Spot the difference

Making sense of the apparent disarray in all political parties

Written by Seema Chishti | Published:August 20, 2010 12:39 am

At best,it is like the dramatisation of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian,watching the Centre “decide” on something,then hear whispers of “another and opposing view”,and then finally watch it all disappear in the abyss of stillness — the consensus being to remain “split” on the matter. What is now becoming even more predictable is that this is not the result of tough or political allies. They are not argumentative,they simply seem able to decree what they want and that is never the subject of indecision — whether it is what DMK wants (on the fabled telecom matter),or the NCP (forcing the Congress on the backfoot on price rise) or the Trinamool Congress (whose chief can audaciously address rallies and say whatever she wants). The indecision stems from the Congress itself speaking,with all the various articulate voices they have,saying different things,each in their own way taking away from the carefully choreographed “inclusive” growth paradigm that won them 2009.

This style of letting everyone have their say worked very well in the run-up to the 2009 elections.

It evoked images of a large umbrella,making the right,the smaller socialist parties and the Left all appear narrow-minded,obsessive and atrophied. Strong decisive steps on RTI and NREGA,and even the spunk displayed on the nuclear agreement with the US,intelligent steps taken to ensure that the environment did not stale into anti-Muslim rhetoric,a keen aam aadmi-centred spiel — all of these helped the party to steer through and get the mandate it did and cross 200 seats for the first time in two decades.

However,unable to handle 200 seats or too much of a good thing,the Congress has decided that it would be in the best traditions of the Debating Society to argue itself into indecision and leave all of us very confused about what is going on,and what the government stands for.

Much has been written about the government appearing to dither on key issues they themselves may have raised to the fore,but what is intriguing is that the opposition too is hit by the same sense of “guess what my position is” on various matters. It could be that the government being very much in the driver’s seat,with four years left,is comfortable and does not want to expend political capital at this stage in settling what might just be small skirmishes between satraps.

However,the BJP’s current strategy is also mystifying. The party is very anxious to raise matters not seen as typical BJP issues,trying desperately to wrest the elusive fount of the opposition space as other groupings in the House struggle to make a case different from the right. As a result,whether it is on economic reform,foreign institutional investment,petrol price decontrol or the nuclear liability bill,it’s a struggle to guess what might be construed as the BJP line. The line curves into a neat circle when you talk about the caste census. Having the potential to wrench the party miles away from its central idea,the imagination of India as a “unitary” space,the party’s position on the caste census has everyone confused.

As far as the smaller,former UPA allies go,there is again a case of either fine-balancing much praised as expediency,or confusion about what defines their politics. The 2009 results sucked the oxygen out of their pure caste politics,and they too are having to refine and reconcile it with class and borrow liberally from the aam aadmi lexicon of UPA-I.

To appear “consistent”,the Left seems to be heading towards positioning itself in a corner and risks losing the freshness,relevance and appeal it exercised for generations in a country like India — unable to float a new set of ideas around with which to continue its politics or contest the next set of crucial state elections. Like in the case of the BJP,by just being nay-sayers to a confused UPA-II,it has actually further confused what can be read as a credible Left view in 2010.

As far as allies of the UPA,the NDA allies or unattached parties like the BJD or AIADMK or even BSP go,a thread holding their politics together seems to have got lost somewhere. This again can be the lull after a period of hectic political activity,alignments and realignments and a general election just a year ago,but there seems to be no inspired line,idea or even slogan which turns the respective parties.

A reason could be that parties that made the “revolutionary” case,economically and socially,whether it is the Left in Bengal and Kerala,the JD(U) in Bihar or the BSP in UP,are seen as parties in power,and that has sapped their vim.

But it may be that the situation is more complex than that. The UPA for a variety of reasons was able to effect a profound shift on the basis of which politics was sought to be contested — to target the citizen and empower her with a sense of entitlements and expectations from those in power. This did not happen because of any one party but through social legislations which came about because of the unique coming together of political forces in 2004 — the fact that a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family declined to be PM,the demographic shift,new entrepreneurial energies or even the mobile phone making awareness a tool which the Indian came to exercise,howsoever unwittingly.

However,it seems the UPA,immediate beneficiaries of this change in the way politics is seen,is intent on allowing it all to unspool with bickering and indecision,thereby frittering away its lead. As far as those who lost out in the electoral spoils in 2009 go,it’s clear that the learning curve about what constitutes the aspirations and the threats that a new India faces is proving too steep. Maybe as the ruling combine rehearses The Argumentative Indian,the BJP could browse through

Identity and Violence. And as a rising India poses new challenges,examines its warts and displays an anxiety of wanting to fix things,the Left and other parties could benefit from a quick reading of Inequality Reexamined.

seema.chishti@expressindia.com

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