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Thursday, June 17, 2021

In praise of khichdi or, as the general election draws closer, in defence of politics

Political parties will — and should — continue to compete, and jostle, and clamour, and do all the messy things that are internal to the practice of democracy. Provided that the one self-proclaimed “nationalist” party is not allowed to shut down politics altogether.

Written by Alok Rai |
Updated: March 26, 2019 8:04:57 am
Opposition party leaders unite at ‘Remove Dictatorship, Save Country’ rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

In the run-up to the impending parliamentary election, a pointed contrast is being sought to be drawn between the higgledy-piggledy chaos of Opposition “unity” — “khichdi” — and the trenchant “vision” that Narendra Modi represents. Well, that “vision” deserves independent consideration. Its blustering muscularity possibly has some adolescent appeal. Certainly, the moustaches of superannuated generals in TV studios have become noticeably fiercer. But my subject is rather more modest today — simply, the simple “khichdi”.

Now, khichdi is universally loved as a convenient comfort food. It can be rustled up easily, it feeds the hungry, and nourishes the ailing. I daresay even the macho Modi — ab tak chhappan — at least in his more modest incarnations as chaiwalla and chowkidar, must relish khichdi. But in the political sphere, as metaphor, khichdi is generally looked down upon. So, my theme is political khichdi.

All politicians routinely seek to deny that they are acting for political reasons, and correspondingly accuse their rivals of doing so. This is manifestly paradoxical, but we should pause and reflect a little on this paradox. All politicians represent, or seek to represent, constituencies — which are both electoral spaces and demographies. They act — and should act — to advance the interests of those constituencies. This contending of interests is precisely the stuff of democratic politics — the jostling and the clamour, the deals and the compromises, is the very soundtrack of democracy. But it is typical that all politicians pretend that the “special interests” that they represent — the particular groups, classes, castes — in fact, stand for the “general interest”. Such a claim is invariably deceptive, and it is important to call out this deception.

Mercifully, this is easily done in most cases. Thus, the samaj of the Samajwadi Party is mainly Yadav; Mayawati’s bahujan are mainly Dalit. But the hypocrisy of the BJP is of another order. They claim — claim vociferously, aggressively, threateningly — to speak for the “national interest”. And — this is the clear, intended, dangerous implication — if they speak for “the nation”, what need is there for anyone else to speak at all? But the necessary question is the old, familiar one — what is the “special interest” that is being sought to be camouflaged in this angry “national” claim, so that all those who think differently are deemed “anti-national”?

So, here’s my thesis. There is ultimately no shame in being accused of advancing the interests of the Dalits or the OBCs — because both of these groups, albeit in different ways, can credibly be said to be disadvantaged, deprived of a fair share of the social good: Property, education, status. Jat and Patel leaders can afford to speak in their own name, and do so freely. But the “special interest” represented by the BJP is the one “special interest” that dare not speak its name. The Hindu-savarna class, sheltering behind “nationalist” rhetoric, enjoys almost complete dominance over the aforementioned social good, but its moral claim to that social good has been hollowed out completely.

There are complex historical reasons underlying this development — different regions, different stories — but the fact is that the moral legitimacy of that dominance has been irretrievably lost, even in their own eyes. The tireless efforts of the Hindu social reformers, Dayanand, Gandhi, Vivekanand; the progressive legacy of the freedom movement; the global trend in favour of equality — all this has ensured that overt “Brahminism”, an ideology founded on hierarchy and discrimination, on institutionalised inhumanity, can have few defenders. The “Hindu nationalism” of the BJP-RSS is the mutated form of this toxic ideology. The political party is merely a front organisation for a secret society that has been plotting, for nearly a century, to buttress the privileges of the Hindu upper castes, and their associated corporate sector, and will go to any lengths in pursuit of that goal.

The ressentiment of these super-privileged savarna elites is a fertile theme, and will bear detailed examination. But for my limited purpose, it is sufficient to note that its frightening outlines have become clear to all but the wilfully blind — blind to the itinerant gangs of gaurakshasas (sic) who perpetrate grotesque acts of public violence, blind to the official and unofficial apparatchiks who feel emboldened to voice the foolishnesses and defend the outrages that reassure the faithful — ah pushpak-vimaana, ah vedic internet!

Hence the desperate camouflage. The Hindu-savarna “special interest” mutates into “Hindu nationalism”. The only way that that Brahminical “special interest” can seek to further extend and consolidate its dominance is by shutting down the clamour, the very possibility of competing “special interests”. It is important, therefore, that the clamour of apparently incommensurate special interests, committed to democratic negotiation, be denigrated as “khichdi” — to be contrasted with serene “nationalism”. It follows from this that all political parties other than the BJP — precisely because they have no common ideology beyond a shared commitment to the continued practice of democracy — must come together in a khichdi-coalition or different coalitions in different geographies. The forming and reforming of such coalitions in the process of democracy is in fact the only true reflection of that dynamic coalition of “special interests” which is the “nation” — and not the muscular fantasy being peddled by Sanghi ideologues.

Of course, there will be problems. And today’s allies will contend with each other tomorrow, and form new alliances, discover new adversaries. Political parties will — and should — continue to compete, and jostle, and clamour, and do all the messy things that are internal to the practice of democracy. As they say, tomorrow is another day — provided that there is a tomorrow. Provided that the one self-proclaimed “nationalist” party is not allowed to shut down politics altogether. Our democratic polity is seriously ill, and coalition-khichdi is just what it needs to get better again. Another round of Gujarati mixture may well kill the patient.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 26, 2019, under the title ‘In praise of khichdi’. The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University.

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