In this moment when democracy is threatened by majoritarianism, readers can play a more pluralistic role
Citizenship today is divided into four categories, four styles of role-playing and involvement. The first two are more advertised and discussed in sociological detail. These are the voter and the consumer. They combine different times and involve different dramas. The other two are the fan and the reader. The cinematic fan has found his place in the south; and the fan club, in fact, is the only real cadre in politics today. The fan’s commitment to his iconic star goes beyond the dramas and demands of ideology.
The reader, however, is portrayed as a more laidback, reflective character. He is loyal, but openly critical, and sustains a running commentary on the newspaper he reads. For him, the newspaper commands a certain loyalty, a certain ritual where, for many, the newspaper and morning coffee go together, articulating the pleasures and demands of citizenship.
An informal trustee
The role of the reader deserves to be analysed in greater detail. His invisibility hides the fact that he is an informal trustee of a newspaper, tuned to its nuances and style. He sustains his favourite columns and greets them with a kind of enthusiasm which is moving. As a columnist, I can testify that readers’ comments sustain one, and their openness and honesty are moving. I still remember an old reader who complained to me imperiously: “Please do not ruin my morning coffee with your difficult English!”
One faces the paradox that while a particular news might be ephemeral, the newspaper is a commons of memory, and the reader a trustee of news and its integrity. News, in that sense, is a public landscape maintained by the reader. He is its symbolic guardian. Memory is crucial and critical in a newspaper, and some columns sustain it brilliantly. The civics of ordinary life is sustained by these people through what I call an informal economy of ethics and aesthetics. There is no policing here – just a celebration of a way of life, an appeal to its norms.
This forces one to ask whether the time for the reader to play a more creative role has not arrived. As a trustee of news, the reader enacts a fascinating ritual of citizenship. He becomes the argumentative Indian discussing every facet of democracy and culture. In this very moment when democracy is threatened by majoritarianism, the reader can play a more pluralistic role, sustaining norms when institutions fail. He becomes an ethical second skin of news and the newspaper he is loyal to. He fine-tunes a sense of truth and plurality, signalling it with terse reminders we call “Letters to the Editor”.
As mnemonic, as consumer, as trustee, the reader can be more proactive as a part of the networks of civil society. Consider an ongoing event: the fate of the media activist Julian Assange, who is being harassed by many Western governments for revealing the real secrets behind today’s governmentality. The state had been waiting vindictively for Mr. Assange ever since he showed that the emperor had no clothes. He is being harassed and mentally tortured. Consider a situation where a newspaper were to nominate him as ‘a prisoner of conscience’. Resistance becomes an everyday affair as readers rise to the occasion and readership transforms itself from a passive act of consumption to an active sense of citizenship. The readers help the newspaper to sustain its efforts at plurality. It helps consolidate the power of civil society in unexpected ways. Imagine a newspaper selects half a dozen exemplars like this, and the subscriber becomes the trustee from the reading room. The possibilities are fascinating. We become not acceptors of paid and fake news, but protectors of real news, where writing is a form of risk. It consolidates a sense of citizenship within the everydayness of an information community.
A reflective space
One realises with a sense of dread that TV as a medium belongs to the lynch mob, the patriotic goon squad. It is no longer a public space except as a symbolic longing. Print, at least the communities around newspapers, has acquired a more reflective style. It demands immediacy, but the urgency is not instantaneous. It has space for memory, judgment and morality. We must think of ways to deepen this precious space, where responsibility combines with rationality. Given the disorders of development which every newspaper reports, one suggestion is that a newspaper, through its readers, become a trustee responsible for the fate of at least one craft, one language, one species such that readership becomes both life-giving and life-affirming. It must be emphasised that such a concern is not organisational, but stems from a community’s sense of its own membership.
Ideas of the Anthropocene
Decades ago, the French poet and essayist, Charles Baudelaire, described the newspaper as a landscape. His description was immaculate, and the reader today walking through this landscape realises that citizenship needs the language of care and resistance, an owning-up to the cultures in which it is embedded.
Given the power of information, one realises that the state and the corporation practice forms of organised indifference and illiteracy. Their responses to the ideas of the Anthropocene is evidence of it. For years, scientists, at least many dissenting scientists from James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis to Isabelle Stengers, have fought a battle to reread science and its responsibilities to the earth. The planet acquires a new sense of sociology, a new politics of ecology, as a result of their writings. States and corporations have avoided these issues, stunting it under the idea of corporate social responsibility or by playing blame games, focussing on advanced industrialised countries. The Anthropocene becomes the newspapers’ responsibility and the readers’ trusteeship. It will unravel debates between experts and laypersons, homemaker and policymaker, but make the Anthropocene everyone’s responsibility. It is what a sociologist and journalist called “the Big News”.
Robert Park was a journalist who helped establish the Chicago School of Sociology which saw urban life, its violence, ethnicity and migration as the Big News of the era and chronicled it with subtle ethnographic insights. The Anthropocene, or the damage and transformation man as a species has inflicted on the earth today, is the Big News of our time, but sadly it is the Big News that few newspapers in India are reporting. Ordinary citizens have already sensed the power of the project and its philosophical and ethical implications. I remember one villager near a Sterlite plant telling me that climate change is a label for whatever governments want to wash their hands of. The villager realises that the problem demands a new kind of governmentality and a new social contract between state and citizen which goes beyond national boundaries. The reader as a citizen of the planet and the newspaper as a global player become ideal custodians of such a text, where memory, compassion, responsibility and an innovative science emerge in a new way. Both democracy and science invent themselves in new ways.
The tragedy is that while there is a frenzied preoccupation with digital media, print as readership is ignored. Yet print as news is critical, crucial in India. Print can help remake democracy, and the reader as citizen reinvent what news can mean today.
There is no case to introduce simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and Assemblies in haste
The decision to form a committee to examine the issue of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies is a significant step towards achieving Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objective of synchronizing elections across the country. The fact that he took the initiative to convene a meeting of leaders of all political parties so early in his second stint in office shows that he attaches considerable importance to it. Advocates of such elections point to potential benefits. There is the obvious advantage of curbing the huge expenditure involved and reducing the burden on the manpower deployed. The second point in its favour is that ruling parties can focus more on governance and less on campaigning. The idea that some part of the country is in election mode every year, resulting in impediments to development work due to the model code of conduct being in force, is cited in favour of reducing election frequency. But there are challenging questions of feasibility that the political system must contend with. First, it may require the curtailment or extension of the tenure of State legislatures to bring their elections in line with the Lok Sabha poll dates. Should State governments bear this burden just to fulfil the ideal of simultaneous elections? There is an obvious lack of political consensus on this. Another question is: what happens if the government at the Centre falls?
The Law Commission, in its working paper on the subject, has mooted the idea of a ‘constructive vote of confidence’. That is, while expressing loss of trust in one government, members should repose confidence in an alternative regime. Another idea is that whenever mid-term polls are held due to loss of majority, the subsequent legislature should serve out only the remainder of the term. These measures would involve far-reaching changes to the law, including amendments to the Constitution to alter the tenure of legislatures and the provision for disqualification of members for supporting an alternative regime. In terms of principle, the main issue is whether getting all elections to coincide undermines representative democracy and federalism. In a parliamentary democracy, the executive is responsible to the legislature; and its legitimacy would be undermined by taking away the legislature’s power to bring down a minority regime by mandating a fixed tenure just to have simultaneous elections. The interests of regional parties may take a beating, as regional issues may be subsumed by national themes in a common election. Given these challenges, there is simply no case for hastening the introduction of simultaneous elections. The government must accord priority to other electoral reforms. For instance, it should seek ways to curb spending by candidates and parties, which has reached alarmingly high levels and poses a threat to free and fair elections.