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On Building a Secular Democracy: Excerpt from ‘Vision for a Nation’

What is the nation? What is the idea of India? And whose India is it?

These are highly relevant and pressing questions for our country today. The first in a fourteen-volume series titled Rethinking India, Vision for a Nation: Paths and Perspectives, edited by Aakash Singh Rathore and Ashish Nandy, aims  to champion a plural, inclusive and prosperous India that is committed to unity and individual dignity.

Here is an insightful excerpt from ‘Secularism: Central to a Democratic Nation’, contributed by Neera Chandhoke, a former professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi:

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The results of the 2019 general elections in India confirmed the lurking fear that has hovered like a dark cloud over our political horizon since 2014. India is a multireligious country, but we now see the consolidation of the Hindu vote across caste and across class. This consolidation has brought the religious right back into power with an improved majority. Election rhetoric had ridiculed political leaders who stood from minority-dominated constituencies; appealed to a narrow, religion-based nationalism; evoked fear that Pakistan threatened the body politic; and raised aloft the banner of national security over other concerns. None of the planks that garnered rich dividends had anything to do with what are often called ‘real facts’, but fiery rhetoric won over mundane issues of a declining economy and increasing unemployment. A victorious prime minister told his national constituency: ‘Secularism was a tax that used to be paid till today. Fake secularism and its leaders who were calling for the secular forces to unite have been exposed.’ Exposed, one may ask, as what? As Indians committed to the dignity of all and discrimination against none? Or as citizens who want passionately to defend the plural character of Indian society?

The prime minister is not politically naive; he surely knows that political commitments that run against ruling ideologies do not fade into the twilight with the coming into power of a new government. These commitments might not be palatable to the new ruling class, but they continue to inhabit democratic imaginations, continue to act as signposts to a road that leads to a good life for all, and continue to act as a watchdog of ruling dispensations. Criticism of the government and its policies lies at the heart of democratic society, at the heart of the political project to hold elected power elites accountable for their acts of omission and commission.

In any case, democracy is not reducible to election results. Elections are one—albeit significant and decisive—moment of democracy. Democracy establishes and maintains a conversation between the citizens and their representatives. Elections decide who these representatives will be. The process of holding these representatives accountable does not cease with the results of an election. It holds good, no matter who holds power, or with what majority. For that reason, it is democracy, not just elections, of which we should speak, and it is the democratic spirit which we should, and will, uphold.

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Vision for a Nation provides a positive counter-narrative to reclaim the centrality of a progressive, deeply plural and forward-looking India.

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