Toll on the party

Democracy is ordinarily constituted by two things: claims and counterclaims on one hand, and a robust respect for institutions and procedures on the other. Democracy is ordinarily constituted by two things: claims and counterclaims on one hand, and a robust respect for institutions and procedures on the other.

The churning occasioned by the election campaign is over. As the nation awaits what is sealed in the EVMs, this interval may be profitably used to revisit what this election was about. Democracy is ordinarily constituted by two things: claims and counterclaims on one hand, and a robust respect for institutions and procedures on the other. Elections and campaigns presuppose the latter while continuously reworking the former. So, how did this election fare on these two basic criteria?

In the recent past, campaigns have produced claims on behalf of the Hindu community as well as on behalf of the backward castes, galvanising electoral contests during the 1990s. Later, especially in 2004, the Congress party tried to wrest the initiative by bringing back the language of poverty and the claims of the aam aadami. So, did these elections reconfigure the claims and counterclaims of various social sections?

There was a deafening silence on this front as far as the state parties were concerned. This can be understood if we take into account the fact that most of them are ruling parties, or were ruling parties in their respective states till recently (barring the state parties in Andhra Pradesh). More than ideas and claims, they were worried about their performance records. So, we did not witness any new — or renewed —  claims on federal grounds or based on social justice. Many would have expected a substantive discourse by the Aam Aadmi Party. The party certainly captured the imagination of many new entrants to politics and made an important claim: a claim on behalf of the ordinary citizen to reclaim politics. But as it spread itself across the length and breadth of the country, this claim was stretched thin. Besides, such claims, made on behalf of the common citizen, tend to be appropriated by those who think that they are genuinely representing the common citizen. The AAP got somewhat overburdened with such self-appointed claimants and in the process, the purpose of its claim was deflected. Third, the language of bravado and permanent confrontation adopted by its national face, Arvind Kejriwal, contributed neither to enriching nor to communicating the substance of its message to the audience. It generated a lot of sound and fury, but in reconfiguring the claims, the AAP’s campaign was not very successful.

The record of the two larger parties is most dismal. At the beginning of the campaign, or even earlier, there were indications that this election would be a battle over three ideas — all three coming from the BJP. These were: development, nationalism and “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The Congress did not even try to engage the BJP on its idea of development. This was probably because the Congress did not want to elaborate on its own vision of development, which may not have been very different from the BJP’s. It was also handicapped by the fact that the performance record of the Congress-ruled states has not been very impressive. It had an opportunity to engage the BJP on the meaning of nationalism. Instead, the Congress was happy raising the issue of communalism and divisiveness. For the BJP, the Congress symbolises a misconception about India’s nationhood. But instead of going into that more deeply, the BJP presented the idea of a Congress-mukt Bharat only as politics sans a strongly competitive Congress party. So, a major opportunity to restate political claims was lost. This, of course, saved the Congress from the task of defending the idea of the Congress, which is perhaps alien to most of its party members today, so it suited them fine.

How then did the electoral battle have an impact on institutions? The shrill rhetoric of elections is bound to put a strain on the institutions of democracy. This time, too, cribbing by the Samajwadi Party and bitter attacks on the Election Commission by the Trinamool Congress and later by the BJP indicated how fragile institutional strength can be. Indeed, India’s institutions are not known for their strength and most would compromise their autonomy rather easily. One only has to recall what happened during the Emergency to conclude that institutional strength is a function of actual political practice as much as it is of constitutional design. Since the 1970s, institutions have often been turned into instruments for contingent gain.

But it was the institution of the party that was corroded most in these elections. As argued by this author earlier, political parties are not very well organised, nor are they much respected, yet citizens tend to depend on parties as the key vehicles of politics (‘Why the party must go on’, IE, October 18). By turning these polls into an election for the president of the United States of India, the BJP will have done irreparable damage to party politics and competition. Ever since the eclipse of the Indira-Rajiv era, democratic consolidation happened — despite the instability and coarseness of claims — mainly because India’s politics was not dominated by any national saviour. This campaign has altered that situation. Nearly 35 years after Indira Gandhi fought her last election, a campaign was woven around the ability of one leader, not only to get votes but to sort out all the problems faced by the country.

There are two differences between the shaping of the Indira Gandhi image and the Narendra Modi image. One is that today’s image-building depends heavily on the media, so it has the propensity to be more synthetic than before. Second, the content of the image also needs some attention. “Indira” was equated with India after Indira Gandhi had managed to capture the imagination of the nation. Modi’s projection as saviour precedes his ascension to full popularity. Moreover, Indira Gandhi sycophants never went to the extent of converting her into a comic-book superhero, which Modi has already been turned into. This rise of the personality cult has already ensured that there will be no more party competition, only competition between personalities. Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal were deployed by the media as (pale) counters to the image of Narendra Modi. In this clash of personalities and media images, the real casualty is going to be the party — not just Modi’s party, but the political party as the main vehicle of politics in this country.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune