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There Is More to Political Parties than Elections


Something has gone wrong with our understanding of democracy in India.

We have bought into the notion that democracy equals elections that throw up a new power elite, or reinforce an existing one. The time and energy spent on elections by analysts, by the media, and now by consultants is truly phenomenal.

I wish that an equal degree of attention could be paid to the way the defining tenets of democracy – fundamental rights, civil society, rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an independent media – are being torn apart every day, every hour of the day in our country. But no, we prefer a minimal notion of democracy; that citizens are but voters, or rather consumers of the excesses of election rhetoric.

This idea has been reinforced by management experts whose job is to make their clients win at the hustings, no matter how pathetic the agenda might be, no matter how much the party has damaged democracy, no matter to what extent citizens continue to suffer unimaginable hardship, and no matter how poisonous election rhetoric is. Parties are told by highly paid experts that they should begin to work on their strategies the moment an election result catapults them to power, or does not do so. 

Admittedly the management of political parties to win elections is essential; but it is simply not enough. For our power elite, which should be spending its time and energy creating the preconditions of a life worth living for citizens, prefers to hop from one election to another, coining new phrases, demonising old and new enemies, lambasting other parties, and in general leaving a trail of political tension in wake.

Bhagwant Mann hardly took over power in a crisis ridden Punjab, and we find him campaigning in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh alongside the missing chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal. We elect a ruling party to look after the interests of the citizens. We get full-time party campaigners hungry for more and more power.

Elections have become larger than democracy, more important than citizens, and more significant than responsible and accountable governments. 

Representatives and representation

Somebody at this part of the argument might raise the issue of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty is not about adding to the already considerable power held by elites. Popular sovereignty means that ordinary individuals should be counted, that they should matter, that it is their interests, their needs, and their opinions that should be taken cognisance of, and that they should be effectively represented in the forums of decision-making by responsible political parties. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In a democracy political parties are not only electoral machines; they are political entities charged with an enormously important task: that of representing citizens in legislative forums.

This is not to suggest that representation is a self-evident concept. Political theorists continue to debate on what exactly representatives should represent – needs, interests, or opinions of the members of their constituency. The jury is still out on the matter. 

Over the years the ‘constructivist turn’ in theories of representation suggests that representatives shape the popular will through a host of techniques – persuasion, inducements, ideological dissemination and performative techniques. We can no longer evaluate how faithfully the candidate represents the will or the interests of his or her constituency.

Who is represented and what is represented is an outcome of practices of representation. Representation has been detached from democracy. The citizen does not speak, she is spoken for. 

It would be political folly to dismiss expressions of popular will as redundant. Voters in India have exercised autonomy when they cast their vote. Consider Punjab in the recent state assembly elections. The people of Punjab committed regicide of power holders. They proclaimed along with the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland ‘off with their heads’. They gave a chance to AAP and its post-ideology brand of politics.

The friend/enemy distinction in politics

The problem is that ideology has not gone away.

Consider the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. It has held fast to a simplistic ideology of the nation since the time its ideological progenitor the Sarvadeshak Hindu Mahasabha was born in 1915, followed by the birth of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh in 1925.

The Indian National Congress, the leader of the mainstream freedom struggle devoted its energy to mobilising people in the cause of independence, in drafting on various occasions a constitution for the people of free India, and in negotiating with the British. The history of our constitutional history is embedded in the history of the Congress since the early part of the 20th century.

Hindutva organisations also mobilised people, not in the direction of an inclusive and democratic India where no body will be discriminated against for morally arbitrary reasons, but in the direction of a Hindu India where no one else will be accommodated. The ideology of majoritarian groups is deceptively one-dimensional.

The party ruling India refuses to understand nuances in politics. But it is precisely these nuances and the puzzles they throw up that make politics worthwhile: historical injustice that must be remedied, what ordinary human beings are owed by virtue of being human, the sheer injustice of discrimination based on birth, civic nationalism based upon equal rights, the need for a free civil society and an independent media, and the need for a gentle and tolerant civic culture. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

By contrast, the ideology of the Hindutva Parivar simplifies an otherwise complex activity we call politics. It focuses on nationalism and the nation.

Running through these discussions is a sharp distinction between friends and enemies. The cadres and leaders of the party are as obsessed with the issue as the German Conservative legal and political theorist, who upheld National Socialism, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt is known for his work on the specificity of the political, for his trenchant critique of liberalism, and for his distinction between friend/enemy. His understanding of politics is summed up in one pithy sentence: ‘Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.’

There is some debate on whether Schmitt was a dyed in the wool Nazi, or merely an opportunist who supported Hitler for personal and professional reasons. What is clear is his antagonism to liberalism, and his virulent Anti-Semitism. What is clear is his belief that politics is about managing the friend-enemy distinction.

Schmitt’s ideology is not artless, nor does it lack nuances. The ideology of the cadres of the Sangh Parivar however is vulgarly simple – Hindu opposed to Muslim/Christian. I doubt whether members of their Parivar have read Schmitt, in fact I doubt whether they have read anything meaningful on Hinduism, or history, or civilisation, or culture. For them Hindutva as power has little to do with Hinduism as faith. They are interested in power, not in Hinduism.

If they study Hinduism as their bête noir Nehru did, they will realise that Hinduism is complex and contradictory. Some Hindus are ‘upper’-caste, male, propertied, oppressive. Others are low-castes, women, the landless and the oppressed. Not every Indian citizen has benefited from the power and privilege that Hindutva has brought, some have benefited tremendously. More significantly, to speak of a homogenised culture that is propagated through the idea of Hindu/Hindi/Hindustan, is to make a fundamental mistake. 

The complexities of Hinduism

This was made clear by the philosopher Dharmendra Goel in 1984 in a special issue of The Philosophical Quarterly. In this issue scholars engaged with the lecture ‘Svaraj in Ideas’ delivered by the philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya (KCB) in 1929. KCB had argued that we can only achieve Svaraj when we interpret Western ideas through the prism of our own culture.

Which culture is KCB speaking of, asked Goel. India’s past cannot be articulated within the limited perspective of Sanskrit traditions, even if we add to the Vedas the Dharamshastras, epics, poetic classics, theatre, dramaturgy and nitishastras.  The ahimsa of medieval Brahmanic Vaishnavism is drawn from Buddhist and other non-Aryan sources. Sexuality in Tantric Shaktism is derived from primitive oral beliefs and rituals. Tribals  carry Brahmanical texts in their oral myths. Kautilya’s amoral Arthashastra is incompatible with Purushartha and Varnashrama principles in the epics. The great grammarian, philosopher and Yogi Bhartrihari of the classical period wrote erotic and evocative lyrics, but also advocated purity of desire and penance.

The tantras and eroticism of medieval Indian life, writes Goel, challenged the austere paradigm of Indian civilisation. Which  is representative of the Indian spirit? A Pandit Raj Jagannath talking about old poetic conventions in Sanskrit at the Mughal court? Or the new and poetic bani of Guru Gobind in Punjab, and of Rahim in Avadhi speaking areas? Or Ghalib’s Urdu? Agra and Ghalib, Guru Gobind, and Amritsar are part of our lives as much as the Ramayana.  

Akbar’s court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Goel’s argument allows us to think of fusions. Our language Urdu, is a product of the spiritual traditions of mystics and saints. The language of love and compassion, Urdu embodies the heritage of great poets from Khusrau to Ghalib, to Gulzar. Hindus worship in temples, as well as at mazaars. They offer flowers and fruit to the goddess in a temple in South Delhi, and also red meat and country liquor to Shiva in his Kaal Bhairav avatar down the road.

