A sudden lightness of being

Illustration: Keshav   | Photo Credit: keshav

Since India is constantly in election mode, it is not surprising that predictions of who will win and who will lose, analyses why people voted ‘this’ way and not ‘that’, and why ‘this’ and not ‘that’ party won, are breathless and rushed. Analysts and politicians hasten to spin out catchy sound bites that command instant attention in cyberspace, and are often unable to see the wood for the trees. They fail to pay attention to the significant transformation in political and civic engagement in recent years. New patterns are ignored in the obsession with number-crunching. The reduction of democracy to a game of numbers is dangerous and unwise. But this issue requires a different argument, so let us set it aside, and concentrate on some new configurations of politics in two electorally significant States, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

In both States, the two national political parties that seek to consolidate their political fortunes in and through elections carry weighty historical baggage. In Punjab, they carry the baggage of corruption, disrepute and extraction of rent; in U.P. they carry the baggage of provocative speeches and actions that propel caste and communal riots, and have resulted in loss of lives and livelihoods and destruction of property. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have proved indifferent to great human tragedies, ranging from deep-rooted poverty, desperate recourse to drugs, and intensification of hatred between communities. The newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), does not have to shoulder historical burdens, and that may account for its popularity in Punjab and Goa.

AAP’s brand of politics

Enough has been written on the inadequacies of the AAP: rank populism, lack of organisation and a clear-cut political agenda, and the stifling hold of Arvind Kejriwal on his colleagues. At the same time, we have to recognise that the AAP has brought new ways of doing things onto the political scene. For one, the party interprets politics as pragmatism, and not as bound by, or inspired by, ideology. The AAP subscribes to an ill-defined notion of swaraj, but what that translates into is anyone’s guess. This is symptomatic of a post-ideological age, an age in which restless citizens just want to get things done, even if the world view that frames political actions and inaction has gone missing.

The non-existence of ideological moorings can, of course, pose problems, for without a vision that informs and motivates politics, this form of activity tends to wander hither and thither. At the present moment, however, an ideological deficit is to the advantage of the AAP. The Congress has lost hold of the ideology that was once its USP: pluralism, secularism, socialism and democracy. And it is likely that the inflexible ideology that the BJP subscribes to, majoritarianism, will prove its undoing. The party has still not understood that every time it plays the card of Hindu nationalism, this is trumped by caste fractures and divisions. In any case, the belief that a multilingual and a religiously plural society can be hammered into conformity has run its course in history.

The AAP stays away from caste and religion, builds up support through mohalla committees, focusses on health and education, and promises zero tolerance for corruption. The party does not bank on a grand narrative of nationalism, or on evoking memories of a magnificent Hindu past. The implication is that citizens will be left alone, minorities will not be harassed, and people are free to make their own histories. It is little wonder then that the party has gathered under its metaphorical wing auto-rickshaw drivers along with owners of expensive cars, highly educated Indians along with the non-literate, the middle classes along with the poor, and fellow citizens along with non-resident Indians. The second advantage that the party has is its team of volunteers who provide both labour and money to clean up the mess made by other parties. Three, the name of the game played by the AAP is flexibility. The party prefers volunteers rather than cadres, has developed a social base that spans classes and castes, and focusses on practical issues rather than ideologies. The wheel has turned. In the AAP we find the perfect post-modern political party, contemptuous of grand narratives and homogenising visions. What this development will bring to Indian politics is yet to be seen. Undeniably, however, the party represents an alternative mode of conceptualising and carrying out an activity we call politics.

Switching tactics

For long U.P. has been seen as a land of identity politics, vote banks, and riots easily sparked along caste and religious divides. Today we see in the politics of Akhilesh Yadav, and the Samajwadi Party (SP), a shift from the politics of identity to that of the political economy. For most of the 1990s, and the decade that followed, U.P. was convulsed by politics of the Mandir and Mandal. Today, Mayawati seeks to bridge caste divides, and the SP speaks the language of development and of opportunities.

Interestingly, it is precisely this shift that was initiated in Dalit politics after the horrific public lashing of Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una last July. The Prime Minister took almost a month to respond to this blatant violation of basic human rights in the name of protecting the cow. At a public meeting in Gajwel in Medak district in Andhra Pradesh on August 7, 2016, Narendra Modi said, “shoot me if you want but don’t target Dalits”. The statement is extraordinary, coming as it does from a Prime Minister who commands awesome power. When individuals commit acts that harm fellow citizens, they are supposed to be punished, not provided with alternative foci.

Mr. Modi’s response was too little and too late. In the meanwhile, a dramatic shift had occurred in Dalit politics. As thousands of Dalits amassed across the country, and as hundreds participated in the march to Una under the leadership of educated compatriots, it became clear that the community would no longer be satisfied with hand-outs even as they continued to perform lowly occupations. The articulate lawyer, Jignesh Mewani, spoke for Dalits when he said that nothing less than land rights and employment would be acceptable to the community. Nor would Dalits pick up carcasses of cattle.

Dalits speak up

Political history is created when people who have been oppressed by a history not of their making stand up, and talk back. The emphasis of the Dalit Asmita Yatra was on land rights and occupations, the need for a welfare state, and realisation of the promises of the Constitution. We see the three components of justice in the programme that has been charted out, redistribution, voice, and recognition. The right to voice has been used effectively to demand redistribution as well as recognition. Recognition without redistribution is of little consequence, and redistribution without recognition is of little import. Both are incomplete without the right to voice, or participation in politics. It is this model that seems to have impacted the young leader of the SP. He too has shown pragmatic flexibility by shifting from caste identities to the political economy.

Whether these two models of politics thrown up by India’s political history in the last few years — pragmatic politics that focusses on the here and now — will fetch electoral dividends cannot be foretold. But they are there, etched onto the political agenda by the AAP and by post-identity politics as a welcome alternative to a misguided focus on the nation. Millions of Indians will no longer accept handouts. It is time to realise the three components of justice: redistribution, recognition and voice. The Constitution, said the Prime Minister, is our sacred text. May we remind him that the Preamble of the Constitution is the metaphorical sanctum sanctorum of this sacred text. “Give to us what the Preamble has promised.” This should be the demand of voters in these, and in future elections.

Neera Chandoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University.

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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 10:00:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/A-sudden-lightness-of-being/article17264086.ece

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