January 26, 2023: photos of pageantry on display at the Republic Day parade, ads announcing discounts across categories, videos of Shah Rukh Khan serenading Deepika Padukone, announcing the return of Bollywood at the box office, articles trying to make sense of a research report on the Adani Group, images of India’s first tribal woman president hosting journalists at the Rashtrapati Bhawan; all float around your social media timeline, converging into the jamboree of the complex social cultural rhythm of India, the bustle of a thriving republic.
But look closely and you will notice the threads of this complex structure fraying at the edges. India is celebrating its 74th Republic Day. Never has the Constitution been under such severe threat in its history. It has been subjected to assaults from time to time, and everyone harks back to the Emergency to spot examples. But the dangers facing it now are all encompassing: absolute majoritarianism, the irresistible rise of polarising political leaders, the demolition of institutions brick by brick and the ever-increasing grip of the ruling class over the civil society.
What makes it more menacing than ever before is the impunity with which it is being done. In most cases, it is presented as the will of the people. Also, the calculated nature of state action often targeted at individuals instead of groups is designed to give the impression that it does not impact most people. So, there is a sense that nothing apparently significant is being inflicted on India by its polity. Make no mistake, it is not just at the Centre but even in states where the very idea of India as conceived by its founding fathers is being strangled every day. It is a country where the architects of destruction and those opposing it in public are both threats to the Constitution.
When unplanned development is laying bare the havoc it can cause in Himalayan towns, when the government has locked horns with the Supreme Court over appointments of judges and job cuts by big tech companies are impacting Indians everywhere; why does the performance of a film at the box office become a national obsession?
You can blame it on our fraternity for trivialising news in favour of theatrics, or social media for keeping an entire generation obsessed with short-format videos, but could the problem be a little deeper? Has political power been used to weaponise people’s passions in the name of nationalism where attention is not allowed to veer towards the critical? As an insecure ruling class smells conspiracy in every criticism, personal liberties are being aggressively crushed: a talented scientist is jailed for over a decade for sharing a caricature of a chief minister.
India also cherishes ambitions of high GDP growth to be part of the elite club of developed nations. But what is really holding us back? Maybe we will achieve the elusive double-digit growth, but at what cost? Will it be equitable? Will the poorest and the most backward in India benefit from this? There are palpable fears of concentration of wealth in India. Robust policymaking has to lead the way, but can it happen when an important stakeholder says he is living in fear? Remember Rahul Bajaj?
Can we ever return to an age of moderation where disagreement is not a crime, where nationalism is not weaponised, where reason trumps ethnic identities and prejudices, where privileges are based on merit, where Constitutional morality is commonplace …
… You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one …