Before Independence Day celebrations started, India’s political theatre burst with accusations and unprecedented rivalry. The performative dimension of the political theatre gave an impression of deep-seated dislike among the participants; the discursive dimension, however, leaves us wondering whether this marked the beginning of a new political argument or an escape from it.
If a party loses power and is reduced to a historic low of a paltry 44, one would expect that party to be desperate, aggressive and even somewhat unreasonably shrill. But what sense do we make of a party that gets a clear majority on an ostensibly positive platform of development and then joins with the Opposition in creating an atmosphere of irreconcilable animosity?
One easy explanation could be overconfidence flowing from numbers — critics would call it “arrogance”. The current ruling party cannot be blamed for the lack of parliamentary skills, though the charge of overconfidence could perhaps apply partially to the BJP. But the charges traded and the extent of viciousness that marks the political scene can hardly be explained merely by desperation (of the Opposition) or arrogance (of the ruling dispensation). Beginning with the amendments to the land act and culminating in the Lalit Modi issue, we have witnessed an almost complete closure of argument. Disruption of Parliament is not new. So keeping that aside, what marks the present moment is dislike and distrust. Political elites in liberal democracies rarely exhibit such a complete breakdown of argument. Does this forebode a crisis in our democracy, or does it symbolise the opening of a new debate, yet unengaged, in India’s democratic experience? How does one understand the breakdown of conversation across parties?
At the level of the states, such deep disdain for each other has sometimes manifested in rival parties, as in the case of the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the Left Front and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, or the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh. These instances were marked by the unacceptability of the emerging elite to the established elite. In other words, it had to do with intra-elite adjustment. At the national level, the time preceding and during the Emergency came close to such an inability of the main parties to talk to each other, although not for reasons of intra-elite adjustment. Ever since the new government came to power in 2014, the working equations among political parties seem to have crumbled.
It is easy to imagine that the current impasse is not just about the immediate issues — allegations of nexus between Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje and Lalit Modi. In fact, it is ironic that a political stalemate should occur over issues of “propriety” because no political party is interested in regulating conflict of interest. And to be sure, the government could easily have found a solution to the impasse had it been only about this issue. Is it then about personalities?
In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, the BJP posited a contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. That was a one-sided contest that Modi won handsomely. Now, the Congress appears to be extending that contest by having Rahul (and Sonia) Gandhi target Modi directly rather than other leaders from the BJP. Such games of targeting one individual are easy to engage in, but dangerous and futile. This politics of image will only further drain India’s democracy of any issue-based competition. So, if the Congress is doing it by design, it is likely to take us down the path of more demagoguery and empty rhetoric. But this still leaves the question unanswered: Why should a party with a secure and popular leader unnecessarily engage in personality games? Probably, both the Congress and BJP find it easy to engage in an image war — and many state parties, too, would prefer that. But image wars do not explain the breakdown of conversation.
It is likely that the current political rivalries have more to do with real, deep-seated differences existing in our polity — differences on which most parties are unwilling to engage in open debate. In the ongoing din and drama, there is both an expression of unease with the emerging differences and desperate efforts to deflect the political debate away from them. From Independence, India’s politics have taken the form of a consensus pertaining to issues about nationhood and majority-minority relations. In reality, that consensus was only a postponement of a bitter struggle. The debate and the political division surfaced through the controversy over Ram janmabhoomi, bringing the division to the forefront during the 1990s. But the BJP chose to use that moment only to augment its political base, and so the debate never
occurred in a full-fledged manner. Even in 2014, the BJP reframed the debate by employing the slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat”. So the ideological rift was converted into a political division at best and a personality clash at worst. Since it won the election, the BJP has been facing the dilemma of whether to mount an ideological offensive or to trudge along as a “party of governance”. Similarly, the Congress finds it easy to take on the role of an angry opposition and take an adversarial position on everything the government does.
Thus, the Congress and BJP are caught in a bind — both are aware of the deeper difference between them. But, for their separate logic, they do not want to engage with each other over the arguments pertaining to their differences. The Congress does not want an ideological confrontation because of its limited political strength, and because it is unsure of the response of its rank and file. For its part, the BJP wants to postpone the argument because it finds it easier to penetrate public opinion indirectly and by presenting itself as the governance option. Thus, the emerging divide is marked by avoidance — the protagonists of a new argument do not want to present it upfront; the opponent is not interested in countering it openly. It is this awkward moment of realisation of difference and the unwillingness to argue it out that is producing empty soundbytes and acrimony.
The two speeches the prime minister made so far on the occasion of Independence Day have been symptomatic of this awkwardness. Both lacked the effort to engage the nation with the new ideological turn the BJP would like the nation to take.
The writer teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.
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