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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Moving the middle

Will Modi effect a fundamental shift in democratic politics?

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: November 22, 2013 3:42:22 am

Will Modi effect a fundamental shift in democratic politics?

As the battle for the next parliament becomes more and more intense,speculation about what shape Narendra Modi’s leadership will take and what effect it will have on India’s democratic politics appears to be taking centre stage. Yet we seem to have less and less patience to examine what effect the Modi phenomenon will have on the middle ground of our politics.

Modi himself has been sending out varied and complicated signals on this. His penchant for aggressively uncharitable criticism of opponents seems to reinforce the image of an uncompromising fighter. This may endear him to his followers,but others may be worried: such an image leaves little room for self-correction. Modi’s rather unconvincing flirtation with the Muslim constituency and his sudden popularity among some Muslim clerics border on cynicism rather than a change of heart. This then produces the impression that his brand of majoritarian nationalism might prove to be a burden for India’s democracy.

In contrast,there is the hope that India’s democratic resilience will take care of Modi’s excesses. After all,the BJP was tamed by the compulsions of electoral politics (and coalition strategy) in the mid-1990s. So it is quite probable that even if the BJP manages to come back to power via the coalition route,either Modi will not become the leader of the new dispensation or if he does,he will be shackled by the compulsions of realpolitik. Does that mean that the danger will be averted?

To answer this question,we need to define what danger we are talking about. Are we worried only — or mainly — about the person called Modi? Or are we talking about the sensibilities that Modi represents? It is the latter that should concern us.

Modi may try to become an Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He may not actually attain power at Delhi,but what we are witnessing currently is nothing but an extension of a larger project that was inaugurated in the late-1980s. That project is about shifting or redefining the middle ground of India’s democratic politics. If that happens then,Modi or no Modi,a fundamental shift might be accomplished.

The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation may have petered out,but it certainly unleashed political sensibilities that were new to the then prevailing middle ground. Reimagining the idea of nationhood,positing a majoritarian political community as the basis of democracy and privileging religio-cultural assertion as democratic expression characterised the new middle ground. True,the BJP had to rein in the VHP and the Bajrang Dal; it had to put the temple building agenda on the backburner (along with the Uniform Civil Code and the abrogation of Article 370); L.K. Advani could not become the prime minister. But there is no denying the fact that the vocabulary of politics changed. Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav have been dexterous in articulating the message that they are the good Hindus. Now,Nitish Kumar has announced his intention to build a grand temple for Ram. Congress leaders,too,are busy telling voters how much time they spend on poojas and prayers. Thus,everyone,while criticising the BJP’s Hindutva,has acquiesced to a rhetoric of competitive majoritarian appeasement. The national political ethos has become more Hindu (in religious terms) than ever. The debate now is about who the good Hindu is,and as Hindus,who patronises non-Hindus more.

Such shifts in the middle ground are hard to recover from. Indira Gandhi had also changed the middle ground and brought about the political culture of sycophancy and deinstitutionalisation. She was humbled in the elections of 1977 but the middle ground did not change because of that defeat. The Congress remained as leader-centric as she had made it. The bureaucracy,too,did not recover from the habits of personalised loyalties. Much of the institutional disorder can be traced back to those years. Moreover,the longing for strong political leadership remained as an unsatisfied craving of the Indian citizen,producing local and regional variants of authoritarianism even as such leadership was awaited at the national level. A plebiscitary trait became ingrained in electoral politics.

Representative liberal democracy requires and presupposes a certain middle ground in order for it to be successful in delivering welfare while ensuring fair,democratic competition. Unlike many other countries,India’s democracy functioned relatively smoothly because we could evolve a hospitable middle ground. Elsewhere,in the UK and the US for instance,we witnessed the erosion of the welfare dimension of democracy when the middle ground was dramatically transformed. Margaret Thatcher in the UK or Ronald Reagan in the US forced their opponents to agree to an image makeover. But beyond image,there is also a change in the content of politics and the policy alternatives offered. The New Labour in the UK represented that aspect of the shift in the middle ground. Nearer home,in Sri Lanka,we are currently seeing a systematic attempt to redefine the middle ground as hard ethnic nationalism,at the expense of liberal democratic practice.

In India,in the case of Indira Gandhi and now in the case of Modi,the democratic dimension is the target of the shift in the middle ground. Just as Indira Gandhi did not fully abandon democracy,the Modi variant of Hindutva politics will not abandon democracy. Indira Gandhi mixed democracy with personal authoritarianism. Modi — and Hindutva politics — intend to mix democracy with an anti-diversity majoritarianism.

Part of this has already been achieved by the BJP in the past quarter of a century. The generation that witnessed,as youngsters,the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation would certainly be less respectful of diversity and religious tolerance. Or take the issue of competitive occupation of public spaces for religious purposes. Post the 1993 Mumbai riots,the Hindu claim to public spaces,not just in Mumbai but in many other cities,for routine displays of religiosity — the monthly chaturthis,for instance — has been accepted not only by the state but also by the public in general. Though there are other contributing factors,Hindutva has popularised the public expression of religiosity as a legitimate political action,almost as if it were natural to democratic politics.

It is this penetration of the collective conscience that augments the shifts in the middle ground. While taming Modi,will India’s democracy become a tame affair? Will the middle ground of India’s democracy change beyond recognition?

The author teaches political science at the University of Pune.

express@expressindia.com

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