Bred on radical diversity and an epic culture, the voter makes a reckoning of Narendra Modi, Prakash Karat, Mayawati and the politics of excess
AFTER ALMOST two decades, in many ways, the election of 2009 was a normal election. No overriding consideration drove the voting across the country. Diverse configurations in diverse places determined the fate of different candidates and parties. Different regions had different logic even within a given state. Still, underlying the diversity there were some common themes.
First, I think people were looking for ways to lower the temperature of politics. High-pitched politics has reigned in our polity for nearly 15 years now. My suspicion is people were a bit tired of this. For example, the past two elections showed that in Uttar Pradesh, only one percent of the electorate was interested in Ram Janmabhoomi. The BJP probably played down the issue this year because their internal assessment showed the same thing. Except in West Bengal, nowhere did the election involve an emotional arousal of the kind we have come to routinely expect.
There are reasons for this. In our society, we live with radical diversities — diversity that is not based on tamed forms of difference. The US is a perfect example of tamed diversity. You get every kind of food and dress and cultural activity in America. You think you are very cosmopolitan if you can distinguish Huaiyang food from Schezwan food, or South Korean ballet from Beijing opera, or Ming dynasty china from Han dynasty china in a museum. This is diversity that is permissible, legitimate, tamed.
Radical diversity is when you tolerate and live with people who challenge some of the very basic axioms of your political life. Like most of South Asia, Indians have an old capacity to live with such diversity. A powerful example is Sajjad Lone contesting the election this year. Nobody objected that a secessionist wants to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Everyone spoke of it glowingly. I consider that a tolerance for radical diversity. In such a society, all excesses are ultimately checkmated.
In India, we live in a country where the gods are imperfect and the demons are never fully demonic. I call this an ‘epic culture’ because an epic is not complete without either the gods or the demons. They make the story together. This is a part of our consciousness, and ultimately, I think it influences our public life. People go up to a point with their grievance, then get tired of it. They realise that to go further is a dangerous thing because it destroys the basic algorithm of your life. They say, enough is enough, let us go back to a normal life. This election represents something of that consciousness. We probably need this kind of interregnum in politics. They have a soothing effect on our public life. This is what most Indians feel.
‘That Sardarji is a good man. He is educated, a newcomer to politics and he is not a thief,’ said the waiter
The second underlying theme is that people were searching for a sort of minimum decency. Negative campaigns, excessively personal attacks, hostile slogans — all of this seemed to upset the voter. When the BJP and the Left targeted Manmohan Singh, making him the butt of jokes and accusations, Singh became a hero for the very qualities people joked about. His weakness, his absence of a political base, his susceptibility to pressures of the Congress high command — instead of looking like liabilities, these things suddenly began to look like a marker of a genteel type of politics. I think that paid dividends. Contrasted with their shrill opponents, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s conduct too paid dividends.
(I asked a waiter at the India International Centre in Delhi what he felt about the election results. “It’s been very good,” he said. Was he a Congress supporter, I asked him. “It’s not that, sahib,” he replied. “That Sardarji is a good man. He is educated, he is not a thief, and he is a newcomer to politics. Still, they got after him, calling him weak and scared. Who can enjoy watching that? I am just happy that this election result has shown there is a god watching above.” I quote the waiter verbatim because I think the idea of “a god above” might have been a consideration with many other people as well.)
THE THIRD and interlinked theme this election was the voter’s desire to bring down the arrogant. The way Mayawati has lost, in what was once thought an inelastic support base, points to something very significant. Many people did not like the way she threw her weight around; her ostentation; the dozens of statues she is erecting in her likeness, her assumption that even if she did nothing to serve it further, history was waiting for her. Others did not like Narendra Modi. Yet others, Prakash Karat. Arrogance of style. Arrogance of ambition. The arrogance of neglecting the people. All of this was punished by the voter.
