The politics of representation in India, at this moment, is undergoing a change. The simple idea of a dominant, almost suffocating “big” party on the one hand and a multiplicity of “smaller” parties that are almost invariably perceived in their relationship to the ruling behemoth, on the other, is definitely over.
In the present, there is what feels like a build-up of seismic pressures that will transform the familiar and so comfortable, ersatz multiparty system into one where different parties are compelled to be responsive to the mature and full political consciousness that has come out on the streets, occupying parks, roads, gateways and prominent locations to represent, above all else, themselves.
Plurality versus polarised is the emerging politics. The old politics of big fish and smaller fry, of “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” is ending. In its place, “Say! What a lot of fish there are… Some are old. And some are new,” with apologies to Dr Seuss, are filling the gaps that the outdated binary model never could.
From the grassroots or rather the streets, parks, prominent locations, steps and plazas, there are people and voices representing themselves, their legacies, their aspirations and so creating an insistent demand on the political establishment that implies a vast organism coming to life, fully mature in its political consciousness, even though it lacks experience and is not, as yet, stable. It has both autonomy and agency.
The time is near when earlier orthodoxies of mobilisation, for recognition of small and smaller groups by political parties or creating new political parties to further empower and represent the heterogeneity of identities that were packaged as “diversity” will need to come to terms with the metamorphosis underway.
Citizenship as a basic identity has had the effect of bringing the politics down to earth. The politicisation of the mass, not the dispersed masses, has been abrupt and transformative. The political establishment is trying to catch up with what is happening across India, in what the Uttar Pradesh police seems to think is an insubstantial insurrection against Section 144 imposed on the Ghantaghar area in Lucknow.
The rigidities of old style alliances and coalition in which every constituent member acted and spoke in identical ways is crumbling. Even within parties, there seems to be a variety of tactical moves that are confusing when scrutinised under the old rules of political analysis. The Trinamool Congress was the first to consistently oppose and protest against the Citizenship Amendment, then Bill, now Act. It was also the first to consistently oppose and protest against the Bharatiya Janata Party and its government at the Centre’s vow to unroll verification across India of the horrendously expensive and verifiably flawed National Register of Citizens process. The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared that she would not allow the National Population Register process to be conducted in the state. She walked miles and miles in different parts of West Bengal to mobilise support for her position and to challenge the BJP; Amit Shah-Narendra Modi on the one hand and the local gasconader, Dilip Ghosh, on t he other.
Mamata Banerjee pointed to the link between NPR and NCR and CAA and opposed all three. She has not budged from her stand that these processes will not be allowed implementation in West Bengal.
Yet, she did not attend the all-party meeting called by Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on January 13. Nor for that matter did the Shiv Sena, or the DMK, or BSP. Each of these parties cited different reasons for staying away. Instead of branding the absence as betrayal, the parties that did attend the meeting conceded that each of these parties was as committed to opposing the CAA-NRC-NPR as themselves. The maturing of political reaction is an intriguing change, because it implies a deeper bonding and overall confidence between Opposition, that is parties against the BJP parties and a better coordination.
Nor has Ms Banerjee passed a special resolution in the West Bengal state Assembly rejecting CAA-NRC and NPR, unlike Kerala and Punjab. Her reasons for not doing so are not clear, which has created room for speculation about her intentions, fuelled by her meeting in Kolkata with the Prime Minister during his recent visit and her earlier meetings in New Delhi with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Yet, the Trinamool Congress was among the first to file a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of CAA, describing it as: “This blatant discrimination put into legislation by the amended act is not only unconstitutional but also inhumane and opposed to the very idea of our nation.”
The command and control style of pre-December 2019 Indian politics that was hypersensitive to tactical shifts and dodges is perceptibly changing, reshaping both the internal dynamics of parties and the external public-facing responses. Political parties are being pushed to change and adjust by the seismic pressures of peoples’ protests.
These pop-up and then settled-in protests — Shaheen Bagh, Gateway of India, Park Circus, Masoor Ali Khan Park, Doranda Urs Park — are different, so different that India has never seen anything like this before. The plurality of these protests are not organised or engineered by political parties mobilising rented crowds; these are manifestations of rising seismic pressure. The full-throated slogans in women’s voices — no longer subdued or modestly modulated — is also markedly different.
The future of political parties will depend on their response — dialogue rather than diatribe — to the seismic pressure on CAA-NRC-NPR or any other or many other issues that galvanise the masses to gather in protest. The unorganised mobilisations and solidarities indicate that younger people — students and the working population — are dismantling the old order of things, of parties and establishments leading and controlling the masses. The old order is being by passed by a plural and politically conscious population that is not confined to the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. It is a mobilisation cutting across class, caste, religion, education, privilege and location. In the crowd, it is impossible to tell who has only urban roots and who has rural roots. The usual divisions and categorisations seem to be dissolving in the celebration of plurality.
The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata...