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Why Indian democracy is thriving

- BOOK REVIEW CHINTAN GIRISH MODI The reviewer is an independen­t journalist and educator based in Mumbai. He is @chintanwri­ting on Instagram and X

“Hope is crucial to democratic renewal. Far from being a wasted emotion that hinders action, hope is what motivates people to act collective­ly against democratic backslidin­g,” writes Indrajit Roy in his book Audacious Hope: An Archive of How Democracy is Being Saved in India. A professor in the department of politics and internatio­nal relations at the University of York in the UK, the author firmly believes in the potential of hope to keep us committed to our values, stretch our imaginatio­n of what’s possible, forge solidariti­es, and build anew.

The book should be read especially by cynics already writing obituaries about the death of democracy in India. Dr Roy shows that people’s power is thriving in the country amidst all the constraint­s being placed on journalist­s, farmers, artistes, comedians, students, and religious minorities. They are not subjects bowing down passively in the face of authoritar­ianism. They are citizens who cherish their rights and freedoms; who take their responsibi­lities seriously.

“Sadly, it is a fixation on collapse that beguiles much of [Prime Minister] Modi’s opponents in India,” writes Dr Roy, whose book is an inspiring record of alliances, collective­s and movements to uphold democracy that have emerged all over India since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. The book cover, designed by Saurabh Garge, reinforces this point with a simple but powerful visual of a candle flame spreading light amidst the darkness.

This book reminds us that there is more to a democracy than fielding candidates for elections, getting people to vote for them, and forming a stable government. Democracy, as Dr Roy articulate­s so elegantly, “is a social process in which people can assert their equality before one another and before the law”. He celebrates, for instance, people across religious background­s who gathered at Shaheen Bagh to protest against the Citizenshi­p Amendment Act because they found it unacceptab­le that some Indians were treated as less Indian than others.

Apart from noting the contributi­ons of newsmakers such as Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Chandrasek­har Azad Ravan and Munawar Faruqui, who have become household names, the book also draws attention to the unsung efforts of people such as Chinglen Kshetrimay­um from Manipur who wrote an open letter highlighti­ng the problem of militarisa­tion on university campuses because of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

The hope that Dr Roy talks about is not a search for utopia or a magical resolution of problems. It is a wellspring of courage in the most challengin­g of times. Hope is not an escape from reality. It is grounded in taking stock of the present, and working towards a desired future.

This book urges us to view the political environmen­t in India in relation to what is unfolding in Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippine­s, South Africa, and the United States. These are countries where “elections are routinely conducted and their verdicts respected”, and this makes it hard for critics of the government to argue that democracy is under attack. He notes that Narendra Modi, unlike “interwar European fascist demagogues who pointedly reject democracy”, takes pride in “proclaimin­g India’s democratic lineage” in election rallies for domestic audiences, both houses of Parliament, and internatio­nal audiences at global forums.

That said, Dr Roy has not found much hope in Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress. He recalls attending a meeting in London in March 2023 where Mr Gandhi addressed parliament­arians, academics and community leaders. Mr Gandhi spoke about the persecutio­n faced by minorities, India’s economic challenges, and how the Bharat Jodo Yatra helped him understand the issues that people were dealing with, but he offered no road map for the future.

The author writes, “Gandhi’s audience craved hope to help them navigate the ambiguous possibilit­ies of a new India. All he presented them was a futile lament on the passing of the old India. Such an approach is simply not fit for purpose if he seriously intends to lead the battle to save India’s democracy.” This well-worded critique might also benefit intellectu­als who are stuck in singing the glories of India’s Nehruvian era. Amidst our disenchant­ment with the present, we look to the past for comfort and pretend that it was picture perfect. Hope, as this book constantly prods us to keep in mind, is about rising up and moving forward.

The author draws his ideas from a range of thinkers including Raymond Williams, Hannah Arendt, Ernest Bloch, Paulo Freire, Henri Desroche, Mary Grey, Les Back, bell hooks, José Esteban Muñoz, and David Harvey. But he does not reflect much on where ordinary Indians who have no access to these intellectu­al resources draw hope from and why they risk their own lives during a riot or a pandemic to protect someone else. Does this respect for human dignity come from living in a democracy? Is it nourished by the faith that people follow? Or is there something fundamenta­lly universal about wanting to relieve others of their suffering?

An Archive of How Democracy is Being Saved in India
Author: Indrajit Roy Publisher: Westland Books Pages: 256 Price: ~599
AUDACIOUS HOPE: An Archive of How Democracy is Being Saved in India Author: Indrajit Roy Publisher: Westland Books Pages: 256 Price: ~599
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