The 2014 poll in India is an election in search of an ideology. These times are of political upheaval and bewilderment, fraught with many dangers but also the occasional glimmer of possibilities. There seems little place in the noise and dust of the election campaign for reasoned debate about ideology.
There is a menu of four main political choices on offer to the electorate, and only the upbeat triumphalist BJP offers a relatively coherent if deeply divisive alternative vision for the country. Rejuvenated with the energetic and muscular leadership of Narendra Modi and his trademark political aggression, it offers a combination of three fundamentalisms. First a market orthodoxy, which guarantees unprecedented levels of subsidies to big business in the form of long tax holidays, soft loans, cheap land and electricity, at the expense of public expenditure on education, health, social protection and public infrastructure. Next is communal fundamentalism: Barely disguised hostility to religious minorities especially Muslims, the main rallying agenda on the ground in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And the third is a militarist fundamentalism, envisioning an aggressive foreign policy including India at war with Pakistan. Modi’s is a kind of ‘buy one, get two free’ political bargain, in which you cannot embrace one fundamentalism without also accepting the others.
Its first contender is a dispirited Congress. Many commentators suggest that its expected overthrow represents a rejection of its core ideology of welfare and secularism, and in its place the popular privileging of ‘development’ over secularism. I do not agree. I believe that the disillusionment with the Congress signifies a rejection of its performance, not of its core political markers of pluralism and social protection. The Gujarat ‘development’ model offered by the BJP is built on big industry, neglect of social investments and minorities. The Congress’ promise of market growth which includes protection of those disadvantaged by class, caste, religion, disability and gender — even if flawed in performance — remains relevant to a country which is home to every third poor person in the world.
There is then that charismatic, battle-ready challenger — AAP. By dramatically demonstrating that it is possible to be politically successful without big money or a dynastic surname, its contribution to opening up Indian politics and making it more democratic and transparent is salutary, and I hope permanent. But its ideology for governance remains ambiguous. Its leaders claim that the party is post-ideological: That the 20th century was about ideology, but not the 21st. They are neither Left nor Right, they say: Neither for markets or welfare, neither secular nor majoritarian, neither for or against reservations, and so on. But the truth is that there is no such thing as post-ideology. Not taking clear stands on critical issues may help build a rainbow coalition of supporters in the short run, but when they govern, they must be unafraid to take sides with what they believe to be just. Voters are entitled to know clearly not just what they oppose, but what they would offer if elected.
And then finally is the vast amalgam of regional and Left parties. They are bound together by their common political opposition to the Congress, but it is unclear if their antagonism is to the Congress’ ideology of inclusive growth, welfare and pluralism, or only to its performance. Whatever their pronouncements before the elections, the prospect of their aligning with a resurgent BJP remains real, and therefore the credibility of the steadfastness of their opposition to ‘communal politics’ stands depleted.
There have been three moments in independent India’s political history in which the contribution of what is today described as ‘civil society’ — non-party social movements and organisations — has been significant, arguably even decisive in influencing political outcomes. These were in 1977, 1989 and 2004. In the first two instances, these non-party political formations influenced the political mood against the Congress, but in 2004, they fought majoritarian politics symbolised by the Gujarat carnage, and the neglect of the poor reflected in the epidemic of farmers’ suicides, contributing to the decimation of the BJP-led alliance and benefiting the Congress.
It is hard to estimate whether non-party formations will influence the results in the 2014 election. Many of their leaders have joined mainstream political parties, most importantly AAP. ‘Civil society’ itself has moved rightwards politically. Even a few years back, whatever their other differences, it could be assumed that most participants in this space would be broadly Left-liberal, but since the 2002 Gujarat riots, and even more after the anti-corruption movement, the centre of gravity of ‘civil society’ has swung significantly rightwards.
Social formations are today confused by the turbulent upsets in contemporary Indian politics and within their ranks. Some believe that they should seek political power and influence the ideological positioning of the party and mainstream politics from within. Others remain uncertain, worrying about the slippery ethical ground that electoral politics continues to constitute, and by the confused and frequently problematic positions of even progressive political formations on issues of gender, markets and pluralism. Yet others are quietly preparing to survive in a radically altered more Right-wing and less tolerant political environment.
I believe that the most significant contribution of civil society in these bewildering times is to bring ideology back centre stage to political discourse, even amidst the rancour of the current political mood. We need to insist on debating the central questions on which rest the future of our people. How can social and economic equality be achieved even if markets are nurtured? How can India’s pluralism be defended against majoritarian assaults? How can public services better deliver quality health, education and social security to poor people? How can we defend human rights and dignity in areas where oppressed people are violently battling the Indian State? How can young people be assured jobs and hope?
We need to promote the culture of public debate with humility and courtesy as well as courage of conviction. And if the hot political winds blow in a direction opposed to our pluralist and humane idea of India, we need to be willing to speak out resolutely against the politics of hate and injustice, and if necessary even to stand alone.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal