ACHIN VANAIK | 23 MAY, 2019
'They Had to Develop a National Popular Will'
#TCElects - From our watch party underway at the Press Club
It's clear that the Congress party decided, especially after the assembly elections, that they should try to do much better for themselves than the 44 seats they got last time, and that took priority over forming alliances to defeat the government.
That turned out to be a mistake.
It's interesting that the Congress did very well in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, but now in those states they are doing badly. What does that indicate about the nature of this election?
It is interesting that, unlike the India Shining campaign of the Vajpayee years, in 2019 the BJP never put this as its central message, because they were doing so badly. Instead they chose to make an emotional appeal. What is the nature of this emotional appeal? Why did it win out?
You cannot say they won because of this emotional appeal. There have to be conditions that changed, conditions that made it possible to work. So, why?
Rationality did not win out - arguments such as 'look at the state of Parliament' and so on. What won out was the emotional appeal of nationalism. The nation must be secured, we must think as one, the Hindus are in danger and so on.
The infrastructure that has been developed to support the BJP and the RSS in past decades, has been strengthened and it has become very important. It will affect future elections as well.
Social media too has become much more important, outdoing television channels to some extent. This is another change the BJP used to its advantage.
The government has to be the arbiter, and recogniser, of different ruling factions across the country. Yes, the Congress and BJP both support neoliberalism, which means supporting the ruling classes. But any government must unify competing factions.
No other party manages their mobilisation, manages the cadre base that they have, like the BJP. If you are a party on the far right or the far left, you will have this cadre base in this common. I mean those who are ideologically committed to furthering the party. Whereas in the centre, centrist parties like the Congress do not have that cadre base.
So what you do outside of electoral politics becomes very important.
They had to try and develop a kind of national popular will. The question of nationalism became important. They needed to develop content that would serve nationalism. In these elections, Modi gave that nationalism content, especially a Hindu content.
You also have to give this kind of nationalism a scapegoat. Muslims. Pakistan also became a kind of scapegoat but that was almost the same thing. With regard to Muslims, this has also worked in Trump's USA.
The thing is, Hindus do not hate Muslims. They are indifferent to the plight of Muslims. Similar to the USA, if you ask the whites about the problems of others, they are found to say: What about us?
It is not simply poverty that frustrates, but comparative social and economic disparity. So it is not simply economic programmes, but living politics that must address this.
The other parties are too afraid to say, what about another kind of nationalism? Another kind of politics? Even the Left parties were quick to jump on the bandwagon after Pulwama: it's tragic, they were martyrs: no further questions asked.
It is interesting that your policy positions don't matter that much nowadays. Even the discussion in the media, in all its forms, doesn't follow policies or policy positions. The content of this politics is different.
I expected the BJP to get more vote share than last time, but fewer seats, maybe 220-230. But what now?
What now that its vote share has gone above 40%? This means they have expanded not just geographically, they have expanded in terms of acceptance. We will have to understand why this is so - why this increased acceptance?
We vote against the BJP. We don't expect an alternate coalition government to be great, but we expect some breathing space. But we don't expect that it will mark a decisive turn. Why not?
Because there is not much different between these parties. There are really just three political centres. One, the BJP-RSS. Two, because of its history the Congress party. Three, the Left, which will give you a global perspective, a national perspective, and a local perspective. Now the regional parties, the SPs and BSPs, will give you no national or global perspective.
Of these three groups, the BJP is the only major party in India since 1947 that has never suffered a serious split. Even when it was down in the 60s and 70s, with the Jan Sangh etc, it never split. Why is this?
The only explanation is: it has a very simple and crude ideology. It is very different from Left ideologies, because they have to explain every damn thing.
The ideology is simple: unite Hindus. This is the foundation to make India strong. Those opposed to uniting Hindus, are opposed to India.
So they find some unifying principle, within Hinduism, which is difficult but they seem to have done it. And you have to find a unifying principle within india, such as Muslims or Pakistan.
To understand this attempt at unification, we must look at caste politics in India. The proportion of Buddhists in independent India has remained pretty much the same. Despite Ambedkar saying let's get out of Hinduism, they don't. There is Dalit assertion, and OBC assertion, but they want to go higher up within that ladder. The perspective has seduced them, that a unified Hinduism can offer them that.
The long term perspective is this. You have your non-BJP parties. Is the Congress the basis of fighting back? Some people will go with them. Then there is the circle of progressive movements, progressive forces. Many people stand with them.
But what protects us is not the subjective factor of forces fighting the BJP, but the objective factor, of the complexity of the subcontinent. That is not going anywhere.
The actual relationship of non-BJP parties to social movements, has been not to bring them together but to manipulate them. We will have to figure out a way to connect these movements.
We will have to build a new kind of cadre. Which is ideologically committed, and ideologically disciplined. This will require an education and training in progressive politics. More importantly it will require activism. They will have to be on the ground, working there.
For instance, there has been a kind of commodification of religion and popular religiosity, which makes India quite different from 20 years ago. Everywhere you go, babas, ashrams, shops, people moving towards them. This is not just the temple-state-business nexus, but a popular form of religiosity. Contesting this will need a committed cadre base.
Political conflict is not one of arms or economic strength. It is a conflict of wills, in which one side seeks to impose its will on the other.
So, progressive politics is about creating, expanding, sustaining the will - to impose our will on them. We do it through what we say, or write, or the demonstrations and marches we organise, and so on. We have to go on doing this, and also find ways to connect with each other. We must do this independently of the political parties, if necessary.
Given the objective reality, there will be upsurges in the future against their politics, there will be trouble for them. We will have to work with that in mind.
Progressive politics will succeed because all governments will have to address basic secular needs. Employment, living conditions, natural disasters - they will all have to address that.
Achin Vanaik is a political scientist.