Dare we begin to hope?( HIndu , Political Science )

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Two events, the BJP’s electoral loss in Delhi, and the stir against the Land Bill, offer two slivers of hope. They represent first, a preparedness in people to correct their past electoral misjudgements, and second, they raise hope of a possible united front of opposition

In its dark night of the soul this past year, Indian politics saw two chinks of light beckon with some small encouragement. These apertures are tiny and tentative and one should be careful not to invest them with an optimism they do not warrant. Still, they are not nothing: first, the loss suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Delhi Assembly elections in February; second, the recently recurring agitation against the Land Acquisition Bill.
The Delhi election took place nine months after the BJP victory in the general election, just about the canonical period to test whether the birth of a new era of BJP dominance had been delivered. That the party should have suffered the proportions of a rout gives hope that it has not. Such a dramatic defeat reflects the scepticism in a wide range of voters about their own previous judgement that the Congress party’s massive failures of the previous years could only be corrected by the BJP. Muslims, lower and middle-class Dalits, in general the vast numbers of the Delhi poor, and (most encouraging of all) even many in the middle classes reversed their previous conviction, a conviction shaped by a sustained public relations campaign that refurbished a leader with a deservedly non grata status into a seeming beacon. Nine months were sufficient to reveal the true colours of a government whose prominent members were raising the Hindutva rhetoric to new heights of vulgarity and menace, while it was also busy trying to dismantle the few remaining policies and institutions that sought to protect the poor and working people of the country.
An awakening

That the party (the Aam Aadmi Party) which stopped what appeared unstoppable has since imploded and, in any case, had no serious analysis of what has been chronically wrong in the nation’s politics and political economy in the last two and a half decades, is not the main point of relevance. What is heartening rather is that it awakened people to correct their judgement of only nine months ago and it did so with hardly any resources, thereby giving the lie to the idea that the future of Indian parliamentary politics lies in cash-debased, American-style, electioneering given over to the sinister manipulations of public relations companies and a shallow mainstream media cheerleading for elitist ideas of “development”. There is no more urgent task than to consolidate and build on this no small, though local, achievement in Delhi; and, at this particular juncture, it is not a task that can be carried out by any one party all on its own. I will return to this last point in a moment. The agitation against the Land Acquisition Bill is heartening for two quite separate reasons.
“The agitation against the Land Acquisition Bill reflects an understanding of the current malaise in notions of ‘development’ that has afflicted governments both Central and regional, including some in the Left.”
First, it reflects an intuitive understanding of the current malaise that lies at the heart of notions of “development” that has afflicted governments both Central and regional (including even some Left governments). It suggests that ordinary people and the leaders who have mobilised them in the recent agitations may be moving to a deeper understanding of the corruption that is at stake in the country’s governance.
There is, of course, the reprehensible large-scale corruption of politicians that the AAP — and its antecedents in a popular movement — brought to nationwide public attention and resentment. But underlying this is the more submerged corruption of a set of policies which for 25 years have systematically taken actual and potential resources and opportunities away from the working people of both rural and urban India and handed them over in grotesquely large measure to a minuscule domestic and foreign elite. The manner in which this is done is shrouded in high-sounding economic policy rhetoric and so it appears to have a veneer of respectability, but it is a criminal transfer that any clear-eyed analysis would reveal to be a form of corruption that is far more deep-going than the more visible, titillating (and, no doubt) venal acts of politicians that the media pruriently displays, while hiding from public view the more structural malaise which has vastly more debilitating effects on ordinary people.
The tragedy has been that the urban middle classes see in this corrupt transfer a chance to locate their own aspirations and future. But that is an illusion of our age, an illusion that has been thoroughly exposed by even mainstream economists in the West such as Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, while our own advisers to the Prince of the last two and a half decades have been ostrich-like in their obliviousness to it.
An understanding of corruption

The acquisition of land has been at the centre of this ideal of development and what is encouraging about the agitation against it is that it may be the beginning of a spread of understanding among our citizens that we cannot any longer consistently oppose this state-facilitated land-seizure for domestic and foreign corporate gain without also seeing that it is merely a symptom of the larger tendencies summarised in such terms as “development” as they are deployed in the prevailing economic zeitgeist that we have witnessed around Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi; tendencies such as the privatisation of the nation’s resources, the loss of national sovereignty in the Indian state’s inability to pursue policies that uplift its own population due to having surrendered control to highly mobile international finance capital, the rendering helpless of the labour force in every corner of the land through informalisation and impermanence of employment…We can perhaps hope that in these recent mobilisations that oppose the land policies of the government, we are at the cusp of such a more penetrating understanding of what needs to be opposed than the mere cry against corrupt politicians — a more fundamental and more structural corruption at the heart of our entire political economy.
Stirrings of an opposition

The second encouraging feature of the agitation is that a wide spectrum of parties has supported it, raising the hope of a growing united front of opposition. And Sonia Gandhi’s initiatives in the agitation reflect a potentially interesting emergence in the Congress party, one in which the technocrats approved by international economic interests and domestic elites might cease to be the dominant influence on its political and economic agenda. If that were to happen, there may be real prospects for an alliance to emerge against the present government in which the Left parties and the AAP put aside their seemingly unburiable hatchets with the Congress, hatchets that owed to their perfectly justified disgust with the second regnum of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
In the present political situation, these parties are natural allies, just as the BJP is a natural ally of the “development”-minded core (one hopes, in the future, a rump) of the Congress. (Indeed, I have heard from completely reliable sources that a member of this core, a close economic adviser to the second UPA government, actually found more promise in the BJP government to pursue policies that his own government was prevented from pursuing by those overly concerned to provide employment and food to people instead.)
As I said, it is utterly premature to think that these two shafts of light in the darkness of the past year that I have been commenting on really do have the scope suggested by these preliminary possibilities that seem to have surfaced. But if they do, and the hard work of pursuing their potential is undertaken without once again falling prey to the current illusions around “development” that are slowly beginning to be exposed, then the wide-spectrum united front of opposition that emerges could prove to be formidable. It is far too early to tell whether this is even so much as seriously conceivable and the roadblocks in the path are many and long-standing, not least among which is the fact that the learning curve of some of the parties I mentioned, especially the Congress, has in recent years been close to flat. Still, to repeat, the past year, as we have known it, has offered nothing else of any hope, and the prospects as I have presented them, even if slim, are not negligible.
(Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy; Professor, Committee on Global Thought, and Director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University.)
Keywords: Opposition, BJP government, AAP, Arvind Kejriwal, Land Acquisition bill
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