Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently made a case for social politics or politics that is sensitive to social activism. Modi’s intervention is timely since Indian democracy has been shifting towards the politics of power and state-led control and governance.
At the time of the national movement and even during the early years after Independence, electoral politics overlapped with social politics. Many great leaders of the national movement, namely Mahatma Gandhi, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and so on, extended their battles to win political freedom to social movements and vice versa. In fact, the leaders of social reform movements were much respected during the time of the national movement and the immediate years after India won freedom. Simply put, the politics of state and nation-building was closely linked to social politics. The boundaries between social politics and electoral politics were flexible and were often blurred.
Until the 1970s, leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Indira Gandhi, Chaudhary Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deendayal Upadhyaya and many leaders of regional parties were involved with various social movements. They recognised that political mobilisation that emerges from the womb of the society leads to social rejuvenation, which is needed for good politics. These leaders had acquired direct connect with the public through their involvement in social politics. Their charisma and public acceptance emerged from their engagement with social politics.
Since the 1970s, mafias, criminals and capitalists began to enter politics. However, they were not considered as the main force in politics. Things began to change in the 1990s. After the launch of economic liberalisation, market forces began to influence politics. All politics became the politics of governance. The domain of politics began to be dominated by specialists like technocrats, financial managers and legal experts.
This politics of governance submerged in the politics of development. The politics of development was a complex affair that needed experts of various kinds. Many of these experts began to acquire key positions in government due to their proximity to politicians. These politicians had become dependent on these experts, since on their own they lacked the expertise to run the development machinary. However, these experts-turned-leaders were disconnected with the public and in the name of doing the politics of governance, emerged as arm-chair politicians. Thus, politics in the time of the neo-liberal state became a politics of power, governance and development and in the process, lost its social moorings. Many politicians stopped having a direct connect with the people. They became dependent on experts and white-collar political advisers. These political pundits of Lutyen’s Delhi, the term used by PM Modi extensively during the election campaign, had no connect with the people. Social media, TV debates and big rallies at the time of elections were their only channel of communication to the public.
The task of working in the society was outsourced to a new institution, namely the NGO, and politicians stayed aloof from the society. The social responsibilities of corporates were outlined, but no attempt was made by anyone to ascribe social responsibilities for politicians. The politics of democracy turned into politics of state and power and thereby, lost it social connect. The fact is politics in its real sense is the politics of doing social work and strengthening values of democracy.
Modi was alluding to a lost tradition in Indian politics when he spoke about the need to do social politics. It was in remembrance of this tradition that the prime minister appreciated the work of Om Birla, the new Speaker of Lok Sabha, during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the 2013 Uttarakhand floods and for differently-abled children and women. In a way, Modi is arguing for transforming our politics of power and state to the politics of forging a new society. The politics of development, a term frequently used in our political discourse, ought to be extended to social politics since the former does not place enough emphasis on social ethics, responsibilities and morality.
Modi’s emphasis on social politics, in a sense, emerges from the recent discourse of the RSS. The RSS defines politics mostly as social politics. One can hold a critical view of the “social” in Hindutva politics, but in a broader sense, social politics has an expansive meaning. One hopes that the social politics the prime minister talks about will be inclusive.
Prime Minister Modi’s is evolving his vision of the Indian state from the intellectual resources of thinkers such as Vivekananda, popular Hindu traditions, Deendayal Upadhyaya and from the RSS’s own intellectual sources. He is also trying to include radical thinkers like Ambedkar and Lohia in his statecraft to build what he calls, “New India”.