India politics: not a time to agonise

by John Samuel | Published: 00:00, May 28,2019


POLITICS is not a rational enterprise. Electoral politics in India is about how well a political party or an alliance manages the perceptions, identity and interests in a given context. This requires party network on the ground, a committed cadre, managing or dividing caste/religious identity, messaging on the ground in each constituency and lots of money. As of now, the Bharatiya Janata Party is the most organised political enterprise that will go to any extent to manage electoral outcome with messaging, money, media and muscles. As an organised party built on the well entrenched cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh built over 90 years, the BJP is still managed by the RSS with its brahminical agenda.
The Congress is a party that lost it grass-roots network in most of the states and courage of convictions of many of its leaders in many states. Charismatic leadership that fetched votes once upon a time may not work in the new age. The new generation of voters also will increasingly respond to strategic messaging beyond simple election campaigns.
The BJP win is, on the one hand, because of its their clarity of purposes, an electoral machine that works well in advance and a real high command with command and control mechanism and its RSS cadre base at the grass roots. The Congress cumulatively lost all these in the past 30 years. As many of the leaders are so used to power, they get immediately settled in power. And once in power, many of the Congress leaders promoted individual coteries and loyalist cronies at the cost of the party. As a result, wherever the Congress gets settled in power, the party on the ground gets weakened.
Another important point is that big-ticket infrastructure development projects like metro, express highways or airports may impress the middle-class media or upper-class chattering network; but it hardly matters to the vast majority of rural voters or poor people. But issues of corruption, political middlemen, arrogance and lack of delivery of basic services affect the voters. This is also the reasons for anti-incumbancy voting pattern in many states.
Even where the Congress won in the past few years, it is often because of work of state-level leaders. As the Congress is now in its most vulnerable condition, it is important to realise and recognise that a political party simply cannot be rebuilt or revitalised by rootless wonders in the Delhi durbar. The second issue for the Congress to realise is that opportunistic politics devoid of convictions, ideals, and integrity will eventually lose all its credibility among the people who have supported the Congress for many decades. The third important point is the leaders of the 1970s cannot run or revitalise the party. And unless the Congress is taken over by a convincing, charismatic, and young leadership, the Congress party will further wither away as fast as it disappeared in Hindi heartland and now everywhere. Unless the divide and rule policy through the Delhi-engineered factional politics stops, the Congress party will lose its soul and soil. As long as the Congress party is seen as a party of the corrupt, self-serving gangs of selfish leaders, the voters will not support the congress.
Rahul Gandhi, indeed, worked hard. He came across as a sincere, honest and committed leader. He did lead from the front. He inspired lots of people and revived hope. And Rahul Gandhi is here to stay as an active opposition leader. The problem is that the Congress is still in its old mode, a network primarily driven by divisive interests of leaders of factional fiefdoms. Rootless wonders in Dehi or state capitals simply cannot rebuild the grand old party.
The ascent of the BJP is directly proportional to the descending Congress party. Although one totally disagrees with politics of Modi, the fact of the matter is that he has grown as an organic political leader who began his journey on the soil, at the grass roots. He evolved through his experiences in running government for 15 years. And his aggressive street-smart approach with a way with words make him a relatively effective communicator. And the fact that he projects himself as a subaltern antithetical to elite politics helps him to be popular with a section of a large number of lower middle-class voters. He knows how to make virtue of not having a family as a counternarrative to politics driven by the elite. And above all, he has the killer instinct to win. And as of now there is no substantial competition for him on all these ground.
However the populist authoritarian model of his leadership is injurious to democracy, human rights and sustainable development and the very idea of India. Politics of window-dressing, rhetoric and election management will not strengthen the politics of substantive democracy and grass-roots politics.
The key challenge for all those who believe in the constitution of India and liberal social democracy is how we do begin to imagine and build an alternative politics and political alternatives at the national level. In its present form, it will be a bit of a challenge for the Congress to rise like a phoenix.
There is hardly anything left out of the left political parties. They lost their national relevance and became more of a shrinking political party that lost its distinctive quality of ideals and ideology in its political opportunism. The main limitations of ruling dispensation in various states are that they are leader-centric enterprises primarily driven by power for the sake of it and largely based on opportunistic identity politics than any commitment to any ideology. Although the Aam Admi Party wants to sell itself as an alternative, its politics is hardly any alternative as it is another leader-centric minor party in Delhi.
More than the win of the BJP, what is worrying in India is the shrinking space for substantive oppositional spaces. The fragmented and dispersed oppositional space is that propels the BJP as a relatively well organised party which has the advantage of government power, money of crony capitalist buddies and a willing corporate media.
It is time to imagine a national-level political alternatives based on an alternative political culture deriving its strength from organic politics, collective leadership and building from the ground. This cannot be a quickie electoral enterprise like the AAP. This requires a minimum of a decade of work beyond the quick gains in electoral politics.
Politics is a marathon that requires a staying power. Instead of agonising, it is time to organise and also time to build synergy among the actors in oppositional spaces. It is time to collectively invest in new civic politics based on courage of convictions in the ideals of freedoms, rights, justice and peace. It is time to imagine a new politics of of inclusive democratic governance and integrity of leadership. It is not a time to despair.
It is time to build democratic politics from below. It is not a time to give up or give in. It is time to give our time, energy and passion for the future of an inclusive and plural democratic India. We shall overcome. Indeed we will. We, the people of India, can.

John Samuel is a public policy expert and political commentator.

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