Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Its Significance and the Way Forward - Part I

Prof. T. Jayaraman, Chairperson at Centre for Science, Technology and Society & School of Habitat Studies, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences analyses the Lok Sabha Elections 2019 results.

There can be little doubt that the outright majority secured by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha elections 2019 is a victory, even if only in partially limited form, for the Hindutva view of India. Partially limited because it has taken place within the bounds of the Constitutional order and the general state structure that has developed since Independence. However, the dangers to this order from this victory need to be taken seriously. It would be incorrect to equate the electoral victory of the BJP to the establishment of some brutal regime, which will rapidly set about undoing the current Constitutional order. There are obvious attempts to undermine the order, but the undoing of it is still some substantial distance away. The imagery of a doomsday, or of an apocalyptic scenario hardly does any justice to the reality of political and social life in India, despite the efforts of the anti-BJP sections in social media who relentlessly argue that such a situation has already arrived.

But if it is the BJP’s victory, whose defeat is it? In the first instance, and primarily, it is the defeat of the received view of India’s Constitutional order, which the  Congress had put in place since Independence and had tried to consolidate. Unfortunately, even those politically critical of the Congress party’s practice and its various tactical manoeuvrings, often harbour the illusion that standing up to Hindutva requires a defence of the Congress’ vision of India, in terms of secularism and the Constitutional order. Or, more frequently, particularly on the Left, failing to articulate the differences with the Congress’ vision, when arguing for the defence of a secular and Constitutional order.

There is no doubt that a secular, Constitutional republic was a significant advance for the people of India - an achievement fashioned through their struggle for liberation from the colonial rule. Were it not for their manifest desire for such an order, made evident at the time of Independence, it is likely that the outcome of the effort of the Constituent assembly would have been different, i.e.,not positive. But in the event of putting down in writing the constitution - of which the achievement was ultimately a secular, constituent republic - there began simultaneously, attempts to undermine, bypass, or pay scant attention to its many progressive features. Not until the dire experience of the Emergency and its aftermath were some of the more obnoxious, officially-sanctioned violations of rights, carried over wholesale from the colonial era, brought to a close. Let us not forget too that the most consistent target of such violations were the Communist Party, its followers and the working-class and peasant movements. Nor were measures like the linguistic re-organisation of the states, one of the demands of the freedom movement, undertaken without the hand of the Congress government being forced by agitations by the people, though the undermining of India’s federal character began almost simultaneously. The Directive Principles of State Policy stand out for being substantially ignored in post-Independent India, even if they represented only a half-hearted compromise made by the ruling classes with the popular aspirations of the working masses of India on the one hand and the accommodation of reactionary, obscurantist elements on the other. It is therefore no wonder  that Hindutva’s slogan of banning cow-slaughter and the Gandhian obsession of banning alcohol consumption both equally find a place in the Directive Principles, and have found a happy home-coming with the rise of the Hindutva.

Thus while the positive features of the received view of India’s Constitutional order are frequently enumerated, its shortcomings and its role as the vehicle of the ruling class' effort at state-building is all too frequently ignored. Unsurprisingly,  even its positive features were built on uncertain foundations. It has taken only fifty years since Independence (from 1947 to 1998) for these positive features to be put in jeopardy (In 1998, BJP came to power in the Centre, for the very first time). As for the values of secularism and egalitarianism, secular rhetoric has always coexisted with  the practical communalism of the ruling classes, while the inclusive rhetoric  coexisted (with active connivance) with the caste order and criminal discrimination, especially in rural India.

The Congress’ cry of institutions in danger cannot be swallowed whole or echoed uncritically. Such institutions have always played a dual role. On the one hand, for Congress, this cry of danger exhibits a progressive face, the radical polish of meeting people’s aspirations, all of this equally  an outcome of the need to modernise the Indian state, trying to overcome the fetters of its inherent backwardness. At the same time, institutions have always had a regressive face, showing as much alacrity in taking away rights as conferring them. Institutions have been sensitive bellwethers of the changing needs of Indian capitalists. Thus, the Supreme Court’s expansive view of rights in some aspects over the years has coexisted  with a lengthy period of unmitigated anti-working class bias.  After all, even the system of national statistics, for all its merits, has had little to say about the truth of land concentration and land-ownership or the prevalence of tenancy. The truth has been well-hidden under a cloud, which the radar of statistical analysis is barely able to penetrate.

The Congress’ view of a secular constitutional and institutional order has always been at odds with its systematic and deliberate failure to provide this order with its necessary foundations in poverty eradication, distributive justice, and inclusive health and education. Its own limited vision of a secular and Constitutionally protected political space, with its inherent dual character, is one that it has sought to impose even when increasingly on the defensive. It has always been more keen to protect the Constitutional order from the critique of the Left than Hindutva, and the latter’s call to decimate Left influence has a substantial echo in Congress ranks, certainly on the streets, if not in posh debating circles. As every political activist on the Left knows, the Congress is only too eager to dismiss the Left critiques of their economic policies as “outdated” and “regressive”, while cowering before the push of Hindutva, or indeed any brand of communalism, and seeking to accommodate it with the plea of respecting beliefs and tradition. Out of power, there is a small improvement in attitude, only to relapse after returning to office.

No surprise then that institutions collapse all too easily at the determined push that Hindutva’s arrival provides, and the flesh-and-blood guardians of such institutions and their values are routinely and readily found wanting in their duty, especially over the last twenty-five years. Given the Congress’ dual attitude, the base of the Congress among the ruling classes and civil society has little to stop it from moving over to the camp of Hindutva. And in a final pathetic and unconvincing strategy, a greenhorn youngster is elected to present an alternative - doomed at its very origins - to the BJP’s vision, which is increasingly backed by both the rural and urban elite. On the ground the secular, constitutional scheme of things and its realization through the rule of law and administration, has always been a relatively remote matter, and its efficacy a hit-and-miss affair. In its influence on the lives of the common citizen, it is filtered through layers of poor governance, corrupt or slow officialdom, tiers of political patronage, and a judicial system that has been, and now increasingly, exposed to many retrogressive tendencies. On the other hand, Hindutva has a superficially simple, though poisonous in intent, message of bypassing all institutional norms by virtue of the intrinsic inequalities and biases that have always afflicted their functioning.

The Left has paid a high price for adopting the Congress vision uncritically. In the pre-Hindutva era, the Left was more circumspect, but then the foundations of its vision of secularism were hardly being put to the test. The Left vision of a secular, inclusive India has to be formulated without a Congress crutch even in indirect ideological terms, relentless in exposing the latter’s dual character. Much of the Left often slips into an easy formula of a Congress that is reactionary in economic policies, while Hindutva is the main enemy in terms of secularism and the defence of the Constitutional order. We are then asked to choose what is the main danger, ignoring the organic links between the one and the other, that leads one to soft-pedal the critique of the Congress in paving the way for the sorry state of the polity today. The frequent recourse to this formula, precisely in the era of the resurgence of Hindutva has weakened and blunted the Left’s opposition.

The cry of fascism has been the Achilles’ heel of the Left approach, forcing it to defend the Congress or toe it ideologically, even when distancing itself on other issues. As a result, its rebuttal of Hindutva sounds all too often like a defence of the Congress, or indeed collapse into such a defence. Other, especially intellectual, spokespersons of the Left have not hesitated to call for the abandoning of an independent vision altogether and the wholesale surrender to the Congress’ view of India. If anything can be gleaned from these elections, it is that such tailing will not work and the people will have none of it. This decisive rejection of the Congress by the people is undoubtedly partly the source of the massive pan-caste, pan-regional, pan-class scale of Hindutva's victory. It is the vacuum arising from the Congress’ failure, that has continued to prove vital to the fortunes of the BJP.

There is common cause to be made here by the Left with some other, though not all, political formations equally marginalised by Hindutva's victory. However, the danger of ill-thought out formulations is illustrated by instances such as the Bahujan-Left-Front in Telangana that was wiped out electorally (though the original core conception certainly carries much merit). More work is required if such formations and the Left have to come together to occupy a secular space where the Congress no longer defines the terms.

This is not to deny, of course, that the Left finds itself at a critical juncture today. Nor can one underestimate the danger to the Left, and to progressive, democratic forces in general, from a Hindutva that is single-mindedly devoted to the cause of a “communist-free India.” The determined strategy of Hindutva in Tripura, Bengal and Kerala are a stark and continuing reminder of this basic reality. But it is equally a potent indicator that the blows to the Left in these States has called forth little sympathy, let alone alarm, even from other self-proclaimed secular formations. The experience of the Left in these States underlines the lesson that the rise of the BJP and Hindutva cannot be countered without a progressive, indeed radical, reworking of what secular and democratic values, Constitutional and institutional authority as well as people's rights mean, and what it takes to defend them.

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.)