Shikha Mukerjee | India's political topography starts to look a bit different
As hard as the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party may try and convince the masses that the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same, the inevitability of change and its effects on the political topography of India are undeniable.
There is the obvious separation of the Congress dynasty from the top job in the party and the appointment of a rather astute and rooted politician, Mallikarjun Kharge, as the party president, who contrary to sceptics, has a mind of his own. There is also the biggest financial scandal in India, which rocked the global markets, because this is an interconnected world, that has sparked speculation about how Gautam Adani and the Adani Group acquired astonishing amounts of money in an equally astonishingly brief period. And then, there is the Prime Minister’s complete silence.
The political discourse in India today is neither led nor dominated by Prime Minister Modi or the BJP. Parties which are ideologically opposed to the BJP, namely the Congress and some powerful regional parties, are shaping a different narrative and leading an alternative discourse. The leading lights of the formalisation of a process of forging opposition unity, Mr Kharge and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, have described their recent New Delhi meeting as “historic”, but the process had been underway for several months.
The corrosive “Jai Shri Ram” politics of Hindutva is being edged off the centre-stage as the partners of the United Progressive Alliance and new friends like Nitish Kumar and K. Chandrashekhar Rao of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi find common cause in the social justice movement. The second national conference on social justice organised by M.K. Stalin of the DMK is an issue that unites all political parties, other than the BJP. Mr Kharge’s letter to Mr Modi demanding that the postponed Census of 2021 be immediately done and the numbers of the 2011 survey of caste status be immediately released all add up to a push to refresh a secular, inclusive and positive agenda as a priority issue that can well expand the political discourse into a demand for equality, rights and justice, and affirmative action to end all forms of discrimination.
By seizing the lead on putting social justice centre-stage in our politics, the parties ideologically opposed to the BJP have unveiled an agenda that has the potential to obliterate the ever-deepening divide between religious communities and transform the politics of identity into a challenge to the BJP’s version that had till now dominated the discourse. By changing the terms on which identity politics can be discussed, the Congress and the anti-BJP Opposition has put Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the dock, for deferring the Census, dithering on the caste census and weakening the once powerful appeal by the BJP to the Hindu majority to mobilise.
While Mr Modi has been working hard to revive the BJP’s core voter interest in the message that he is Mr Clean, in contrast to the gang of conniving and corrupt Opposition party leaders, starting with Rahul Gandhi and including Abhishek Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, the Opposition has altered the terms on which the fight will go forward. How much of this change will be reflected in the May 10 Karnataka election is still uncertain, but it will have picked up sufficient momentum by the time the elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana come around at the end of the year.
Should Mr Modi engage with the Opposition on what lies at the heart of the Constitution, the idea of the Republic and secular politics, namely social justice, he will be mauled. If he now chooses to ignore what the Congress and the rest of the Opposition have laid on the table, he will be savaged. The question is whether Mr Modi reverse the tide and push the political discourse back into familiar channels, like rooting out corruption and cleaning up politics, missions that he has been pursuing since 2014. Can the BJP ignore social justice and discrimination issues by promoting divisive politics based on religious identity by stealthily asking the states to dig out fake Aadhaar cards, questioning the citizenship status of people living along the Bangladesh border?
The BJP could try and divert attention away from the social justice-discrimination agenda if it were confident that its popularity is baked iron hard into the body politic. If it is uncertain about the strength of its appeal, because in the two terms that Narendra Modi has been in power there has been an accumulation of grievances leading to discontent, then the advantage, for now, is with the Congress and the Opposition.
Political leaders accusing each other of being corrupt is an unedifying spectacle. Public scepticism about the incorruptibility of Indian politicians is unlikely to decline regardless of how loud and how long Mr Modi promises to clean up the system. Public doubts about the independence of investigations and the agencies that carry out these investigations are not going to abate because trust in the efficiency and independence of the administrative system is very low. Every incident, not necessarily as blatant a failure of the police in Prayagraj, as the killing of gangsters Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf while handcuffed and in police custody, merely confirms to the public that the rule of law is getting weaker with every passing week.
Standing together in solidarity against the perceived intimidation and coercive tactics of the Narendra Modi government is reassuring for all political parties. This sense of solidarity needs to be quickly transformed into a commitment to a common agenda of government of a potential Opposition alliance. Being anti-Modi or anti-BJP is not a winning proposition. The Opposition urgently needs to flesh out what it can offer to voters beyond a slogan: “Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao”.
To convince voters to make the Opposition’s fight against Mr Modi and the BJP their own, with all its attendant risks and hidden costs, the ideologically opposed political parties, especially the Congress, have to connect with the electorate on issues that are immediate, intimate and crucial for voters as individuals. The rising costs of living, fewer opportunities for employment, worsening terms of employment are all urgent issues that affect the lives of every voter. The question is: can the Congress and the regional parties prevail on voters to listen to their solutions to their everyday problems, without getting distracted by the “M” factor in Indian politics?