As election fever overtakes early summer temperatures, the word “stability” buzzes around us. Many, many of my friends (the Facebook kind) are going to vote for stability and strong government. The yearning for stability is alive and well in our hearts, I see. Living in an age where from the large structures that frame our lives to the small gadgets we use and lose, everything changes before we can even grasp the change, that yearning seems to be stronger than ever.
We have always valorised stability. In the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata, when Bhishma is instructing Yudhishthira in the art of governance, he narrates the story of the first king. The first king is appointed through a social contract arrived at in the interests of—stability. The state of nature—to use a much later European term—is described here as the law of the fish, matsyanyaya, where the big fish eat the little fish. The king brings order and order brings stability.
When modern India wrote its constitution, it did so in the shadow of one of history’s largest population movements—the partition of the subcontinent. The rioting and violence that accompanied this political division were on the minds of those who wrote the constitution and they retained in letter or spirit, colonial regulations pertaining to law and order and included Emergency provisions in the constitution. Chaos spelt violence and naturally, that was anathema.
Decades later, during my dissertation research, I was surprised and amused at what I came to think of as “Singapore envy” among several of those I interviewed. I was asking questions about political community and nation-states in the context of secessionist conflict, and their answers pointed to Singapore as a model. Orderliness had conquered the natural fractiousness (ergo, instability) of a diverse society.
The contrast between our natural behaviour as citizens and these dreams about order and stability has always seemed stark to me. We are naturally slightly disorderly; we do not like queues and we will not follow instructions. There is a libertarian streak in our hearts that drives us to avoid all kinds of legal and tax compliance. Our greatest triumphs seem to lie, based on social conversations, in bucking the regulations and finding obscure loopholes. But we dream of order and stability. There are, after all, no limitations on what we can dream about.
Beyond irony, however, we need to ask: is stability possible and if it is, is it desirable?
Stability is associated with maintenance of the status quo, with order, with strong government and with the prevention of change that we consider undesirable. The most open understanding of stability might be the ability and willingness to control and manage change. Given the technology-enhanced reach of today’s governments, this is probably more possible now than ever before in human history. The challenge is that the exertion of such control itself changes the status quo. Think about holding a glass; holding it too lightly, one risks dropping it, but holding it too firmly, one risks shattering it. Either way, one alters the status quo. To me, stability in this sense does not seem possible beyond the immediate term. Change will come, and the question is, what kind of change do we want and what kind of change will come as a function of control.
Emerging largely from the United States and in the context of anxiety about the spread of communism to newly independent states, post-war political science too prized stability and order. The purpose of government was to create and preserve those conditions that might prevent the radicalisation of societies and their capitulation to communism. Stability was the end, and everything from economic development to (managed and orderly) political participation the means. Look at the consequences of this view. The US ended up supporting all kinds of undemocratic governments, sometimes intervening overtly and sometimes covertly to overthrow democratic ones, because of this fear of instability.
Where will we take India with our dreams of stability and strong government? And when we say we want stability, what do we mean?
The idea of stability in today’s election discussions is a reference to coalition governments, hung Parliaments and the fear that a government will not serve its full term, especially at the centre. “Coalition dharma” was the present Prime Minister’s term to capture all that people dread about the exigency enforced by such circumstances—political corruption, unsavoury alliances, buying and selling of votes. This has cost India a great deal at many levels, and the Indian voter is naturally leery now.
Here is the other side of the hung Parliament, however: India is an extremely diverse political community and if Parliament is to genuinely represent a plurality of interests, this is how seats will come to be distributed. No “national” party can honestly claim to speak for all Indians, and therefore, each Indian will vote for the party that best approximates her interests. In these circumstances, government can only be formed by coalitions, or large political blocs. To be truly democratic, coalitions must either be built within parties, which reach out in substantial ways across community and class interests or across parties, before or after elections. Any one group (or person) claiming to speak for everyone should be regarded with at least a little scepticism.
One way in which we seek to resolve this is to define umbrella identities (of community or interest) and say, “In the end, or at bottom, this is what we are.” That works for about five minutes. If effacing difference and diversity is our way of manufacturing stability, then we should note that it does not work. It never has, and history is replete with examples—look at every ethnic conflict in this region and beyond. But the hard work of weaving diverse threads does pay great dividends, and the texture of the resulting fabric may seem uneven but is usually hardy.
Moreover, when we declare any political arrangement to be valid and non-negotiable in perpetuity and make its stability our political goal, we express our refusal to learn about other circumstances and contingencies, new needs and marginalised voices that we did not factor in. In the name of stability, we become rigid and unresponsive. That quality sows the seeds for precisely the upheavals we want to avoid. Thus, stability is self-defeating in the long run.
Finally, if stability is about maintaining the status quo, one really must consider the nature of the status quo. Is it really so good that it does not bear profound transformation?
The other idea that we are hearing over and over is that of “strong government,” no doubt a reaction to the last five years where amid uncommonly high levels of middle class mobilisation around corruption and later, urban safety, we have been hard-pressed to find a government that will engage with us. What does “strong government” mean? Does it mean a government that can enforce its will? Does it mean a government that sounds confident?
There are parts of India where people have experienced “strong government” over the decades—places where the police, paramilitary and military have been deployed with little accountability. There are parts of India where political discourse is restricted by the very personal nature of political rivalry, and where you pick your words and actions carefully so that they appear innocuous and you can function below the radar. There are places where choices about development are made at a distance and enforced without regard to local preferences. The experience of “strong government” has not been salutary in any of these instances.
If a strong government is a government that is completely certain about its choices and decisions, will it be a government that works with consultation and dialogue? I can relate to the common dread of endless discussion, but to be 100% sure that my way is the only way must surely deprive anyone of much learning. I worry about “strong governments” that do not know how to listen, to learn, to reflect and to nuance. When we need those qualities in our everyday lives, how much more essential must they be in the policy and political worlds?
During the Emergency (1975-77), trains ran on time, strikes and other protests were banned and we had a strong government. That strong government stopped listening to people, chose to call elections it thought it would win, and lost miserably. We lost too, several lost months of freedom that will haunt our claims to a democratic history. The coalition government that followed shifted shape several times before elections were once again called in 1980. We then voted in “a government that works.” The push-pull between stability and strength on the one hand, and freedom and plurality on the other, has become a feature of our electoral politics. We take pride in that dialectical process—neither in the moments of strength nor in the moments of political bargaining but in the process whereby we mix, match and alternate between them.
And that dialectical process is change. Change is democratic. Churning is democratic. It is the function of the state to manage the churning and prevent, or at least minimise, its inherent violence; not to stop change. Anticipating debate, re-negotiation and change and choosing to be attentive and flexible, we create sustainable democratic processes that could become our new understanding of stability.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya.