A counter-revolution

March 20, 2022

A note on the BJP’s election victory and what that means for Indian democracy

Image courtesy: Reuters
Image courtesy: Reuters

This is not an obituary of Congress Party in India. This is not meant to be. This could be near about an obituary of the secular, constitutional democracy of India, which envisaged a country based on the idea of pluralism, diversity and inclusion. This is also to underline that the first two aren’t always interlinked. But today, they are trying to, desperately. However, this piece is more about reflecting, yet again, on the unrelenting juggernaut of what some scholars would call the ‘counter-revolution’.

First things first about the recent state elections in the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and the Punjab. One, by winning the first four states, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has not only established its enduring presence once again, but by consolidating its victories in supposedly outlying places like Manipur and Goa (where it had lost the previous elections badly and had retained power only through backroom machinations), it has positioned itself as a party capable of ‘ruling’ the vast mass of diversity that India still is. To achieve this, it has used a mix of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power . By retaining its hold in Uttarakhand and in Uttar Pradesh, symbolically the heart of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ state, despite an anti-incumbency trend in a bi-polar contest, it has also successfully retained its position as a carrier of that Hindu Rashtra. It also sends a larger message that for the time being that Hindu Rashtra is here to stay, like a Hanuman carrying an entire mountain on its shoulders proudly providing succour to once almost dead idea of that mythical nation. At the same time, this entrenchment of the BJP in UP and other places has also come through its learning from a party like the AAP, albeit in a slightly different language, from a reengineering of the idea of welfare state.

Second, Aam Admi Party (AAP)’s victory in the Punjab, comes with its continuance of and extending the idea of the primary duty of the state being that of a welfare state. With its focus on essential services like education, health, electricity, governance(at least in its messaging) and combining it with street politics of fighting those in power, it has certainly shown that it is ready to engage in that long-term battle; more on that a little later.

Third, Congress, through its effective decimation, despite being the principal opposition in at least three states of Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and the Punjab, where it was the ruling party, has sent a clear message that it is now ready to relinquish the position of principal opposition party in India, even though it may pretend not to believe the same.

Each of these elements demands a deeper and a more reflective perspective. Let’s begin with the BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh. Without going into voter’s arithmetic which has already been discussed ad nauseum by many analysts, a few points come across clearly: that it was effectively a bi-polar contest where despite raising its vote share by a few percentages, the BJP lost about 40 seats from its previous count. The principal opposition, Samajwadi Party, managed to project itself as a strong opposition. Nevertheless, this bi-polar contest went on to help the BJP too as votes consolidated behind it. Second, as has been showcased, other players like the BSP (a party of Dalits) and Congress (with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra leading a late charge for women’s constituency) and the MIM (a new entrant trying to cut into Muslim votes) lost their vote shares further, mostly to SP barring BSP’s dalit votes, which seem to have gone in favour of the BJP.

At the same, it can’t be denied that with the upper caste Hindus solidly behind the BJP, and Yadavs in particular behind the SP, caste continues to play its critical role despite the chimera of Hindu Rashtra (and its associated privileges) on one side and a secular, socialist state on the other. Some scholars have argued that the BJP, by effectively weaving a larger umbrella of Hindu Rashtra has successfully managed to rise above the old world of caste ridden politics to establish a new framework of polity. Hence, the defeat of the SP, (despite an impressive showing) and other parties like the BSP. This certainly begs the question then: why is it that not only the upper-caste Hindus have overwhelmingly voted for the BJP in the state; why has a state where Brahmins constitute around 12 percent, (the highest across any state in India) and only third in number behind Jatavs and Yadavs, seen a huge consolidation of other OBC votes and Dalit votes by effective public negotiation by the BJP? This has happened both through its alliances with other caste-based parties like Apna Dal or building campaigns around Dalit caste mythical heroes like Suhel Dev pitching them against Muslims. What about Dalits? Even if one allows partly the fact that the BSP may have shifted its votes partly to the BJP as is being alleged, it still doesn’t answer the question completely. And that’s where comes the re-imagining of the welfare Raj for the poorest migrants which barely a year ago had become like a stigma for the same ruling party nationally, with pictures of millions of labourers walking for miles in scorching heat, harassed and punished by the state police. What is being bandied about by the euphoric victors is the effective transfer of cash and grains to the poor, majority of them being Dalits, which helped turn the tide.

An migrant worker carries his child, as they wait to cross the border to their home state of Uttar Pradesh, in New Delhi.
An migrant worker carries his child, as they wait to cross the border to their home state of Uttar Pradesh, in New Delhi.

Congress through its effective decimation, despite being the principal opposition in at least three states of Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and the Punjab, where it was the ruling party, has sent a clear message that it is now ready to relinquish the position of principal opposition party in India.

The other constituency which voted en masse for the BJP is women. It is worth pondering why this has happened. Women seem to have bought two ideas bombarded through massive propaganda machinery of the BJP despite incidents of Unnao and Hathras rape cases still lingering parts of public memory. One, that it was in reality, the Samajwadi Party which was responsible for Goonda Raj and the other that by unleashing a reign of terror by its state machinery against, Muslim, Yadavs (in particular) in the name of law and order, the UP not only became the seat of the grand Hindu Rashtra but of Ram Rajya making it safe against the Ravans preying on Sitas of the state. Think of Love Jihad, think of Anti-Romeo squads which the reigning chief minister founded even before he came into power last time, all of them centred ostensibly around the ‘Muslim villain’.

This is not to say that opposition didn’t cut into votes, changing results in some constituencies in the state. Yet, what came out clearly is that caste-based aspirations were re-negotiated effectively at the expense of Muslims under the façade of Hindu Rashtra. No matter how many millions died during the pandemic in the state, lost their livelihoods and fell under debt trap. The caste-based privileges, alongside economic incentives, have remained factors as much as the care-two-hoots attitude towards Muslims. The last one indeed is depressing though, to say the least.

Let’s look at some of the other states now. The loss in Goa, where Congress had a real chance of winning, can be partly attributed to the emergence of the new regional parties as well as the new entrants like Trinamool Congress and the AAP playing the spoiler once again. So, even when the BJP’s vote shares just about remained the same – with which it had lost badly, the last time, it managed to get enough seats this time around to form the government. And that’s the other lesson, which needs to be drawn. The fact that the possibilities of not only challenging the BJP’s supremacy remain intact in the states, but that there is still enough room for a larger opposition alliance if one was serious about not getting wiped out politically. And that is true not just for Congress but also for other parties including the AAP.

While the AAP’s resounding victory in the Punjab has come after a few false starts despite its early promise, it can be safely said now that it built on the early promise of the welfare state, going beyond the rhetoric of rights politics and successfully sent the message across that it is ready to provide a true alternative to not only the older form of corrupt governance as symbolised by Congress Party, but also slightly away from the Hindu Rashtra model of governance (which promises everything to Hindus but not minorities). It has politically accepted the language of soft Hindutva (but then even Congress has been trying that schizophrenically) while also promising Hajj subsidies to Muslims and the likewise. More importantly, while Arvind Kejriwal, the chief of the AAP, once became an annoying symbol of strikes and dharnas, it is this identity of the party which has also helped it emerge as a fighter street by street, gully by gully. That’s a lesson, which Priyanka Gandhi tried to imbibe in her UP campaign, unfortunately without any state level machinery backing her.

Coming back to the AAP, it has not only found power for the first time in a fully-formed state unlike Delhi, it has also made inroads in Goa and a little earlier in local elections in Assam and in Gujarat. Unlike the TMC, another claimant to Congress seat, it doesn’t suffer from a tag of regionalism so is certainly better poised to take over from the Congress and yet, the road is long ahead. And this is most critical because, the larger polity in the country has changed drastically, not remaining centred around the idea of elections anymore. Just a few days ago, the BJP advised not holding local body elections in Delhi fearing its certain loss to the AAP and Election Commission is likely to stamp it without any dissent. The point is, the BJP is at that stage of its hunger for power, where it can re-structure entire institutional processes if it feels, power is going to slip away from its hand.

And hence, there is the need for a larger alliance, now more than ever. Certainly, rebuilding the original promise of corruption-less governance, where people’s rights are not seen as doles. Building an effective combination with the grassroots fighting power of not just the AAP but all other regional parties like the TMC, the DMK and others. It is the urgent need for the hour simply because Social Democrats and Communists in 1930s’ Germany had more votes than the Nazi Party and they refused to come together, till the infamous Night of Long Knives happened. The rhetoric of election-based majoritarian democracy is utilised by fascists only till the time it serves their purpose. The AAP and all other parties need not risk it again.

The writer has   remained associated with social activism for many years and is   currently an   independent  researcher and writer.

A counter-revolution