Midway through the Lok Sabha election, it is clear that the euphoric endorsement Narendra Modi enjoyed in 2014 is missing, and it is more ‘there is no other alternative’, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University and one of India’s foremost political commentators.
“Even a lot of people who claim to be supporting Mr Modi seem to be relatively clear in their recognition that he has actually not delivered much of what he promised. In fact, it is not the kind of euphoric endorsement. It is ‘there is no other alternative’,” said Mehta, a Contributing Editor with The Indian Express.
At the Express Adda in Mumbai Thursday evening, he spoke on the erosion of institutions, on constitutional law and on the challenges during and after the polls. He said this election is marked by high stakes and low expectations. While the result could fundamentally alter the nature of politics, even if India were to become “an irrevocably majoritarian state in all dimensions”, the Opposition, he said, had not been able to build a concentrated narrative around this.
“There’s is no expectation of a visionary alternative, alternative Opposition or a return to basic constitutional principles. There’s no promise of achhe din as compared to the 2014 election,” he said.
Mehta said a distinctive aspect of the BJP’s current penetration in civil society is its magnitude. “Even if the BJP’s power is diminished this election, I think what makes it a distinctive moment is the civil society penetration of BJP and the ideology it represents, because the ideology is carried in bits by the other party as well in some forms. This is a right wing whose civil society presence is now of an unprecedented order of magnitude. It can mobilise five million RSS workers. It has become the new normal across a range of institutions from universities to courts to armed forces.”
“In fact, in some ways, the real challenge will begin after the election. I think the first step is in recognising the fact that there is something much deeper going on which is beyond electoral politics, in the terms in which we want to define our relationship with other citizens,” he said.
Observing that even the political vocabulary used to debate and discuss is now compromised, he said the words ‘liberal’ and ‘secularism’ are now seen as bad words, alongside an ideological mystification around what these values represent. “It has become such a bad word even the Opposition does not want to be identified as liberal or secular any more. We are straining to recover that language and vocabulary. I think it is going to be a long intellectual haul,” he said.
Responding to a member of the audience who asked wasn’t Indira Gandhi the first to introduce illiberalism, Mehta said he not only agreed but would go a little further to say Indira Gandhi’s years were marked by personalisation of power and destruction of institutions while Rajiv Gandhi tried to legitimise both Hindu and Muslim communalism.
Mehta, who resigned from the Prime Minister’s National Knowledge Commission in 2006 to protest the UPA government’s higher education policies and then quit the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in 2016 against the marginalisation of academic credentials in the selection process of its director, said that the Congress party’s failures include its inability to tell its own story.
“It cannot even go out and say look, under Manmohan Singh government, more groups were blacklisted internationally, which this government has been struggling to do. It cannot even go out and say Kashmir is a lot more precarious now than it was five years ago. It is public amnesia, right? It cannot even go out and say that the great moment of recognition on which the government staked its reputation was the US-India nuclear deal and here we are struggling to get into the NSC, right?”