If the BJP is hegemonic today, it is so because its brute power enjoys popular endorsement. Counter-hegemony is the principal political challenge of our times.
Let’s face it. The stunning verdict of the assembly elections has signalled a new phase in national politics. The BJP is now not just a ruling party at the Centre and in some states, it is the pole around which national politics is organised. It is the hegemonic party in national politics. Narendra Modi now takes the position last occupied by Indira Gandhi.
It is a hard reality to swallow. Those who are opposed to Modi’s vision of ‘new India’ find this very disturbing. I belong to this category. I have maintained that Modi stands in opposition to the very idea of India. But it is one thing to like or dislike his politics, quite another to assess where he stands today. Here Modi’s critics are guilty of living in denial. For the last two years, they were hoping that his regime would collapse under its own weight. They had taken great solace in the BJP’s crushing defeat in Delhi in 2015 and Bihar in 2016. They had predicted that demonetisation was to prove his nemesis. That, clearly, did not happen. Any serious opposition to the BJP must begin by acknowledging this truth.
Hegemonic does not just mean powerful. Hegemony is power with legitimacy. If the BJP is hegemonic today, it is so because its brute power enjoys popular endorsement. The prime minister is not just popular, as most prime ministers are at the beginning of their tenure. He has captured national imagination like few leaders have in the recent past. The BJP is shaping popular common sense.
There are three components to the BJP’s hegemony. First, it enjoys and exercises brute power like few central governments have. Some of this is effective use of legitimate state power. Unlike the Congress, the BJP uses it executive power to keep state institutions under its thumb. From education to culture to defence, the Modi government has appointed those who can be trusted to carry out its agenda. It also stretches its legal power to push decisions that do not quite belong to it. The dislodging of state governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the latest attempt to install BJP governments in Goa and Manipur, bypassing the Rajya Sabha to enact laws that the opposition may not approve are some examples from this category. The ruling party combines all this with exercise of violence and intimidation reminiscent of the terror of the Sanjay Gandhi brigade. The ABVP hooliganism in campuses across the country and violence against human right activists is becoming the norm now.
The second component of the BJP’s hegemony is its electoral dominance, which reached a new height last week. The significance of the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand is not just its spectacular and unprecedented seats tally. The BJP’s victory in 2014 was about as spectacular. The real point is that the BJP managed to repeat this victory in a state assembly election where anti-incumbency was not that strong and where the BJP did not have any state level leadership to project. Yes, Modi is unable to wipe out the anti-incumbency sentiment against his party in Goa and against his ally in Punjab. But the BJP’s powerful entry in Manipur, coming at the back of its victory in Assam, gains in Odisha, expanded footprint in the southern states and earlier victories in Haryana and Maharashtra, makes the BJP a nation-wide political force to reckon with. The Congress is now confined to a few states and is rapidly shrinking. The BJP and the Congress have swapped places in the last ten years.
The third component is moral and ideological acceptance of the regime by the people. The prime minister has extended his popularity well beyond the usual ‘honeymoon’ period. His ability to survive the demonetisation fiasco shows that ordinary people continue to trust him and are willing to overlook his mistakes. It is also clear that the taint of the startling disclosures in the Birla-Sahara case have not stuck to him yet. He has managed to convince the people that he stands for national interest and stands above the partisan battles that political parties fight. On demonetisation, he managed to sell his narrative that it was a move against the big fat hoarders of black money. Above all, the BJP has managed to win the nationalism debate in the battle of public opinion. A party that had little connect with India’s freedom struggle now shapes ordinary citizen’s common sense on nationalism.
There are three major limitations to this legitimacy. This circle of the BJP’s legitimacy does not include the entire nation. It firmly excludes the minorities. It is not just that the minorities do not respond enthusiastically to Modi. He actually makes a point of excluding them, mainly the Muslims and the Christians. He gains legitimacy with the majority Hindu community by showing that he does not care for the Muslims. We also need to note that this popular acceptance is not spontaneous. A good deal of spin doctoring, image management and media manipulation has gone into creating this popular acceptance for the prime minister. Since the Emergency days, the media has never faced the kind of governmental pressure that it faces today. Such domination is inherently fragile. At the moment it is awesome, but as and when it shakes, it can collapse like a house of cards. And finally, there is little objective grounds for this popularity. Economic growth has slowed down. Rural distress continued unabated and so does unemployment. Most of the high-profile programmes of this government like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna have not delivered what they promised.
What does this hegemony mean for our democracy? It is true that this offers a lot of room to the government on the policy front. Although a government that could push through a momentous decision like demonetisation is not constrained on this front, but it would remove any possible excuse for non-performance. Largely, however, this hegemony poses a challenge to our democracy. There is an imminent possibility of rapidly shrinking democratic spaces. This hegemony can reinforce the hubris this government suffers from. We face a real possibility of an onslaught on the foundational values of our republic.
How, then, do we counter this hegemony? The whole point of calling it hegemony is to remind ourselves that simple-minded opposition does not work against it. Headlong and courageous street fight may not work. A grand alliance of opposition is likely to be counter-productive. Counter-hegemony must begin by developing a cultural toolkit to take on the ideological and moral legitimacy of the regime. This is the principal political challenge of our times.
Yogendra Yadav is a political activist and psephologist, and founder of Swaraj Abhiyan.
By arrangement with The Tribune.