The ideological battles
Ideological categories are hard to define in Indian politics. The traditional Left-Right binary doesn’t work. Given the inequities in Indian society, no party in India can afford to be against welfare. But broadly speaking, it is in the realm of culture, religion and nationalism that a Left-Right distinction can be made. With the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian politics has moved rightwards, as defined on these parameters. There is more than a streak of ultra-nationalism, which manifests itself in hostility against Pakistan; there is a streak of majoritarianism, which manifests itself in terms of exclusion of Muslims; and there is a streak of cultural assertion, with a sense of pride about what proponents of this view see as India’s essentially Hindu civilisational legacy. This is distinct from what was broadly termed Nehruvianism — nationalism was defined largely in terms of opposition to the colonial power in pre-Independence times and had a stronger internal dimension, with a focus on nation-building, post-Independence; there was a conscious attempt to create an inclusive polity, with a degree of power-sharing between Hindus and Muslims; and there was an attempt to retrieve the pluralist past, with a focus on a composite culture, rather than identify civilisational legacy with a religion.
At a time when the centre-Right is ideologically dominant, the Opposition is struggling to frame a response. Take the Congress, which inducted Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani, into its ranks on Monday. Both young leaders are unapologetic about their hard secular outlook and their leftward tilt. Rahul Gandhi has also framed his battle against the BJP as an ideological one. This indicates that the Congress sees a centre-Left position as the most effective response. Except that it is happy to play the centre-Right game too, with the assertion of Hindu religiosity of leaders, instructions to spokespersons to avoid debates on religion rather than mount a defence of secularism, and silence on Kashmir. So what is the Congress going to be — an ideological centre-Left alternative or a tactical centre-Right party?
Two other aspirants with national ambitions have chosen different paths. The Aam Aadmi Party, which shares its vote base with the BJP in the Capital, is firmly centre-Right now — echoing the BJP’s nationalist politics and staying silent on issues concerning minority rights. The Trinamool Congress has attempted to downplay the extent of its Muslim support base, but is fighting on a centre-Left platform. This ideological confusion in the Opposition is both a sign of BJP’s hegemony and perhaps explains the failure to challenge it.