The party that I would prefer to have lead Tamil Nadu for now has just been elected into power. I am glad, but I felt and expressed my first criticism of their new term on the day the election results were announced (specifically: how their cadres celebrated in contravention of COVID-19 protocols at their headquarters). This is as it should be: in a functioning democracy, our leaders serve us, and take actions that adequately address our concerns and demands. It is our right to ask questions and have quibbles, all the time. It doesn’t matter whether or not one voted for them; we appointed them collectively. We are the stakeholders, and they are accountable to us. Whether they begin their term on our high expectations, our disappointment or even our dread, we should not forget that this is the foundational power dynamic in a democracy. As for them: an efficient public office-holder will always welcome feedback – without consequences for the sceptical.
As India faces a humanitarian crisis of unbearable proportions, and day after day new information emerges about how the nation-state actively made and continues to make decisions that are tantamount to democide, we must reflect on these incredibly straightforward expectations of democracy and how they have been all but abandoned in recent years. This has happened on both institutional and individual levels; on the former, GS Vasu, this newspaper’s editor, opined clearly on the role of the media and judiciary a few days ago (“There is blood on our hands”).
On an individual level, the corrosion of the sense of having a right to share perspectives that counter authorities’ image, statements and conduct has been insidious. Even as an opinionated person, the stumbling block that has made me censor myself has been sheer horror that anyone can be as evidently heartless as those who support an inhumane administration. It’s not the authorities themselves who instigate this horror as much as their citizen (and NRI) defenders. The wearing down is on a personal level first, and on the level of external threat only later. While institutions have their own introspection to do, the role of the many, many ordinary people who sacrificed their personhood, ethics, relationships, intelligence, common sense and compassion at the altar of a skewed national narrative is important. They did not hold accountable the government they wanted, and volunteered as foot-soldiers to shout down (in private, social, work and online spaces) the slightest criticism of it, and even the most relevant questions.
The medical catastrophe India is undergoing was preventable. The relevant questions were always being asked, and still are as masses die due to sheer negligence and the populace fends for itself desperately, crowdsourcing aid even as foreign supplies sit undistributed and public funds go unused or misused.
What is happening today is even worse than anything any detractor feared. India is the living – and dying – manifestation of the Martin Niemöller poem about how dangerous regimes dismantle populations layer by layer, abetted by public complicity in the form of not speaking out, until “Then they came for me / And there was no one left / To speak out for me”.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 6th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.