Green politics, bolstered by the 'Greta effect', could hold out hope for a new and better global paradigm 

  • The political battle in the democracies of the Western world is increasingly a fight between the rising forces of Right-wing nationalism and centre-Left Greens

  • Green politics offers a paradigm that cuts across religious, gender, ethnic and even national identities in its concerns

  • As the effects of climate change and pollution make themselves felt more keenly, and the global reaction to these picks up steam, the idea of green politics will grow

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

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It’s just over a week since 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg made an impassioned speech on climate change at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, earning the praise of multitudes around the world and the ire of several (including US President Donald Trump, who mocked her in a tweet). Between then and now, one national election was held, in Austria, which voted to elect a new government on 29 September.

The results are out. The Austrian Green Party is the biggest gainer in the polls, rising from a meagre 4 percent of overall vote share in the last elections held in 2017, to a respectable 14 percent of the vote share now. A 10 percent gain in overall national vote share in a span of just two years is more than merely good; it is remarkable. There is speculation that the “Greta effect” may be at least partly responsible for this. The voting happened right in the middle of the worldwide debate over the teenager and her brand of green activism.

Read on Firstpost: The problem is not how Greta Thunberg looks, but how we view young women

More interesting than a look at only the Greens’ gains is an analysis of the others’ losses. After all, politics is finally a zero-sum game. The votes have to be wrested from some other party. Which parties lost vote share? It was the Right-wing Freedom Party, which lost 8.7 percent of overall vote share, and the Left-wing Social Democrats, who lost 5.3 percent of overall vote share. The Right-wingers had gone into the elections with their former leader facing a scandal over an exchange of favours with a Russian woman.

Across Western Europe, the trend is evident of a rising Green politics. It is there most strongly in Germany, where the Greens secured more than 20 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections in June, up from 10 percent in 2014, but the United Kingdom and France also have rising Green parties. However, the Greens have not done well so far in the poorer countries of Eastern Europe, where parties fusing Right-wing nationalism with promises of development are in power.

The political battle in the democracies of the Western world is increasingly a fight between the rising forces of Right-wing nationalism and centre-Left Greens.

The Communist Left which once ruled large parts of Eastern Europe has more or less vanished. Their space is now occupied by the Right-wing nationalists. The social democrats too have been steadily losing ground in one country after another. They lost the economic plot long ago, and shifted focus to specific types of identity politics. For example, they are vocal about the rights of minority groups, including gays, Muslims, and people of colour.

 Green politics, bolstered by the Greta effect, could hold out hope for a new and better global paradigm 

Green Party candidate Michael Kalmanovitch holds up a sign at a Climate Strike in Canada on 27 September 2019. AP Photo

In country after country, that brand of minority identity politics is losing the contest against majoritarian identity politics. The brute fact of democracy is that it is a numbers game. There are obviously more straight, white Christians in the countries of Western Europe than there are gays, black people, and Muslims. This is true of the US too. The numbers vary from place to place, but Right-wing populists in most countries typically need only half of their target group to vote for them to romp home to victory. Their opponents, on the other hand, have the more difficult job of pulling together broad coalitions of several minority groups and a chunk from the majority population.

It’s like that in India as well. Here, the Hindus constitute about 80 percent of the population. The BJP needs only half of this vote to keep winning; the other half would be divided many ways. They may well be able to secure that half if Indian politics remains rooted in questions of identity. That is because the idea of identity politics, whether it is for Hindutva or against, helps the BJP either way. Both sides are working within the same paradigm, which is the paradigm of consolidation on the basis of religious identity. In this paradigm, the real challenges to the BJP’s hegemony come from the particularities of deeply rooted identity politics within its Hindu target group, such as caste and language, and not from minority politics.

Green politics offers a different paradigm. It cuts across religious, gender, ethnic and even national identities in its concerns.

It also holds within itself the capacity to transcend class. Is clean air and water a concern for Hindus and Muslims, Brahmins and Dalits, speakers of all languages? Presumably, yes. Is unseasonal flooding a concern? How about extreme hot and cold weather? The chopping of lakhs of trees? Acquisition of agricultural and forest lands?

Positions on these issues are not determined by one’s identity. Nor does the usual Left vs Right divide really work here. For example, “jal, jungle aur zameen” (meaning “water, jungle and land”) was and is a Maoist concern in India, voiced by its supporters in the mainly tribal, forested lands of central India. However, many rivers across India are associated with Hindu pilgrimages. The Ganga is the prime example but it is not the only one. It is religious Hindus, not godless Maoists, who are most affected by the pollution of these waters where they take holy dips during Kumbh Melas and on other religious occasions.

Ideas of identity politics and a desire for particular notions of development have become deeply entrenched in countries around the world. As the effects of climate change and pollution make themselves felt more keenly, and the global reaction to these picks up steam, the idea of green politics will grow. Today, the “Greta effect” may have had an impact on the elections in Austria. In the next few years, as the old fogeys everywhere with their outdated ideas of nationalism and development pass away into history, it is kids like her who will grow up to shape the politics of more and more countries around the world.

Green shoots of change are springing up everywhere already.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Oct 05, 2019 13:56:39 IST