"...let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
I write this article as a personal appeal and in a state of alarm. Alarm at the efforts to silence all criticism against the current government. Alarm at the level of silence being practiced institutionally by the government, by the media, by civil society and by the public in general. Alarm at the fact that India is slowly but surely becoming a republic of silence.
Here's a personal example. A while ago I wrote an article article on Huffington Post, presenting a counterview to the popular perception about Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Instead of discussing the merit of the article based on the arguments presented, people targeted me in the comments section, across Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn, labelling me as an anti-national, a sycophant and everything in between.
The People's Silence
My case is merely symptomatic of a larger phenomenon that we are witnessing as a society. Any question that is even slightly critical of the current dispensation is often shut down by voluminous and vituperative rhetoric. Any article, any status update and any comment meets the same fate. And contrary to popular belief, it's not the online brigade of the BJP but people like you and me, the netizens who rallied behind PM Modi in 2014 and pinned high hopes on him, that are finding it difficult to accept the relative underperformance of the government and any criticism of it.
"[W]e have surrendered the right to question, to criticise and to engage in meaningful debate simply because we are desperate to believe in the fable that one man can be a saviour for all 1.2 billion of us."
I term this phenomenon as People's Silence, wherein we have surrendered the right to question, to criticise and to engage in meaningful debate simply because we are desperate to believe in the fable that one man can be a saviour for all 1.2 billion of us. And when reality starts splintering the myth, we slap on the blinders. We do not want to accept that the solutions to our problems do not lie with one man but with us as a people who have to constantly hold those in power accountable by engaging in thoughtful debate and constructive criticism.
Instead of facing up to our responsibilities, we are trying to shut down voices of dissent. After all, dissent makes us question things. It takes us to uncomfortable places. It forces us to accept that there are no silver bullets to solve chronic issues like poverty, corruption, hunger and economic stagnation. It makes us aware that all of us will have to do our bit to improve the fate of our nation rather than relying on Mr. Kejriwal to root out corruption and Mr. Modi to clean India or jumpstart the economy. Statements like "Mr. Modi will change India" or He is our only hope" make me extremely worried, as they are completely contradictory to the ethos of a democracy. It is the inability of our people to rise above these disempowering statements that is the greatest crisis in Indian politics.
The Saviour's Silence
Another form of silence that we are witnessing is what I term as the Saviour's Silence. It began the day when the Cabinet was reduced to schoolchildren who could not even select their own staff let alone make their own decisions. If the UPA government was condemned for having a dual power centre then Mr. Modi's government can be criticised for centralising power in a single person. A power which again brooks no dissent, as is evident from the fact that unlike previous governments where ministers were open to comments, the practice in the current dispensation is to be minimalistic in approach when dealing with any form of external communication, leaving the substantive missives to be issued either by the PM through his monologue "Mann ki Baat" or through ordinances issued by the PM's office.
"Our eloquent PM has maintained a stoic silence (barring a few platitudes) over issues like the rise of fundamentalism in society, farmer suicides, rise in Naxal violence etc."
This is coupled with the fact that our eloquent PM has maintained a stoic silence (barring a few platitudes) over issues like the rise of fundamentalism in society, farmer suicides, rise in Naxal violence etc. He has also failed to take to task Hindu fundamentalists in the BJP and left them free to spew their venom in society. This silence chips away at the very core of the democratic and pluralistic setup of our society marked by dialogue, noise, chaos, argument and ongoing debate.
Lastly and perhaps the most unnerving is what I call Institutional Silence, where traditional people's watchdogs in our society like the media and civil society have also gone silent for fear of a backlash. Various civil society organizations have already been put under the scanner and funding has been blocked for organizations like Greenpeace etc. with charges ranging from financial misconduct to anti-national activities. And with the corporatisation of the media, news has also become a commodity that can be bought and sold thus rendering its credibility suspect and its impact limited. Reporting against a ruling dispensation with deep pockets in a society immersed in the practice of collective People's Silence as outlined above, can be commercially as well as strategically unviable.
The fundamental problem we are facing as a society is the lack of a critical mass of people's organisations i.e. NGO's, community organisations, people's movements, students' movements, cooperatives etc. as well as a vigilant and critical media challenging the status quo and deepening the language of democracy around substantial issues of food, education, health and ecology.
How I wish back the days when I could post a critical comment without being attacked personally, or when the media fearlessly reported about impropriety at the highest levels. I hope that with this article we can start the debate again from where our Constitution starts i.e. We the People of India. After all, the founders of our nation started with the word "WE" and not "I" for a reason, because they knew that the destiny of this nation is not in the hands of any one person but its teeming millions.