The Great Indian Political Shift

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Sajjan Kumar 

The 2019 general election is being seen as a test of the parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance in forging workable pre-election fronts, and of the BJP in deepening its electoral coalitions. But it is interesting to scan the changing political landscape before the campaign for the Lok Sabha gets truly underway for changes in the ‘politics of othering’ that has so far defined most Indian parties. Or in other words, are non-BJP, non-Congress parties adopting Congressism?

Episodic othering

The enumeration exercise by the colonial ethnographic state since the late 19th century brought to the fore the politics  of ‘numbers’, thereby reshaping society into the binary of ‘minority-majority’ along caste, religion and ethnic lines. By the 1920s, the political discourse in India, barring that of the Indian National Congress, inhaled the politics of ‘numbers’, which seamlessly metamorphosed into the politics of ‘othering’. This took various forms under parties such as the All-India Muslim League, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, the Justice Party, etc.

By the 1950s, against the backdrop of the domineering discourse of Congressism, which was a politics without ‘othering’, India witnessed the emergence of four dominant political threads: Lohiaite, Ambedkarite, Hindutva and Dravidian, championing the fault-lines of caste, religion and ethnicity, thereby practising the politics of ‘numbers and othering’.

The constitution of the ‘other’ happened at three levels. First, at the symbolic level, wherein the founding fathers were pitted against each other. Second, at the societal level, wherein the socio-economic interest of one section was shown as being unaligned with that of sections signifying the ‘other’.

Third, at the political level, wherein idiom, metaphor, popular slogan and appeal were deliberately sectarian, exhibiting a ‘friend-enemy’ simile. It was argued that popular politics was about speaking for different shades of subalterns, who constituted the majority, thereby projecting the politics of ‘numbers and othering’ as necessary to serve the ideals of equality and freedom. However, this mode of politics infused a great deal of bitterness in the societal realm by treating the ideals of ‘fraternity’ as subservient to ‘equality and freedom’.

The manifestation of this three-fold othering was seen in the political culture across India since 1990s in an entrenched way. The popularity of slogans in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, emanating from Ambedkarite and Lohiaite discourse, while championing an egalitarian quest took recourse to caste-based ‘othering’ that competed with the religious ‘othering’ of Hindutva.

This entrenchment of ‘othering’ could be seen most clearly in post-2000 Uttar Pradesh when the acidic political rivalry between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) manifested itself in their governments’ policies as they pitted two social justice icons, R.M. Lohia and B.R. Ambedkar, against each other. For instance, the BSP government by 2012 had brought almost 19,000 most backward villages under the Ambedkar Village Scheme. The official signboard designated them as ‘Ambedkar villages’ qualified for special developmental funds. However, when the SP government came to power in 2012, it selected another set of villages under a new village development scheme, Ram Manohar Lohia Samagra Gram Vikas Yojana, and officially labelled them as ‘Lohia villages’. The replacing of Ambedkar by Lohia had another dimension. While the Ambedkar villages were inhabited by significantly large numbers of Dalits, the Lohia villages had a majority of non-Dalits, particularly the Other Backward Classes.

This three-fold othering had its parallel in the southern and Northeastern States, which was reflected in the BJP’s slogan ‘Jati-Mati-Veti’ (identity, land and resource) in 2016 during the Assembly election in Assam, privileging ethnic identity, and in the controversy over the separate flag during the Karnataka election in 2018.

Besides, going against the ideals of fraternity, the fact that any politics of ‘othering’ becomes a politics of exclusion by default underlines the need for a politics without ‘othering’. Therefore, the question is, can India witness a ‘politics of numbers’ (pragmatic electoral compulsions) that doesn’t necessarily metamorphose into a ‘politics of othering’?

Something may be changing. The frequency of ‘othering’ in the political discourses of Lohiaite, Ambedkarite and Dravidian politics is declining, and is now at the most episodic. In fact, the tone and tenor of the Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, particularly regarding the SP (Lohiaite) and the BSP (Ambedkarite), signify the beginning of a phase of ‘politics without othering’ at the normative level. In their formal press conference announcing the grand alliance, both Mayawati of the BSP and Akhilesh Yadav of the SP referred overwhelmingly to class and occupational identities, and only a passing reference was made to Other Backward Classes and Dalit identities. In marked contrast to their position during the Mandal phase of the early 1990s, they welcomed the 10% reservation announced for economically weaker sections.

Whether these shifts indicate the return of Congressism — a mode of politics without any ‘othering’ — is yet to be seen, but certainly it indicates a process wherein the Congress does not seem to be the only claimant of the discourse of Congressism. Rather, more and more parties which rose on the plank of anti-Congressism are adopting the discourse of ‘non-othering’.

The BJP exception

However, there is one radical contrast to this emerging trend. While Lohiaite, Ambedkarite and Dravidian politics are embracing the framework of non-othering, the Hindutva discourse led by the BJP is still caught in the old-mode of ‘othering’ even though its electoral slogan appears to be all-inclusive.

In fact, it is BJP that has taken the politics of ‘othering’ from the old episodic level to the incessant level. By dint of a disproportionate investment in an army of dedicated team pollsters indulging in hair-splitting profiling of the electorate contingent to pre-existing prejudice, anxiety and aspirations, the party has seamlessly employed multiple modes of ‘othering’ simultaneously to trounce its political rivals. The BJP has single-handedly taken the politics of ‘othering’ from the episodic to incessant level wherein the everyday life of the people is systematically fused with the constitution of the ‘other’ and its perpetuation. This has taken the form of communalisation of everyday lives, as reflected in the instances of cow-vigilantism and mob-lynching. Besides, the demonisation of Nehru by pitting him against other founding fathers has reached a hysterical level.

At a time when the emerging centrality of agrarian issues has led to the shrinking cultural space for privileging religious identity in southern, western, central and some parts of northern India, the BJP as a compensatory move is shifting its politics of othering eastward, in West Bengal and the Northeastern States. In essence, this is an attempt to shift the core space for communal othering to east and Northeast India, as seen, for instance, with the politics over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. This explains why a party that championed the ethnic sentiment of ‘Jati-Mati-Veti’ in Assam was desperate to pass the Citizenship Bill that privileges the religious identity.

A litmus test

Barring Hindutva, the emerging trend of parties that emerged from the Dravidian, Ambedkarite and Lohiaite discourse moving to the politics of ‘non-othering’ is a moment of celebration. A liberal democracy  needs competing and contested politics along differentiated socio-economic interests without letting it slip into the ‘politics of othering’. The 2019 election will be a litmus test of how far Indian democracy has come in this regard.

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