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The Bharat Jodo Yatra (a march to unite India) by the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, has started with much fanfare. Although the Congress has projected it as a non-political and non-party national event, the march would pass through 12 states and two Union territories where the party wants to improve its electoral performance in the coming general elections. The Congress expects that it will be a massive outreach programme where the party can raise questions on the economy, social polarisation and political centralisation.
“Bharat-Jodo” is also being portrayed as the single most important political initiative to save India from the divisive Hindutva ideology. Hence, it is expected that people opposed to the Hindu Rashtra, civic groups and secular political organisations aspiring for peace and harmony in the country would voluntarily support this initiative, shedding all their apprehensions and doubts about the Congress.
To this end, Congress had also convened a meeting of eminent intellectuals and civil society organisations to seek their support and participation. Some among them like academic and activist Yogendra Yadav have even resigned from Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a collective of farmers’ organisations, to completely engage himself in this yatra. Considering this as a historic moment, similar to an anti-Emergency upsurge, some secular democratic intellectuals and forces have taken up the responsibility to bridge the gap between the civil society groups and the Congress party.
This belated Yatra itself is a good political initiative by Congress, even if it is conceived for electoral benefits. A possible discussion about the message of love and peace in the public arena continuously for the next 150 days would have a positive impact on society. Whether it can be sustained till the elections, and whether the Congress has the wherewithal, and the will to do so is a different question altogether.
Described by the Congress as a battle between two ideologies, the yatra’s potential to counter the party’s own historical baggage, laced with anti-democratic credentials, remains to be seen. The march will allow the Congress to assert its political and social plank, but will it be enough to challenge the Modi dispensation and structurally weaken the fascist tendencies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government? This is a question worth pondering over.
While there is a need for mobilisation of people akin to the anti-Emergency movement against Modi’s increasing authoritarianism, the present moment can’t be compared with it for obvious reasons.
Many will agree that the current regime is sustained by blatant and latent support in the society, despite its authoritarian nature, which has been compared to the period of Emergency. To top it off, the opposition parties have been failing to gain the trust of the majority of people.
In contrast, the Sangh Parivar has continuously worked with its Hindu Rashtra agenda relentlessly among the urban and semi-urban masses and had created a critical support base for its political ideology. It has successfully created better organisational structures than other constituents in the anti-Emergency camp.
Today, the resistance against Modi and the larger Sangh Parivar lacks both strategic and tactical measures. The Modi government is ruthless and vicious, but still considered credible and a better alternative. The ideology of hate has found a strong social constituency. The opposition, especially the Congress, faces trust deficit due to its own politics of compromise on Hindutva and welfarism.
In such a scenario, the Yatra can’t be compared to an anti-Emergency upsurge. Instead, it is a good time to understand that such isolated events may not be sufficient to defeat the political reality Indians are facing today.
Thus, a convincing political-ideological alternative, credible leadership and a deep-rooted organisational presence are prerequisites to counter Modi’s authoritarianism. While Congress lacks all three, civil society organisations too are struggling on all three counts.
Intellectuals and civil society groups which are supporting the march in this context will risk being seen more as supporters of the Congress than the ones as offering moral support to the Yatra. It is all the more important for them to realise that by sidestepping criticism against Congress, they may only end up strengthening the Sangh Parivar. Their silence may only increase the trust deficit that the opposition currently faces.
Social engineering and electoral autocracy
The Sangh Parivar also had its Rath Yatra in the early 1990s which traversed all over India in the same way. It reaped electoral dividends because the hate message was localised and amplified by the different arms of the Parivar. When it could form governments in some states and acquire an influential parliamentary position in the rest, the power was meticulously used to spread its organisational tentacles and politically consolidate its agenda of Hindu Rashtra. It also invested itself in not only electoral engineering but also social-political engineering, expanding and consolidating its social base.
Thus, with a long-term vision and plan, a Hindu Samaj and a Hindu vote bank were cultivated incrementally to realise the Hindu Rashtra, electorally. The deep state was hinduised, and so was the nation.
Take the example of Bihar where the return of Nitish Kumar to the secular camp is being celebrated and perceived as a shot in the arm for the secular camp. Nitish Kumar’s government in the state helped the Sangh Parivar to tide over legislative hurdles in implementing the policies of Hindu Rashtra like the Citizenship Amendment Act, Triple Talaq, abrogation of Article 370, etc. More than that, one should also notice how the BJP’s social base among the constituents of social justice parties has increased on an anti-Muslim ideological plank.
While the Janata Dal (United) vote share decreased from 22% in 2010 when it joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to 15% in the last elections in 2020, the BJP, which had hardly obtained 7.5% vote share when it contested alone in 1985, increased its vote share from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2020.
It is one example of how the electoral victories and opportunism of other political parties helped the Hindutva forces to expand their social base continuously. This base is further Hinduised on an anti-Muslim plank with continuous political propaganda and meticulous organisational work of the Parivar. This would create a permanent Hindu vote bank which cannot be broken electorally without a credible political-ideological-organisational alternative.
It may be comforting to emphasise the fact that the BJP even under Modi could not cross 36% vote share in the last elections and that 64% of the Indian electorate still opposes divisive ideology. But the fact remains that it has been increasing its vote share from 7% in 1984 (when Congress had obtained 49% vote share) consistently to 36% in 2019 – double the vote share of Congress.
It is also a fact that except in Tamil Nadu and Punjab, the BJP increased its vote share in all states and had garnered more than 50% of votes in not only the Hindi states like Uttar Pradesh but also in Karnataka where it had never crossed 35%. In both these states, the major secular parties (Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, and Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka) had declared a pre-election alliance so that the secular votes are not divided. But in both the states, this boomeranged and the BJP got more votes than before.
This expansion of its social base on the ideological plank of Hindu Rashtra needs to be confronted with a political, ideological and organisational alternative.
It would be self-deception to gloss over the fact that the Congress derives some of its political-ideological waters from the same rivers as the BJP – economic liberalisation, savarna casteism and soft Hindutva. It is also the case with most political parties. While Congress claims credit for building Ram mandir in Ayodhya, AAP supports abrogation of article 370, JDU supports CAA and BSP supports changes to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. And while leftists oppose UAPA at the national level, they want to continue its implementation with all its draconian nature in Kerala, where they are in power.
What is needed is not a refix (Jodo) with the old but a complete reconstruction of India (Punarnirman). Any support for Yatra should not overlook its limitation and the real nature of a fascist challenge that looms beyond the electoral challenge. Instead, it should be ready for a comprehensive and protracted battle.
Shivasundar is a columnist and activist in Karnataka.