Change and Challenge, Anyone?
In today’s India, many of the institutions that should have held ruling politicians to account have either succumbed or simply abdicated their responsibilities. There is no group speaking truth to power.
India’s Opposition parties and their leaders are silenced because those in power know their weaknesses and wield the threat of jail over them. So barring the occasional orchestrated statements and some periodic protests, there is nothing much they do. The Opposition is as hopelessly splintered as it has always been. In a first-past-the-post system, without a united vote, it is not easy to dislodge an energised incumbent backed by a selectorate.
India’s media has long given up on its role as a watchdog. The lure of government ads, the carrot of some favours (or the stick of threats) – and they fall in line with whoever is in power. Every powerful leader has learnt from predecessors on how to control the narrative. For those independent voices that rise, pressure is applied via sedition cases and targeted raids. Social media platforms are also complicit – amplifying the false and hateful, rather than the true and objective.
The judiciary too has been largely tamed. Not that it needed to be. With hearings taking years if not decades, justice is always delayed and denied. Barring a few, judges at all levels can be ‘persuaded’ – by fear or favour. With the legislative and executive arms of the government already merged into one, the judiciary too has been co-opted creating a single dominant force which rules India. Once again, the decay is not new – the descent has been in the making through the years and previous governments.
The last hope, India’s middle class, is nowhere in the picture. They are the only ones who could have through their numbers held institutions to account. But they too are compromised. As Devesh Kapur wrote recently: “The growth of a middle class was expected to play a transformative role in propelling the economy on the one hand and modernising Indian society and politics on the other. The former would be achieved by its consumption potential that would drive domestic demand and the latter by pressuring the polity to address corruption and transcend identity politics. That this has occurred more in the breach is self-evident…The failures of the middle class to better govern the very professional organisations that have been the source of its social power are manifest, be it the governing body of accountants or of architects, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. The Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India (replaced by the National Medical Commission in 2020) are prime examples of professional misconduct themselves. They epitomise a harsh reality. The institutional malaise in the governance of the professions is an important reason not just for the weaknesses of the professions themselves, but in their larger failure to hold the state to account – a failure that is all too manifest today.”
India’s middle class, which was anyways small, has also shrunk in the past couple years. 800 million Indians now depend on free food from the government to survive. Who can think revolution and develop a spine for change on an empty stomach?
Therein lies the conundrum. With no mesmerising leaders, with no alternative message, with no mass messengers, with no mainstream media support, with no middle class voice – how can minds be changed and votes be channelised for a new future? Is there a ray of hope? From Albert Hirschman’s “exit, voice, and loyalty”, is exit the only option left? Or is there a possibility of voice for those who are not in the loyalty camp?