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The World Needs “The Man in the Crowd”!

Recently I happened to see the famous photo of August Landmesser of Nazi Germany. The photo, taken in 1936 in Hamburg, depicts hundreds of workers facing the same direction, their right arms stretched, making the Nazi salute in unison. All the workers are signaling their loyalty and allegiance to the Frührer, except for one man, August Landmesser. He has his hands folded tight to his chest, refusing to salute like the rest of his fellow workers. He is standing against the tide. I consider him to be a political symbol that the world needs right now. He is “the man in the crowd.”[1]

The year 2024 is not just another election year, but the election year. The citizens of 64 countries worldwide are expected to exercise their fundamental rights of voting and electing their governments. These voters comprise approximately 49 percent of the world’s population. However, the fact that elections are held does not guarantee that they are fair and free. This year, in many of these countries, opposition parties are boycotting the elections. In many countries, the opposition leaders are jailed, and their voices are suppressed. Yet, in others, an overwhelming wave of populism and majoritarianism is sweeping across the land, threatening the foundation of democratic institutions. India, which will hold its general election in May, is no exception to this phenomenon.

The Divisive Political Discourse

With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in 2014, their main focus has been to reshape politics and political discourse in “a Hindu idiom.”[2]  Since its independence in 1947, India has neither privileged the religion of the majority nor has sought to impose one single language, culture, or ethnicity on all its citizens. Unlike the nations of Europe, India constructed its code of common citizenship upon secular constitutional values rather than cultural, ethnic, or religious identities. The Indian Constitution does not discriminate against its citizens based on religion, caste, creed, race, or gender.  These founding ideals have been the guiding principles to which Indian governments have principally adhered.

However, with the Narendra Modi-led BJP coming to power in 2014, there has been a growing tendency toward Hindu-majoritarianism. This tendency is exhibited by the fact that there is not a single Christian or Muslim Member of Parliament among the sitting parliamentarians of the BJP Party. In the last decade, there have been serious attempts to construct a consolidated Hindu vote bank; if the BJP garners roughly 60 percent of the Hindu vote, it can come to power without Muslim or Christian support. This attempt indicates the political alienation of minorities in the land. However, amidst this attempt at disenfranchisement, there is a beacon of hope, “The-man-in-the-crowd” phenomenon. This phenomenon proves the tested truth; when civil society comes together, it drastically alters the political discourse of a land. In the case of Karnataka, India, Church organizations, especially the Society of Jesus, have been part of this alternative discourse.

The Understanding of Democratic Participation

Democratic participation is one of the key principles in Catholic Social tradition. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines participation as:

“[A] series of activities by means of which the citizens, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contribute to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he [she] belongs. Participation is a duty to be fulfilled conscious by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good.”[3]

According to the teaching of the Catholic church, participation is geared toward integral human development, especially in social and political life. Participation is a pillar of the democratic order. John Paul II asserted that every democracy must be participative.[4] Democratic participation is a citizen’s free and responsible exercise of his/her civic role with and for others.[5] By implication, the civil community actively informs its members about critical issues that affect them. The community also actively listens to their aspirations.

In his reflection on democracy, Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, claims that democracy is more than mere “demands for public balloting”[6] but necessarily includes the exercise of public reasoning.  Deliberation on the critical issues that affect civic society takes the central stage and invites citizens to deliberate, exchange views, and debate these issues, subjecting them to the critical scrutiny of reason. Sen distinguishes between “the institutional” and “the procedural” view of democracy.[7]  The former is characterized mainly by periodic elections and applauds ballot results regardless of prior and subsequent processes. The latter necessarily requires rational public deliberations, discussions, and decision-making processes. These requirements demand the cultivation of open and informed debates and discussions at the grass root levels, a process that must be inspired by a commitment to protect democratic values. How does this process concretely play out in the Indian context? Reflecting on this, I noticed a rare phenomenon in the 2023 election in Karnataka, which could serve as a beacon of hope in other contexts.

