- P.A.D.S (People's Alliance for Democracy and Secularism)
The Loksabha election results of 2014 surprised everyone. They are beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ardent BJP and Modi supporters, and worse than the worst scenarios imagined by BJP’s political opponents. Even though these elections results are singularly stunning, phenomena like these have diverse reasons. A comprehensive understanding and meaningful response require that all these reasons be dispassionately explored and evaluated.
First, the votes behind these results. BJP polled 31% of votes. Never before has a party with so few votes won a mjority in national elections. Clearly, the first past the post system has benefited it disproportionately, more than any other ruling party in the past. This electoral system has amplified the BJP victory and made it look so impressive. However, BJP’s electoral achievements in other domains must not be discounted. For the first time it managed to dislodge the Congress as the main party to represent Assam in the Lok Sabha. Fighting alone, it garnered 17% of votes in West Bengal and made determined bids in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In all states where it fought a straight battle with the Congress, its vote share was above or close to fifty percent. It ran the most expensive and well organised campaign. Among all contestants, only it appeared determined to win and left no stone unturned to achieve its objective. It played the communal card astutely in UP and Bihar, with full paraphernalia of communal riots, started more than a year ago, and unabashed use of Hindu religious symbols. At other places it was the ‘development’.
The BJP victory is actually Mr Modi’s victory. For the first time since Mrs Indira Gandhi after the 1971 and 1980 elections, a single person has come to acquire such a mandate at the national level. These results show a significant shift of electoral politics to the right and marginalisation of non-communal forces. All parties which have done well, the Shiv Sena, AIADMK, TDP or even the TMC, are either openly communal or have had truck with the BJP in the past.
Democratic and secular forces need to look beyond election results. Elections in liberal democracies are a means to form governments that enjoy formal legitimacy. They are a window to popular politics , yet the gross nature of this window fails to show the actual changes in society. The first past the post system was favoured in India because it is the easiest method toform stable majorities for legislative purposes and government formation. Though state power is the most organised and the key coercive power in all societies, and as long as there is no popular challenge, it also is the one enjoying maximum legitimacy, democratic forces should not confuse electoral politics or the state power constituted through elections as the be all, and the end all of popular politics. This is particularly so in India, where almost all elected governments indulge in corruption and unconstitutional use of state power.
Once the authoritarian and communal right wing is firmly in the saddle, it is essential for democratic and secular forces to challenge their moral, and constitutional legitimacy at all public fora. Just because the largest number of people who voted have opted for the BJP and Mr Modi, does not mean we stop fighting against their anti-democratic and communal policies and actions. This principle of our democratic politics would hold true even if not just 31%, but the overwhelming majority of voters were to vote for the BJP and Mr Modi.
It was well known before elections that the big capitalists and corporate media were rooting for Mr Modi. Professional and bureaucratic elites, and urban and rural propertied, including urban middle classes, have overwhelmingly voted for the BJP. In fact in all recent elections, higher an Indian is in the class and/or caste hierarchy, more likely he or she is to vote for the right wing. The two and a half decades of neo-liberal economic policies have increased their prosperity much faster than the majority. They resented the social welfare and affirmative action policies of the UPA, related to rural employment, land acquisition, Panchayati Raj and access to food, even if these measures were half-hearted and badly implemented. They were specifically angry with the UPA’s so called policy paralysis and lack of governance. They wanted some one like Mr Modi who they think would boldly tweak and break rules and regulations in their favour. The propertied sections of our society have enjoyed decisive influence over state policy. However, it is for the first time that these sections have successfully managed to project their concerns as the dominant concerns of electoral politics, and marginalised the hitherto popular concerns related to welfare and social justice.
Anti-democratic tendencies in popular culture
This change has been tremendously helped by anti-democratic tendencies in the popular culture unleashed by the neo-liberal economic order. In a society with a thick presence of feudal past in family and community life, which has not yet fully grasped the significance of human equality and citizens’ rights, the mantra of market success at any cost has encouraged valorisation of personal gain, power, aggression, and rule breaking. This is the moral economy of neo-liberalism in which somebody like Mr Modi emerges as a natural leader. In this framework the right to life of the members of a religious minority, and the second-class citizenship forced on them, count for less than ‘development’. Analysts are calling the desire for a Gujarat style development as ‘aspirational’, without noticing its anti-democratic core. The neo-liberal moral world has a spread much wider than the direct beneficiaries of the new economy. It influences all those who can not visualise an alternative, and think they can be successful in the current order.
The neo-liberal moral order in India has also fostered symbolic orthodoxy, a new type of religiosity, and non rational cultural preferences. The respectable and morally good behaviour in this world is increasingly ritualistic, based mainly on existing religious symbols. It gels well with the earlier upper caste discomfort with the limited secularism of the public sphere after independence. Since critical reflection is little valued in both the old and the new type of religiosity, they fails to connect with the liberal and left ideas in the domain of politics, culture and higher education. They resent the presence of anglicised liberal and left intellectuals in these domains, and disparage alternate life styles. On the other hand, a party like the BJP which freely uses religion in its politics swims like a fish in water in this moral world.
Arrogance and incompetence of UPA; opportunism by so-called non-communal parties
The price rise, corruption, and the arrogance and incompetence of the UPA leadership pushed many sections of the popular classes to profound dis-satisfaction. They had made up their mind to throw out the existing regime. Wherever a credible non-Congress, non-BJP alternative was available, as for instance in the working people neighbourhoods of Delhi, they voted for it. At other places the BJP benefited from their rejection of the UPA. By and large, the non-BJP parties failed to provide a coherent platform to popular classes. Their call to social justice rang hollow when they are run like family (SP, DMK) or personal fiefdoms (BSP), they have rarely led popular struggles of sections they claim to represent and have been taking voters for granted.
The so-called non-communal parties reduced secularism to an ugly scramble for minority votes. Even though the Congress pioneered the rights based approach to social welfare in legislature, inconsistency and bad implementation meant that people saw these as last ditch efforts, adding to the perception of its mis-governance. Also, the party itself appeared wary of claiming credit even for legitimate cases like the adivasis of Niyamgiri stopping a multi-national mining giant, for the fear that it will further alienate the already angry propertied sections of the society. The success of the BJP and Mr Modi, is also a sign of the failure of traditional electoral politics.
Democratic and secular forces in the country need to take into account not only the changes that brought the BJP to power, but also the changes it is likely to usher in once in power. All successful and clever right wing regimes skilfully use state power to gain an immediate boost to their popularity, and we can not assume anything different about this government. Democratic and secular forces should brace themselves for a full blast of Moditva backed by the state and corporate power. This will be complimented by street level aggression of Sangh parivar affiliates. The result would be reduced public space for discussion, criticism and agitation.
The BJP government is not likely to try a big bang reformulation of Indian polity and state institutional structures, the way Hitler did in Germany. The main reason is that the existing structure itself at the moment is adequate to further the right wing agenda. Hence, the anti-democratic tendencies already present in the system will be intensified. We should expect greater use of state power, including violence against socially marginalised groups. Adivasis of central India under Maoist influence, minority youth, and militant Dalits are likely to face more concentrated and focused state violence. Public institutions in our society were already degenerating into centers of authority, that process is going to further intensify.
Institutions of democratic functioning, from panchayats to state and central legislative bodies, already dysfunctional in many areas, will further lose credibility. There is likely to be greater loot of public resources than even under the UPA in favour of the big capital. However, it will be better managed , and the media, other state institutions and urban middle classes are unlikely to raise a hue and cry. The Hindutva fascist forces will implant their functionaries at key state positions. Their main thrust will continue to be a molecular transformation of society by direct propaganda so that their sense of our society and history becomes people’s common sense. We can also expect aggressive religiosity to move to the center of public sphere. In short, many ongoing processes in our society and polity, that weaken democracy and secularism will intensify and proceed faster.
The challenge before democratic and secular forces
The challenge before democratic and secular forces like the P.A.D.S. remains the same – to establish the primacy of democratic and secular ideas in Indian popular culture. We have to do it in a neo-liberal environment, with its embedded state and media, a virulently anti-democratic elite and state power and an alienated youth brought up in a culture of indifference. When large sections of people have moved to the right, we should not make the mistake of isolating ourselves. A democratic and secular India will be built only by the people of this country. We need to engage with the people to bring out real life contradictions between democracy and authoritarianism in to the open.
For instance, today’s youth while fully immersed in the market are also aware of the necessity of their freedoms. They do not have the traditional awe for authority. We need to think of ways to help their instinctive sense of personal freedom and resentment against a controlling authority into a democratic consciousness. We need to figure out ways to stand with marginal communities, including religious minorities, in their struggles against state and majoritarian repression. In a highly unequal society like ours, the rights based access to livelihood, health, education, employment, food, pension etc. is essential for the poor to be able to participate in public life with dignity. We need to contribute to popular struggles for these rights.
The political success of the right wing is going to confuse people about the real content of democracy and secularism, as also it is going to dishearten democratic and secular groups and individuals. We need to tackle both of these by re-clarifying the meaning of democracy and secularism, to ourselves and to people at large. Democracy is not synonymous with the majority rule. That is how communal right wing is going to interpret it once it is enjoying political majority. A democracy without equality and the protection of fundamental rights ofevery citizen has no meaning. The ideal of secularism has suffered immensely from direct attacks of communalists, as well as its grotesque misuse by the non-communal political forces. We need to sharpen it so that it is not confused with other ideas, and re-establish its public relevance.
For instance, the principle of secularism is essential for the formation of an inclusive public sphere in which all citizens can participate equally. Anti-communalism is its essential negative content, but it also has a positive content related to the community of citizens. It is not against religion, because the practice of religion in personal and community life is protected as a fundamental right. However, it also demands that the state, as the final repository of society’s collective power, should not associate with any religion because that would violate the principle of equality.
As ominously as the dark clouds of right wing communalism have gathered over our country, surely will there be many opportunities for us to contribute towards building a democratic and secular society. Because democracy is an essential need of our people, and secularism is its essential component.