The Congress Party And A New India

ABHIK CHIMNI
Friday, March 17,2017

NEW DELHI: Where does the Indian Congress party stand in India’s public imagination today?

Before we look at that question -- a quick look at how the BJP emerged victorious in Uttar Pradesh. Pratap Bhanu Mehta correctly concludes that the BJP has managed to transform the rules of caste politics by connecting them to a larger national narrative. A look at the division of votes would show that the BJP has managed to go beyond its traditional vote base. That is they managed to combine the OBC and Dalits in addition to the upper caste vote by selecting the right candidates across constituencies in the state. The U.P elections saw the BJP win over 100 seats with candidates belonging to the most backward castes.

In fact, in scheduled caste reserved constituencies of the 85 reserved seats, 69 were won by the BJP. It’s been reported that much before the elections Sunil Bansal -- a RSS man -- made sure that 20% of the party posts went to the scheduled caste community while 40% of the posts went to other backward castes. Significantly, the SP base of the Yadav representation in the assembly has now been reduced to 17% while the Kurmi representation is at 28 % of the OBC contingent. It is clear with the large mandate that the numbers of the lower OBCs and Non Jatav Dalits voted in large numbers for the BJP.

Now what of the larger narrative which seems to go beyond caste and class to politically unify large number of peoples to vote for BJP ?

One is the BJP’s attempt at appropriating the way a sovereign nation ought to express national consciousness. Rakesh Sinha -- an ideologue of the Sangh -- has categorically stated that India is now witnessing the dawn of the “Saffron era”. The RSS seems to make the point that the Hindu cultural identity of the people is finally being given recognition and legitimacy by the State. The argument is that the acceptability of the Hindu cultural identity has made the voter a stakeholder in the political narrative of the state, and that India is seeing a consolidation of the Sangh’s idea of Nationalism.

As we know that with the 1991 economic reforms, the Indian National Congress created the new middle class which now extends from the high rises in Gurgaon to the rapid urbanising towns of Pune, Trichy, Nashik and Cuttack etc. These today are important constituencies of the BJP vote base. These areas have seen active participation on the question of nationalism in India.

Along With financial independence, this class desires an active say in the political future of India. The BJP, it seems, has successfully articulated a narrative of national identity which politically connects to them.

However, it is still to be seen how consistently popular this form nationalism will be as it is often parochial in nature and antithetical to the plurality of India. There is a clear discomfort amongst the Indian urban voter regarding state interference in individual liberties (what to eat (beef), who to love (love jihad) and what movie to watch (recent violence on the sets of padmavati and issue of Pakistani artists)).

In this moulding of public discourse, what has been most disturbing is the role of the mainstream media. They have displayed a quiet acceptance of the nationalist discourse promoted by the State. For instance, the Home Minister went on record stating that JNU students protesting had LET links (of course a year later the Delhi Police are struggling to charge Kanhaiya Kumar for even violating a single section of Indian Law). Similarly, We now also find the Minister of State Home Affairs shaming a 20-year-old Indian citizen for voicing her opinion as being led by “anti-national” voices. All of this is quickly forgotten as INC bashing has become fashionable with media companies competing for state patronage.

So where is the INC in this debate on nationalism?

The INC represents a historically more accurate understanding of India’s nationalism representing the ideals of the national movement that include federal polity, secularism and linguistic plurality. However, they have failed to involve the citizenry in their vision of India. The party is socially and economically a more modern and inclusive party and must communicate this to the public. But for now, the party first needs to overcome the perception of being an intellectually patronising party that is compromised by corruption in its vision for India.

Second, on policy issues there has been a failure on the part of INC to communicate their recent contribution to India. Decisions from the liberalisation reforms of 1991 to the democratisation of institutions made possible through the Right to information Act 2005 continue to define India. The UPA consistently took important decisions ranging from the right of children to free and compulsory education Act, 2010 to MNREGA. Of similar significance were the decisions on the civil nuclear deal with the United states and the allowing 51% FDI in multi brand retail to the amendment of the Land Acquisition Act. These are just a bare few amongst other decisions taken by the UPA regime. Not to forget that they introduced the now well-known GST Bill. The repercussions of some decisions are debatable but the fact is that the Government took decisive policy calls.

More importantly, away from the media glare the executive and bureaucracy took several small steps in consolidating the economy; institutions like the Planning Commission and National Advisory Council were crucial in such decisions .

However, the BJP has fared successfully in sloganeering through “Make in India” and “Digital India” as showing that the Government is taking decisions.

But let’s see the one policy decision which seemed to have poor economic repercussions but a positive political result. That is the decision to invalidate 86% of the Indian currency notes. In fact the Finance Minister has gone on record to claim that the results in Uttar Pradesh show a univocal support of the people for the decision to render high denominations void.

Both P. Chidambaram and Dr. Abhishek Singhvi have correctly stated that popular vote cannot change the empirically provable consequences of a bad economic decision.

However, this decision taken by the Prime Minister in his speech turned into a policy decision overnight directly affecting every individual in the country. Not one person was immune to the State’s exhibition of power. It was the decision’s ability to bring the state directly and in an uncomplicated manner to the people which worked in demonstrating that the Prime Minister is attempting to govern. Policies often reach people through a maze of institutions, however with demonetisation, Prime Minister Modi transcended governance institutions directly impacting the people .

Following which the BJP spun their public narrative through the cadres and the media. The inconvenience experienced by the people soon became sacrificial acts of patriotism, while critics of demonetisation were seen to be pro black money. Narendra Modi became the ultimate “gareeb ma ka beta” and a man who is challenging the status quo.

The INC and its original ideology which celebrated the now mocked ideas of “tolerance” and “secularism” have helped evolve modern Indian democracy to a place where there exists a diversity of political views. As the grand old party seeks to redeem itself, I would like to end by quoting a passage from Jawahralal Nehru’s Discovery of India (Page 92, 2010 edition):-

“ A creative minority is always small in numbers…without the creative minority a civilization must inevitably decay. But it may also decay if the bond between a creative minority and majority is broken and there is a loss of social unity in society as a whole, and ultimately that minority itself loses its creativeness and becomes barren and sterile; or else it gives place to another creative or vital force which society throws up…”

(The writer is a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India)



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