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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Is there really no alternative to BJP and Modi?

🔴 Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Amnesia about recent history, pessimism lie behind the persistent refrain, ‘There is no alternative’.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: December 30, 2021 4:56:35 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J P Nadda. (Express Photo/File)

Even as the wheels are coming off the Republic of India, conversations in polite and not-so-polite circles now have a refrain that is the surest sign of an impoverished democracy. Whenever the topic of the BJP and Narendra Modi’s future comes up, the refrain is: “There is no alternative.” Some might concede to a few chinks in his armour, and are willing to acknowledge that the BJP might struggle in some state-level elections. But this is quickly followed up with the chorus, “But at the national level there is no alternative.” It is almost as if the conversation is like a bad nursery rhyme that goes something like this:

The prime minister is sowing the seeds of division, protecting poisonous speech, the coarsening of civil society and unleashing the furies of hate. This alone would disqualify him. But the refrain goes, “There is no alternative”.

There was a prime minister who kissed the floor of Parliament. It turned out to be the kiss of death for parliamentary democracy. But the refrain goes, “There is no alternative.”

There was a prime minister who promised strong national security. But the result was the loss of territorial access, being tied down on the land border and the prospect of a two-front war. So confident is the nation that even a parliamentary question on China was disallowed. Yet the refrain goes, “There is no alternative.”

There was a prime minister who promised strong internal security. Indeed this goal was achieved. Now that the Missionaries of Charity, human rights activists, environmental advocates, assorted journalists and writers can be hounded, we know the nation is safe. Did we not tell you, “There is no alternative”?

There was a prime minister who promised to secure our border states. Yet for the first time in more than a decade, by the government’s own admission, the bogey of violence in Punjab has reared its head, the gains of peace are being rolled back in Northeast, and the deepening alienation and repression in Kashmir continues. But the chorus rises, “We have no alternative.”

There was a prime minister who made the stock markets rise. Like every government in the last 20 years, his government has also done a couple of schemes well. Perhaps the top 10 per cent of the population really flourished. But we are still not at a trend growth rate of eight per cent of the 2003-2009 period, youth unemployment is rising, the fall in poverty levels is arrested, inequality and deprivation are rising, exports are performing modestly, and wholesale inflation spiked to 14.3 per cent in November, the highest since 1991. But even after seven years, this must be the fault of the previous government, or the US Fed. You see, “There is really no alternative.”

There was a prime minister who promised you will see less corruption. Even as capital concentration rises, norms governing electoral finance regress, the machinery of the state is used to send a signal that some capital is more equal than others, so long as they bow their head to the right ideology. Perhaps, you indeed see less corruption. The state is so efficient that it will not let you see it or even talk about it. That is why the refrain goes, “There is no alternative”.

And on it goes. Every single institution has been decimated. But you see, “There is no alternative.” Instead of the moral and spiritual regeneration of Hinduism, you are getting the venting of its dark and crass communal impulses. But still, “There is no alternative.” Forget official circles. The broader prestige of India’s democracy, its culture and hopes for its future are at their lowest ebb in the last two decades. But the Ribbentrops of the establishment can convince the world otherwise. Perhaps they have even convinced our own leader that the more you beat up on your own people, the more your global stock will rise. Truly, “There is no alternative.” The state makes everyone feel so secure: It can snoop on everyone, threaten anyone, and control the information order. “But But But”, the chorus still rings out, “There is no alternative.”

Like all refrains, this “There is no alternative” needs to be decoded. It can be readily admitted that some citizens may have received benefits or been beneficiaries of schemes. But the attribution of performance to this government far exceeds its actual achievement. Even if we concede success in some areas, that success pales in front of the litany of foundational crises facing the republic.

The “There is no alternative” chorus is helped by the conduct of the Opposition. The Congress is unable to shed the baggage of its past mistakes. Many Opposition state governments are not exactly models of institutional probity or principled defenders of liberal and democratic values. But what hurts the Opposition most is this duality. On the one hand, it wants to say that the Republic of India is facing an existential crisis. On the other hand, it is not acting as if there is an existential crisis for the republic. It is not uniting around the agenda of saving the republic. Its passions are spent on the scraps of internal infighting. The old guard is not letting new faces emerge. But even if we concede all this, the idea that there is no alternative is preposterous.

This idea is premised on an immense amnesia about recent history: The workability of coalition politics, the complexities of reform, and the delicate capillaries that hold this country together. If nothing else, in a democracy facing both deep communalism and repression, political competition and a little fragmentation of power is by itself the alternative. Not each constituent of the Opposition needs to be fully virtuous for less concentration of power and more competition to make democracy secure.

So one has to wonder what lies behind this pervasive refrain. “There is no alternative.” It is likely that this refrain is a symptom of three things: An aestheticisation of politics that is trapping India’s elites in a land of unreality, refusing to acknowledge dangers in plain sight. There is perhaps a will to simplification, a suspension of thought, in the face of hero worship. Or perhaps, “There is no alternative” is just a euphemism, a different way of saying “We are just fine with communal poison and authoritarian repression.” If you say “There is no alternative” when the current course is heading towards disaster, you are not describing a reality. You are saying you hate democracy, for a democracy in which “There is no alternative” is already dead.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2021 under the title ‘There is no alternative. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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