One of the most forlorn moments after the recent elections was the picture of Irom Sharmila. The great dissenter, whose fast against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is historic, now almost seems a piece of forgotten history. Ms Sharmila, for all her legendary status, polled a mere 90 votes. It is almost as if people had abandoned her, that she commanded loyalty as an icon but was reduced to a footnote as an ordinary citizen campaigning for votes.
It is poignant because it was Ms Sharmila who insisted that she did not want to be put on a pedestal, that she wanted to enjoy the everydayness and ordinariness of democracy.
One sensed that people resented her unilateral decision. I often feel few activists operating outside formal party politics get votes. Another legend, Medha Patkar — a doyen of the non-party process who decided to fight elections — once asked people why they did not vote for her. One of them admitted that she was close to them, but they came to her during moments when their survival was in question. They, however, added that everydayness needed the politician from arranging school admission to a ration card.
Politicians were needed to ensure the delivery of entitlements, rights from threat while activists were needed to protect. Maybe Ms Sharmila will grasp the everyday pragmatism of it as she recovers quietly. Yet, watching her campaign, hat on head, cycling across the locality was a wonderful moment. Defeat here was forlorn but not emptily depressing as one felt while confronting the Congress.
The Congress is once more in a ritual of denial. No one blames Rahul Gandhi; he himself acts as if there is no need for depression. A party which once gorged on national landslides and one-sided majorities is content with a few morsels. The Congress lacks an appetite for struggle while it still relishes the nostalgia of power. Watching it or the Left, one senses that these parties are all at sea against the BJP. As one watches the electoral scene, one realises that parties are no longer the gateway to the Opposition. One has to sadly go beyond party politics to the possibilities of a non-party politics. Civil society has to step in to create an Opposition to the BJP regime. To do this one has to review the strategies of struggle.
First, there’s a need to realise that words like socialism, secularism have lost their magic, as concepts have been confined to the backbench of lost utopias. The new politics of majoritarianism dismisses these concepts as irrelevant. Instead of the appeals to ideals or even the rhetoric of socialism or secularism, Mr Modi’s idea of development reads more like a handbook — a self-improvement book on personality development, where upward mobility is preferable to justice or even revolution. Watching him succeed with Amit Shah and the chorus he calls the RSS, the current politics is threatening our sense of politics as a way of life.
Confronted with this, a set of fundamental questions must be asked. Given the devaluation of great tradition of concepts like secularism and socialism, where does one go for the new conceptual frameworks? Second, as dissent gets suppressed and dissenters become non-citizens, how does one sustain the plurality of our society? Third, as institutions like universities, trade unions, media get undermined, how does civil society respond to such decay? Each of these challenges demands that one looks at grassroots issues and problems in a new way.
We need to understand the current politics of modernity as a politics of ressentiment (a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred which cannot be satisfied). The old parties like the CPI(M) or the Congress, even the socialists, still celebrated an enlightenment politics where modernity was a search for ideals. They had dreams of equality and justice. There was a sense of philosophical understanding in their dreams of politics, no matter how residual. The new pragmatism of the BJP is not ideological but managerial. There is a bowdlerisation of politics, a simplification from dreams to duties. BJP politics sounds like a handbook.
While watching Mr Modi, I recollect what Jacqueline Kennedy once described as the difference between John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. She claimed her husband, the President, was a person while Bobby was a project, an instruction book for activists.
Mr Modi’s pragmatic and managerial attitude makes one feel he is on the line of duty, that he is following a book of instructions. One senses that we are confronting a regime of apparent doers rather than dreamers. Everything is a project from cleanliness to patriotism. Every voter sees the regime as a delivery system. Here the nature of critique becomes different. One must match the pragmatism of the regime not by questioning the dream but by confronting the regime as a collection of tactics.
Does the handbook of Mr Modi for India work? We have to sound like an audit of social workers rather than of ideologies to confront the regime. Development is not a millenarian dream. It has now become a collection of plumbing projects and must be evaluated as such. The fight has to be more on the wisdom and pragmatism of managerial strategies before we can shift the angle to questions of participation and human rights.
Second, one has to look at the question of citizenship in a more systematic way. The regime is defining citizenship as a collection of duties when citizenship is also a repertoire of rights. The separation of rights and duties is a totalitarian move, and it needs to be questioned.
It is in this sense that the whole project called development needs to be questioned in a different way. Development is seen as a magic wand by Mr Modi. Unfortunately, it is often an ironic process and a counterproductive one. There is first the temporariness of a citizen where the migrant, minority, marginal still have little access to the entitlements of citizenship. There is also what I call the growing informalisation of the economy as permanent workers turn temporary and downsizing eats into the very promise of employment. Nature, which is a source of livelihood, is being appropriated in the name of development.
The Opposition has to become more pragmatic when focusing on livelihood issues, prospects of employment, and when looking at citizenship as a form of competence. Years ago, the BJP tried to show that the Congress was hypocritical in its pursuit of secularism. The word “pseudo-secularism” became a lethal weapon.
Today it is time the Opposition shows that development is a hollow exercise. Pseudo-development linked to the rise of an increasing authoritarian society is the battle before us. It is time the Congress tries the battle against pseudo-development rather than indulging in the empty rhetoric of poverty.