It is time we acknowledge that Hinduism is a collage of our dialogical spiritual, intellectual and poetic traditions. But it is precisely this complexity that cadres refuse to accept. Acceptance of a plural Hinduism will blur the distinction between friend and enemy.

The expansion of the public sphere

Intellectually this simplification is troubling, but it seems to make sense to the voting public. And this brings me to the next point. Members of the RSS function on an everyday basis to disseminate this ideology in  sites that are conventionally assumed to be beyond electoral concerns – family functions, halls of prayer, schools, colleges, social gatherings, and sports. They give to people a vulgarly simple world view that decodes their present situation, interprets history, and predicts the future. 

There used to be a time when Indian communist parties excelled in political mobilisation. There used to be a time when grass root workers of the Indian National Congress spread out into the country to carry the message of the freedom struggle. The Congress had the best grassroots organisation in states where today it has no presence. Over time, however the Congress became bloated with power and its energies waned.

Instead of mobilising people they bribed them with the usual quota of liquor and money.

There is one political party, however that has learnt from the strategy of communist parties  – the BJP. Unlike other parties, the BJP is at an advantage. It is supported by the entire Hindutva Parivar which commands social interaction and penetrates every nook and corner of life. The RSS has understood the importance of the ‘biradari’, at least in Northern India.

Khaki clad boys are there to help people in times of need, they are there at every ceremony, they are to be found in halls of worship, they run educational institutions, and they incessantly talk to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood they have set up office in, in the paan shop and the local tea stall. Their project focuses on sites that are normally seen as extraneous to the electoral arena. And this is their strength.

By doing so they disseminate the simplistic distinction between friend and enemy, shape minds and mould consciousness. Their project has taken decades to fructify but it has prevailed over other understanding of politics. How easily we have slid into a society that is overtly focussed upon terrorising members of an already vulnerable minority, upon expelling them from economic transactions, upon harming them, killing them, calling for genocide, setting up their women for auction, and denying to them their basic rights.

This is a theme that underlies election speeches and victories. These have to be set in the context of perpetual mobilisation, the harnessing of political irrationality, the excavation of historical wrongs, the identification of the enemy with terrorism, and rabid nationalism.

These strategies work in some states, they do not in others, the important point that we should note is the sheer persistence of the RSS. Their objective is wider than electoral gain, it is about shaping India as predominantly Hindu. They have created a Hindu who is vicious, who is a bully, who abuses and threatens the minorities, even if this brand of Hindu shames our country, our society, our religion, and our people. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

An alternative politics?

These properties of Hindutva have to be consigned to the margins. Shouts of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ are not countered by public recitations of Hanuman Chalisa. Political parties need to learn or re-learn in the case of the Congress that their party organisation need to be strengthened, their ideologies have to prove meaningful for people who live out their lives striving for a handful of grain, and that they have to forge an agenda that taps and frames imaginations and that sparks off creativities.

This work is political; it cannot be left to management experts, even though these experts have a role to play in electoral victories. To rely on management alone is to reduce politics to administration.

But politics has a life and an identity of its own, politics is the art of the impossible, it can be creative, it can be imaginative, it can be empathetic, provided that politics is seen as more than elections. Elections are one moment in the conversations people should be having with each other and with party representatives, each offering their own idea of what India is and what it should be.

2024 is not far away, can the opposition please begin to give us ‘the people of India’ choices when it comes to party agendas. We want more not less of party agendas. But for parties to chart out agendas that will enable people to think – ‘this is it, this is what politics is, this is what it should be’ – they have to get cracking. They should be consulting, sociologists, anthropologists, educationists, minorities, workers, peasants, inhabitants of shanty towns, and people who eke out a living on the roads of the city.

Ask not only corporate heads or US based economists, but the salt of the earth on what they need and what the country needs. 

Otherwise we are fated to live in a society where people cannot choose what to eat and how to pray, let alone who they want to spend their time with. And we are left not with parties but with companies run by management experts.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.


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