The only thing about Mumbai that doesn’t surprise me is its capacity to surprise me. For all its crowds, cacophony, traffic and pollution, one can always find charm in the unlikeliest of situations. A couple of months ago, when India-Pakistan tensions were on the boil after the Pulwama terror attack, a local fruit vendor said: “Kya madam, war shuru ho gaya na (a war has begun, hasn’t it)?". “Kyun nahin samajhte ki baat karke hi suljhaana chahiye (why don’t they understand that talks are the only solution)." Last week, on my way to take a bus to my home town Pune to cast my vote, my rickshaw driver asked me, “Kisko vote karoge madam (whom will you vote for?) Hum sab rickshaw waale toh voting bandh pe hai, koi bhi party aaye, sab hi feku hai (all of us rickshaw drivers are skipping the vote in protest, no matter which party wins, all politicians make false promises)."

The cities of Pune and Mumbai have always shared an amusing love-hate relationship. The geographical proximity between Pune and Mumbai has made them inexorably interdependent, and yet it causes native Punekars and Mumbaikars intense suffering to utter complimentary words about each other. So I say good things about Mumbai at the risk of being judged and possibly disowned by my more hardcore Punekar relatives. But that’s beside the point. The point is, people from both cities are passionate about current affairs and invariably have strong opinions on everything. A college katta (bench talk), a nana-nani park or an office canteen are among the places where one overhears debates on political events, the more controversial, the better. The woke, millennials in particular, seem to consider it their duty to voice their opinions and call out the silent.

With social media taking over our lives, the traditional spaces of public dialogue have extended to its various platforms. Even in the last two weeks, which saw the arrival of the final instalment of the Avengers franchise and the highly anticipated battle episode of Game Of Thrones, the Lok Sabha elections stubbornly retained their spot on the list of trending topics, with people relentlessly posting selfies of their inked fingers. It is this involvement in public discourse that truly represents our democracy.

And while “woke" is a modern millennial slang, I would argue that the concept is not new to India at all. As Amartya Sen says in his book The Argumentative Indian, our traditions of public dialogue and free expression of voices and dissent date back to ancient India. Sen begins his book with the example of the Mahabharata, which is the quintessence of our culture of dialogue and argument. Arjuna’s expression of his great moral conflict, and Krishna’s responses, which carry hard truths about human nature and society, are prime examples of a wokeness that has characterised the Indian ethos for ages.

Even in times when fake news can spread like wildfire on social media and culminate in lynchings, or when your personal opinions can receive widespread flak and brutal trolling on social media, our innate tendency to voice opinions and get into emotionally charged arguments refuses to die. Just open a WhatsApp group chat, catch a Facebook or Twitter post, or read YouTube comments. “Ours is a jazbaati (emotional) subcontinent. Hum saari baatein bahut dil se lete hai (we take everything deeply to heart)," a Pakistani friend once remarked after I got into a heated argument with a classmate from Delhi during an “economics of social justice" class while studying at university in Germany.

The argument might have been in vain, but a retrospective reflection led me to some interesting observations. A freewheeling debate was wholeheartedly encouraged and enabled by my professors. The argumentative heritage of India is something that I often came across in Germany, too. Those katta discourses offer a parallel. Taverns that host poetry slams themed on social issues, chatty old tram drivers only too happy to share their views on the local government’s policies, and protests, are distinctive features of German society, the country’s university towns in particular. One key quality sets them apart from us, however: a proactive, action-oriented attitude. Even a university student council election will manage to get staggering participation. Along with a fondness for public dialogue, Germans in general also possess a tremendous sense of personal responsibility towards taking action. Be it their high domestic/national election turnouts, continuous collective actions through petitions or demonstrations, or even their frequent engagements with the local mayor for social causes, the examples of that are aplenty.

This only tells us how much further we still have to go to fully justify calling our country a democracy. My recent experience of voting in the ongoing general elections has only fortified this belief. The reported 49.84% voter turnout in Pune as a constituency was underwhelming, to say the least. It was less than half the electorate.

Reforming institutions, increasing voter participation and election commission reforms are things that go hand-in-hand with the evolution of a democracy. We must proactively undertake them. And phoren-returned I may be, but I remain optimistic about the strength of our democracy to evolve. To paraphrase Sen, an oft-challenged argument that refuses to be obliterated can stay very alive.

Prerana Deshpande works in the Mint Views team

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