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We, the people, have nowhere to defect

Whichever party wins, it’s always the same cola, in a new bottle. Words like ideology would seem to be at risk of dissolving into utter meaninglessness

Published: 21st January 2022 12:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2022 12:23 AM   |  A+A-

Vote; elections

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A quick thought experiment. Apply the rules of the market to Indian elections. As the voter, you are the buyer, the consumer. The commodities on offer come to you like two or more brands competing for your attention, essentially the same cola in different bottles. Now, this is a dangerously reductive, even blasphemous model to apply to a democracy’s primary mode of renewing itself. But you can be almost persuaded to it if you take into account the granular detail. As we said, test it out logically.

What is the smallest unit of produce that moves in the political supermarket? The candidate, of course. Candidates are the single, smallest, further indivisible items of purchase. Before they advertise their charms to the voter, they are already items of transaction on the producers’ market. Political parties acquire them like so many scrips. Look at the way they float around, and the Indian political party system starts resembling a stock exchange.

Consider the evidence. Amarinder Singh, one of the staunchest, longest-standing Congress strongmen till the other day, is on the BJP side. The son of the late Manohar Parrikar, a much-loved BJP icon in his day, is ditched by the party. They won’t give him his father’s old seat, Panaji, because they need to humour Babush Monserrate, one of his father’s bitterest foes. Why? Because Babush is the one who came to the BJP from the Congress with a bagful of MLAs—enough to help them stay in power, comfortably. (Rationalising this with excellent anti-dynastic logic was Vishwajit Rane, son of former Congress CM Pratapsingh Rane, and Devendra Fadnavis, the son of an MLC.)

In Uttarakhand, a whole drove of former Congressmen who partook of the fish and loaves of office as BJP ministers are now preparing to fold up their tents and return—like seasonal migrants in the old economy of transhumance. In UP, a set of BJP leaders from EBC communities have discovered Lohiaite socialism in the nick of time.

And the poster girl of Priyanka Gandhi’s ‘Ladki Hoon Lad Sakti Hoon’ slogan has gone saffron. As for Manipur, voters can’t be blamed if they don’t know who or what they are voting for: like in Goa, the entire landscape changed colours. Whichever party wins, it’s always the same cola, in a new bottle. Words like ideology would seem to be at risk of dissolving into utter meaninglessness.

But even if it is on these marshlands that the grander themes of politics are sown, ideologies have their own realm of value. Who wins, which parties come to power, these things matter to the voter for a variety of material and symbolic reasons. Governments of this colour or that carry a real political meaning, whose effect is felt in ordinary lives.

Like feminism or forms of epidemic, ideologies can come in waves. Hindutva can be said to be at the beginning of its third phase. How the Yogi Adityanath dispensation fares in the upcoming elections will determine its future product evolution.

Mandal, likewise, is attaining a newer, deeper level. Akhilesh Yadav, the son of a Mandal messiah, is seeking to propel himself on precisely that, broadening the base of social empowerment politics to embrace a variety of non-Yadav OBCs and EBCs. But even this deepening seems to be limited by the imagination, hampered by a political animus that has defined the ‘social justice’ side of UP politics for three decades.

This is the enduring rupture between the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP—or, on the ground, between the communities they represent. The two have been bitter rivals almost all through after one brief coalition in the early ’90s—the unsuccessful mahagathbandhan experiment circa 2019 being the only counterpoint.

The failed negotiations between Akhilesh and Bhim Army’s Chandrashekar Aazad carry traces of that uneasy interface between Neo-Mandalites and Dalit communities: the future of a viable ‘Bahujan’ politics is at stake there. From all indications, with the BJP stung by the farm protests in its decade-long stronghold of western Uttar Pradesh, the theatre of action will move to Purvanchal.

The complex interplay between voters from the various Dalit subcastes, small OBC groups and EBCs will be crucial. Can Yogi lure non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs? Will Mayawati hold on to her flock? Can Akhilesh wean them away? In this flux, the ambitions of individual candidates putting themselves up on the producers’ market can decide the future of Hindutva, Mandal and Dalit politics.

Hindutva has a curious challenge in Uttarakhand—enfeebled as it is by factionalism, charges of corruption in flood relief funds and perceived overreach into both conservative Hindu and ultra-Hindu camps (think of the now-withdrawn Char Dham Bill that would have given the state control over some of India’s most sacred temples, and the arrests after the Haridwar genocide calls). If it endures, it will be because of good old fratricides on the Congress side, not to speak of reverse defections.

Punjab mirrors Uttar Pradesh to an extent in offering another fascinating tussle between religious and secular themes. Within the Sikh fold, there are panthic voters and old left-leaning blocs that helmed the farm protests. There’s caste—Jat Sikhs, OBC Sikhs, trading caste Hindus, and India’s largest Dalit population in a single state at 32% (both Sikh and non-Sikh) with a new point of focus in CM Charanjit Channi.

Voter inclinations will hinge on the pull of old and new parties (like the AAP), and of fickle candidates and leaders. (If Amarinder is pro-saffron now, heading the Congress is a combustible ex-BJP loudspeaker, Navjot Singh Sidhu.)

The people, of course, have nowhere to defect.

Santwana Bhattacharya (santwana@newindianexpress.com)
Resident Editor, Karnataka, The New Indian Express



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