Can INDIA Parties as an Opposition Bloc Bring Back the Politics of Ideas?

The naming of opposition front aptly as INDIA brings to the fore several questions regarding the future of Indian democracy. We have, as a nation state, moved away from a politics of ideas to a politics of activity. It is time to bring back 'big ideas' into our political discourse.

INDIA – Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – an acronym for the recently formed national opposition coalition brings to the fore several questions regarding the future of Indian democracy. The title and the acronym are an important attempt to provide a different (political) imagination of Indian nationalism, focusing on the 2024 national elections. Within the context of electoral contests over the last decade or so, this is an attempt to create a new set of spokespersons on Indian nationalism and a different set of narratives.

My research on nationalism has highlighted that the idea of democracy is closely tied to the ideas of Indian nationalism for non-elites. One of the important elements of being a nation is that it is led by a democratically elected political leader towards an ideal horizon defined by equality, justice, dignity, and socio-economic development for all. The quality of democracy and its role in nation-building has many pathways, and the different narratives of nationalism are indicative of the different pathways. The much-needed contestation of ideas of democracy through narratives of nationalism is building up.

A plethora of questions arise: Can the sharp degradation in the institutions of Indian democracy hinder the build-up of momentum for the contestation of ideas around Indian nationalism and democracy before it even reaches grassroots mobilisation? Will the current phase become a harbinger of new political contestations on the greatest good for all, or will polarisation tear us apart? Will it symbolise new ways for cultural and religious life to flourish within a larger inclusive national public culture? Or, will we splinter into smaller, exclusionary cultural-religious silos within a xenophobic nationalism? Will it be another occasion where Indian democracy will lead by way of example, just as it did in 1947, or is it the beginning of the end of a defiant experiment to create a just, equitable, and inclusive society?

At stake are the meanings of Indian nationalism and practices of Indian democracy.

Democracy is but a contest of ideas 

Contestation among political ideas is critical for a democracy to survive. Democracy is but one specific arrangement to resolve political disputes among many others, such as monarchy or military rule. Its trademark is the simultaneous presence of many, conflicting ideas of politics having a chance to hold state power. If different ideas can’t co-exist, nothing stops democracy from transforming itself into some other form, and Indian democracy is no exception. Democracy in India is not a given. It’s a work of labour and love. For democracy to deliver to ensure well-being for all, it must generate new ideas. This perhaps is the biggest challenge that we are facing right now.

Also read: Has the INDIA Alliance Made PM Modi Nervous?

In our politics today why are ideas like justice, equality, constitution, and equity considered abstract and politically marginal, while those about culture, religion, and growth are real, relatable, and politically ‘mobilisable’? Why is our politics obsessively wrapped around a narrow, technocratic, and delivery-focused approach to “development” in which political power emerges from the number of gas cylinders delivered and insurance cards distributed, ironically discussed as “Kaam” in Hindi?

Conditions for a politics of ideas

Frequently ignored in our analysis of politics is that big political ideas resonate with people not only because they are powerful but also speak to the challenges and anxieties of the masses. Foundational ideas about nationalism, political culture, and state-society relationship need a range of committed supporters who translate them and connect them with the everyday reality of the people.

When I was studying the meanings of Indian nationalism for ordinary people, I found that the context and the frequency of discussion on nationalism impacted the extent to which the idea of Indian nationhood was meaningful. Whether ordinary people could easily state their meaning of national pride and the ideas they would use varied across areas where nationalism was invoked frequently and where it was not.

Representative image. Photo: PTI

For example, in areas where there was a history of communal tension or frequent international travel certain ideas about the nation were dominant such as peaceful-ness, diversity, and Indian culture. The level of education is less of a determining factor for clear and strong ideas about nationalism. You can be an educated homemaker and feel hesitant in stating ideas of national pride or be barely literate but an active party member and speak profoundly about nationalism. Political discussions are one such arena where nationalism is discussed by a whole range of leaders and those who participate in these discussions actively have a better sense of their own meanings of nationalism, irrespective of their level of education.

The question we face in front of us is why isn’t there a larger constituency of people who are translating new ideas on Indian democracy such as social justice, equality, and inclusive development in the context of our everyday lives. We need poets, teachers, social service activists, writers, and community elders who are engaging with these ideas. Politics is not a disconnected reality from our social and cultural worlds, and the job of imagining a new future and a new India is not just for political leaders at the national level. Our religious lives are well represented by a range of leaders, such as those leading our local Satyanarayan poojas and Sundarkands to the heads of our most revered temples and places of worship. There are a million ways in which religious ideas are translated and adapted into our daily lives, including Bollywood – credit must be given where it’s due, by Bollywood.

The future that must energise us is that we need an ecosystem of politics and political thinking in which political ideas are debated publicly. Our analysis must rigorously debate ideas around redistributive justice, inclusive empowerment, ethical leadership, and effective public institutions. Inclusive development in DLF Phase 4 in Gurgaon and a village in Sawai Madhopur will look different. We need curators and commentators who can flesh out these ideas in terms of our everyday life.

Also read: Modi May Dismiss Opposition’s Efforts To Unite, but They Are Borne Out of BJP’s Hegemony

Looking beyond the national party establishments

Assuming that only national-level political parties, leaders, elections, campaigns, and mobilisation can address the big questions is perhaps limiting. The tiring job of linking our small concerns, such as the gas cylinders and well-paved roads to the big questions facing our world today has to be an ongoing task for both political and non-political actors. The vision for a new Indian democracy and nationalism has to be stated and owned by political parties, leaders, and workers at all levels both national and state levels.

Non-political players such as writers, commentators, artists, and filmmakers must engage with these questions. Of course, there will be disagreements and tussles. National-level politics will have to synthesise and negotiate the different visions of India coming from these contestations both inside and outside the ballot box. But we will be richer in the fact that these ideas will not remain abstract utterances made in some campaign material.

In our efforts to move towards a solution-oriented approach to our social and economic problems, maybe idea-rooted thinking has been sidelined. We can’t see these approaches as an either-or situation. The hard work of keeping a close eye on the small problems, such as health insurance for the poor, alongside the big picture of the identity of the Indian state, whether welfare oriented or not, is very much called for. We have moved from a politics of ideas to a politics of activity. Perhaps we need to go back to the first principles enunciated at the founding of the Indian nation-state in 1947. Perhaps it’s time to think of the big ideas.

Priyadarshini Singh is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.