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New democracy through Brecht’s lens

Updated on: 29 May,2023 07:27 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

The BJP, which strives to trip governments in Opp-ruled states, seems to be heeding playwright’s notion of dissolving the people

New democracy through Brecht’s lens

The new Parliament building on the eve of its inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in New Delhi, on, May 27. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the new Parliament building reminded me of playwright Bertolt Brecht and his poem The Solution. Brecht fled Hitler’s Germany, and spent some years of his exile in the United States. At the end of World War II, he settled down in the communist East Germany, which feted him for the Marxist ideology his plays aesthetically articulated.

In June 1953, the communist government ordered workers to increase their output by 10 per cent at the same wages. In protest, on June 17, thousands upon thousands gathered on East Berlin’s Stalinallee, or Stalin Avenue. Tanks were deployed to crush the agitation. Brecht was criticised for his silence on the repression. Three years after his death, in 1956, a German newspaper published The Solution, a satirical poem Brecht had not made public.

The Solution reads: After the uprising of the 17th of June/The Secretary of the Writers’ Union/Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee/Which stated that the people/Had squandered the confidence of the government/And could only win it back/By redoubled work. Would it not in that case/Be simpler for the government/to dissolve the people/And elect another?

The Modi government’s attitude to democracy approximates the Brechtian sardonic solution of dissolving the people. It constantly strives to trip governments in Opposition-ruled states, as if conveying to the people the message: “Elect Bharatiya Janata Party, get smooth governance.” 

Indeed, the new Parliament building heralds a new form of democracy in a new India, where the popular will is often “dissolved.” The most recent example of this is the ordinance promulgated to nullify the Supreme Court judgment handing over to the Delhi government the control over bureaucrats. Since 2015, after the AAP won a thumping majority, the Modi government has had the lieutenant governor to persistently abort or slow the Delhi government’s projects, which is tantamount to punishing Delhiites for their electoral choice.

This is also what happened in Puducherry, where its lieutenant governor disabled the Congress government of V Narayanasamy for most of its tenure. In the 2021 Assembly elections, the National Democratic Alliance came into power. The Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, in just over a year of coming to power in 2018, became a BJP one through defections. Similar was the fate of the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition in Maharashtra last year and the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance in Karnataka in 2019.

Opposition MLAs are raided to compel them to switch their allegiance to the BJP, which is also a way of telling the people that by not voting for the BJP, they have “squandered the confidence” of Modi, who must, therefore, “dissolve” their democratic choices. This psychology underlies governors constantly nettling Opposition chief ministers, as in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, and sitting on bills their Legislative Assemblies passed.

In the US, Brecht was summoned to depose before the House of Representatives Committee On Un-American Activities, constituted to investigate fascist and communist ties of organisations and individuals. The Committee asked Brecht whether he had written “revolutionary” poems and plays. Brecht said he had written a “number of poems, songs and plays, in the fight against Hitler, and, of course, they can be considered, therefore, as revolutionary.” Brecht told the Committee that he had never been a member of any communist party, in the US or Germany.

Likewise, the BJP dubs as Urban Naxal or anti-national those who participate in the fight for class-caste equality or join the struggle to get laws they deem undemocratic rescinded. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is invoked against them, as has happened with the accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence case and the 2020 Delhi riots cases. The Delhi High Court denied bail to student leader Umar Khalid because he did not, among other reasons, append “bloodless” to the word “revolution” in a speech!

At the Elgar Parishad, organised in Pune on December 31, 2017, activist Sudhir Dhawale began his speech thus: “What sort of a city is this? What sort of people/are you?/When injustice is done there should be a revolt in this city/And if there is no revolt, it were better that the/city should perish in fire before night falls.” The Pune Police claimed this verse proved Dhawale instigated the January 1, 2018 violence at Bhima Koregaon. He has been locked up for the last five years.

The verse Dhawale cited is from Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, which is not about insurrection. The play’s woman protagonist is horrified that those who watched her friend beaten up are unwilling to testify to the police. She voices her horror through the lines Dhawale quoted. The burning city is a trope for hell, where those unwilling to fight injustices, Brecht suggests, must be consigned. It is not to be taken literally, as the Pune Police did. 

Modi’s inauguration of the new Parliament coincided with the agitating wrestlers being detained and their site of protest cleared. This  only confirms that in new India’s new democracy, the government has confidence in only those who are submissive and vote for the BJP. Others face dissolution, a Brechtian trope for the erasure of their choices, the very essence of being human.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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