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The Year That Was and the Challenge of 2014

December 31, 2013

This is a slightly modified version of the article ‘Winds of Change’, published in Economic and Political Weekly (28 December, 2013). As the year ends and we brace up for the big battle that lies ahead in the coming year, here are some reflections on matters that may have a bearing on that battle. Politics is undergoing a transformation, in India as elsewhere. But perhaps, more importantly, it is also what we have so far understood as politics, that is on the point of transformation. For over a century, social science disciplines have maintained a neat distinction between the political and the economic, between state and capital and so on. Marxism ostensibly challenged this false division – but only to assert that the real thing was ‘economics’; that politics was mere epi-phenomenon. But the story of capital was never an economic story alone. In diverse ways, movements in different parts of the world are about this forced division, and the destruction of politics that followed in actual life as economics became a domain of so-called iron laws and economic models began to determine the ways we were taught to see and understand politics.  In the neoliberal 1990s and part of the 2000s, economic laws and the ‘needs’ of capital became sacrosanct – all politics was made to sing and dance to its tune. Only rank outsiders to this world could ask the emperor’s new clothes kind of questions. That is what seems to be happening. Till now, even those who saw that the emperor was naked, went on a maun vrata (vow of silence), fearing ridicule.

The dying old Kulin Brahmin in Goutam Ghose’s Bengali film Antarjali Jatra suddenly sprang to life on seeing his new attractive wife who had been married to him for the sole purpose of accompanying him in his life beyond as sati. Much like that character, the decrepit and ramshackle BJP seems to have suddenly sprung to life at the fantasy of power, having been out in the cold for almost a decade. And just as the young bride in the film was provided by another old impoverished Brahmin (his unmarried daughter), so an utterly impoverished Congress has provided the BJP with the most tantalizing possibility of what it might get in its life beyond.

How else do we explain the fact that the BJP after 2004, already in shambles with all its old leaders gone and its organization ridden with internal bickering and loss of direction, suddenly seems to have made such a comeback in the recent elections in five states? The ‘return of the BJP’ seems to be the overt message of the results of these elections. For there is certainly no doubt that in the past one year so, ever since the orchestrated rise of Narendra Modi in all-India level politics, the BJP’s fortunes too seem to have started turning. This development, however, was greatly facilitated by the Congress in more ways than one. The Congress seemed determined to hand over the game to Modi and the Hindu Right.

Reading the Mandate

But are we not being a bit hasty here in pronouncing a possible 2014 victory for the BJP? The situation really is not quite as clear as it might seem at first sight. That the Congress has been decisively trounced in the recent elections to five states is no longer news. It is not a ‘fact’ whose meaning is self-evident. It is rather a sign that needs to be decoded for an electoral message never comes in the form of clear and well-formulated theses. The business of decoding calls for the disaggregation of the many messages condensed into one, apparently clear, verdict – that is to say, when there is a clear verdict. And when verdicts are not very clear or when entirely new imponderables enter the scene, a little more care is required in decoding the message/s. Stock phrases like ‘swings’, ‘waves’ or ‘anti-incumbency’ that have lately become substitutes for analyses are best avoided if such an exercise is to be undertaken. These terms really add very little to our political understanding and threaten to reduce the study of politics to some predictable, often technical matters.

Thus for the television anchor, holding fort as the results came in, it seemed self-evident that the electoral rout of the Congress was the reflection of a ‘Modi Wave’ – a wind that was apparently blowing across the length and breadth of the country. Quick media commentary requires easy, capsule-like ‘explanations’ and the systematically calibrated idea of a ‘Narendra Modi wave’ was one such that we saw being repeated over and over again on 8 December.

Similar is the case with the term made popular by the professional pollster – ‘anti-incumbency’. Psephologists never explain why anti-incumbency works only sometimes, and yet it is supposed to stand in for explanation. West Bengal under Left Front rule, for instance, had seen no ‘anti-incumbency’ for close to three and a half decades. Nor has Narendra Modi, his Madhya Pradesh colleague Shivraj Chouhan or the just defeated Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit, for at least three consecutive terms. Indeed, there have many state governments and chief ministers in the past who have managed three terms, often four and more, without encountering any ‘anti-incumbency’.

People do not throw out governments simply because they have been in existence for five years. They have fairly complex relationships with political parties and their local leaders whose networks of power they often need to access. If the attitude of party leaders towards their electors is instrumental and often blatantly opportunist, the latter too have learnt not to place their naïve trust in those who represent them. Politics, at this level, is a game played between these two kinds of players, an encounter between two subjectivities. Opening out channels of access to power is a painstaking exercise and no one wants to disrupt the balance in the very first instance. It is only when things become unbearable that something of a wave – usually a negative wave begins to build up. A positive wave, of the kind we saw in the case of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi is rarer and that too has to be able to capitalize on the purely negative discontent against the ruling party.

The ‘Narendra Modi wave’, on the other hand, is a different affair for it is not at all clear that there was any such thing except in Rajasthan. From all accounts, the Madhya Pradesh performance of the BJP owes little to Modi – it was Shivraj Singh Chouhan all the way. In Chattisgarh, the BJP’s victory is too narrow for there to have been any wave. And in Delhi, as one report put it, of the six constituencies in Delhi where Modi “held impressive rallies”, the BJP lost four – Ambedkar Nagar, Ballimaran, Sultanpur Majra and Rohini.[1] The appearance of the ‘Modi wave’ is more of a corporate/ media affair and has yet to be demonstrated in electoral performance. The fact that people attended Modi’s rallies in large numbers does not necessarily make it a wave.

The Congress Defeat

The 2009 parliamentary elections might be a good place to begin our analysis of what is clearly the main feature of the present round of elections, namely the rout of the Congress. A quick comparison of the Congress performance in 2009 and in the current round, which to some extent might turn out to be the dress rehearsal for the 2014 parliamentary elections, can be quite revealing.[2]

The Congress party that had started unraveling around the beginning of the 1990s reached its all-time in low 1998 with a mere 25.82 percent of the votes polled (compared to 36.26 at the beginning of the decade). It briefly picked up to 28.30 percent in 1999 but in the crucial 2004 elections when it defeated the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it polled 26.53 votes. Its votes from 1999 had actually come down by around 2 percent, as had BJP’s (from 23.75 to 22.16 percent).[3]

At the end of the first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, in 2009, the Congress actually increased its aggregate vote by about 2 percent, from 26.53 to 28.52 percent, while the BJPs vote dropped further to 18.84 percent. Politically, two things stand out in the 2009 results.

First, not only was there no anti-incumbency, the Congress got the benefit of the performance and the general image of UPA 1. UPA 1 had emerged against the background of six years of NDA rule, during which many social movements and citizens groups had begun to work in coordination with the Congress and the Left parties.[4] While the Left parties had their say in the UPA coordination committee, the ‘alliance’ with the social movement sector was institutionalized in the form of the National Advisory Council (NAC). UPA 1 was supported by the Left from outside and worked in close coordination many social movements, and was able to enact some important legislations like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act and the Forest Rights Act. By and large, the regime had conveyed the impression of being a sort of social democratic, welfare-oriented regime, where the worst excesses of the neoliberal reforms were kept in check.

The second striking feature is the further loss of BJP’s vote share to the tune of about 3.4 percent. This decline becomes even more significant if we remember that the BJP’s vote had been steadily declining after it peaked in 1998, irrespective of whether it was in power or out of it.

As opposed to this, this round took place, as will the forthcoming 2014 general elections, will be taking place against the background of massive accumulated anger against the Congress party. The regime of UPA 2 has seen a rapid overturning of everything that had seemed good about UPA 1. Without the support of the support of the Left parties and with the truncated NAC II, the second round of the UPA government seemed to have, in its joy of liberation from external constraints, given free rein to its neoliberal imagination. Of course, it was not as if everything was hunky dory with UPA 1 and indeed, the beginning of the 2G Spectrum scam goes back to the days of UPA 1. However, by the time the 2009 elections were over, things changed rapidly. In October 2010, we had the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi that might go down as perhaps the biggest game of loot, plunder and mass displacement of the poor from the city – and all in such a brazen way that it almost seemed like the government was telling the people that it couldn’t care less about them.

It was close on the heels of the CWG that in November that same year the Open Magazine published transcripts of taped telephonic conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and senior politicians, corporate officials and journalists – all suggesting the fixing of specific ministries in keeping with the demands of certain business houses. Natural gas, mines, land and forests – everything was thrown open for unrestrained loot to private interests.

Against this background emerged the massive anti-corruption movement in late 2010, gaining huge support through 2011, when its leader and figurehead Anna Hazare sat on hunger-strike. It was not very difficult to see that the very emergence of the movement had, on the one hand, provided the rallying point for the accumulating anger against the government and, on the other, produced the beginnings of a new discourse on democracy and politics itself. Unlike other anti-corruption movements of the past ranging from the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat (1973) and the JP movement in Bihar (1974), to the later VP Singh led campaign on the Bofors pay-offs, which had all been content with the demand for the resignation of the government, this was a different moment. Unlike the previous movements, there was no demand for the resignation of the government – for that is too simple. One government resigns and another takes its place, without any change of any sort. This time round the anti-corruption movement was demanding the putting in place of a set of institutional mechanisms and a law that would make it possible for checks to be kept on the government of the day, irrespective of which government it was.

But this in itself would not have perhaps made such a big difference. What really led to the escalation of mass anger, at least but not exclusively in Delhi, was the way the government dealt with the movement. Its arrogance and hubris was writ large on the faces of the spokespersons of the government, inscribed in their body language as they appeared on national television and mocked the lakhs of people who may not have been physically present but who saw the movement as articulating their own vital concerns.

This was repeated yet again when, at the end of 2012, the students and youth of Delhi burst into massive protests against the 16 December gang-rape of a 23 year old paramedic. Instead of coming out and assuring the demonstrators that justice will be done and changes in sexual violence related procedures will be initiated, the government met them with lathi-charge and teargas. As the disbelieving students faced this onslaught of repression and the city watched in anguish, one could see the final nails being hammered in the coffin of the Congress government.

And to cap it all, came the unprecedented price-rise. Prices of all vegetables, not just onions, went out of control. According to the Lokniti-CSDS post poll survey, 20 percent in Chhattisgarh, 24 percent in MP, 27 percent in Rajasthan and 37 percent in Delhi saw price rise as the issue that determined their voting decision.[5] There is little doubt that in Delhi but also in the other regions of the National Capital Region (NCR) – and from the results it would seem elsewhere as well – the anger against the Congress has acquired unprecedented proportions.

This was the backdrop against which this round of elections was held.

The Rise of the BJP

In a way, then the answer seems to be clear. It was the Congress itself that paved the way for the BJP to emerge as the savior, especially in states where the two parties are the main contenders. However, before we start making too much of it, it is worth taking a closer look at the actual performance of the Congress.

One should keep in mind that apart from sweeping the Mizoram election, the Congress has actually increased its vote share in both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by 4 percent and 1.7 percent respectively. However, this has to be seen against the 3.1 percent higher turnout in MP and a 7.1 percent higher turnout in Chhattisgarh. The change in Rajasthan, where it was the ruling party, is dramatic and it has lost 3.7 percent votes against a 9.4 percent higher turnout. Here the BJP has increased its vote share by almost 11 percent as against 7.2 percent in MP and 0.7 percent in Chhattisgarh. The real surprise is of course, Delhi, where the Congress lost 15.8 percent of the votes but the BJP did not gain anything. In fact, the BJP-Sanyukta Akali Dal alliance also lost 2.4 percent compared to their 2008 votes. Here the newly formed AAP bagged 29.5 percent vote, cutting into the votes of practically every other party.[6]

So, the first point to note is that BJP’s victory is not as sweeping and clear as it seems at first glance. But more importantly, the contribution in this victory of something called the ‘Narendra Modi wave’ seems positively doubtful. As mentioned earlier, in Delhi, not only has its vote share declined, it has lost four out of the six seats where Modi campaigned for the party. With regard to MP, there is common consensus that it remains one of the more cohesive and popular of the BJP led state governments. Moreover, Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems to have been sensitive to popular mood and following the feedback received during his mass contact programme, the Jan Aashirvad Yatra, dropped 43 unpopular MLAs and two ministers.[7] In stark opposition to the arrogance of Congress leaders like Digvijay Singh, Chouhan also opts for the image of a ‘servant of the people’ through his carefully cultivated ‘shasak nahi sevak’ (servant, not ruler) image. According to reports, this is not just a matter of a media campaign; his chief minister’s bungalow is open to ordinary people: “he held several panchayats for all sections of society – from richshaw-pullers to daily wagers to barbers to cobblers – giving them a patient hearing and doling out promises.”[8]

Rajasthan is the only state where the Modi factor has worked effectively against the backdrop of massive discontent against the ruling Congress party. This is not to deny that there is a huge popular demand among the BJP cadres and supporters for Modi but that hardly adds up to a wave. It is more that the dejected and directionless mass of BJP supporters and activists need a savior. What has made it look like a bit of a wave is the decision of certain corporate houses to back Modi as a man who delivers, as a counter-point to the neoliberal discourse of ‘policy paralysis’, floated in the last couple of years. How far this will work in actually producing a Modi wave remains to be seen.

AAP: The Joker in the Pack

The real news of the elections this time is the rise of the new political party, the AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, the chief architect of the 2010-11 anti-corruption movement. Though AAP is at the moment a Delhi phenomenon, its emergence in the political arena with 28 seats and 29.5 percent votes has produced a new factor of uncertainty for the big two.

Both the Congress and the BJP have mocked and reviled the AAP, ever since its formation last October, as a greenhorn with no idea of how politics works. At the very best, they believed, it would win a few seats here and there – if at all. “Who is Arvind Kejriwal? What is AAP? Can you call it a party that can be compared to the Congress and the BJP?” – that was how chief minister Shiela Dikshit had mockingly responded to mediapersons on election day.[9]  Throughout the campaign, both the parties had sought to portray AAP as a spoiler – each describing it as the other’s agent. The BJP saw it as trying to split the opposition vote and thus paving the way for the return of the Congress, while the Congress saw it as the BJP’s fifth column that would split the anti-communal vote and help the BJP to come to power.

The Congress campaign was in fact a repeat of its campaign against the Anna Hazare phase of the movement when leaders like Digvijay Singh, among many others, spread the rumours that the movement was sponsored (in some versions, planned and executed) by the RSS. This campaign had its desired effect especially among the more conservative sections of the Muslim elite – especially the secular Muslim elite that has become a pawn in the Congress game of ‘secularism’. This essentially means that every other issue from corporate plunder and corruption to education and health can be sidelined at the time of elections, reducing everything to the ‘secular versus communal’ question.

Quite refreshingly, this bait was rejected by large numbers of young Muslims who have voted in defiance of the elders. According to one survey, “the Congress won 45.2 per cent of the Muslim votes in Delhi, BJP 15.5 per cent, BSP 4.3 per cent and AAP 34.4 per cent.”[10] This is an important break from what has become a set pattern and has effectively prevented the emergence of any new political force. Chances are that if there is to be a re-election in Delhi, the Muslim vote for AAP might increase, now that people know that it is a serious contender against the BJP.

Interestingly, AAP also won 9 of the 12 reserved (SC) seats in Delhi, accompanied by an 8.7 percent depletion in the votes polled by BSP in 2008 – most of these going to AAP.

The importance of AAP also lies in the fact that its entry into the political arena has introduced a change by insisting on certain basic principles. The latest evidence of this came during the process of government formation. As Delhi had ended up with a hung assembly – BJP with 32 seats emerging as the single largest party, AAP as second largest with 28 seats, followed by the Congress with 8 seats. Due to AAP’s refusal to form a government by taking support from either party, the BJP faced the prospect of running a minority government with a substantial AAP opposition. This has forced the BJP to refrain from staking its claim to form the government. Then Congress then unilaterally ‘offered’ to support AAP in forming the government and mounted a campaign that AAP’s refusal amounts to abdication of responsibility. AAP put the ball back in the Congress and BJP court by laying out eighteen conditions that included support for the following: No VIP security, no government bungalow, no MLA, or Councillor funds, Janlokpal for Delhi and investigation of scams, audit of power companies and reduction of power rates in Delhi, investigation of power meters by an independent agency, action against water mafia  and provision of adequate water for every person, regularization of unauthorised colonies within one year, rehabilitation of jhuggis and such other demands.

The point of this exercise was not to buy legislative support for their manifesto but rather to force the parties to make a public commitment. Through this move and the subsequent ‘referendum’, where it went back to the electorate to seek its opinion on government formation, AAP has gone beyond mere ‘strategy’. It has set up standards of public scrutiny. Rather than the familiar post-poll scenario of behind-the-scenes negotiations and the buying and selling of votes and MLAs, the insistence here was on extracting a public commitment, thus ensuring that the actions of all parties concerned will be under public scrutiny.

One message, then, is that overall decline of the Congress no longer translates into a pro-BJP or a Modi wave. Second, it is equally clear that the deadlock imposed by the secular/ communal division, has been broken in Delhi and this might extend in the coming months, at least to some other states. Third, and most important, the identity appeal – whether that of BSP among Dalits, or the negative identity appeal of the Congress among the Muslims – is wearing thin.[11] A mere identity appeal is no longer credible now, for questions of governance are taking centre-stage now.

After all, the term ‘corruption’ in the anti-corruption movement signified nothing if not an all round failure of governance – which itself means delivering on matters of the everyday needs of ordinary people. The subsequent emergence of AAP has now transformed the terms of political discourse bringing to the fore vital concerns of ‘the people’ who had been reduced to footballs being flung from one goal post to the other. A political formation has emerged that is now peopled almost entirely by newcomers – ordinary people who are still flocking towards it. And this, it seems is not going remain a Delhi level phenomenon in the months to come. This will create a completely new situation for the 2014 elections, the implications of which are not easy to fathom right now.

 


NOTES

[1] The two seats it won were Vishwas Nagar and Matiala. See Saikat Datta, ‘Modi’s High Voltage Campaign in Delhi Failed to Make Impact’, Hindustan Times, 9 December 2013, http://www.hindustantimes.com/specials/coverage/myindia-myvote/chunk-ht-ui-myindiamyvote-delhi/modi-s-high-voltage-campaign-failed-to-make-impact-in-delhi/sp-article10-1160864.aspx , last accessed on 12 December 2013

[2] This certainly seems to be the case as far as the fate of the Congress is concerned. Although the logic of voting in state assembly elections and that of parliamentary elections often varies, on occasions like the present one, we may not see a very significant divergence between the two where the unpopularity of the Congress is concerned.

[3] Here I am focusing on the Congress and the BJP as the key players of their respective fronts, not at the overall fate of the UPA and the NDA. It is the regional parties, that is, NDA and UPA allies, that reaped the benefit of the decline of the votes of both parties. See Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar (2009), ‘Between Fortuna and Virtu: Explaining the Congress’ Ambiguous Victory in 2009’, Economic and Political Weekly, September 2006, Vol 44, No 39, pp. 33-46; and Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers (2009), ‘India’s 2009 Elections: The Resilience of Regionalism and Ethnicity’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (Online), Online since 23 December 2009, http://samaj.revues.org/2787 , accessed on 11 December 2013

[4] It needs to be remembered that the 2004 elections in which the NDA lost came barely within two years of the Gujarat 2002 carnage that went a long way in sealing the above alliance. Analyzing the CSDS survey data for the 2004 elections, DL Sheth wrote: “A close look at the 2004 survey data reveals that the marginal loss of support for the BJP allies, and the consequent loss of power, was mainly due to two types of voters deserting the BJP: (a) the dalits, the tribals and the lower OBCs who felt that they did not belong to the BJP’s newly formed exclusive ‘feel good club of India’… (b) a significant section of BJP’s conventional middle class supporters who endorsed the party’s economic policies also turned away because they felt that the majoritarian politics of hate and reforms do not go well together. These included significant sections of urban, upper caste Hindu voters as well most upper class members of minority communities who had supported the BJP and its allies in 1999.” He further notes: “The drubbing that the BJP got was mainly from its own supporters of 1999. A large number of 1999 BJP voters (14.1%) just did not turn up to vote for the party they had supported earlier and another 19% turned out to vote against the BJP. These losses were not adequately compensated by the overall gains that the BJP made through inter-party shifts.” (DL Sheth, ‘The Change of 2004’, Seminar 545, January 2005, http://www.india-seminar.com/2005/545/545%20d.l.%20sheth1.htm last accessed on 12 December 2013

[5] See Suhas Palshikar (2013), ‘Many a Slip’, The Indian Express, 14 December 2013, edit page.

[6] All figures pertaining to the current elections and change in relation to the 2008 elections, are from the CSDS Data Unit. I am grateful to Himanshu Bhattacharya for making them available to me.

[7] Milind Ghatwai (2013), ‘Hat-trick for Chouhan’, The Indian Express 9 December, p. 7

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pritha Chatterjee (2013), ‘Who is Kejriwal?’, The Indian Express, 9 December, p. 4

[10] Yashwant Deshmukh (2013), ‘MuslimVoters Haven’t Really Ditched Congress’, Mail Online India, 12 December 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2522804/Muslim-voters-havent-really-ditched-Congress.html , last accessed on 13 December

[11] Apart from the 8.7 percent that the BSP has lost, in relation to its 2008 votes, in Delhi, it has lost 1.8 percent in Chhattisgarh, 2.7 percent in MP and 4.2 percent in Rajasthan.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. upal Chakraborty permalink
    January 1, 2014 1:38 PM

    Agree with Aditya. The Left is rather evasive and ambivalent on the AAP phenomenon and. It’s high time they realise that aligning with AAP rather than the Samajwadis , BSP s, RJD etc. can .make a possible difference to the polity in 2014.

    Upal

  2. shivani tamang permalink
    January 5, 2014 8:28 AM

    Totally agreed

  3. Sharmishtha permalink
    January 5, 2014 10:01 PM

    Actually, the AAP’s rise parallels the decline of the organized left rather than the Congress. The young who once found a natural place in cadre-based left parties are now adrift and are moving towards AAP. But ideological purity in the post-Jyoti Basu era, dogmatism of the Prakash Karat kind, ensures that an old slogan has been forgotten “No enemies to the left”. Don’t worry about the Congress. The Congress has been on its deathbed for over a hundred years, going by what its earliest critics such as Lords Dufferin and Curzon claimed. It is an umbrella organization with its pocketbook on the right and its heart on the left. Such organizations tend to be clumsy, slow and creaky, lurching here and there, but always surviving. Worry more about the slow burn meltdown of the organized left that is creating a real vacuum, currently being filled by the rise of the AAP.

    • Aditya Nigam permalink*
      January 5, 2014 10:17 PM

      I wonder where the Left was in Delhi, in the first place, for it to decline! Don’t worry about our worries – a random dip into the Kafila archives will give you more stuff on the decline of the organized left. You should perhaps worry a bit about shooting off advice to others without a moment’s thought…

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