The BJP Is Looking to Shut Down Politics. That is Why the Opposition Must Unite.

By camouflaging the upper caste, upper class interests it represents in the colours of the ‘nation’, the BJP strategy is to paint all parties not aligned with it as ‘anti-national’, thereby ending the very possibility of politics.

In thinking about the forthcoming (and impending) 2019 election, the mind turns inevitably to 1977 – the post-Emergency election in which, as if by magic, the darkness which threatened to engulf all our possible futures was suddenly dispelled.

But there is a more uncomfortable memory that I have in mind when I recall 1977: the unholy mess that the Janata experiment soon became, thus paving the way for the return of Indira Gandhi – and later, in the run of time, the ascendancy of the sole and cynical survivor from the failed Janata experiment, the Bharatiya Janata Party. This has special significance because, in the 2019 election, it is the BJP which threatens that terminal darkness – the end of all politics and the march towards a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

It is only because the formidable electoral machine assembled by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has been defeated in the recent succession of by-polls by a series of rag-tag, ad hoc opposition alliances that some modest hope has once again become thinkable. But it is imperative that “opposition unity” be put on some firmer intellectual foundation than the mere contingencies of different local contexts – and the unequivocally malign nature of the political force that they must vanquish.

“Anti-BJP” is a powerful argument – thanks in large part to the BJP itself, with its lamentable (and worse, malign) record in the last four years. If there were any – and there were many – who had some (residual) belief that the BJP-RSS could be tamed by the responsibilities of power,  well, that belief has become unsustainable now. For all the camouflage – rhetoric, tech gimmickry – that the Infamous Duo can rustle up, their game is effectively exposed. Their political party is a front organisation that is run by a sinister secret society which seeks to restore the privileges of the Hindu upper castes and its associated corporate sector – and is willing to go to any lengths to bring that about.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, BSP’s Mayawati, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and others attend Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing in. Credit: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

This is, of its very nature, a fertile theme – the ressentiment of the super-privileged savarna elites will bear detailed examination. However, it is sufficient for my present purpose that its broad outlines have become clear to all but the wilfully blind – blind to the itinerant gangs of gaurakshaks who perpetrate grotesque acts of public violence, the official and unofficial apparatchiks who feel emboldened to voice the foolishnesses and protect the outrages that might otherwise have remained hidden – and so the slogan of “anti-BJP” has become a powerful argument for opposition unity. But I wish to go further and suggest that while this is necessary, that negative argument for “opposition unity” is still insufficient. Something more positive, more powerful is needed.

Politicians routinely accuse each other of acting from political motives. This is obviously absurd – of course politicians must have political motives. But one must try and understand what is at work in this paradoxical-but-universal accusation. All politics must – and should – seek to influence the balance of power in particular directions that are deemed to be favourable to the particular interests represented by the politicians and their parties. That, indeed, is the stuff of politics itself.

But it is equally characteristic of the practice of politics to pretend otherwise, to claim that that is not the case. And so, in the contention of competing special interests, politicians seek to claim with varying degrees of vociferousness that their “special interest” is, in fact, the general interest. Of course, all such claims need to be scrutinised very carefully – not only because they are (generally) false, but also because they implicitly seek to shut down the clamour of political contention itself – particularly if there is a party that claims to speak for “the nation”. After all, the predictable implication runs, what need is there for any other party or group to speak at all? Invocations of “the nation” have that kind of consequence quite generally.

The “nationalism” of the BJP springs from one rather fundamental difficulty. The “special interest” that it represents is the one “special interest” that cannot be named – this is the interest of the privileged Hindu upper castes, whose dominance over social resources is complete. This ‘special interest’ is wholly devoid of any moral legitimacy for complex historical reasons – the “leftist” legacy of the freedom movement, the work of the Hindu social reformers who undermined the intellectual foundations of untouchability and the worst iniquities of the Brahminical social order, etc. Whatever the reason, the fact is that “Brahminism” can have few overt defenders today. This is the one special interest that cannot be named even though it exists. (Indeed, its more egregious stupidities find articulation in the cultural agenda of the BJP – the Ganesh-based plastic surgery, the Mahabharata internet, the “Aryan” denial of evolution and, perhaps most centrally, the Cult of the Cow.)

The only way in which this privileged “special interest” can defend its dominance and consolidate its stranglehold on the social surplus is by seeking to shut down the clamour of “special interests” – i.e. politics, all politicsaltogether, in favour of serving “the nation”. The BJP seeks to delegitimise all other parties by insisting – implying, suggesting, dog-whistling – that they are all “anti-national”. Consequently, all politics as such becomes superfluous. This strategy is already being implemented, with the willing, and perhaps unwitting, collaboration of the corporate-controlled media. Our homegrown, sui generis, Brahminical fascism is already knocking at the door.

It follows from this, that all politicians have a shared interest in wresting political control from the one party that is – as I have argued, necessarily – in the business of shutting down politics. In a functioning democratic polity, tomorrow is always another day. Political parties will (and should)  continue to contend, and jostle, and clamour, and do all the unsightly, messy things that we associate with everyday democracy – provided that the one self-described “nationalist” party is not permitted to shut down politics altogether.

Consider the words of one of our most acute political thinkers, Rajeev Bhargava: “No class or ethnic group … must completely control state power, or use it to push its own agenda in its entirety. Therefore, each class and ethnic group must learn to live with [the] fact that all its objectives cannot be met. … every group forsakes part of its interests and achieves a principled compromise. By curbing the inclination to impose our agenda on others, and instead arriving at negotiated settlements, we produce stable democracies.”

So, I would suggest, the negative basis for “opposition unity” is provided by the shared, common need to keep the “anti-political” party out. Coalition-as-tactic is a perfectly legitimate democratic form of resistance to the greatest danger implicit in democracy as such – majoritarianism. I would suggest, further, that this “negative” defence of the right to politics provides a further, and positive, basis for opposition unity.

I believe that the quest for a common ideology is a non-starter. The Congress alone had something like an ideology, once. This was a kind of Catholic inclusivism – the umbrella party – which was born out of the tactical compulsions of the freedom movement. But it wasn’t much of an ideology, and all that remains of it is an institutional memory. This is not insignificant, but it will be difficult – all but impossible – even for the Congress to formulate a party “ideology” that goes beyond platitudes.

As for the others, they are powerful regional players – but they are powerful precisely because their only real ideology is the “special interest” that they represent, often quite unabashedly. Typically, their ideological cover is not even a decent fig leaf. One may well ridicule the “samajvaad” of the Samajwadi Party which seems to be limited to the Yadav samaaj, but this is broadly true of all the other parties.

The sole exception is the one party that camouflages its Hindu-savarna “special interest” in the colours of the “nation” itself – the BJP. 

But in so far as the Congress also makes, albeit somewhat nostalgically, a “national” claim, it is important to discriminate between their different “nationalisms”. Thus, the Congress’s anti-colonial “nationalism” of the pre-1947 period, for all its complexities and compromises, must still be distinguished from the anti-political “nationalism” of the BJP. The latter is a cynical political manoeuvre through which the claim and contention that is the substance of democracy is sought to be filtered out in the name of some “nation” which seeks to trump all challenges to the dominant groups. In so far as the “nation” seeks to trump all necessarily “lesser” claims, it kills the very possibility of politics. The only form in which “the nation” can enable a viable politics is when “the nation”, rather than being an atavistic, eternal, trans-historical entity, is in fact conceived of as  an integral function of all its constituent special interests – as a work-in-progress, one that is always in the process of being achieved in and through the activity of coalition.

The positive basis for opposition unity can only be found through a recognition of the fact that the contention and jockeying of sectional special interests that we call democracy is not a diversion from politics – it is itself the stuff and substance of politics. And while the contention must go on, it must proceed on the assumption that all the contending parties must remain in contention. The goal of an ‘X’-mukt condition – no matter what that ‘X’ is, whether it is Congress-mukt – as the BJP desires – or even BJP-mukt, as some others might long for – is fundamentally anti-democratic. Whatever policies are sought, and implemented on the basis of contingent majorities, must be founded on the recognition that everybody is, and must remain, in the game. And even when the sectional interests squabble – as they will, and should – they must do so in such a way that  contentious democratic politics, and a shared, viable, common future, remain possible.

Supporters of India’s ruling Congress party attend an election campaign rally being addressed by Rahul Gandhi at Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

It is in this sense that “coalition” is not merely an electoral tactic, it is also an ideology – at its core there is a social vision in which everybody has a stake, and should have a voice. It is animated by a vision of society in which everyone has an equal right to a decent, human life – and the necessity of politics rests precisely on the imperfection of the realisation of that ideal vision. Anything that tends to abort the possibility of politics must be antithetical to that vision. And the minimal condition for being part of this collective project is  a commitment to politics, to the activity of contending, reasoning, arguing, persuading – within the limits of the constitutional order. Extra-constitutional longings, irrespective of whether they are expressed as a desire to rewrite the constitution, or as the implicit mobilisation of vigilante groups that seek to deny the constitutional rights of others through violence, must be recognised for what they are – profoundly subversive, even when they command majorities.

Opposition unity must be founded not on some prior, common, ideology – but rather on a dynamic and evolving, common minimum programme. Thus, such a dynamic common programme would not be something that is simply enunciated at the beginning of the relationship. Rather, it remains something that is constantly being sought to be defined, worked out in practice, and advanced. This common minimum programme cannot be based on the abandonment of the core and constituent sectional interests represented by the different political parties, but rather through the dynamic accommodation of all the sectional interests – because, in a profound and even metaphysical sense, we’re all in this together. And the alternative to working on, and through, and towards, a shared, shareable, common programme is the Big Bad Wolf and the end of politics.

It might be objected that the picture I paint is unrealistically benign – there are interests that are incompatible, there are real-life situations which are, in effect, zero-sum games – i.e. A’s gain is B’s loss. If Kaveri water is given to Tamil Nadu farmers, farmers in Karnataka will have less; if Jats, or Gujars, or whoever, get some reservation quotas, others will have less to vie for. Scarce resources, disproportionate demands, these are the very stuff of everyday politics. This is not going to change.

But we can still agree to the rules of democratic negotiation, and agree that all compromises are still and always only provisional – so long as the possibility of politics remains open. The only really fundamental, shared and non-negotiable interest is in preserving the possibility of politics – because even an unequal compromise is still preferable to civil war. And we will be back tomorrow, back with demands, with banners and slogans, with arguments even – referencing that ideal future in which we are all equal participants, and equal members of the necessary coalition. This is the sense in which coalition is both tactic, and ideology.