Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
The results for the Delhi polls show that the Aam Aadmi Party led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has managed to hold on to power quite comfortably. It staved off a determined and well-funded, well-organised challenge from the Bhartiya Janata Party, which saw rallies by top leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
The BJP campaign had focused on typically divisive politics. Its hoardings highlighted its achievements so far — the removal of Article 370, the removal of the triple talaq law, and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), all of which are polarising national issues. Among local issues, it highlighted the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh. The tone of that highlighting was clear from a campaign speech of Union Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur, who raised the now famous “goli maaro salo ko” slogan. Other prominent campaigners included Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who in his speech accused Kejriwal of feeding the protestors at Shaheen Bagh biryani — something that in his view of the world is undoubtedly a serious crime.
The Aam Aadmi Party by contrast highlighted the achievements of its last five years in office. Its slogan was “acche beete paanch saal, lage raho Kejriwal”, meaning “five years passed well, keep at it Kejriwal”. It pointed to its work in improving the state’s government schools and clinics, and reductions in water and electricity bills.
Perhaps more important than what it did was what it did not do. It did not engage the BJP in any ideological battle. Kejriwal kept a safe distance from Shaheen Bagh. He was missing and silent even when young boys and girls in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were being assaulted by goons before the eyes of the national media. Instead, he went and sang a rather tuneless rendition of the Hanuman chalisa in a TV interview, and followed it up with a visit to the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place. “Prayed for the progress of country and Delhi,” he tweeted afterwards, in Hindi. “The Lord said, you are doing good work. Keep serving people like this. Leave the results to me. All will be well”. It would appear that Kejriwal heard Hanuman Ji right.
Part of the reason for AAP’s win can be traced to Kejriwal’s display of devotion and his positioning on “nationalistic” issues, where he avoided conflict with the BJP. He had his reasons. A significant part of those who vote AAP in the assembly polls — perhaps as high as one quarter of the total, inferring from changes in vote share from assembly to Lok Sabha polls — are people who vote for BJP at the national level. They seem to prefer Kejriwal as Delhi Chief Minister and Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Their switch, from BJP in Lok Sabha polls to AAP in assembly polls, is the “swing vote” that decides the winners in both cases. The BJP swept all seven Delhi LS seats in May 2019. The AAP’s win in the assembly elections now is indicative of the electoral power of this swing vote.
Indian voters are members of our society. They are the ordinary people we see all around us in our everyday lives. Ideology was and is a vague and often remote concept for nearly all of them. It is at best a label of identity, but one whose actual content is often understood in very simple terms. Thus, a Hindutva ideological position in actual practice devolves into the usual hatred for Muslims and Pakistan, the distaste for “non-veg” food and its eaters, and pride in the greatness of ancient India where everything had been invented 5,000 years ago. Similarly, a Leftist or Left Liberal ideological position is often reduced to a championing of religious and sexual minorities. It has lost its old association with workers’ rights, and therefore represents little else.
“I wake up at 5.30 am, cook lunch for myself and take a bus to work. I start stitching at 10 am and work till 8.30 pm at night, and on other nights, till past midnight. I take the bus back home at night and collapse with exhaustion, only to start again the next morning”, Manu Majdoor, a garment worker in the National Capital Region, told Anumeha Yadav in an interview. He is bitter in his disappointment towards unions and union leaders, as well as intellectuals. “Unions shuffle a foot from here to there, from there to here, causing little difference to the status quo. But if the intellectuals can perceive and understand that unions are no longer effective, then what are intellectuals writing? If this is the situation in India, if this is how things are for workers, what should we do? That is the question for intellectuals. But they have no response,” he says.
Voices like Manu Majdoor’s are rarely heard. The bitterness of disappointment in unions and intellectuals that comes across in his words is not really being addressed by any party. Ideologies that claim to represent them have in practice failed them.
The mass of Delhi voters who vote BJP in Lok Sabha and AAP in assembly polls are clearly not very ideologically dogmatic. In West Bengal, the BJP’s leap from nowhere in the picture to second place vying for first has come at the expense of the Left parties, because the bulk of their voters simply switched from voting communists to voting for the BJP’s Hindu nationalists. It would appear that even after decades of communism there, they were not very ideologically committed.
Ideology is a luxury that few in India or the world can afford. It was always a concern of only two kinds of elites — the educated cultural elites, and the political elites, meaning those who are actually involved in politics. The moral universe and cultural lives of the masses were rarely shaped by ideologies. In India at least, religion and caste remained powerful forces, which is why even CPI(M) leaders in Kolkata had to patronise Durga Puja celebrations.
The masses in India typically support leaders and parties rather than ideologies, and they do so for instrumental and practical reasons. The same person who supports CPI(M) can thus move quite seamlessly to supporting BJP, because his or her own local and personal needs are better answered by the latter. Often, this need is linked to issues of dignity.
Identity politics of the BJP and of its opponents who champion other religious, regional, linguistic and cultural identities gives many people who have little else to be proud of a sense of power and dignity. Since the search for respect, called the “thymotic urge”, is one of the motors of history, the politics of identity will remain powerful.
What AAP has proved with its win in Delhi is that it may be possible for opponents of the BJP to find a new political path that does not counter identity with identity and ideology with ideology. AAP simply stuck to schools and hospitals, and lower utility bills, and ran away from the battles of ideology and identity that enable BJP to polarise Hindu votes.
Kejriwal’s stance, and its success, will leave political party leaders and strategists with a lot to think about. Is welfare politics with a soft-Hindutva tint the only counter to “hard Hindutva”, especially one that has failed to deliver “vikas”? Has the centre moved so far Right that it is actually impossible to counter the BJP on Hindu identity politics and nationalism — and win elections?
Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx
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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2020 11:02:32 IST