What is to be done?
THE idea of India faces an unprecedented challenge. Preventing irreversible damage to the Republic of India, as we have known it, is the most pressing political task of our times, our yugadharma. So far the response to this challenge has been marked by intellectual lethargy and political paralysis. A better response would require that we appreciate the dangers, acknowledge the depth of the challenge and then prepare a road map that combines short- and mid-term strategies with a long-term vision. This is what the present essay offers.
It argues that the challenge is at once more serious and deep-rooted than we care to admit. We are up against nothing short of a hegemonic regime that enjoys power with legitimacy. Having said that, it suggests that at least some of the sense of doom and gloom that surrounds the defenders of the idea of India is self-created, that we have more resources to take on the present challenge than we imagine, and that this challenge requires us to respond creatively. Paradoxically, this crisis could well be an opportunity.
First, a candid look at the nature and extent of the challenge. There can be an argument about whether we have reached the lowest point of democratic freedoms in the history of post-independent India. But not about the fact that we are passing through the most trying time, so far, for the ideals that the Republic of India stood for.
While the current challenge is unprecedented, it is not the first time that one or the other constitutive element of the idea of India has faced a serious challenge. India’s democratic record was tainted by the Emergency and regularly smudged by many milder but chronic failures. Our commitment to diversity has been punctured by episodes of majoritarian excesses like the Sikh massacre of 1984 and Gujarat carnage of 2002 and by failures in regions like Kashmir and Nagaland. There is not much to write home about the idea of development for the last person, an ideal that has been practiced mostly in its breach.
Yet, the present juncture represents an unprecedented challenge to the idea of India in multiple ways. One, all the core ideas – democracy, diversity and development – are under simultaneous and vigorous challenge. Two, this challenge does not arise from a mere failure or violation of the vision; rather it is informed by a vision that stands in opposition to the idea of India. Three, for the first time the onslaught enjoys considerable popular backing; there is a real danger of the republic being undone by the public.
The challenge has caused more damage than we are willing to admit. This onslaught has already downscaled constitutional commitment to diversity, halted the deepening of democracy and further distorted the developmental trajectory. The present juncture has not just exposed the long-standing weakness of the institutional edifice of our democracy, it has taken de-institutionalization to a new low. The gains from a deepening of democracy in the 1990s have largely been reversed.
Many higher education institutions have been politically captured with little resistance from the top. Anti-corruption agencies have either been packed with yes-men or put in deep freeze. The higher judiciary has been part-infiltrated and part-tamed, though not without some flashes of dissent. The Election Commission too appears weaker than ever in the post-Seshan era. The regime has found ways to circumvent the Rajya Sabha. The national security apparatus as well as intelligence and investigation agencies have been aligned, more than ever before, with the demands of the ruling party. Extra-legal actions by security agencies face less scrutiny than ever before, even as vigilante groups on the street and social media trolls enjoy visible political patronage.
There is a brazen shift to a ‘growth-only’ paradigm of economic development. Most of the welfare measures introduced in the post-liberalization era face a quiet but effective roll-back. The environmental safeguards built over the last three decades are being dismantled, one after another. There is a naked disavowal of commitment to diversity; Muslims have de facto been reduced to second-rung citizenship, though without a change in their de jure status.
All these changes have been accompanied by a significant shift in the spectrum of public opinion in favour of a majoritarian consensus, achieved through a mix of image positioning, aggressive ground action and media control. A Modi cult has been carefully built up with the help of communication, media amplification, spin doctoring and social media management. A series of critical events were engineered for assertion of aggressive nationalist rhetoric so as to brand and silence all voices of dissent. Above all, mainstream media has been compromised through a mix of clever spin doctoring, meticulous capture of key media positions, misuse of state patronage alongside brazen use of money power, blackmailing and arm-twisting.
The real challenge is, however, much deeper. If this onslaught continues for a significant duration, we may well be looking at a fundamental disfiguration of the Indian enterprise. The end product may not be ‘fascism’ in a textbook sense, but likely something different if not worse. It is hard to outline the features of this evolving deformity, but some of the elements can be anticipated. The political system could be ‘competitive authoritarianism’ where representative democracy and party competition would be limited to episodes of elections, with the playing field severely skewed in favour of one party. In between elections, it would resemble an authoritarian system with a presidential form of governance, severe curtailment of civil liberties, and a higher threshold of tolerance for deviations from constitutionally mandated procedures.
Concentration of power would take many forms: state power into the Union government, governmental power into the ruling party, and the power of the party into the hands of one person. Development would mean a no-nonsense rule of the capital, with occasional populist discount but minimum ‘hindrance’ from ecological considerations. On the diversity front, it would be a non-theocratic majoritarian rule with minor tweaking of some of the secular laws but effective delineation of the hierarchy of religious communities. The existing system of affirmative action may be diluted in a series of small steps. For its survival and popular endorsement, this regime would depend on occasional electoral endorsement, informal regimentation of the media, crushing of dissent, ongoing crusades against ‘internal enemies’ and a possible military adventure. To sum up, we may be looking at the mutilation of the idea of India.
For all these dangers, this challenge also presents us with an opportunity. The struggle against this onslaught must not be a battle for restoration, of going back to an India that existed prior to 2014, for it would simply not succeed. It must simultaneously be a battle for transformation. A successful response to this challenge would open up space to renegotiate settled equations in multiple spheres. It can force a reconfiguration of the party system, making way for the emergence of alternative political forces and a realignment of voters with parties. It can also provide an opportunity to fortify democratic institutions, push through radical electoral reforms, loosen up economic limits to politics, redefine the paradigm of development, reform our clearly flawed practice of ‘secularism’, and re-imagine the existing frame of social justice. This crisis may facilitate, indeed necessitate, a radical rupture with business as usual of democratic politics.
The current challenge has deeper anchors than is normally conceded. Narendra Modi is no doubt the face of this challenge, yet he is not the challenge. He happens to occupy a unique point of intersection of multiple lines and embodies the opposition to the idea of India. As such, he represents a constellation of forces, not all of which draw energy from the RSS-Jan Sangh-BJP lineage.
While there was nothing inevitable about his ascent to power in 2014, Modi is not an accident or aberration. We are not just dealing with someone who happens to have won an election and captured state power. His popularity has faced its first crisis in the fourth year of his government. The BJP’s victory and Modi’s rise to power has been accompanied by a realignment in the social basis of politics and a shift in the spectrum of public opinion. Thus, the challenge to the idea of India comes from a force that is at once widespread, well entrenched and popular. The Modi regime should be characterized as a hegemonic power since it combines state power with street power, electoral dominance with ideological legitimacy.
The Modi regime wields far greater legal and extra-legal coercive power than enjoyed by any ruling party in post-independence India. It uses every possible constitutional-legal power sans the constraints imposed by democratic conventions: dismissal of unfriendly state governments, use of CBI and other investigative agencies and, of course, the use of armed forces. This is supplemented by the use of state apparatus for extra-legal coercive measures: harassment and persecution of political and ideological adversaries, protection to vigilante groups and the misuse of anti-terror laws. The most pernicious aspect of the BJP’s use of coercive state apparatus is the silent, everyday form of surveillance, intimidation and infiltration.
This coercion draws its legitimacy from the BJP’s growing electoral dominance. The BJP may not match the Congress in its heyday of one-party dominance, but it does resemble the Congress during its one-party salience period in the 1980s. Despite reversals in Delhi and Bihar, the story of the BJP since its spectacular performance in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 is one of expansion and growth. It has spread to virtually every nook and cranny of India, including the hill states of the North East, and is a force to reckon with even in the coastal belt from Kerala to Bengal, though it is as yet in no position to win elections. The organizational machine, the election machine and the propaganda machine put together make the BJP the most formidable political force to emerge in recent times.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Modi’s power rests only on political dominance and a coercive state apparatus. The Modi regime enjoys a hegemonic position because it has also successfully secured moral, cultural and ideological legitimacy. The BJP’s and Modi’s continuing popularity in opinion polls draws upon something deeper than an approval of its governmental performance. The packaging and positioning of the PM’s image as ‘hardworking’, ‘tough’, ‘selfless’ and ‘driven by larger national goals’ has more takers than many would care to admit.
The BJP has successfully shifted the entire spectrum of public opinion towards its ideology. It has more or less captured key symbols of nationalism, Hinduism and our cultural heritage. The demons invented by the BJP troll brigade – ‘anti-national’, ‘westernized’, ‘secular’, ‘enemies within’ – have come to acquire a life of their own. To be sure, Modi’s legitimacy is categorically different from the deeper ethical appeal of a Gandhi or a Nehru, or even the legitimacy of the Congress in the post-independence era. In a sense, a typical BJP supporter is saying, ‘We may not be ethical as per the highest standards; but what the hell, why do we need to be saints?’ A latent societal meanness has found a legitimate political outlet.
It needs to be underlined that the BJP’s hegemony is far from total – no hegemony ever is. Its coercive power is frustrated by the endemic inefficiencies and the notoriously modest capacity of the Indian state. Its electoral dominance peters out at the geographical and the social peripheries. The BJP is not a serious contender in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and smaller states like Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and, of course, the Kashmir Valley.
This hegemony is predicated on the exclusion of the Muslims and mostly Christians as well. The inclusion of Dalits is still tentative, the peasantry’s association is still tenuous as is its hold over the youth. For all its seeming ideological dominance, it is yet to find acceptance among the intellectual elite, both in English and Indian languages. None of this takes away from the fact of BJP’s hegemony. But it does point to spaces available for counter-hegemonic action.
Modi’s rise to hegemony has deeper historic causes which we cannot detail here. While certainly not the only possible outcome, long-term failure of political action and imagination combined with structural deficits in our capitalist modernity clearly contributed to it. First, our democratic institutions have always been weak, subject to routine indifference and occasional capture. At the best of times we have shown little respect for the rule of law and institutional autonomy. This was partially made up by a deepening of our democratic practices, especially in the wake of ‘the second democratic upsurge’. But the gains of the deepening of democracy were not consolidated. The earlier system was unsettled without being replaced by a new one, thus opening the space for a sudden capture.
Second, the failure of economic growth to deliver well-being to a vast majority of our population created a political constituency that could be easily mobilized by populist promises. Rising inequality and growing media density in a society gradually coming out of absolute poverty in the post-liberalization era has created a class whose aspirations are completely out of sync with reality. This underclass is an easy prey for miracle masters as well as hate mongers.
This was reinforced, third, by the cultural logic of modernity in a post-colonial society. The imitative character of India’s modernity created a shallow public sphere marked by envy and anxiety. The modern Indian citizen, pushed into urban experience craved for a sense of belonging and self-respect. The failure of the so far dominant liberal-secular ideology to fulfil this need gave rise to a huge vacuum.
Fourth, the weakening of the existing instruments of political action contributed to the vacuum which Modi occupied. Over the last few decades, political movements have declined and are forced to exist in an agitational mode, useful for sectoral gains but not worthy of general trust. This period has also witnessed a hollowing out of political parties as they essentially turn into election machines, indispensable yet illegitimate.
Finally, the sudden death of modern Indian political thought in post-independent India resulted in a drying up of intellectual resources in politics and disjunction of political ideology from popular imagination. The task of making sense of reality was left to university based academics and high-end media with little feel for or touch with ground realities. The challenge of shaping public opinion was thus completely neglected, leaving the field open to lowbrow media, ever amenable to propaganda, hate speech and myth-making.
Cogent thinking about what is to be done must begin with clarity on what is not to be done. So far, this clarity has eluded Modi critics. It is a sign of our times that those who seek to uproot the republic are proactive, innovative and energetic, but the defence of the republic is reactive or kneejerk, if not lethargic or paralyzed. Opposition to the Modi regime is marked by an inability to fathom the extent of the challenge it poses, unwillingness to recognize its deep roots and failure to think beyond quick-fixes. No wonder, anger at history has replaced serious criticism, fear mongering is the only response to hate mongering, fright has prevented any farsighted action.
So far, the Modi regime has evoked a series of predictable responses from its opponents: a passive wait for the bubble to burst; simple-minded anti-Modiism, attempts to take on the regime on its own turf, and trying to build a grand anti-BJP coalition. None of these strategies is likely to succeed.
The actions, or rather inactions, of the Congress party symbolize the first approach, i.e. wait for an unravelling of the Modi regime by its own blunders, for the Modi bubble to burst thanks to the sheer magnitude of its original lie. Now, it is true that Narendra Modi made irresponsible and impossible promises – achche din, Rs 15 lakh in each account – giving rise to unreal expectations. Even as the public is sharp enough to perceive the gap between promise and delivery, it is also quick to scale down its expectations to ‘realistic’ levels and overlook some rhetorical excesses of a power seeker.
By now the Modi regime has accumulated a big heap of blunders, arguably bigger than its counterparts in the recent past. Even as its mismanagement of the economy is staggering – with incontrovertible evidence of all round economic failure such as falling growth rates despite a favourable climate, job shrinkage, aggravation of agrarian crisis, decline in manufacturing and fall in exports made worse by the demonetization disaster and GST mismanagement – the government’s failures in other domains are only waiting to be exposed, be they of its highly publicized missions or of its foreign policy initiatives to yield results when needed or indeed the counterproductive nature of its internal security measures.
Yet, a blunder is a blunder only when seen to be such and there are layers of mediation between reality and popular perception. The Modi government’s ‘brilliant’ management of perceptions to turn the demonetization disaster into at least short-term political dividends is a textbook illustration of this eternal truth of politics. Besides, usually, governance blunders have political consequences only when there is an assurance that an alternative would be better. There are occasions when the people could not care less for an alternative, when they just want to ‘throw the rascals out’ as they believe than no one can be worse than the incumbent. But it would be fanciful to think that the Modi regime’s popularity has already hit that point.
When the opposition graduates from not doing anything to doing something, more often than not it takes the form of simple-minded ‘anti-Modiism’. A typical opposition tactic in competitive politics, it involves countering the ruling party in anything and everything that it does in the hope that some of the criticism will stick. The luxury of playing opposition obviates the need for coherence and consistency in these oppositional manoeuvres. So, the opposition can criticize the prime minister for spending time abroad; if he did not, he would be accused of relinquishing his international responsibility.
Deeper maladies that have afflicted the country across all regimes –railway accidents, malnutrition, farmers suicides – are now attributed to the Modi regime as if they are happening for the first time. The Congress party that drafted and pushed for a GST (Goods and Services Tax) not too different from what this government has implemented, can happily blame the BJP for its consequences. Unfortunately, such short-sighted criticism soon loses legitimacy as the public begins to see it for what it is – opposition for the sake of opposition. These tactics may work once the regime has lost public confidence, but cannot be deployed to undermine the legitimacy of an otherwise popular government. In fact, they could end up eroding the legitimacy of the opposition.
Amore proactive and consistent form of anti-Modi politics has tried to take on the BJP on its own turf. Over the last three years, ideological and political opposition to the Modi regime has focused on its jingoist nationalist rhetoric, its anti-minority stance and its promotion of obscurantism. Hence, the campaigns against cow vigilante-led lynching, award wapasi to protest against the murder of rationalists, opposition to the move for a uniform civil code, questioning of the ‘surgical strikes’, a critique of brutality by security forces in Kashmir Valley and elsewhere, mobilization against the murder of Gauri Lankesh and rejection of anti-Romeo squads, and so on. There is no doubt that each of these acts of opposition is in itself worth undertaking and necessary. Yet, taken together, an obsessive focus on these issues plays into the hands of the sangh parivar. The Modi regime might even welcome criticism on these counts, as it would bring desired publicity for the regime. An indictment of Modi regime for its anti-minority orientation sends a positive signal to the majority community that the regime stands with them.
The opposition to a uniform civil code usually ends up as evidence of politics of ‘minority appeasement’. Any questioning of the regime for its jingoist nationalism ends up reconfirming its nationalist credentials. It is not that the regime cannot or should not be confronted on its cultural agenda. The present essay goes on to suggest several long-term measures to this end. Yet, we must admit that as of now the opposition does not possess cultural weapons to match the BJP in this battle. A premature battle on this ground can be counterproductive.
Finally, much of the oppositional politics falls back on forging a grand coalition of anti-BJP parties. As we inch towards 2019, this anti-BJPism (to replace anti-Congressism) seems to be the default strategy, or perhaps a response of helplessness that the opposition is drifting towards. The logic is self-evident. On the face of it, there is an arithmetic advantage to a pre-election coalition in a first past the post system. Aggregation of non-BJP votes can help the opposition edge past the BJP, even if it retains its peak vote share of the 2014 parliamentary elections. This can be decisive in states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka where the non-BJP parties enjoy a distinct and complementary vote base, provided it is transferable. Besides actual aggregation, opposition unity can also help create a perception of winability and the possibility of an alternative to the BJP at the national level.
But these possible advantages of opposition unity may not translate as well in a real life scenario. For one, the benefits from an aggregation of votes are overstated. First, opposition unity is irrelevant in a large number of states. These states either witness a direct BJP-Congress contest, with virtually no other party for the Congress to align with, or do not have the BJP as one of the top two parties. Second, the mechanical advantages of aggregation of votes may be overstated in many cases where votes of non-BJP parties are either non-complimentary (Congress and JDS in Karnataka) or non-transferable (CPM and Congress in WB and Kerala, also SP and BSP in UP?). Third, the benefits of opposition unity may be uncertain when possible allies – parties like TRS, TDP, DMK, JKNC, BJD and BSP – could as easily shift their loyalty to the BJP in a post-poll scenario.
Moreover, the calculus of arithmetic advantage of opposition unity fails to add up some serious minuses. One, unity of major parties (e.g. RJD and JDU in Bihar, regional party and Congress in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra) tends to create a void, as many voters of either party feel ‘orphaned’. This space vacated by the opposition could result in a consolidation of votes in favour of the BJP. Two, the perception of everyone ‘ganging up’ against Modi can create sympathy for him. He could well improvise upon the famous retort used to deadly effect by Indira Gandhi vis-ŕ-vis the Grand Alliance against her in 1971: ‘Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, main kehti hoon garibi hatao.’ The bottom line on a grand anti-BJP alliance is simply this: a carefully crafted unity of major oppositional forces may yield some dividends for opposing the Modi regime in 2019, but a ragtag coalition of all non-BJP parties cannot be an alternative to Modi; an electoral alliance cannot substitute for a coherent vision, a credible leadership and a clear road map.
What, then, is to be done? In one word: think. Those of us who are serious about taking on this challenge to the foundations of the republic urgently need to move from kneejerk reactions to a plan of action that incorporates smart tactics which draw upon a coherent anti-hegemonic strategy that reflects an alternative vision. While much of the action aimed at countering the Modi regime will understandably focus on the Lok Sabha election of 2019, it is critical to reserve some mind space for the deeper challenge beyond Modi, beyond electoral politics and beyond 2019.
If the understanding of the challenge proposed here has any merit, it is here to stay with us in one form or another, irrespective of the outcome of the 2019 polls. Therefore, we need a more coherent and calibrated response. The plan of action must link various fields and sites of action. The tactics need to weave the familiar moves with new and surprising manoeuvres. The strategy must harmonize the immediate with mid-term and long-term. The vision that guides it must recast the foundational vision of the republic for our times.
Let us begin with a short-term perspective on what can be done to preserve some available spaces and open up possibilities of resistance within the current regime. There is some space available for a battle of institutional autonomy. As mentioned earlier, the judiciary, media and universities constitute three sites where complete control still eludes this regime. While the Modi regime has succeeded in curbing judicial independence more than any other regime since Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, the presence of judges with conscience and spine and the residual strength of procedures and precedents in an otherwise liberal constitutional system, sustain the possibility of resistance.
While the owners of private media are more compromised than ever before, an average journalist feels suffocated and a majority of the opinion makers are still not aligned with the regime. These are silent allies in the battle for truth. Notwithstanding the regime’s massive investment in dominating social media, the very nature of this media resists control and provides avenues for alternative articulations. While most university administrators have caved in all too easily, the faculty remains circumspect, if quiet for now. The real resistance has come from the students, both in the form of organized groups and as a community.
All these three are critical sites, especially for their impact on many other sectors and sections of the population. Thus a well thought out action here could have a multiplier effect. This may not take the form of organized protests; techniques of silent solidarity are more likely to be effective here. Equally, action for institutional autonomy cannot afford to be silent on the rather shoddy record of the earlier regimes, including the Congress and the left, on this score.
Picking another low hanging fruit would entail mobilization of spontaneous outrage against political and cultural excesses of the Modi regime, especially among youth and marginal social groups. These include protests against lynching and other restrictions in the name of cow protection; building on the youth unease with attempts to impose ‘love jehad’ or vigilante activities of anti-Romeo squads; dalit upsurge against atrocities or caste based discrimination; and local unrest against killing of rationalists and dissenters like Gauri Lankesh. As mentioned above, all this has to be done with caution, or else it could backfire. Even as these local and sectional protests cannot be the fulcrum of counter-hegemonic action, as they may not enjoy widespread support, yet, a careful stitching together of such protests could bring to fore our home-grown liberalism and prove critical to defending the republic.
Arelentless and credible expose of corruption at all levels could also be a critical element in countering the hegemony of the Modi regime. The Lokpal movement created a legitimacy crisis for the previous regime and paved the way for BJP’s rise to power. However, more than three years into its term, this government has little to show by way of an anti-corruption record. On the contrary, it has diluted anti-corruption laws and institutions: amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act, non-implementation of whistle blower act, appointment of compromised officers to the Central Vigilance Commission, non-appointment of a Lokpal are cases in point.
At the ground level, there has been little difference in the experience of everyday corruption, or in the persecution of incorrupt officers. Gradually, various corruption scandals of this government are beginning to breach the media’s wall of silence. To be sure, we should not expect a repeat of the Lokpal movement type of anti-corruption agitation, yet a consistent and credible campaign can take off the residual moral sheen of the Modi regime.
The thrust of counter-hegemonic action, however, needs to be on pro-active mobilization of two key constituencies: farmers affected by agrarian distress and the unemployed youth. There are good reasons why, unlike communalism and nationalism, these two issues have put the regime on the backfoot. One, agrarian distress and unemployment are not short-term difficulties arising out of a faulty policy or poor execution; both flow out of the nature of economic policies pursued in the post-independence period. In both cases the condition has got much worse under the current regime.
Two, both these issues are very hard to address in the short run; it is virtually impossible for the Modi regime to improve the outcomes on either of these fronts in the next year and a half. Three, unlike many other issues, agrarian distress and unemployment have a clearly identified social group – farmers and youth respectively – that can be mobilized for action. Both these groups are large enough to make a difference. Their mobilization is among the best antidotes to possible polarization along communal lines. Finally, the regime’s commitment is suspect on both these counts. The BJP was always seen to be a party of urban traders, even though it has now acquired a fair share of the farmers’ vote. The youth has always been attracted more to the left than to the right. All this makes it easier and more rewarding to build counter-hegemonic mobilization on these two issues.
If there is one class whose ‘objective’ interests almost entirely match the political project of counter-hegemony, it is the farmers. Structural contradictions of the economy make it impossible to incorporate and retain farmers into the fold of the new hegemony. It so happens that at this juncture, the farmers’ movement is poised at a historic turn. This coming together of the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ situation means that in the short to medium run, the ongoing farmers’ movement across the country offers the greatest possibility for mass mobilization against the Modi regime.
The agrarian crisis – a combination of economic, ecological and existential crisis – has been around for a long time. But an overlap of climate, market and policy induced disasters in the last three years has pushed the agrarian crisis to a flashpoint. The response of the central and state governments is no match to what the farmers need; the governments have continued with business as usual governance, platitudes for policy and indifference where political will is needed. That is why the spontaneous eruption of farmers’ protest across the country since June this year and the formation of an umbrella coalition to fuse these could prove to be a turning point in the history of farmers’ movements. After a very long time the stage has been set for an all-India farmers’ movement.
The realization of this possibility depends upon successful fusion of two streams of agrarian struggle that we have inherited from the 20th century: ‘farmers’ movements’ for inter-sectoral parity between agriculture and non-agriculture domains on the one hand, and ‘peasant struggles’ for intra-sector justice for small farmers, sharecropper and farm labour. The growing and starkly visible rural-urban disparities, increasing pauperization of all sections of peasantry, including the erstwhile well off sections, and the increasing overlap between farm labour and sharecropper farmer has created objective conditions for this political unity of the ‘big’ and ‘small’ farmers with sharecroppers and farm labour. The point now is to turn this possibility into a reality.
This requires a historic project of uniting farmers’ movements across different regions, varying cropping pattern, different classes and both genders, various ideological shades and conflicting charters of demands. Specifically, it would mean bringing ‘green’ as well as ‘red’ flags together, getting the farmer green to speak to the ecological green, bringing dalit and adivasi struggles within the fold of farmers movement and foregrounding women farmers cutting across all divisions.
All this is not just in the realm of a theoretical possibility: this fusion has already begun. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) has already brought both shades of green with red, along with dalit, adivasi and women farmer organizations under one umbrella. Farmer’s movements all over the country, even those outside the fold of AIKSCC, have adopted the twin agenda of remunerative prices and freedom from debt.
Forging this unity will also be an ideological challenge: the traditional farmers movement needs to acknowledge that marginal farmer and women farmer are the typical Indian farmers; the left wing peasant movements need to set aside the tendency to view class distinctions within the peasantry as the principal contradiction. There is a real danger of the farmers’ movement degenerating into typical trade union style ‘economism’. Thus, the political challenge before it is to become an all-encompassing movement for regeneration of rural India. Such a movement can be the vanguard of counter-hegemonic politics to defend the republic.
Unemployed youth are at once more powerful and more difficult agents of counter-hegemony at this point in history. The youth movement is more powerful by virtue of the sheer energy, speed and visibility that it can bring to counter-hegemonic politics. Yet, it is also currently much weaker and more fragmented than the farmers’ movement. Consequently, it is difficult to find issues and sites that can bring together the various sections of the youth.
The ‘objective’ conditions appear ripe as in the case of farmers: an extended period of jobless growth, possible shrinkage of job opportunities, contractualization of organized sector employment, widening gulf between work conditions of organized and unorganized sector workers, an educational system that fails to provide skills or knowledge and growing disparities in educational opportunities.
The ‘subjective’ conditions are also, on balance, favourable. The crisis is seen and felt by the affected group: take any opinion poll and unemployment tops the chart of problems that the youth would like the government to address. There is enough evidence of a latent youth unrest that occasionally comes out in campus protests across the country. Clearly, a significant section of the youth is uncomfortable with the cultural politics of this regime.
The real challenge at this moment is to marshal this latent energy into counter-hegemonic politics. Campus politics is in a deep freeze: since elected student unions are an exception in the institutes of higher education, politics has long been an episodic aberration. While there are thousands of student organizations across the country, there has been a marked decline in vigorous and ideologically oriented all-India students’ organizations.
There are very few independent organizations of the youth other than students that could launch a nation-wide movement for employment. A new generation of youth leadership is emerging from among women, dalits, Muslims and other marginalized communities. But there is no large platform for this leadership. The creation of a nationwide youth movement on the two issues of equal access to quality education and dignified employment to all is thus a historic possibility and a historic challenge.
In the last instance, the success of counter-hegemonic politics depends not so much on the short and medium term action plans and strategies mentioned above, but on its capacity to offer an alternative vision. We need a long-term strategy of counter-hegemonic ideology. The heart of the challenge lies in the creation of a new vision of India that can capture the popular imagination. This requires careful deliberation, as the defenders of the republic need fresh moral, cultural and intellectual resources. Today it would be imprudent to foreground counter-hegemonic politics on issues of nationalism, secularism and culture since any contestation on conventional terms would end up strengthening the Modi regime. But an inability to take on these issues for long would be fatal to counter-hegemonic politics.
Fortunately, we need not begin in thin air. Many of the resources needed for the counter-hegemonic project are available. Modern Indian political thought is an extraordinary repository of moral, intellectual and cultural resources that can help us collectively negotiate our present. This tradition can help us access the wisdom of our cultural traditions and also the heritage of modern European thought. But we can draw upon this tradition only if we give up the insistence on any of the 20th century ideological labels or icons as the starting point. We must recognize that many of the ideological battles of the 20th century – violence vs non-violence, state vs market, class vs caste – are pointless today. Instead of carrying on the deadwood, we need to learn from all the major streams of modern Indian political thought.
Specifically, we need to bring together two strands in 20th century Indian political thought: the modern egalitarian strand represented by the socialists, communists, Ambedkarites and feminists, on the one hand and the indigenous strand represented by Gandhians, sarvodayaites and environmentalists, on the other.
What we need is a new ideological integration of both these strands under a capacious concept like ‘Swaraj’. This alternative ideological vision must not be tied to any one thinker or text. Instead, the Constitution must become the key symbol for a counter-hegemonic ideology. Such an ideology would enable us to renegotiate some of the key issues that have been deployed by the Modi regime to achieve hegemonic status. This would also result in rethinking some of the key social and economic policies, such as redesigning policies of social justice beyond caste as the only criteria and reservations as the only mechanism or rethink egalitarian economic policies to move away from an obsession with the state and allow intelligent use of market with sensitivity to ecological concerns. But let us focus on some of the key issues that need urgent and radical reorientation.
Recovering the lost ground of nationalism has to be a key agenda of counter-hegemonic politics. Nationalism continues to be the currency of politics in a post-colonial society as ours; allowing the sangh parivar to appropriate the nationalist plank is at the heart of the political setback for the idea of India. Thus, an unapologetic embrace of the legacy of the freedom struggle and proactive propagation of Indian nationalism as a distinct, non-chauvinist, strand of anti-colonial movement must be placed at the heart of the counter-hegemonic project. Instead of handing over the cultural legacy of nationalism to jingoism, we need to recover the idea of a nation centred around the people and their unity internally, and with other post-colonial societies externally.
Instead of simply decrying jingoism and critiquing shallow symbols of nationalism, we need to develop deeper, positive yardsticks of measuring nationalism: willingness to unite Indians across caste, region and religion, sharing the pains and problems of all Indians, assertion of national sovereignty in the face of neo-colonial domination and protection of genuine national security interests without bullying our neighbours. We also need a new concept for this form of nationalism – perhaps desh prem instead of rashtra bhakti.
This must be accompanied by a concerted attempt to reclaim the cultural heritage of traditions suited for our times. We must acknowledge that the westernized English speaking elite – including liberal, left and progressive sections – has done a disservice to the idea of India. We must give up the ignorance and suspicion of traditions that mark most modern secular Indians, invest deeply in multiple cultural and religious traditions, and be willing to engage in an open-ended conversation with traditions (not just an instrumental and selective appropriation of some elements that fit the modern imagination) and view these as building blocs of our own modernity. This must be accompanied by a shift in our cultural vocabulary and policy. A counter-hegemonic project would involve an advocacy of Indian languages including both non-scheduled languages and classical ones like Sanskrit, Tamil and Persian, as well as support for an ‘Indianization’ of educational curricula that draw upon our context, our needs and intellectual traditions.
A vigorous counter to the hegemony of majoritarian politics would require a recalibration of the politics of ‘secularism’ so as to distance it from pro-minorityism and establish connections with the multiple religious traditions of India. We need nothing short of an open disavowal of a deracinated and culturally empty secularism. Secular politics must publicly distance itself from the exclusive demands of the Muslim leadership and focus instead on their insecurity, disadvantage and discrimination in jobs, housing and education that they suffer. Our secularism must draw upon syncretic traditions or traditions of religious coexistence and assiduously avoid the rhetoric that goes out of its way to offend sensibilities of followers of any religion, including the Hindus.
Finally, counter-hegemonic politics needs a new political instrument. Clearly, none of the established political parties are fit for this purpose. But the need is not merely to create a new party or a new alliance. What we need is a new kind of political formation that subsumes a party, which is a party but not just a party. Such a political formation will have to simultaneously perform several functions that are assigned to different organizations today. Contesting elections will of course be one of those functions, but not the only one. This will have to be accompanied by organizing agitations and struggles, carrying out constructive work for realizing an alternative vision, intervening in politics of knowledge by way of creating new concepts, theories and policies while also creating space for a meaningful relationship with the inner self of the political actor.