The opposition must build an alternative model that addresses the issues of governance and corruption along with the promise of a more prosperous future.
Rajni Kothari is remembered for his pioneering work on the Congress party in the immediate post-independence period. He coined the term ‘Congress system’, which all students of political science and anyone with an interest in politics is probably familiar with. Today, however, as the Congress continues to decline, the BJP is fast establishing itself into this efficient system. The party’s politics and existing structures have allowed it to spread to states beyond its traditional base along with reclaiming its old base, Uttar Pradesh, where it won a massive mandate in the just-concluded elections.
In trying to understand this movement of the Right in contemporary politics, one important lens that has receded is that of the political economy. This is linked to the way in which ‘development’ has become a complex and interconnected phenomena that is animating electoral outcomes in ways that we are yet to understand fully.
Throughout the election campaign, the development mantra remained ambiguous as both the sitting chief minister and the prime minister, leading the rival camps, suggested that both would bring about development in UP. What this means, however, has remained elusive. As many would say, we live in times of post-truth and in these times, the fact that ‘development’ or ‘vikas’ will take place invariably goes unchallenged, by fact or experience. Questions of how, when and for whom are hidden by this leviathan of development. It is therefore not surprising that M. Venkaiah Naidu, in an opinion column in The Indian Express, has called development ‘the voter’s new religion.’
It would not be wrong to suggest that this characterisation might be appropriate. Development today has become the heart of the heartless world and the sigh of the oppressed as it has entwined in its enigma both the rich and the poor, while comfortably accommodating those in the middle. This mantra of vikas has been used effectively by Modi, especially in his stringing together of a popular rhetoric. While bank charges have gone up, scholarships have been reduced, welfare schemes constricted and all credible economic indicators pointing towards a general slowdown of the economy, the grandstanding of a Digital India, a Jan-Dhan Yojana or even demonetisation has worked well for Modi. There has been a certain unchallenged belief that ‘acche din’ are on their way.
What has also worked out well is that the opposition has completely lacked a credible alternative. It is not surprising that many voters saw through Akhilesh Yadav’s promises of development when his own ally, the Congress party, ran a campaign of UP being behal under the rule of SP and BSP before eventually the alliance was formed. Also, one cannot ignore the issues of sugarcane farmers of western UP, the weavers of Varanasi, the once industrial hub of Kanpur, the situation of drought and agrarian crisis in Bundelkhand, that the Yadav-led government failed to address. It is the politics of such locally entrenched economic processes that are undergoing transformations, which have not been addressed by the SP or even the BSP, and which has led to the BJP completely monopolising this narrative of development.
This has also meant that any alternative claim to this developmental narrative from the opposition, which has largely mirrored the dominant narrative, has been seen through by the voters of UP. This lack of an alternative, however, is not specific to UP alone. The narrative of development has been wholly monopolised by the neoliberal model and used craftily with a populist rhetoric by Modi. What has happened in the process is that when this model – marked by a pro-market tilt, a recalibrated state and the privatisation of public goods – is marketed by Yadav/Mamata Banerjee/Nitish Kumar and the Left vis-à-vis the BJP and RSS, capital has chosen to go with the latter than with the former.
Development, therefore, will have to be contested once again and for that a new developmental model will have to be crafted anew, a path that is superior to the neoliberal model in working towards a more equitable and prosperous socio-economic condition. In this new imagination, issues of governance, structural as well as everyday corruption and measures of effective redistribution will have to be thought of along with the promise of a more prosperous future. A politics of hope will have to lie behind this imagination of an economic alternative.
One of the preliminary steps in working out this alternative is rooted to the question of identifying the social classes for which the different opposition parties stand. Whether it stands for a multi-class coalition of all classes or whether it would imagine a new developmental strategy that is targeted only to the middle classes and their concerns or the sections of poor as well as the middle classes. In making such a choice, the opposition will also have to look out at ways in which their traditional social constituencies, such as the Yadavs and Muslims for SP-Congress, the Jatavs for BSP, have themselves undergone change or have been reified by different socio-economic processes, local as well as global in nature.
The Left for example, has yet to formulate in the changed conditions of the political economy, in UP or elsewhere, who it stands for and what it stands for. Gone are the traditional belts of the Left in industrial Kanpur and Varanasi or its influence in agrarian politics via the once strong Kisan Sabha movement. A serious recalibration has not been made that has completely sidelined the Left, especially in UP where its candidates lost their deposits on all the seats they contested for. Going forward, however, issues like the land question, mid-day meal schemes, education, public distribution systems and building accessible credit mechanisms for the largely agrarian economy must be re-thought and addressed in an alternative developmental agenda rather than be subsumed in an enigma of ‘development’, an empty signifier.
In this brief push towards the need for bringing back the lens of political economy, the issue of demonetisation cannot be overlooked. The lack of a political economy perspective is also linked to the way in which demonetisation has almost seemed to have disappeared from the political lexicon during the elections. Demonetisation has had a negative impact on the economy and that criticality must not be dropped in light of these results.
What, however, should be looked out for is the ways in which demonetisation is working out the ill effects in multiple ways. In this task, the politics to counter the ill-effects of demonetisation has been completely missing, allowing for the BJP to run away with the narrative that it has wiped out corruption through demonetisation even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. On this point too, while all analysis and political articulations have pointed to the limits of demonetisation in curbing corruption, the opposition has also failed to provide its own blueprint for bringing to an end structural corruption as well corruption in a more everyday form. On this front, Congress has remained representative of a corrupt order in the eyes of many.
Finally, to learn a lesson from history, the Congress party remained the fulcrum of post-independent politics till the 1967 elections, while the opposition lacked any alternatives to the ‘Tata-Birla socialism’ that was put in place in post-independence India. However, starting from 1967, wherever an alternative was laid before the electorate, the Congress system started to be challenged, whether in Tamil Nadu, Kerala or West Bengal. Today, the opposition needs to craft this alternative and lay it out before the electorate; an alternative that is more productive, socially just and equitable, especially one that does not rely on the market, global corporations, the privatisation of public goods and a state that is unabashedly tilted towards capital.
Pratim Ghoshal is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.