India needs a new elite compact
The balance of power in electoral democracies rests on a basic assumption — the ruling party and the Opposition will compete for power in a healthy manner. While it is natural that there will be areas of disagreement, democracy is also contingent on both sides extending the maximum possible cooperation to find political solutions.
To prevent paralysis arising out of political confrontations, a set of formal and informal mechanisms govern the framework of negotiated settlements. The formal institutional arrangements disperse power towards a range of political actors, and informal norms, including an elite compact, ensure the smooth functioning of the political system.
However, a deep fracture has emerged at the heart of our politics — with a breakdown of formal and informal mechanisms. The ongoing farm protests, the latest outburst of civil society unrest, are but the inevitable manifestation of this fundamental rupture. It is both a reflection of, and a result of, the deep crisis our political parties are facing.
Why are both sides indulging in a game of brinksmanship, which will hurt them as well as India’s future prospects?
In the past, politicians from Opposition benches could reach out to friends in the ruling coalitions to find solutions to an emerging political crisis (even to seek favours). And they also reciprocated while being in the treasury benches. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under Narendra Modi, however, has deeply internalised that all institutions were under the tight grip of Congress party sympathisers (and some regional elites in the states), and continued to serve the interest of these parties even when they were not in power. With its mandate, the ruling dispensation believes that the only way to create a “new India” is to weed out the old. The Opposition’s electoral weakness has also reduced the incentives for cooperation. This has led to a breakdown in the informal power-sharing arrangements of the past, and the basic tenets of new order have not been established.
This trust deficit is a result of both sides feeling they are under siege. The government believes an Opposition cabal continuously schemes and attacks it, while the Opposition suspects that the State is using all its might to squeeze it further. Both sides have now resorted to creating a web of misinformation and frequently indulge in whataboutery. For example, any honest analysis would suggest that the combined effect of these laws will neither be revolutionary nor disastrous for farmers and Indian agriculture. But in this hyper-mediatised age, both sides are playing to the gallery have exaggerated the effects, leaving no room for genuine conversation.
In the absence of a new elite compact that helps in the constitution of shared legitimacy of the system, the object of political discourse is reduced to delegitimising your rival. The government portrays any disagreement with it as to serve the vested interests of old elites, and often dissent gets labelled as anti-national. The Opposition, on the other hand, in tandem with civil society actors, portrays Modi, arguably one of the most popular politicians of post-independent India, as nothing but an agent of a couple of business houses.
This breakdown has jeopardised the role of political parties in three critical domains — as a channel of voicing grievances, as vehicles of political mobility, and as an interest-group coalition to forge a political settlement.
The BJP’s continuous attack on Opposition parties as serving vested interests and its attempt to decimate electoral challengers has weakened the Opposition’s capacity to intervene on behalf of any social and political grievances. All sorts of non-party actors are rushing in to fill the emerging vacuum. Public trust in political parties is likely to further decline as they are missing in these crucial times. This, in turn, will create greater hurdles to represent interest groups and reach negotiated settlements in moments of political confrontation. Going forward, if the fracture continues, India will witness more protests by non-party actors. It’s a feature of the emerging system, not a bug that can be easily removed.
The role of political leadership becomes more critical, especially when the staying power of the State is higher. Many may argue that these non-party protests act as a springboard for new political leadership to emerge from the ground. This is easier said than done. The likes of Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, Kanhaiya Kumar, Chandrasekhar Azad, among others, despite leading large movements, have not, yet, shown signs of significant political influence or acumen.
Unlike seasoned politicians, non-party activists often overestimate the strength of their movements and miscalculate when to retreat and when to advance. For example, protesting groups could have considered the government’s proposal to stay these laws for 18 months as a moment of victory. However, their refusal to negotiate the deal was likely driven by the fear that they may be touted as “sold” by more radical activists within the movement.
No regime can govern a vast and diverse country such as India without taking social, political, and economic elites on board. This is not to suggest that the State serves elite interests, but as these elites represent divergent views, a political settlement becomes necessary for governance. India needs a new elite compact and Prime Minister Narendra Modi must create the space for the emergence of its new order.
Rahul Verma is a fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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