There are similarities between Karat and Modi — however unpleasant that thought might be
Narendra Modi has marginalised all possible opposition within the BJP, and sidelined the RSS, Bajrang Dal and VHP. They cannot really muddy things for him easily anymore. He is a man looking for power and he has used and discarded them. He has a solid support base in West Gujarat and among middle-class Gujaratis, so there is no question of him fading away, but this election doubts have been planted about his capacity to emerge as a pan-Indian leader. He was billed as a star campaigner for the BJP, but the Indian voter has sent back a strong message scaling him down.
Controversial leaders rarely make it to the top job in India. Modi is determined not to talk of communities, determined not to apologise or even make a gesture towards the Muslim community to atone for the sins of Gujarat 2002. His refrain is that he is the leader of five-and-a-halfcrore Gujaratis, implying he is also the leader of Muslims. But this election should teach him some lessons in humility and modesty. It should give him some access to the language of politics in India. He will learn his lesson. Indian politics has taught humility to lots of people from Indira Gandhi to Mayawati. It will teach humility to Narendra Modi also.
Unfortunately, there is a big similarity between Prakash Karat and Narendra Modi — however unpleasant that thought might be. They are both men who do not understand the wisdom of accommodation and cannot stomach the dilution of ideology.
Like Modi and Mayawati, this election has scaled down the arrogance of Prakash Karat, but the debacle of the Left Front points to a deeper malaise.
IN BENGAL, the party had been in power too long. In a society like ours, when any political party is on an ascendant, all gangs, thugs and extortionists gravitate towards that party. In UP, this mafia element was first attached to the Congress; then it moved to the BJP; then the SP; then the BSP, mirroring their rising political graphs. In Bengal, 32 years into power, all anti-social elements had become entrenched within the CPM. The party’s coercive might was enormous. In village after village, people from other parties were prevented from campaigning. That arrogance and control has not loosened very much, but it has started to crack. In the long run, I think Prakash Karat has done a lot of good to Bengal. These three decades of continuous rule had rotted the system to the core. If you miss power once in a while — however bad the Opposition may be — it keeps people and parties on their toes.
(For instance, I believe it is good the BJP got a shot at winning power at the Centre one time. Not only did it limber up the Congress, it also allowed the BJP to get a sense that it can come to power if it gets its formulas right. This is very important to keep the rabid fringe like VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena in check. When you have legitimate power, you don’t have to use street power. You rein them in because it’s counter-productive and you want respectability.)
But criminality and arrogance is not the only reason for the Left Front’s rout in Bengal and Kerala. The trouble is, their kind of Leninism has not survived anywhere in the world except in Cuba, Bengal and Kerala. Chandan Mitra would add tartly, “And the People’s Republic of Jawaharlal Nehru University.” This ideology has such an Edwardian ring to it, I am surprised it even captivated so many in India. The point is, this sense of a vanguard of the proletariat, this whole position is protected by middle-class activists. This is why despite 32 years in power, the truth is that the kind of revolutionary changes in social structures that have swept across India have not even touched West Bengal. Everything there is still controlled by the upper castes, and in some senses, it is the most casteist society in India. West Bengal is one state in India, for instance, where you cannot even dream of having a dalit chief minister. In contrast, in south India, the whole thing has opened up. So much new energy has been released. But has Bengal produced an AR Rahman? Or his guru, Illayaraja? Genius flowering from the bottom of society. Such release of energy from the non-brahminic castes has absolutely no parallel in Bengal.
In effect, the Congress is now the new small party trying to build a new support base
There is little hope that the churn of this defeat will bring in any fresh thought into Marxism in Bengal. It cannot, because this is the last remnant of a colonial culture. That is why our Marxists are locked into their textbooks. That is why they haven’t picked up anything from Latin American Marxism or European Marxism, that is why there has been no new indigenous innovation.
