don't think the Hindutva brigade has ever claimed they were secular. The only time they use the word is when they use the 'pseudo' tag to tar many people with the same brush.

This is not to defend the Congress in the GUajarat elections; they were cynical and their behaviour in taking in all the rabble-rousing scum that left Modi was reprehensible.

As for How are the atrocities committed in Godhra different from what happened in Nandigram.

There's been plenty pf protest about Nandigram (and Sigur, if it comes to that). Haven't you noticed? Some of the most vociferous critics of the West Bengal Govt. are others on the Left.

Chevalier said...

But true as this is, isn't this common knowledge? (this = fallacies of democracy).
A democracy, like a free market, actually functions like ideal only when there are enough players, enough choice - low barriers of entry/exit, information symmetry, etc. This is what most people in the Western world today have NOT woken up to: starting with Georgeie Porgie in the US, and going on to ALL the candidates for next President (I'm watching the debates!!).
Lots of times, sometimes in hindsight, we know that a dictator actually helped a county stabilize and improved growth/prosperity or whatever it is that was the need of that nation-state at that time. Mass decisions, market-based information processing, is sometimes not accurate or smart. Similarly, often companies work best when their shares are NOT publicly traded, but when they're privately owned - so that decisions are taken by people who have richer information, more rational thought processes and have an incentive to think more long-term. Science was (is?) often better funded and supported in communist countries - especially science which didn't have immediate and obvious utility. In today's world, even our most inspiring leaders shy away from non-populist but correct/ideal decisions: Barack Obama, for instance, outlines policies where he plans to cancel/postpone NASA's mission in 2020, the first manned mission in this century. While this is not on the same lines as Modi's state-sponsored massacre of Muslims, it is still a dangerous and short-term p-o-v.

But yes, my reaction to the Modi election was the same helplessness and anger - I was sick to the pits of my stomach, just like when I heard of Bhutto's assassination. I wish we could circumvent such so-called democracy - have some kind of IQ test for all voters in every country, take them through a three-hour session on basic human rights and what happens when they're circumvented by ANYone, ANYwhere.

Falstaff said...

chevalier: Yes and no. The problems you point to are common knowledge. But they're not the problems I'm talking about. My point is precisely that people like me prefer democracy knowing fully well that it leads to sub-optimal decision making because we believe that unlike dictatorships democracies will not operate (or not operate for long) with malign intent. Bad decision making is one thing, evil is something else, and as long as democracies aren't capable of malign intent then I for one am happy to live with their inefficiency rather than risk living under a totalitarian regime. The question here is - can democracies turn evil. Can a majority of individuals actively vote to attack and destroy minorities? Not through oversight, not through misinformation, but through active malice.(again, I'm not saying this is happening in Gujarat, but what if it were). And what do we do if this happens (obviously, dictatorship is not the answer).

Chevalier said...

Agree - thanks for the clarification.

Though crowds of people not reacting to help a victim, or even committing a heinous crime together does have precedent (Kitty Genovese, 1964; Mumbai mass molestation, Jan 1, 2008).

At best, this Modi election is a case of the 'bystander effect', and the issue at hand has been sufficiently muddled so not many of the voters believed Modi was responsible for killing 2000 people (well, then 'did they all commit mass suicide' as someone asked). So each one thinks he/she cannot/need not react to change anything.

At worst - and this is more probable - people in India are a frustrated, violent, bigoted bunch right now, due to whatever external or internal reasons. Maybe Gujarat because they see a natural disaster every year for the last 10 years or so. Maybe because of the great, vast, and increasing economic inequality in the country. Maybe because there are regular elections, but the democracy is of such poor quality - there is barely any public debate or discourse on issues that matter most to the average human being.

Weirdly, the other issue gripping India these days, the 'monkey' racist issue in cricket, also started in far-away Gujarat and Mumbai ("Test crowds in India are respectful and knowledgeable, but in Gujarat they were aggressive and rude, even jeering at Australian journalists as they made their way to the press box. The crowd's English may not have been perfect, but their obscenities were.....Symonds had been subjected to monkey taunts from crowds in Vadodara and Nagpur but the obscene gestures and vile hooting reached a crescendo during the day-night match in Mumbai").

Anonymous said...

Like you even I was surprised at the modi re-elect and ur penned thoughts were exactly mine...but then while speaking to a minority friend in ahmedabad he gave an entirely different picture...stating that modi has been the pivot in bringing the state to all-round growth of the state and the non-existant red tape...a great example is an NRI malayali friend who wanted to open a residential international school in "kerala" and due to huge red-tapism obstacles, chose to do so in gujrat and very successfully so...this is a recent happening!! so there is some justification i suppose in his re-elect where even the minority is supporting modi govt even knowing and acknowledging his personal religious beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Like you even I was surprised at the modi re-elect and ur penned thoughts were exactly mine...but then while speaking to a minority friend in ahmedabad he gave an entirely different picture...stating that modi has been the pivot in bringing the state to all-round growth of the state and the non-existant red tape...a great example is an NRI malayali friend who wanted to open a residential international school in "kerala" and due to huge red-tapism obstacles, chose to do so in gujrat and very successfully so...this is a recent happening!! so there is some justification i suppose in his re-elect where even the minority is supporting modi govt even knowing and acknowledging his personal religious beliefs.