The Uttar Pradesh election, purely as a numerical result, had shades of the demographic about it. It was as if a nation, like a geological plate, had moved tectonically to the right. But once the pathologist report is read out and the specified period of mourning is over, teams from the Left and the liberal-Right need to meditate not merely on the causes of defeat but the implications for the future. One confronts two kinds of reasoning here. One involves the immediacy of psephological analysis working out margins and the other requires reflection, emphasising deeper demands of political analysis.
One needs to go beyond nuggets to a search for frameworks to locate long-range strategy.
Long-range rituals demand that we go beyond blame games and breast-beating and confront the ironies, the paradoxes of the ideals we followed. It is difficult to admit that the scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party victory (the party won 312 of the state’s 403 seats) showed there was something hollow in the ideals we followed. Words like secularism, socialism, justice somehow felt parochial. What were cosmopolitan ideals were reduced to provincial terms. The fact of Indian politics is that almost all the great terms that so distinguished the Preamble to the Constitution now lie by the wayside. One needs an obituary for ideals like socialism, secularism and justice. As analysts, we must ask why such concepts faded away. It was oddly because of a policy of divide and rule. In politics, every cosmopolitan concept got attached to a single group. As a result, instead of being universal, the concepts got factionalised. It was as if equality belonged to the Dalits, secularism and minoritarianism to the Muslims. Each progressive concept became mingily minoritarian. For example, socialism only talked of poverty, reservation was restricted to caste. When justice becomes parochialised, politics becomes ironic. Part of this was a result of what I call the legacy of the original Congress.

Fragments of a whole

The Congress was a quilt patch imagination, a coalition of the whole built out a parochialism of parts. As a party, the Congress represented the poor, the Dalits, the minority, the adivasis. As the Congress split up, its legacy of what I call enlightenment words, rather than encompassing the whole, got parochialised and particularised. Instead of serving as a vision of the whole, we had a minoritarian idea of fairness, Dalit ideas of equality, and adivasi ideas of justice. Unfortunately, these were not dialects that added to the richness of the concept, even vernacularising their immediacy. They impoverished these concepts by creating a factional loyalty. Our dream as a politics of enlightenment was twisted into a politics of partial entitlements. It was as if each word, each legacy became the intellectual property of a group. Nothing remained of the whole as unity in diversity slowly disintegrated into unity in parochiality.
The power of the BJP as a party lay not in creating a new universe of concepts but in undermining the old ideals. Such an act was made easier by the Congress, which turned concepts into election gimmicks, creating political correctness that made the idea of citizenship empty. For the Dalits or Muslims, it was clear that only as a minority or as backward could they enter the world of politics. The emphasis was on ethnicity rather than citizenship. Such a kind of politics made it difficult for the Muslim to be Indian and Muslim, or a Dalit to be both Dalit and universalistic. The English word pseudo was a prefix the BJP could add to all the great ideals of the preamble. One must add that BJP politics was never original, it always sought to undermine the creativity and authenticity of the other.

Political bankruptcy

Such a politics was also lethally tactical. Wherever the BJP could not appropriate a legacy, it undermined it. Yet, the aggressive style suited the middle class, which was angry with an elite that it felt was stagnant and subservient. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had an acute understanding of this. His foreign policy – if one could call it that – was a confidence-building exercise for the nation. Every time he got himself photographed with a Shinzo Abe, a Vladimir Putin or a Barack Obama, it was as if the middle class was puffing out its 56-inch chest. In fact, his foreign policy had little that was foreign in it. He made few gains abroad but his reputation at home increased.
Politics in India faces a strange bankruptcy. The illiteracy of Make in India, the government’s initiative to make the country a global manufacturing hub, and the idea of development have replaced the elegance of justice, equality or secularism. The emptying out of concepts anticipated the emptying out of parties. As a result, we face a two-fold crisis – an organisational one where each party has to be built from the ground, and a conceptual one where the rhetoric of each party needs a life blood of realism and authenticity.
Words like justice, equality have become suspect part of a “don’t use me dictionary” of contemporary politics. As a result, any attempt to create a new idea of the political not only needs new creation myths but new notions of universality. The Congress, like the BJP, created a whole that was less than the sum of the parts. Today, one needs to create new concepts, or revitalise old concepts so they carry a different legacy of memory, membership and authenticity. The tragedy of India was that its great concepts became hollow because the BJP undermined them. Today, our concepts, like our politics, must spell out authenticity, concern and caring, go beyond tokenism to an idea of citizenship that responds to an issue as an issue rather than as a parochial claim. This is the challenge before the Opposition as it lives through the crisis of delegitimisation that Modi and company have created.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.