In such an intellectual world, rethinking comes through only two things: death and retirement. Once people start retiring and dying, a new generation will come in. Then it will be easy. They will just not bother with what has gone before. Ideas like this die out of neglect and carelessness, not through dramatic confrontation.
The other important trend this election has thrown up, is the return of support to larger national level parties. One could read this as the start of a significant course correction. With the extreme proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups, perhaps the fragmentation of electoral power has stopped yielding dividends.
The interesting thing is, though the pitch has been scaled down, one cannot read this election result as a post-Mandal era of politics. Many of the Congress’ traditional vote banks — the dalits and Muslims in UP, for instance — had moved away from the Congress to more ‘specialist parties’: the dalits moved to the BSP, the Muslims to Mulayam Singh. In Bihar, they moved towards Lalu. The attraction of these parties was that, being smaller, they were much more captive to the demands of their vote base. In a large, national party like the Congress, others’ demands checkmated your demands. Ironically, the movement back towards the Congress is a sign that the specialist parties like SP and BSP have become too big and bloated with ambition, and so less responsive to their vote banks. In effect, the Congress is now the new small party trying to build a new support base. People feel it might be more responsive to their needs.
There are other reasons why it would be premature to read this election as a post-Mandal era. In India, except in very small, modern, urban pockets, the unit of mobility is not the individual; the unit of mobility is caste. The lowest common denominator for any party decision on their choice of candidates is caste — all other considerations of aptitude and intention come after that. In fact, we cannot reach a post-Mandal era of politics yet because entering politics from the periphery is still a very crucial instrument in Indian politics.
Some of the parties lay less emphasis on it because their constituencies have arrived in the mainstream. The Marathas, Patels, Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Jats. Yadavs too talk less about it because they have just arrived. Perhaps, with Nitish Kumar, Kurmis too will feel more secure. But there are still hundreds of communities who are not well represented. Now that the big communities have organised themselves and reaped the benefits, the smaller ones want a slice of the pie. Just as the Kammas emerged in the 1970s and 1980s through NTR, the Kapus have emerged this election through Chiranjeevi. These are much smaller communities. Earlier, they would have voted under larger umbrellas. Now they think they can carve out a smaller, more targeted domain or space in the political arena.
Recently, the Gujjars began to lobby violently for Scheduled Tribe status — as if a mere Parliamentary decree can turn a group into a tribe. This sort of misuse, battles for quotas, unreasonable demands for affirmative action, and other forms of vote bank wheeling-dealing will continue to happen. But in the long run, all of this will be good for India.
As representations in the system give different communities larger space, everybody’s stake in the democratic system will increase. In the long run, there will be so many crosscutting configurations, the problem will take care of itself. There is a big difference between caste groups angling for 35 or 40 Lok Sabha seats like Mulayam or Lalu, and a caste group contesting for eight or ten. Chiranjeevi, for instance, just has four or five seats. The scale is going down because we have already accommodated a lot of people. The next generation will not face this. They will inherit a much more inclusive world.
FINALLY, a last word on arrogance. The Left parties may have been defeated this election, but the leftist impulse is intact in our society. In fact, it is an imperative. It would be a big mistake if the UPA saw this victory as a mandate for unbridled liberalisation. Some care for the bottom of the society, some belief that the poor should be a priority focus is vital for this society to survive and retain its idea of itself as a humane society. You cannot pay Rs 12,000 for a meal for two people in a five-star hotel and come out and throw Rs 10 to a boy competing with a dog for the garbage and think you have done your duty. Neither can you wait 200 years for the so-called trickle down effect that never comes.
It is no accident that the real factor that won the UPA this election is its NREGA scheme and loan waiver for farmers. Even if 90 percent of this money is pilfered, it permeates into the countryside. Not all of the corruption is in Delhi and Bhubaneswar. A lot of the siphoning happens lower down the chain. Even those who rob, must spend. This boosts the local economy. This pays electoral dividends. India’s poor always vote. That is India’s best checkmate for arrogance.