September 11, 2016

India: Hidden agenda and beyond (M. S. S. Pandian)

The Hindu - April 08, 2000

Hidden agenda and beyond

By M. S. S. Pandian

ONE OF the striking features of the secularist opposition to the review of the Constitution, is its singular reliance on a conspiracy theory. The review is being presented by its opponents as a deliberate move by the BJP Government to further the hidden agenda of the sangh parivar to dismantle the democratic and secular content of the Constitution. Given the intimacy between politics and conspiracy, this argument does carry an element of truth. This is particularly so given the fascist ideology of the sangh parivar and the eagerness of the BJP Governments at the Centre and in the States to functionalise it through dubious administrative means.

However, the hostility to the democratic content of the Indian polity/Constitution cannot be reduced to a conspiracy of the Hindu Right alone. The singular emphasis of the secularists on the hidden agenda of the Hindu Right displaces our attention from the fact that large sections of India's modernising elite, cutting across the ideological divide of communal and secular, nurture a deep-rooted feeling against Indian democracy. Unless this larger consensus against Indian democracy is understood, any political move to salvage whatever is democratic in the polity/Constitution would flounder.

The story of this anti-democratic consensus among the Indian elite has to begin with the era of Nehruvian modernity in the immediate post-independence period. It was an era when the modernising elite, drawn from the upper castes and classes, monopolised positions of power and enthusiastically tried to shape the future of the Indian masses. Their political project was to initiate the masses into modernity and to educate them in the so-called ideals of citizenship. Importantly, for them, to be modern and to be a citizen was to hide in the closet one's religious, regional, caste and linguistic identities and to conduct politics as though none of these identities ever existed. There was a steadfast refusal, in the name of modernity and nation-building, to engage with these identities as sources of power and oppression. While any form of modernity-from-below (as the one enunciated by the late Periyar E. V. Ramasamy) would address these identities, the modernity-from-above of the Indian elite kept away from them. Even when they were forced to engage with these identities, embarrassment and awkwardness marked it. The only identity endorsed by these elites was nationalist.

While politically immobilising these multiple identities which were dubbed as pre-modern and anachronistic, the modernising elite envisioned the future of the nation in science, planning and `socialism'. Science, with its inherent contempt for the popular, aided these elites to arrogate to themselves immense intellectual authority and power. Being a top-down process, the logic of planning invested them with the possibility of imagining and implementing what was good for the people - without the people ever being players in decision-making. The Nehruvian variant of socialism had fewer takers from among these elites. However, for those who subscribed to it, it could keep non-class identities based on caste, region, language etc., out. It was an agenda well-tailored to meet the dream of power and privileges which these elites nurtured in the very womb of colonialism and pursued passionately in the immediate post-independence years.

But the ways of democracy are indeed strange and unpredictable. In the expansion of mass democracy through the electoral process, the social engineering project of the modernising elite, which treated the Indian masses as mindless and malleable, met its challenge. The challenge to their authority which began in the 1960s in the form of non-Congress political formations in their varied regional and subaltern hues, intensified in the 1980s and 1990s. The lower caste rural voters emerged during this period as a formidable factor. Politicians from subaltern milieus, who defy the elite norms of civility and political sophistication, and parties whose agendas addressed the question of caste and region, have come to mark the political landscape. The deepening of democracy during the last two decades was not accompanied by an expansion of modernity. The slow and steady opening up of the political space for the play of identities which were treated as pre-modern and repressed by the elites ensured that Indian democracy took a new vibrant shape.

Given the new political configuration, the option for the modernising elite was either to reassert its eroding modernist agenda or to endorse the new democratic politics. While the former would help it retain power, the latter would necessarily involve the surrendering and sharing of power. It opted for the former in demonstrating its anti-democratic intention. There are endless instances in contemporary Indian politics that will illustrate this.

Let us begin with the most obvious one. In ushering in an era of deepening democracy in India, a key moment was the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the United Front Government in 1990, after it was kept in cold storage by the `secularist' Congress(I) for a decade. The opposition to the Mandal Commission Report spearheaded by India's modernising elite, most often with impeccable secular credentials, along with the Hindu Right, is a telling instance of the anti-democratic impulses of these modernists cutting across ideological divides. Once again, they employed the modern/secular category of `efficiency' - a category which feigned political innocence by not recognising historical disadvantages based on identities - to legitimise their unwillingness to share power. The secular/modern CPI(M) and the communal BJP spoke the same language of anti-reservation at that critical moment when Indian polity was entering a new and invigorated phase of democracy.

The attitude of the modernising elites towards the new breed of politicians who have come to occupy positions of power through the support of the rural lower caste voters is yet another example of their anti-democratic passion. The story of Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav is a case in point. To begin with, he was parodied in the mainstream press controlled by these elites as a village bumpkin unfit for the serious business of politics. Then they found the new weapon of corruption charges to delegitimise his politics. They went to town as though corruption was the invention of Mr. Laloo Yadav alone. The BJP's campaign against him was strengthened by the communists who opposed the inclusion of him or his supporters in the Gujral Ministry. Despite his consistent anti-communal politics, what mattered to the communists was his alleged corruption. Once again we find that it was not so much the communal/secular divide which was at play, but an anxiety about who would be the new inheritors of power.

This anxiety of the elites often shows itself up in the form of nostalgia for the past when their power was under no threat. For instance, it is now part of the elite commonsense in Tamil Nadu that everything in the State before 1967, when the DMK came to power, was rosy. It is this very anxiety which has invented the figure of a bootlegger (not the white-collar criminals who would be part of the elites' own rank) as personifying the average politician. The caste/class markers of this figure, who is being propagated as ubiquitous in the new political scenario, are only too obvious.

Perhaps the best manifestation of the desire of these elites, communal as well as secular, to contain the new politics of democracy was their enthusiastic support to the election `reforms' initiated by Mr. T. N. Seshan. His curbs on hours of campaigning and on putting up posters in public places drew widespread endorsement. For a class which treats political speeches as rabble and posters as unaesthetic intrusions in public spaces, Mr. Seshan's intervention was truly welcome. Now that the carnival-like election campaign which unfolded in public spaces was restrained, they could consume politics in little scoops in front of their TVs. The English TV channels pampered their taste for scientism with pie-diagrams, graphs and the talk of percentages and swings, in their election coverage. It was all a sign of the elite contempt for mass politics. This is precisely the context in which one has to understand the advertisements inserted in English newspapers during the last election by the so-called public interest groups and private sector companies, asking the voters of this class to vote in large numbers to keep out the `unwholesome' politicians from power. In other words, it is a plea to contain the emerging politics of non-elites. Though an act of desperation, it tells us about the elites' sense of siege and their refusal to come to terms with it.

All these point to a rather straightforward fact: the enemies of Indian democracy are not confined to the Hindu communal sangh parivar alone. They have a much wider presence cutting across the divide of communal and secular. By reducing the complexities of contemporary Indian politics to the categories of communal and secular, and by not engaging with other equally important contradictions of Indian politics such as the ones based on caste, language and region, India's modernising elites can camouflage their secret impulse against democracy. To save whatever little is democratic in the Indian polity and the Constitution, one needs to contest the hidden agenda of the sangh parivar as well as the secret desire of the modernising elites who are most often part of the secular mainstream.