Reclaim the ‘political’!

Satyaki Roy




The Verdict 


Election results of 2019 and the emphatic victory of BJP seems to be a mandate which is not only about forming a government; it rather appears to be a popular sanction towards a long term reorganizing of Indian society and polity. The verdict is loud and clear. The Indian people will not empathise any view that questions and contests, raise slogans and lead protests against what PM Modi decides to be good for the country. Such voices would be identified with the ‘tukde tukde‘ gang and for such creatures slapping unfounded allegations and legal cases is part of building new India! Remember, election, once in five years is at best what Indian democracy can afford to and nothing beyond that. Intellectuals and urban elites of Delhi got a new name in this election, they are the Khan market gang who are the greatest liability of this country who read and write mostly with a critical perspective and even if historically they had been beneficiaries of being close to power but at the same time demand unconditional freedom to raise their voice whenever individual liberty is at stake. Silence is virtue in this model of new India! This verdict seems to have put a seal on the brand of nationalism which is predicated against Pakistan; there is no harm in denouncing the idea of secularism and being anti-Muslim is the sufficient condition to prove one’s nationalist credentials.So military threat from China or that of trade sanction from the US has no qualms to the idea of new India, the equation is plain and simple, new India has to be anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan and a strong decisive government is what this country needs the most. Hence Modi emerges to be the tallest leader in this election. The government can be generous at times to accommodate the minority but that can’t be taken as a right among equals.


People did reward Modi for electricity connection, cooking gas, making provisions for toilets however didn’t punish for unemployment reaching its peak in the last forty-five years, devastation caused by demonetisation and GST, farmers’ distress and agrarian crisis and for not keeping electoral promises of transferring money to bank accounts of the poor by realising black money from the rich. Television surveys in the run up to the election provide ample evidence that people did acknowledge these lacunae but believed that PM Modi is the real messiah who can resolve these issues if given another chance. A person who can be so aggressive to Pakistan, for him solving day to day matters of unemployment and price rise or taking on corporate cronies is not a big deal! Simply put, people thought that unemployment and agrarian distress or recovery of black money can wait but national security cannot.The success of BJP in this election is that it could gather massive popular support without being accountable to its previous electoral promises, without also promising anything new in this election and making deprivations based on caste or region subservient to a nationalism that is deeply soaked in Hindutva. The opposition didn’t dare to talk about secularism, neither could raise the uncomfortable question of an indefensible security breach and intelligence failure on the part of the Indian army that took lives of forty CRPF jawans. The game is over for the time being, BJP wins and India loses. It is the classic example of creating consent, where most of the mainstream media do not question the incumbent government, and joins the bandwagon of marginalising issues of performance by way of reducing election into a seven phase T-twenty match of electing a ‘strong leader’. The opposition stays devastated and the centre and left forces are badly decimated in their strongholds. PM Modi emerges to be one of the tallest leaders in post independent India discussed at par with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in post-election prime time talk shows. The more important question is what explains this victory? What explains this persona which mesmerised the people of India in such a way that they could be selective in ignoring mundane issues? And most importantly how ‘aspirational’ and ‘hungry’ this new India is whose sense of ‘strong India’ is impoverished to the level of insensitivity to a particular community which comprises much less than one-fifth of our population and a neighboring country that has been a failed state.


Shift in the ‘Political’ 


The great success of BJP’s campaign is neither momentary nor can be reduced to an impulsive response to Pulwama and Balakot incidents. Many such emotional responses in India’s recent history have actually helped the ruling party in amassing huge electoral support,say in 1984 and 1991 when general elections were preceded by prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination respectively. Opinions were driven by momentary impulses, people resonated a sense that voting in favour of Congress in a way is paying respect to the departed leaders or martyrs. Undoubtedly Congress hooligans turned the anger against Indira Gandhi’s assassin into a heinous riot against the entire Sikh community in some parts of North India but Punjab didn’t become a permanent enemy of the people of India neither the vote for Congress in 1984 was seen as a vote against Punjabis. Similar is the case in 1991, the massive support for Congress party was not to be read as a vote against Tamils or against Si Lanka. In 2019 the situation after Pulwama incident turned out to be entirely different. The culprit was not seen as a terrorist who was by the way an Indian but portrayed to be representing Pakistan, the dreaded enemy of India and since this enmity fits well with the narrative of cultural nationalism that new India seems to have accepted, vote for Modi was realised as vote against Pakistan.The BJP-RSS organisational machinery with great political acumen could stitch diverse micro aspirations and conflicts of caste, gender, regional disparities, welfare transfers, anti-incumbency and money power within this grand narrative of ‘new India’ for which nationalism is reduced to opposing Pakistan.


Politics plays out in layers. Electoral competition and contestations are seen by liberals as homologous image of market existing in the economy. Here voter is seen as individuals who participates in political action directly or indirectly on the basis of rationality. Collective identities based on class, caste and religion are seen as disruptions causing hindrances to actualising individual freedom. Hence liberal view of political competition is conceptually restricted to electoral contestations and do not bother to pay any heed to antagonisms of collective identities that are more structural in nature.These structural divisions entrenched deep in the society conditions the acceptability of political narratives. This inner layer of politics is termed as the ‘political’, it refers to antagonisms of collective identities that are constitutive of human societies. Politics on the other hand refers to the empirical space consisting of practices and institutions that define the order of the society in tune with underlying structures. The conflictual space of day to day politics therefore is mutually constituted by deeper conflicts of collective identities. ‘Political’ is the field within which the social groups are shaped by institutions, norms, culture and ideology those constitute deeper opinions and values. The advantages of hegemonic ideologies are the fact that they are imbibed as natural way of life in social practices, while challenging ideologies and cultural political practices need to take pains in confronting the normal and the natural and hence are supposed to face fierce contestations against age old conservatism and obscurantism.


It is evident from the extent of victory that RSS and BJP had been successful in altering the structural configuration at the level of the political, where in religious identities emerge to be the defining principle of collective voice of individual voters. This seems to be a tectonic shift in the realm of the political in post–Independent India. In fact, a discursive shift that subverted all other identities and concerns that relate to class, caste, region, linguistic and of other cultural dimensions. It is understandable why people these days do not take exception of a deliberate display of Hindu rituals offered by a person who holds the office of highest constitutional authority in secular India. Mr. Modi’s arati in Benaras ghat or prayers in caves near Kedarnath was not reserved as a private affair, rather televised in great detail for the purpose of invoking an implicit sanction for a prime minister of India who flaunts his Hindu identity. Politics of religion becomes hegemonic only when structural change in mass psyche takes place in a deeper sense. It is mobilisation of passion and emotion that makes economic gains and losses secondary. However,it is simply unwise to suggest that only economic issues such as employment, wages, electric connection and food price are real issues on the basis of which people ‘should’ vote and battle lines should be drawn on the realm of economy only. In fact, a larger narrative that attracts average mass psyche had never been built on data, it is a call for something else, for something larger, it attracts people because they feel exalted, at least for a moment to think beyond immediacy and drudgery of day to day life issues. Both demonetisation and Pulwama could strike a chord with the common mass who sided with Mr. Modi in this election not for some immediate gains instead they are effectively been dragged into a narrative that invokes the larger cause of protecting national security. Mass support either in favour of the status quo or that of changing it has always been built upon a simple message which is passionate and involving rather than being‘rational’ and argumentative.


Liberalism and the Left 


Methodological individualism that characterises liberal thought precludes the notion of collective identities. Carl Schmitt in ‘The Concept of the Political’ provides a radical critique of liberalism. According to Schmitt politics is about defining the friend and enemy, the ‘we and they’, regardless of issues related to morality, aesthetics and economics. Schmitt was seen as the ideologue of fascism but his critique of liberal ideas was picked up by the left as well, as we see in Chantal Mouffe’s ‘On The Political’. The left also believes on structural antagonisms that define ‘we and they’ while the configuration of conflictual divisions here seen on class lines rather than on the basis of religion as conceived by the Hindu right. The left has to clearly restate its friend and enemy loud and clear. Electoral performances of the left should therefore be constituted on the basis of reorganising the ‘political’ rather than the other way round. Political alliances in elections are important but they turn out to be victorious, gathering huge mass support only when such alliances resonate with the inner structural divides. In fact, momentary electoral defeats can also be repaired if the configuration within the political remains unchanged. The experiences of early electoral successes in West Bengal and Kerala was primarily built on a narrative that defined the working people as ‘we’ and the rich capitalists and landlords as ‘they’. Class neutral political narratives built upon economic rationality and couched in development discourse, or governance issues although can become important at certain points of time but they cannot be cardinal moments in defining friend and enemy of the left. In fact, such political narratives beyond a point may diffuse the structural divisions of political discourse to the extent that class allies may join the enemy camp without hesitation.



The left has to reclaim the ‘political’ instead of being impatient for electoral success. It has to create ‘historical blocs’ of working people that are more permanent in nature. The great Maharashtra kisan rally and trade union strikes and farmers’ movement in Rajasthan are examples of such efforts. The process has to be multidimensional and not confined to immediate economic concerns only. Left has to revisit its own glorious past drawing experience from asserting temple entry for lower castes and women, or struggle for refugee rehabilitation, fighting for the rights of share croppers, establishing dignity of the poor in political representations and so on, meaning thinking and acting beyond immediate politics and intervene in democratizing the social organisation in a deeper sense. These contestations may result in occasional electoral setbacks but the deeper supportive structural configurations created in the process will provide enough strength to withstand momentary defeats and imagine new gains. The essential point is to extend the taste of democracy beyond a one-day celebration. It is about expanding the space of public debate and protecting institutions, it entails indomitable commitment to make policy decisions and micro level distributions accountable to people, it has to mobilise energies and resources of people in building new institutions and platforms that are participatory in nature and most importantly it is about the constitutive practice of building a collective identity through innovative ways of forging class solidarity in lived life. In all existing democratic institutions and social practice, the left is supposed to offer a radical alternative that reinstates the primacy of values such as equality and egalitarianism, then only majoritarianism and capitalist imperatives can be questioned in public discourse. In fact, in this difficult times the left has to be passionate enough to offer a vision of a new India that is not subservient to capitalist rationality, that can vouch for authentic democratic control, where people do not look up to a messiah but become creators of their own future.


The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi