Since the Assembly election results in five states last month, two debates have dominated political discourse in India. One, that mass leader and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acquired more steel in his armour to become invincible. Two, the Congress is working hard to make itself irrelevant, and soon, extinct.
There are several finer points to both these debates. One interlinked topic that has been debated for a while is the question of who and where the formidable Opposition is: “vipaksh kaun aur kahan hai?” This question is particularly raised to juxtapose the dismal performance of the Congress and its inability to perform well in polls against the great election winning-machine that the Bharatiya Janata Party has become.
Seen from the mechanisms of elections and the necessity of winning them to remain a significant political force, the state of the Congress has become the primary explanation for the invincibility of the BJP. In these explanations, the fate and fortune of two parties are tied together, of course in a diametrically opposite direction.
The current political situation is often analysed through the comparison and connection between the Congress and the BJP. However, this article does not aim to nitpick with those involved in such debates.
Instead, in dissecting their modes of explanations, I am suggesting three things. First, as elections instigate a close analysis of political parties, we need to keep simultaneously investigating the nature of the nexus between people and political culture. Second, in the current ecosystem of politics, elections and its infrastructure (mobilisation, rhetoric, media fabrication, amplification and others) are not merely acts of the political but the social as well. Third, negation has become the modus operandi of the ruling dispensation and its followers, which on the surface appears to be a strategy to discredit their political opponents but is serving the cause of re-wiring India’s people and social space.
Congress ‘loathing’, Hindu rashtra
One type that passionately offers up the Congress-BJP tug-of-war explanation is the die-hard supporters of the saffron party who are now enjoying the-dream-come-true moment of the organisation controlling state power. However, in their analyses of the political situation (which includes explaining the winnability of the BJP), they keep the Congress at the forefront.
This is a curious case of negation in which their genuine commitment towards the BJP is heavily refracted, to the extent disguised, by the constant loathing of the Congress. Loathing the opponent is a perfectly valid exercise in any electoral process but their inability to directly accept the fact that they support the BJP for its “positive agenda” is disappointing, to say the least. In a nutshell, the agenda can be summarised by the phrase “the making of the Hindu rashtra”.
Away from the electoral gains earned through the freebie-based welfarism, there should be no mistaking that the making of a Hindu rashtra is under way at full swing at all levels – by attempted legal changes and by weaponising one minority community by subsuming it under the majoritarian impulse against another minority community through films.
The time when the final contours of the Hindu rashtra become sharply recognisable is still undecided but the matter of it robustly being a “work in progress” is clear. Still, right from the top of the BJP leadership down to its common supporters, the techniques of mobilisation and self-rationalisation of and by people are based on negation rather than openly embracing the nature of the change that is under way.
Why do they need a decimated Congress – soon perhaps to be completely obliterated from the political horizon of India if it does not find a way to reconnect with the people – and not talk about the “vikas”, the progress, that has been made in the last eight years?
Linking “parivaarvaad”, or dynasty politics, with democracy, as Narendra Modi has done, shows the obsession which the Congress occupies within the ruling dispensation. While the Congress’s party structure has been put under the national scanner – for all the right reasons – the media and citizens have little interest in knowing about the kind of authoritarianism developing within the BJP. Linking the fate of Indian democracy to the Congress’s mode of functioning is an extremely clever way to keep the focus away from matters of governance.
The tone and tactic of mobilisation for the 2020 Bihar assembly elections were similar as well. The ruling dispensation of the BJP and Janata Dal United raked up the ghost of “jungle raj”, which allegedly existed 15 years ago but did not talk of their own work during nearly the same length of time.
Similar rhetoric was deployed during the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. If voted to power, the Samajwadi Party, according to the BJP, would have brought back the days of “goonda raj”. Mid-way into the campaign, “parivaarvaad” was also thrown in to discredit political opponents.
Evidently, the negation – talking about the opponent’s past and not their own present – is the core of the mobilisational technique of the BJP and its supporters, which shifts the onus of evaluation from the present to the past.
As a counter to this, the main Opposition parties in these two states, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party, kept the discourse of their mobilisation fixed to people’s issues (“logon ka mudda”). This included unemployment, impoverishment, price rise and others. But people failed them and instead voted the BJP to power.
People, political culture
Several learned commentators have said – even on March 10 when the results were declared – that raising questions of the people is unjustified. In making this argument, the blame, according to them, must be placed on political parties, and more so, on their communication skills. To an extent, going by the results in other states, most aptly in West Bengal, this argument would appear correct. However, at the general level, there appears to be a grave misunderstanding on this issue.
The motive behind putting people at the centre of an attempt to understand this new political culture is not to deride or mock them. It is also not from an intention to deflect the blame deserved and earned by the main Opposition party, the Congress, on to the people. It is to understand the mechanism in which people are no longer electoral subjects who exercise their vote every five years and feel neglected for the rest of the time. They have now become active, 24/7 participants and shapers of the new political culture.
If elections and their results are entry points to ponder over the nature of politics, then the electorate cannot be left out of any analysis. Once again, what appears on the surface – from a once-in-five-years vote-wielding citizen relapsing into a neglected entity, to becoming a voluble participant in shaping political discourse – is a welcome change. But a deeper investigation into the nature of that voluble participation shows something else at work.
It is exactly at this point that analysis must move beyond the narrow focus on Congress-BJP and bring into the picture another axis, that of people-political culture. After all, the charismatic leader who has so far denied giving an open press conference revels in directly communicating his “mann ki baat”, his inner thoughts, with the people. Can people be left outside of this new formation, even if we just assign them the role of listeners (which anyway would be a wrong thing to do)?
This new political culture has been nurtured diligently by the ruling dispensation through various mechanisms: control over the media, making institutions pliable, criminalising dissent and activating the hydra-like tentacles of hate in which a command from the top is no longer required to naturalise religious conflict in neighbourhoods and mohallas.
This is all done in the name of vikas, nationalism and selfless service to the nation. The BJP’s biggest success is not winning elections but educating people how to gloss, deflect, and negate the real agenda – which otherwise is clear to the people – under the apparent benign terms of development and nationalism.
In this regard, people have become active shapers and consumers of this new political culture. They, therefore, should not escape the weight of analysis. They should not be treated merely as docile receivers of political campaigns and programmes. They cannot have it both ways: to act as passive agents of good or bad communication strategies of political parties when suitable, and yet become the bearers of hatred-filled divisive politics that is on display in the physical as well as virtual worlds.
The question remains: if people are mobilised to the extent that hatred has become so normalised that it has now become invisible to many, why is negation still the preferred mode of mobilisation and rationalisation? Why are “jungle raj”, “goonda raj” and “sattar saal ka raj” (the 70-year reign) invoked time and again? Why is the pride in the making of a “Hindu rashtra” not directly accepted and celebrated by BJP supporters?
I doubt if this hesitation hints at the lingering effect of the erstwhile discursive and normative values enshrined in phrases such as secularism or inclusiveness. Seeing it as hesitation itself would be a mistake.
It is not hesitation but a strategic use of negation that works at both political and social levels simultaneously. Negation is a strategy – internalised by the people, perhaps even unknowingly by some – that appears to be designed for electoral purposes (to discredit the political opponents) but caters to the much bigger idea of re-wiring the mind at the social level.
It appears benign and perfectly valid that a political party would criticise its opponent within the parameters of electoral challenge. But through this discourse of negation – supported through the fake news industry and amplified by pliant media houses – what is attempted, and largely achieved, is discrediting those very normative values of the nation itself in which the erstwhile social fabric was located.
Mainstreaming of politicising conflict
The electoral battles of India have exceeded the limits of just being political. By no means is it suggested that social conflicts of various kinds, including religious ones, did not occur earlier, as a result of political instigation and people’s participation. It is also easily discernible, if we look back at the politics of the late ’80s through the ’90s encapsulated in the phrase “mandal vs kamandal”, the politics of social justice vs the politics of Hindutva, that the political and the social have had significant overlaps.
What it means to say is that the existing normative mechanism of dealing with such conflicts have been carefully made less and less credible. Any political leader hesitating to even visit the spot of the communal riots, as noticed during the 2020 North East Delhi riots, is a case in point.
All conflicts are political at one level, yet they can also be disparate, contextual, regional and episodic. In the new political culture, there is a mainstreaming of the politicisation of conflict itself. It is happening along with the politicisation of religious identity, which is nothing new but is distinct in its scope and meaning.
Religion as a technique of political mobilisation and religion as an ingredient of statecraft (for instance, using religious identity for legal purposes as was the case with the enactment of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act) are two distinct things.
There is also a mainstreaming of redefining dissent in newer ways. A political dissenter has been converted into a national traitor (gaddar) worthy of being shot (desh ke gaddaron ko goli maaro). A social activist or a journalist exposing the functioning of any state institution is labelled an anti-national. A word against the government is liable to be equated with a word against the country.
This is the form of a decontextualised, emotionally-manufactured idea of loyalty to the nation, which basically means that citizens must be loyal to the current political dispensation. The nation has become synonymous with the ruling party and people must cease to remain citizens of the nation-state and become the uncritical followers of that political party.
Second, the deflection from the present to the past in the evaluation of governance has created a decontextualised understanding of history. New pasts and new social realities are being conceived on an daily basis. The biggest tool of this decontextualised debating propensity of new India is “whataboutery”, which flattens the past and the present at the altar of the convenience of (post) truth. What is at the core of this process of deflection is the decontextualisation of a historical past.
The social re-wiring for understanding the nature of conflict along religious faultlines and the intellectual gloss required for it by rewriting the historical past from the viewpoint of superiority of one religion or religious community over the other must go hand in hand in this project. The decontextualised understanding of the past, which at once breeds the feeling of superiority and victimhood at the expense of “foreigners”, is indispensable for the current political power and its followers for controlling the present.
It is only through the combination of establishing a monopoly over the historical past and ruling the present by generating a mix of feelings encompassing both superiority and victimhood that a blurred constituency of history-myth, faith-fact, and religious-political has been created.
Third, and most importantly, through this process, what appears to be a political change/churning/turmoil has become deeply social. The fight between political parties – the tactics of discrediting – is not just political anymore. Because, in that fight, political culture and people are deeply enmeshed, so it is also deeply social and divisive.
Some hold the view that what the BJP is electorally receiving from the people is the pure “Hindu vote”. While there is some element of truth to this, it does not explain a more complex process at hand. Examples from other states, most importantly from West Bengal and Punjab, but also to a great extent from Bihar where the Rashtriya Janta Dal performed well, shows that the “Hindu vote” is not a monolithic entity, both in terms of being “Hindu” and being a “vote”.
Clearly, for every Hindu supposedly voting as a “Hindu” for the BJP, there is one who is not. Second, the vote is territorially divided: people in states are still voting out the BJP but it appears that in the political imagination of India, the Hindu identity comes forth as a consolidated identity. This political imagination, nonetheless, is equally social, manifesting itself in matters of policing of choices over food, dress, and romance.
I had earlier mentioned that there are two types of people who use the Congress-BJP tussle to think about the current situation. The second type does not need too many words. They are those who mock the Congress under the shade of being liberal – more as a sign of their suffering, frustration, and lament at the unchanging nature of the party in relation to the power which a dynasty holds over it. Some of them, not so ironically, also praise Modi for his great oratory and communication skills. Some of them, still further, see hope in the rising electoral success of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Thinking of the Congress, the necessity for change is perhaps way past its shelf life. Still, electoral accountability requires change, and so should it happen. But there remains a doubt if changing the head of a weakened political party is going to change the fast-shifting terrain of a new political culture nurtured by the ruling dispensation, media, and a sizeable chunk of people.
As it appears currently, the electoral success of the Aam Aadmi Party (or even the Trinamool Congress) would fail to change the new political culture. Borrowing a leaf from the playbook of the BJP will not necessarily change the content and texture of that leaf.
Conversing with the people
When politics has decisively and divisively entered the private spaces of our everyday life, an equally important and sustained measure – apart from political parties gearing themselves to take on the giant election winning machinery – that should be adopted is to keep conversing with the people.
Not raising questions of the people might unwittingly mean shielding them from any accountability. This accountability is less about the strict political choice they make in choosing one political party over another but more about what kind of new social relationships they imagine forging with different communities and groups in the society.
Political choices based on religious majoritarianism, punitive hypernationalism, and the institutional and moral policing of dissent have shaken social faith in the values and practices of togetherness (and equally importantly, weakened the ways in which conflicts were resolved). The current politics of India is hardly political in its scope and ambition, in its effect and reach. As politics has become emotive, the social appears to be perilously mangled. It is the future of the social that requires raising uncomfortable questions of the people.
Nitin Sinha is a Senior Research Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.