The Future of Progressive Politics in India

Pushparaj V Deshpande ( is director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, New Delhi.
4 April 2020

The challenge for progressives is not mobilising those who already feel an affinity with the core values enshrined in India’s Constitution and believe in a liberal, secular, and democratic India. The challenge is to convince the silent majority of India which is either not unduly bothered about the threat posed by Hindutva or feels that these very values somehow undermine their identity and culture.

Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) victory in the recently concluded Delhi assembly elections is being hailed as a rejection of divisive politics. It has been argued that this result has “protected the soul of India” (India Today 2020) and restored “an equilibrium … in the national polity”(Khare 2020). People have gone so far as to argue that the results have inflicted a “glorious humiliation on the BJP brass” (Khare 2020) and were a defeat of “BJP’s Hindu’s Delusions”(Laiq 2020). This liberal triumphalism (Sharma 2020) is however an oversimplification. 

Kaam Ki Rajniti (Politics of Doing) vs Mulyon Ki Rajniti (Politics of Values) 

AAP fought and won this election tactically. It scrupulously stuck to what has been characterised by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal himself as kaam ki rajniti. (Mukhopadhyay 2020). The campaign almost exclusively focused on issues of roti-kapda-makaan (essential public services) and sadak-bijli-paani (public goods). It strictly adhered to and built on the pervasive belief that their development work in Delhi was exceptional. This has paid them rich electoral dividends. 

However, AAP has defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electorally, not ideologically. Even though AAP may have indirectly sympathised with the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act-the National Register for Citizens and National Population Register (CAA–NRC–NPR), it publicly stayed away from almost all of them (Ashutosh 2020). In fact, Kejriwal shockingly argued that he would have cleared Shaheen Bagh in two days had the police been under the Delhi government’s control (Ghosh 2020). He also dared Home Minister Amit Shah to arrest Sharjeel Imam (Times of India 2020). AAP also refused to condemn the attacks on students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (Anwer 2020). Going back even further, Kejriwal had also endorsed the abrogation of Article 370 (India Today 2019).

In doing so, AAP has often mirrored the BJP’s stand. This assertion is not to undermine the scale of their electoral victory, or their governance in Delhi, which are both laudable. Nor is it to suggest that AAP is BJP’s B-team, an argument which is unimaginative and specious. This assertion is simply to urge caution in over-reading the outcome of the Delhi elections as a victory of constitutional values and progressive politics. 

Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Ideological Victory 

Neither has Kejriwal proven himself to be a champion of liberal, secular and progressive values, nor has AAP positioned itself as a natural alternative to the BJP. In reality, AAP’s victory does nothing to stem the polarisation that the BJP has successfully effected. Their victory does not in any way combat the ideological agenda of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is important to consider that the BJP’s vote share has gone up from 32% in 2015 to 38.51% in 2020. This is the highest vote share that BJP has been able to register since 1993 (Datta 2020). Reflect carefully on what this signals. Faced with a likeable chief minister with a good track record, the BJP managed to garner 35.75 lakh votes against AAP’s 49.74 lakh votes (ECI 2020). They have thus managed to enhance their vote share in an election where voters had already given a walk over to AAP. Equally worryingly, non-BJP parties are increasingly resorting to the same semantics and idioms that the BJP leverages cynically. To the RSS, this is a welcome rightward shift in public discourse, which is probably why RSS’ General Secretary, Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi can posit that the BJP singly does not alone represent Hindu society and that opposing the BJP does not mean being at odds with Hinduism (NDTV 2020). Finally, even though AAP managed to garner overwhelming support amongst the Sikh, Muslim, Dalit and Vaishya communities, the BJP made significant gains amongst the Brahmin, Rajput, Khatri, Gujjar, Yadav, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Jatav and Valmiki communities in comparison to 2015 (Sardesai 2020). If these same communities gravitate towards the BJP in the assembly elections in Bihar, scheduled in October 2020, the BJP could well emerge as the single largest party in that state.

Make no mistake, the BJP is not going to take this electoral loss as a rejection of their ideological agenda. The BJP failed in seat conversion, but that highlights poor booth management and not an ideological setback. The bitter reality is that this election was a testing ground to gauge the limits of how much they can get away with. In doing so, the BJP has not only vitiated public discourse to heightened levels but also successfully laid the groundwork for the implementation of their core ideological agenda. This is substantiated by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, the BJP state governments and the entire BJP rank and file have refused to back down in the face of these sustained protests or the loss in the Delhi elections. On the contrary, two bills which further their ideological agenda—namely the Uniform Civil Code in India and the Constitution Amendment (Population Control) Bills—were introduced the very afternoon they lost the Delhi elections.

Opportunities for Citizen Mobilisation 

The mainstream political parties (including AAP) are unwilling (and unable) to tackle this social-cultural battle. They will continue to be driven primarily by electoral compulsions. As things stand today, it is abundantly clear to almost all political parties, that fighting pitched battles on abstract values does not make sense. Given their main goal will remain the capture and yielding of state power, it is counterproductive for the progressive cause to exclusively depend on political parties to safeguard India’s constitutional values. 

This normative battle is being fought by ordinary citizens, on the streets. So far, they have proven to be successful on three counts. First, in steadfastly asserting the plural character of India, they have negated an exclusionary idea of India in which religion is a determinant of citizenship. Second, they are showcasing that millions of Indians have rediscovered the strength of satyagraha, and through this, have successfully reclaimed national symbols like the tricolour and the Constitution. Third, they have begun to show a glimmer of hope for mobilisation around citizenship, cutting across caste, creed, gender and region. For the first time in recent memory, these protests are making Indians acutely aware of the historic moment India is in. Every day, they make and remake history. 