The Eddelu Karnataka Movement

In the 2018 elections in Karnataka, the BJP failed to get the required majority to form the government. However, the BJP party, with its money power, employed Operation Kamala, a strategy of poaching Members of the Legislative Assembly from other parties by offering them monetary incentives. Once in power, the BJP party galvanized its effort of polarization of the voters of Karnataka along communal lines. Civil society organizations were deeply disturbed to see the efforts of promoting aggressive nationalism along the communal lines and glaring tolerance of the rampant corruption. BJP managed to pass many anti-people bills like the anti-cow slaughter bill and the anti-conversion bill. These bills harassed minorities, especially Muslims and Christians in the state. Very often, Muslim and Christian places of worship were vandalized across the state. Muslim girls were prohibited from wearing hijabs while attending classes and exams. Many girls stopped attending school. Hindu fringe groups widely circulated pleas on social media to boycott Muslim traders. Scams were unearthed by media reports in which the government allegedly received a 40 percent commission as bribes to sanction specific permissions for developmental projects. Hate speeches were a strategy of the BJP government to distract people from the real issues that affect them: healthcare, education, employment, good governance, ecological issues, farmer’s issues, poverty reduction, inflation, and privatization.

The growing communal polarization and the neglect of education, employment, and healthcare issues alarmed public intellectuals, activists, and other progressive organizations, including the Society of Jesus and other Christian organizations. These concerned intellectuals and public activists initiated Eddelu Karanatka (Wake-up Karnataka). Approximately one hundred progressive organizations galvanized volunteers, activists, and civic society members at the grassroots. Having identified the key issues, the volunteers of Eddelu Karnataka began to reach out to people using social media and other communication platforms. They succeeded in registering 160 thousand new voters. They identified 70 counties where the nationalist party had won by less than 1000 votes in the previous elections. The volunteers organized workshops in these counties and visited the voters in their houses to conscientize them. Their efforts reached 200 thousand people: farmers, laborers, Dalits, women, students, tribal communities, and minority groups. The volunteers of Eddelu Karnataka refused to employ the divisive communal language but spoke plainly with people, reasoning out with them the dangers of ultra-religious nationalism. At the time of constitutional crisis, when pluralism and democracy were in deep crisis, even as mainstream media surrendered to fascist forces, a group of civil society representatives succeeded in ousting divisive ideologies from within the incumbent government. This success is a beacon of hope. As the fascist forces aimed to transform the nation into a Hindutva state, conscious citizens joined hands to resist such an attempt.

An Alternative Model

The Eddelu Karnataka movement serves as a model for civic participation. Such involvement of civic society in the face of criminal, religious, and communal manipulations and the erosion of institutions fight against the rise of divisive and polarizing Hindu nationalism. The involvement exemplifies how civil society can resist the influence of manipulative, divisive political ideologies, contribute to the common good, and serve as a model for Church organizations to become more active in politics. While the three traditional pillars of democracy, the parliament, the executive, and the judiciary, alongside the Fourth Estate and the media, succumb to fascist forces, civil society, referred to as the Fifth Estate by some, has come together to empower thinking individuals to reclaim control of the constitutional system and assert its influence in safeguarding the principles of democracy. The Eddelu Karnataka inspired citizens across the country to participate actively in the democratic process, stand against political mischief, and uphold the principles enshrined in the Constitution. This standing against the tide is a political symbol the world needs, a lone voice of defiance in the crowd.

[1] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), xv.

[2] Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, (New Delhi: Pan Macmillan India, 2019), 18.

[3] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §189 (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 2002), 83.

[4] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, § 46. Encyclical. May 1, 1991. Vatican Website. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html, accessed on 09.03.2024.

[5] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, § 55. Encyclical. April 11, 1963. Vatican Website: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html, accessed on 09.03.2024: Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §190.

[6] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2009), 324.

[7] Amartya Sen, Collective Choice and Welfare (New York: Penguin, 2017), 334-35.