02 January 2010

Book: Arundhati Roy turns on democracy

Even renowned Indian novelist and anti-globalization activist Arundhati Roy has come to perceive "The Dark Side of Democracy" – so the title of a text in her most recent collection of previously published essays, "Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy" (Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, 2009):


The book is described by its publisher as looking "closely at how religious majoritarianism, cultural nationalism and neo-fascism simmer just under the surface of a country [India] that projects itself as the world's largest democracy", but is now being turned "into a police state", threatening its "precarious democracy" and sending "shockwaves through the region and beyond".

An adapted version of her introduction to the book was published under the title "Democracy's Failing Light" in "Outlook India" magazine:


She has since used this introductory essay as her opening speech at the ninth International Literature Festival in Berlin, Germany (September 2009), thus indicating that her critical thoughts on democracy address a global rather than merely an Indian audience.

Polemically, Roy asks: "Is there life after democracy?", once it "has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that resolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? [...] Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?"

Democracy, according to Roy, "can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would". Her collected essays, some new, some dating back to the turn of the millennium, are "not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the democratic process. They're about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy; they're about the fire in the ducts".

India's parties spent two billion dollars on the 2009 general elections. "That's a lot more than the budget of the US elections. According to some media reports the actual amount spent is closer to ten billion dollars. Where, might one ask, does that kind of money come from? [...] Clearly, without sponsorship it's hard to win an election. And independent candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes, those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced to".

German media reported Roy's Berlin speech (the German translation of her essay) as depicting democracy-that-is, in India and elsewhere, as a milder form of civil war.

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