Bihar fiasco is a wake up call for Opposition to infuse new blood, connect with mass and junk dynasties
With Nitish Kumar re-joining the NDA camp, the Opposition has lost out on a potential anti-Modi face for the 2019 elections.
Just like development cannot be an alibi for Hindutva politics, secularism cannot be the pretext for corruption and mal-administration. The political scenario in India is at a crossroads whereby the choice is between two terrifyingly exclusivist alternatives; development-masking-Hindutva and secularism-masking-corruption. Such is the state of affairs in the country, that in the battle of turf between two extreme ideologies, social harmony and economic progress appear as if pitted against each other, and when faced with a choice, the masses have increasingly chosen the latter over the former.
The latest U-turn by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, marking the beginning of an end for a potential Mahagadhbandhan of 2019, is also indicative of the larger shift in the narrative of Indian politics which has seemingly moved beyond the politics of mandir-masjid and mandal-kamandal, to the politics of ek bharat-swacch bharat. The credit for this humungous shift goes to the BJP that has been able to successfully cash in on the anti-elite sentiment in the country. The swacchta abhiyan launched by Narendra Modi-led NDA government with its social overtones and political undertones has been able to provide a sheen of corruption free governance to the party’s overarching goal of promoting Hindutva. Interestingly, the BJP has been able to re-create its image from a party of the petty bourgeoisie including the upper middle class and the traders to a party of the poor and the outclassed. The grander narratives associated with economic initiatives such as demonetisation, GST and electoral funding reforms, are all targeted at consolidating a voter base that was earlier outside its purview.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal adulation of Bhimrao Ambedkar, which included a symbolic naming of numerous government schemes after him (the popular Bharat Interface for Money, also known as the ‘BHIM’ app, being a case in point), in addition to the election of ‘Dalit leader’ Ram Nath Kovind as president, have worked for creating grander pro-Dalit narratives for the BJP. Therefore, by positioning itself as a pro-poor, pro-Dalit party, the BJP has been able to create a broader version of Hindutva which is more encompassing and accommodative towards the socially outcasts and economically marginalised. The link between poverty and caste has been exploited well by the BJP, given that most of its economic initiatives have been launched with a pro-poor face. In promulgating the politics of caste and class, the BJP has therefore created linkages between development and Hindutva, such that its economic manoeuvres provide a push to its social agendas. It is this successful exploitation of the caste-class politics which has propelled the BJP as a party of the masses such that in almost all the elections held after its victory in 2014, the BJP has been able to garner the largest share of votes and converted them into successful political mandates.
With Nitish Kumar re-joining the NDA camp, the Opposition has lost out on a potential anti-Modi face for the 2019 elections. While the immediate brunt of Nitish’s decision will be borne by Lalu Prasad’s RJD in Bihar, the long term impact of Nitish’s ghar wapasi will be felt by the Congress which faces a nation-wide decimation, given the lack of a credible national leadership. What is more worrisome for the Indian democracy is that the Opposition has been unable to find a counter to BJP’s grander narratives of development-masking-Hindutva politics. The pitch for secular politics has not been able to cover for the fact that the Opposition is still relying on its old tainted leadership to counter the new form of forces unleashed by the BJP.
As the Opposition continues to face rout in regional elections, the parties have found themselves increasingly reluctant to do away with the old order, led by the older elite. By raking up corruption as a major political issue, the BJP has been able to capture the imagination of the masses, a point that has been tragically missed by the opposition ranks. While Bihar 2015 could have been an important turning point for the opposition, the continuing practice of corruption, nepotism and mal-administration has led us to Bihar 2017, which has effectively reversed any progress made on the front of the Mahagathbandhan.
The lack of a genuine political opposition to the NDA in 2019 is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, as has been witnessed in the last three years, the BJP has been unwilling to rein in its fringe which has gone on a rampage against ‘beef eating Muslims’. Therefore, while there has been a consolidation of the Hindu society, the polarisation of the Hindus and the Muslims has sharpened the divide. Secondly, there has been a concerted attack by the ruling government on the spaces of dissent in the country, under the garb of nationalism. Lack of a genuine political opposition in Parliament will further shrink the space for dissent by the civil society. Much to the chagrin of many, the blame for the political rout of the old elite, however, can be placed squarely on their own shoulders. The reluctance to give way to a new political order, both within the individual parties and in the larger political space has created a situation wherein the opposition clearly appears less democratic and more elitist than the ruling BJP.
The BJP’s emphasis on inner-party democracy has resonated well with the masses who have come to value democratic participation in the political process and economic freedom over other socio-political freedoms. The Opposition’s continued reliance on lineages and dynasties has worked to alienate a large section of the masses who see the old order as a symbol of mass corruption and loot. The wider debate over the issue of nepotism has penetrated deep within the psyche of the common man who views dynastic politics as antithetical to the ethos of democracy and therefore a vote for BJP is essentially a vote against dynastic politics and political patronage.
The states where the BJP hasn’t been able to capture the imagination of the voters are essentially the states where the ruling government is not viewed as dynastic or elitist. This is the reason why Mamata Banerjee continues to do well in West Bengal, Kerala is still predominantly a Left bastion, Chandrababu Naidu is still an icon of Andhra Pradesh’s development while Captain Amarinder Singh’s non-dynastic brand of governance has worked to trump the Akalis in Punjab. In the case of every state, the vote by the masses has essentially been a vote against dynastic succession and political snobbery. The Opposition’s continued reliance on la familas and tainted old guards, therefore, hasn’t helped their political cause.
The amalgamation of class and caste has therefore led to a tectonic shift in the politics of this country. To counter the BJP’s political manoeuvres, the Opposition will, therefore, need to shed some old habits, discard the old order and replace the old guards. Unless there is a major restructuring in the ranks of the Opposition, it will be difficult for them to work on issues that can truly resonate with the demands of the restructured electorate.
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