Ranjona Banerji: Populism is not democracy

By  Ranjona Banerji | Posted  14-Dec-2016

You cannot brush away all the suffering people have experienced since demonetisation just because it is a ‘popular’ move

Citizens protest in New Delhi soon after the demonetisation announcement. Pic/PTI
Citizens protest in New Delhi soon after the demonetisation announcement. Pic/PTI

There is a glorious misconception amongst those who have no inkling of how democracy works that if something is popular, it cannot be criticised. It was popularly believed a few centuries ago that the Earth was flat, that the Sun revolved around the Earth and so on. People who questioned these assumptions, with scientific research and explanations, were persecuted and killed. However, those were not democratic times.

For whatever it is worth, we claim in India to belong to a democracy. Therefore, a variety of experiences and opinions are apparently free to mix with each other. But not, it must be noted, criticism of a ‘popular’ idea.

Therefore the absurd arguments we have come across since November 8 and this disastrous demonetisation scheme.

“90 people have died.”
“But people love the scheme.”
“Patients are not getting treatment at hospitals.”
“But people love the scheme.”
“There is not enough cash in banks.”
“But people love the scheme.”

And so on. There is no co-relation between the problems people have faced since demonetisation began and the fact that it is ‘popular’.

Indeed, there is no evidence that the scheme is universally popular either. A few TV mikes urging that one person standing for hours in a queue to exclaim that he loves the prime minister prove nothing except perhaps that some people are terrified to tell the truth.

There is no co-relation either between this demonetisation scheme and this supposed hatred of black money. A good proportion of people who claim to approve of this scheme continue with their black money practices. Others have no concept of how black money operates and still imagine cash is stuffed into underground dungeons with henchmen and vamps protecting it while singing Bollywood songs.

How far can populism be taken? If 2,000 people die in riots, is it legal for a government claim that since the riot was popular, no one can complain or ask for justice? In what sense is this argument democratic and not despotic?
Democracy is often mistaken to mean ‘majority rule’ when, in fact, it is a far more nuanced concept than that.

Much as it is hard for supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to understand, just because a scheme is popular (by some nebulous reckoning), it neither makes it democratic nor correct. There is no article in the Constitution of India that says if people ‘like’ a government action that the said action does not have to adhere to any rules or any scrutiny. Even if there was a mid-term election and this same government was re-elected, questions will still be asked of it. That is democracy.

As we all know, this naive and daft idea that you cannot question anything that Modi does because he was democratically elected, does not apply as far as the BJP and its supporters to any other elected government at the Centre and the states. From their limited thinking comes a limited argument: Every other government, which was led by a political party that was not them, is open to criticism and responsible for all the problems in India.

Unfortunately, barring a few, the BJP has been in government with several parties with whom it is now at loggerheads. This makes, in the vernacular, total chutney out of what was anyway a ridiculous argument.

In another famous definition of democracy comes Abraham Lincoln’s maxim that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. And in the right here and now, all of the people are not fooled anyway. There has been, and continues to be, tremendous suffering since the Modi government embarked on this ill-conceived, abysmally-implemented demonetisation idea. New forms of corruption have emerged, terrorism has not ended, nor has counterfeiting.

If the intent was digitisation of payments in India, then the scheme is criminal and stupid because no infrastructure or systems were in place before removing cash from people’s hands.

How many people have been fooled by all this? A survey done by a mobile phone application has since proved to be filled with bogus voters to prove popularity is a laughable way for a prime minister to try and prove he was right.
In the arrogance of this government and its obsession with being ‘popular’, we have still not heard any apologies for the problems and suffering. Now what is the permanent co-relation between arrogance and popularity?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com