Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Standing Up To Hindutva — Lessons From BJP's Victory

Sadhvi Prachi of BJP, who is facing terrorism trials in Court, emerged victorious in Lok Sabha Elections 2019

Read the first part of this article Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Its Significance and the Way Forward here.

What are the lessons from the resounding victory of Hindutva, and what are the pointers to the way forward?

Lesson 1:

With the decisive rejection of the Congress, it is clear that the invocation of the Nehru-Gandhi era, the uncritical celebration of the freedom struggle ignoring its many profound contradictions, and the implicit, if not explicit, whitewashing of the reactionary role of the Congress at many important turns in national life, cannot be the thrust of the opposition.

The Left needs new icons, new slogans, a renewed rationale for why secularism and inclusivity matter, in a way that answers the needs and experiences of a world seventy years after Independence. Some of this effort has indeed been carried out by the Left, but in the final analysis, especially in the face of the BJP attack, it is the essence of the Nehru-Gandhi vision, that is taken recourse to. Such a return to a rhetoric indistinguishable from that of the Congress cannot be the thrust for the future.

Even the moderate, positive electoral boost to the Left in Tamil Nadu, stems from the leading role of the Dravidian movement in shaping political consciousness, that for all its weaknesses has always been circumspect with respect to the Congress. Its political tradition and the resulting political imagination have drawn powerfully from streams that have worked to expose the contradictions of the Congress-led mainstream over a long period, even if this tradition has been grossly weakened in recent times.

Lesson 2:

Pan-caste mobilisation is possible and can be effective through the invocation of larger interests and ideals, especially invoking national interest and development. The "Lohiaite" view, the idea that political success comes out of the sum total of the individual self-interests of separate caste groups has finally come a cropper and is exposed for its shallowness -- as its remnants fade into marginality, submerged under the Hindutva wave, or survive in the shadow of the BJP.

A section of intellectuals, driven by the “socialist” tradition in Indian politics has vociferously advocated the view that it is only the appeal to caste identity, albeit the identity of the so-called Backward castes, that can stop Hindutva in its tracks. The proponents of this view need particular rebuttal, as they have constantly harassed the Left on this score, especially mocking class-based mobilisation, counter-posing it to pure caste-based efforts. The idea that subaltern caste mobilisation is the most effective counter to Hindutva has been fatally damaged in this election. Where it retains value, drawing attention to the caste-based roots of many forms of inequality and bias, it must clearly be embedded in a larger, more inclusive vision of mobilisation.

Lesson 3:

The slogan of national interest continues to have a powerful appeal and must be re-presented to the polity with a progressive content. For both the Congress and the trendy Left (of the newspaper op-ed, Facebook, social media or academic variety), the word has virtually disappeared from their vocabulary. Where the latter refer to it, they consider it a BJP slogan, handing the BJPa considerable head-start and advantage. The Congress too has been reluctant to use it in the context of liberalisation, while the BJP cleverly invokes it in its imagery on security issues, while being equally pro-liberalisation in practice. In practice, the Congress is left-tailing the BJP version.

Even on the Left, in the eagerness to distance oneself from the aggressive, Hindutva, post-Pokhran version, the emphasis has perhaps been not enough except of course on economic issues. A progressive reworking of national interest, the Left's classic campaign slogan and agenda, should be actively pursued, not sidelined under this pressure that is really a product of the arch-liberaliser, the Congress. National interest, not in the security version, but in a broader, progressive, anti-imperialist sense is still a necessary political slogan. One may recall that the powerful, post-Pokhran mobilisation of the Left, devalued the presentation of the nuclear tests as a move for self-reliance, even if the Kargil conflict later provided Hindutva a convenient excuse, much like Pulwama and Balakot in the current elections.

Lesson 4:

Development is also a powerfully attractive issue. It is simplistic to argue that Hindutva has entirely abandoned this agenda in the current election with a sole emphasis on communalism. Pooh-poohing all industrial growth, all technological advance, or focusing only on counter-struggles will not do, or their dismissal at all times as mere BJP propaganda. The defence of those who don't benefit or lose out is necessary, as the defeat of the Telugu Desam and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh makes evident, but cannot be the only arena of mass mobilisation, as the experience in other parts of the country shows. Though their influence seems to be only in theory and writing, the academic "Left" has really had a powerful negative influence in this regard on actual political work among the Left.

Setting aside the slogan of development, while focusing solely on issues of rights, including minority rights, will not work -- even large sections of the minorities see development as critical. On this issue in particular, nuancing is critical, and while exposing the limitations of BJP policies, it cannot descend into outright denial of the limited gains that accrue to people. The achievements of Kerala are a significant weapon in this aspect. But the compulsions under which the Left Front Government in Kerala functions should be widely understood and defended, and one should counter the propaganda from some so-called “Left” elements that it constitutes a back-sliding on our principles and priorities.

Attacking Hindutva obscurantism as anti-development is the key, which has already shown some promise, especially in countering the RSS, even if the effort so far has been limited.

Lesson 5:

Class-based mobilisation is still critical, not its setting aside in diffuse calls for the anti-Hindutva mobilisation that dilutes the class agenda, to the extent of often lacking even a passing explicit appeal to our fundamental class base. Class-based mobilisation has been routinely seen to even force the Hindutva following among the working classes to join the broader agenda.

There is no Left or communist movement without class-based mobilisation, and it is the bedrock of our very existence, even when our electoral fortunes are at their lowest. The Left is not a social, do-gooder alliance, that should sacrifice its fundamental interests, as movement and Party, on the altar of the defence of secularism, as some intellectual arguments have called for in the recent past. The class-based rhetoric needs to be brought back, even in the face of the likely derision of middle-class and ruling class elements in the media that such a move is likely to evoke. The second Modi stint in office is more likely than not to result in a renewed attack on the working people, but without an emphasis on class mobilisation, the Left is hardly likely to turn the discontent in the right direction.

Broader mobilisation has its role, but twenty years of experience shows that relying on broad, middle-class based secular fronts has limited scope in a genuine anti-Hindutva mobilisation.

Lesson 6:

Amenities, education and health remain powerful issues for mobilisation, but must manifest in real struggles, especially to expand the scope of whatever relief the government offers, rather than be restricted to the propaganda against the limitations of government schemes and projects.

It is arguable that the stance that one is outlining here was, in part at least, more actively expressed in the 2004 elections, which contributed to the defeat of the BJP at that time. In the runup to the 2019 elections, such an agenda has often appeared to take second place behind grand coalition formations of a purely electoral nature, that had only a negative message, without dealing with the substance of the appeal of Hindutva.

Electoral opportunism cannot be the route today to face up to the challenge of Hindutva. It is also unfortunately true that it will take time, effort and a significant shift in emphasis to make such an agenda work. But the effort required to make up for lost time in moving to such a direction cannot be a reason to abandon or ignore it.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of any organisation including, but not limited to, Bodhi Commons.

(T. Jayaraman is a Professor, and Chairperson at Centre for Science, Technology and Society & School of Habitat Studies, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.)