Democracy belongs to the dissenters: Prof. Aijaz Ahmad

‘I feel, to truly have democracy, we need to have socialism’

Noted Marxist political theorist and philosopher Prof. Aijaz Ahmad expressed concern that the surge in ‘spectacular resistance movements’ emerging across the country might peter out if there is no political centre around which they can coalesce. He was delivering a talk, ‘Making Sense of Our times: Democracy, Debate, Dissent’, organised by Bengaluru Collective and moderated by N. Ram, Director, The Hindu Publishing Group, on Sunday.

Drawing a parallel to the Arab Spring movements that were eventually defeated, he said, “How do you bring these various resistance movements by farmers, minorities, students, Dalits among others, in relation to each other in such a way that it doesn’t remain fragmented?”. The real question in India is whether there can be a political centre around which these forces can coalesce. “The powers that be will try to suppress it, with structures of liberal state increasingly acting in illiberal ways,” he cautioned.

Charting out the crises and failures of liberal democracies, he said that while democracy had failed as a system of governance, democracy itself truly belonged to dissenters. “I feel, to truly have democracy, we need to have socialism. There is something deeply incompatible between democracy and capitalism that only produces oligarchic power,” he said.

It is in the growing inequity and extreme polarisation of classes due to neoliberal economic policies that the right wing has found its space, across the globe, he observed. Describing the ongoing farmers agitation as “the first really big movement on the question of neoliberalism” in India, he said this was also why the government has dug in its heels. “When farmers say Narendra Modi dare not withdraw the farm bills as ‘Ambani and Adani’ won’t allow him to do so, there is truth to it. Benito Mussolini once defined fascism as the state and corporations becoming one, which is exactly what we are seeing today. It’s a global trend and India is no different,” he said.

However, he said the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not in the traditional mode of fascist takeovers, but a takeover of institutions from within. “They filled the bureaucracy, military and judiciary with their sympathisers as much as possible. When they eventually came [to power] there was widespread acceptance and consent to their ideology and politics. Now, these institutions including the judiciary are ensuring that this government lasts in the foreseeable future,” he said.

According to Prof. Ahmad, the roots of the democractic crisis in the country run far deeper. He spoke of the failure of the Indian state in the first decades, when it did not create a popular base for democracy to take root above race, caste and classes. “There has always been an elite bias, making us a 10% democracy,” he said, adding for a democracy to take root, an informed citizenry is a prerequisite, for which not only freedom of press but education is key. “For that we had to wage not just a verbal rhetorical struggle, but a fundamental social struggle on the question of religion, caste, separation of church and state and equality for all citizens. But there has always been an elitist bias in our democracy, its social and education policies,” he said.

He identified three factors influencing and forging our times as: the fall of the Soviet Union that made capitalism truly global for the first time; new technology that has broken territoriality of production; and the shift of global capital from the west to East Asia. In this new emerging geopolitical order, we are witnessing a realignment, a rise of a global competition of sorts, between the West and China. “India seems to be throwing its weight with the United States of America.”

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