However, all those Indians who count themselves as progressives have to be careful to not unwittingly play into the BJP’s hands. No matter how creative and consistent the protests against CAA–NRC–NPR are in marshalling ordinary citizens, progressive forces may still be fighting the battle on the terms set by the BJP-RSS. The latter have an advantage in such fights because not only have they socialised a wide cross section of India to their sociocultural idea of India, but because they are also better equipped with the techniques required to convince those who disagree with them. They have perfected the art of silently and methodically converting fence sitters to their viewpoints by primarily building sustainable relationships with individuals and families. That is how they shape public discourse. Quietly, away from the media glare, and in the privacy of homes. 

The challenge for progressives is not mobilising those Indians who already feel affinity with the core values enshrined in India’s constitution and already believe in a liberal, secular, and democratic India. The challenge is to convince the silent majority of India who are either not unduly bothered about the threat posed by Hindutva or feel (however misguided that notion may be) that these very values somehow undermine their identity and culture. Unless we do so actively, the BJP-RSS will continue to vilify those who are fighting to safeguard the constitutional idea of India as “the other”—the tukde-tukde gang (Naz 2020), urban Naxals (Bose 2019), Khan-market gang (Bhardwaj 2019), anti-nationals (Ganguly 2019), etc— who are opposed to their way of life. It is this, more than anything else, that brainwashes 17-year-olds to shoot someone with impunity (Scroll 2020). 

The question facing progressives is this: How should we fight the same battle on our terms, and convince a wider cross-section of India? How do we constructively channelise these strident and well intentioned protests into a pan India movement in a manner which regressive forces cannot easily caricature and vilify? 

Way Forward: Escalating the People’s Movement Strategically 

All progressive forces need to think about new ways to escalate this normative and ideological battle beyond the “centres of resistance” (Venkataramakrishnan 2020) like Shaheen Bagh, Jantar Mantar, Roshan Bagh, Azad Maidan, Town Hall in Bengaluru, etc (BBC 2020). They need to think about ways to take this momentum and move from these “centres” into homes, and from the homes to the individual. They need to convince especially those who do not subscribe to liberalism and secularism. Doing this would mean facing questions that go beyond the CAA–NPR–NRC and patiently tackling the vitriol that has been systematically injected into the body polity. 
Progressives need to do this urgently because the calls to boycott the NPR (Ajaz 2020; Hindus For Human Rights 2020; CPI (M) 2020) which is scheduled to start from 1 April 2020, can prove to be a double-edged sword. Given that the NPR is linked to the census, boycotting it endangers the vulnerable and marginalised who depend most on the state for essential services. However, the call for such a boycott has already been internalised by the Muslim community, who rightly fear that the process will ultimately disenfranchise them. It is, therefore, incumbent on those from the majority communities who count themselves as progressives to escalate this battle strategically and tactically. 

This means moving beyond the spectacle politics that progressives are used to. This kind of politics has diminishing returns, because the progressives only preach to the converted and this is compounded because a section of the media is already hostile to liberal, secular and democratic causes (Diwakar 2019). This is precisely what the BJP-RSS is banking on. They are convinced that the more progressives converge to these centres of resistance, the more polarised the silent majority gets in their favour. 

If progressives are genuinely committed to safeguarding and furthering the constitutional idea of India, it is imperative that this battle be immediately diversified. On one hand, detailed responses need to be prepared to combat the prejudice that has been systematically injected into the polity. On the other, a pan-India grassroots movement will need to be created to disseminate these and constructively engage with individual families. Without hectoring or lecturing those who are swayed by the BJP-RSS, this movement will have to understand their needs and aspirations, as well as their fears before it can win them over. Only then can progressives even begin to address the prejudice that the BJP-RSS has disseminated through its panna pramukhs (Jha 2014), through various social media platforms, a pliant media and through political discourse. This is the substantive grassroots work that progressives are largely absent from. 

This is not to suggest that the symbolic is not as important as the substantive. Progressives must continue replicating the vitality of Shaheen Bagh in newer places. However, these centres should not be used only as cathartic places for the converted. These places should be used to educate those who are willing to go into individual homes to agitate. 

Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests these protests face both organisational and psychological fatigue. It would be expedient to take stock and build more sustainable linkages across interest groups. Over and above the student and local resident committees groups, many of which are led by women (who are at the forefront of the ongoing protests), farmers’ movements, peoples’ movements, trade unions (from the banking sector, small businesses, public sector enterprises), Dalit, Adivasi groups etc need to be much more involved. They need to find ways to link their legitimate issues (which have mushroomed in the last few years because of the excesses of the National Democratic Alliance government) to the normative issues that are being raised through the CAA-NRC-NPR protests. 

These protests have undoubtedly done a great service for India by sparking the embers of democratic resistance. However, if these embers are not fanned strategically, the resultant fire will not be able to forge the kind of society we desire, nor the people that India needs today. The duty of every conscientious Indian then is not just to safeguard India’s constitutional framework but also to remind our fellow Indians that India is built not on exclusion, but on maanavnishtha Bharatiyata (humane Indian nationalism) (Mukherjee 2019). As Jawaharlal Nehru (n d) exhorted, “In a democratic country, one has to take the vast masses of the people into confidence. One has to produce a sensation in them that they are partners in the vast undertaking of running a nation…this is the essence of democracy”. 


Pushparaj V Deshpande ( is director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, New Delhi.
4 April 2020