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On the Current Political Scene: Travails and Trajectories

The past year has been one of turbulence for both the major political coalitions - the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. While signs point to the Congress' further diminishing as a force and the BJP's return to an assertive majoritarian agenda, there remain possibilities for the formation of a new radical and non-sectarian alternative to emerge in the political landscape.

COMMENTARY

On the Current Political Scene: Travails and Trajectories

S P Shukla

yet sectarian struggles, with little impact at the national level. The political process appeared to be in a state of stasis.

The year that intervened has churned the placid waters of politics. Scandals of unprecedented magnitude had come to the public limelight. Their scale was mind-

The past year has been one of turbulence for both the major political coalitions – the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. While signs point to the Congress’ further diminishing as a force and the BJP’s return to an assertive majoritarian agenda, there remain possibilities for the formation of a new radical and non-sectarian alternative to emerge in the political landscape.

S P Shukla (manjuspshukla@gmail.com) held a number of senior positions in the Government of India and also served as India’s representative in international organisations.

I
f a week is a long period in politics, a year may well be an era. Only a year ago, the political scene appeared simpler and bleaker. The ruling and main opposition parties had so much in common. Their economic agenda was hardly different from each other’s. Their foreign policy was equally United States – centric. Their political stance was identical when it came to countering what was projected as “the number one threat to internal security”. On the attitude towards the minority, the difference appeared more of tactics than of principle. Even with regard to the score sheet of scandals, they seemed to match each other. The left parties, having suffered a severe electoral setback remained busy with introspection. The regional parties continued their opportunist game of retaining their respective power bases, little caring for the national political agenda and siding with the ruling or main opposition combines as they found expedient. The mainstream media and the middle classes having little to choose, played by the ear; paying more attention, however, to the ruling conglo merate than what appeared to be a squabbling and frustrated official opposition.

The socio-economic and political situation could not be bleaker, for the agrarian crisis was deepening, peasant resistance was breaking out in the rural hinterland, tribal militancy remained untamed, the flow of massive distress migration to towns and cities continued to gather momentum, and the alienation of the territorially peripheral states and the minorities was deepening. Transformative politics, the only kind of politics worth the name, had its task laid out with little room for ambiguity or prevarication. And yet, the whole spectrum of the groups of activists, political elements and parties genuinely desirous of engagement with these issues remained fragmented and cocooned in their valiant

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boggling. Even more stunning was the pathetic attempt of the ruling party first to deny the loot of public money, then to minimise it and later to pass the buck to their coalition partners. Wheeling – dealing between the corporate houses and those in power which was always suspected had now become a matter of undeniable public knowledge. While the rulers tried to deflect the attention by indulging in squabbles and one-upmanship with the opposition, the political damage they suffered was far more debilitating. The attempt on the part of the government to question and diminish the role of the constitutional authority of the comptroller and auditor general and the public accounts committee boomeranged upon them. Even when the law started taking its course against the culprits, the rulers could claim no credit or redemption, because the proactive and persistent role of the judiciary in digging out the roots of these scams was there for all to see. Worse still, the government seemed to be set on an unalterable course of defending the indefensible. Witness the shenanigans about the recent office memorandum from the ministry of finance that was fished out through the Right to Information process and the smug attempt to “close the chapter” before the cameras as if it was all about the egos of two ministers.

The Process at Work

There is, however, little to be surprised if one were to see this in the perspective and inexorable logic of the process at work. The primitive accumulation must necessarily proceed by appropriation of natural resources, be it land, water, forest, minerals, natural gas or spectrum. Dispossession, encroachment, bribing and plain grabbing are its historically known modus operandi. The rulers appear to be brazen if one applies the normal standards of probity in public life. But that is a non sequitur. They have no choice. If they do

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not repudiate the logic of the process, they must proceed on the path dictated by that logic. All they can do is to deflect the criticism, engage in competitive mudslinging and suppress the popular protest. And the political conglomerate that does this more efficiently is the one more acceptable to the motor force of the process. If the recent report of the Congressional Research Service of the US that praises the Gujarat government-led by Narendra Modi is any indication, the balance seems to be tilting in favour of the opposition conglomerate, the National Democratic Alliance (nda) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Notwithstanding the approving report card from the US Congressional Committee, Narendra Modi has to guard his flanks, particularly as he is nursing the ambition of getting to power at the national level. His newly found ardour for “sadbhavana” is an attempt in this direction. But his mission is too weak to erase public memories of the Gujarat riots of 2002. His language and his slogans are too thin a veil to cover the shame of his majoritarian, authoritarian, aggressive agenda. His glossing over the reality of diversity in the country and the varied differentiations, his call to medieval sub-national pride, his vindictive pursuit of opponents, his high-powered publicity blitz about the development of the state and his red carpet treatment for the capital leave no doubt about what his mission stands for. But more importantly, it is also a bid to rise above the second generation leaders who are not in short supply in the BJP. Modi has seized the report card from the US to push ahead of his peers in the party. But there lies the contradiction.

The only way Modi can push his way past his rivals is by magnifying his majoritarian, aggressive image. That is the surest repellant to the politically savvy elements of the NDA like Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). That also puts off the non-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh elements within the support base of the BJP. But the more these elements try to truncate or dilute the Modi initiative, the more they would look like the Congress led coalition. For these elements in the BJP and the NDA, a stage may soon be reached where, in order to ensure the survival of a clearly distinct political identity, they may have to either give up their agenda of isolating/subduing Narendra Modi, swallow their pride and meekly follow his lead or, alternatively, be forced to find new political equations outside the current opposition coalition. As far as one can see, the core of the BJP’s political strategy will be eventually launched on an inexorable course of the Modi agenda.

So we have two main entities on the political scene moving on their respective paths like the heroes of the Greek tragedy. The Congress cannot but continue the defence of the indefensible. And the BJP must move on to become a Modi based and led party.

The third event, which by media standards was part of the great churning, was the Anna Hazare led agitation. Even if we discount the hype of the media and disregard the essentially middle class origin of the happening, it will be a mistake to dismiss it as a political non-event. Not because it was a political trailblazer as some would like to imagine or the leader and his team may perhaps like to believe, but because it did vividly underline the political vacuum that was building up, the political stasis that we referred to earlier.

If the structured political processes seem paralysed, an apparently apolitical alternative emerges or is encouraged to emerge. The apparently apolitical character of the episode is manifested in its professed emphasis on the all-incorporating “nationalist” approach, its slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram” and its symbolism of national flag – waving one great leader and his moral force. Further proof is its simplistic analysis in terms of the good and the wicked and its emphasis on unblemished chara cter, whatever that might mean. Interestingly, Modi too speaks of the “proud Gujarat”, and the undifferentiated mass of Gujaratis for whom he stands for, works and even goes on fast. His mentor, the RSS too has always laid great stress on chara cter-building as a camouflage for its divisive and majoritarian politics. Modi has only to substitute India for Gujarat and one can easily see how close he is to what Anna and his acolytes are saying. And then the transit from the apparently apolitical agenda to a divisive and majoritarian agenda does not appear to be too long a leap. The real danger of the apolitical episode lies in this and the sooner the political parties realise this, the better.

The fourth important development is the emergence of Muslim based political parties. For the first time, after the petered out initiative of the Muslim Majlis, Muslims at large seem to be getting more and more convinced that the erstwhile strategy of fighting their battle for security and advancement can no longer be fought effectively on the platform of the major secular parties or even the regional parties with whom they cast their lot with (the Third Front for example). They seem to be convinced that they need to build their own political platform though not on an exclusive religious basis. The recently formed Welfare Party is one such initiative. For the major contestants in electoral politics, this would likely mean acceleration of the loss of the non-core elements. The challenge before the spectrum of political elements and parties engaged in transformative politics is how to define a positive relationship with this emerging trend, without in any way compromising their transformative and secular agenda.

A New Radical Alternative

The placid waters of the politics of the yesteryear have suddenly turned turbid. The geometry of political space is forcing the two major contestants on their respective inexorable trajectories. One is bound to get more and more embroiled in its own doings and get more and more discredited. The other who is dying to return to the position of power will be compelled by the logic of its trajectory to

EPW Index An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2010. The PDFs of the Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW web site. Visitors can download the Index for all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded when ready.) EPW would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the RD Tata Trust.

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COMMENTARY

shed the mask of responsible democratic politics and reveal its majoritarian and anti-democratic stance overtly. In the process, both the formations are in the danger of losing some elements constituting its present support base. As a result, a niche may open up for those political parties/groups/elements that are engaged in transformative politics. But it would not do if the relatively more important among them choose simply to repeat the erstwhile approach of opportunist electoral combines that have lost credibility over the last two decades. What is necessary is to build a broad, democratic platform which is radical in its agenda and non-sectarian in its app roach. Only such a political initiative will have the potential of carrying forward the process of democratisation of the polity and confronting effectively the triple challenge of the agrarian crisis; the alienation of the minorities as also the territorially peripheral states; and the burgeoning threat to democratic rights and freedoms.

The international context too is rapidly undergoing a change. Neo-liberal policies are being discredited on their homegrounds in North America and Europe. Only a year ago, the talk was of green shoots of recovery from the global economic crisis and the blossom was supposed to be not far behind. Now the talk is not whether there will be a double-dip recession, but how deep it will be and how soon. The periphery of the European Union is on the brink of implosion, raising some doubt about the survival of the European Union itself. The crisis has global implications. The US does not exude the same self-assuredness either at home or abroad. And the neo-liberal logic of capital is on the line in the heart of the global capital. The possibility of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation being more meaningful is being realised even by the current rulers dedicated to the neo-liberal policies and US hegemony. The sheen of a special relationship with US symbolised by the Indo-US nuclear agreement seems to be wearing off, what with the global setback to the nuclear renaissance in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, on the one hand, and the escalating costs, delayed schedules and claims for greater immunity put forward by the suppliers of the nuclear power plants. The global conjuncture which ensured the willing and unquestioned acceptance of the neo-liberal policies seems to be weakening.

In short, the churning that the last year has produced has disturbed the placidity of both the national and the international political sphere. It has opened up political possibilities. A chance for transformative politics has emerged better than only a year ago. But if those engaged in such politics fail to seize the initiative, remain content with their isolated, sectarian struggles and leave the big picture to its own dynamics, the possibility of politics getting more turbid and moving in the direction of more authoritarian and nondemocratic tendencies, not only of the BJP variety, cannot be ruled out.

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