The churn and the changing narratives

Poornima Joshi | Updated on January 27, 2019

Congress’ structural decline, BJP’s emergence and domination of regional parties are part of a larger political trend

As India gears up for another general election, political trends show a curious throwback to the dominant discourse of the 1990s. The BJP’s bullish stance on Ram Janmabhoomi and alignment of caste-based politics in the crucial Hindi heartland States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are almost a repeat of the events following the demolition of Babri Masjid. In December 1992, the political ascendance of the Hindutva was effectively countered by caste arithmetic when OBC leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Dalit icon Kanshi Ram came together with the slogan Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, hawa me Ud gaye Jai Shri Ram (the appeal of Jai Shri Ram is blown away by the alliance of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party). The ‘Mandal versus Kamandal’ narrative was brought back when Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to a majority government, the first in three decades, during the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

Political scientist Manoranjan Mohanty identifies three distinct patterns in Indian politics during the last quarter of a century — the structural decline of the Congress, emergence of the BJP as the second pole of national alliance, and the continuing domination of caste-based, regional and chauvinistic parties. Alongside these larger trends is a deeper and, in Mohanty’s opinion, more significant pattern of political mobilisation on farmers’ issues and unemployment. “There are two new aspects to Indian politics — widespread peasant and youth movements that demand redressal for structural issues in the agricultural sector and the inability of the government to create alternative jobs for farming. The steady mobilisation on caste and communal grounds, with an attempt to reassert the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, does not fully resonate because issues such as agricultural distress and job crisis are felt more sharply,” says Mohanty.

According to him, Modi swept the polls in 2014 because many voters saw hope in the Prime Minister’s promise of achche din. Voters were disenchanted with the Congress because it was unable to deliver on basic promises such as job creation, better education, healthcare and infrastructure, and relief to farmers.

The decline of the Grand Old Party is illustrated in an exhaustive analysis of its structural and organisational collapse by scholars Adnan Farooqui and E. Sridharan, of the Jamia Millia Islamia and University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India, in a paper titled ‘Can umbrella parties survive? The decline of the Indian National Congress’, published in the reputed international journal Commonwealth and Comparative Politics.

“While in elections from 1967 to 1984, Congress slipped to third or worse in only three States for one elections each, overwhelmingly retaining second place even where it lost, by contrast, in the post-1989 period, Congress has slipped to third or worse position in four major States — UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — that is, a total of 201 seats or 37 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha for several elections,” the scholars explain in the paper. In 2014, the Congress’ vote share slid to 19 per cent and it became uncompetitive in 10 States, which amounted to 59 per cent or 320 Lok Sabha seats. Its recovery has been termed “extremely difficult” if not “impossible” in the coming years.

The BJP’s stunning performance — 282 seats with a vote share of 21.34 per cent — has led its ideologues to assert that the politics of caste and caste identity, or the ‘Mandal era’, has given way to one around development, governance and growth. The subtext of this message is that the new politics — symbolised by Modi, his Gujarat model, dream of smart cities, round-the-clock electricity, good infrastructure and a digital India — is the first choice of an aspirational India. This theory was expounded in the months following the Lok Sabha elections as the Modi juggernaut marched on, winning successive assembly polls in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and, more recently, Uttar Pradesh.

During the Bihar assembly elections in 2015, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad underlined some broad trends in Indian politics. “Politics in India has progressed in three broad phases — politics of welfare and want, politics of identity, and the contemporary phase of politics of development and aspiration. The problem with the socialists is that they are still living in the era of Mandal and Kamandal, which peaked during the 1990s and early part of this millennium,” Prasad said in an interview to BusinessLine on September 4, 2015.

The BJP’s foremost election strategist and Union Minister Arun Jaitley voiced similar sentiments in 2014. Although Jaitley brought up Modi’s OBC ‘credentials’, underlining the criticality of caste in elections, he focussed on the BJP PM candidate’s ability to govern. “The good thing is that the issues that have occupied centre stage and shaped the political debate are all related to governance; the dominant political discourse is governance-centric,” Jaitley said in an interview to BusinessLine on March 18, 2014.

However, the narrative changed during the Bihar elections a year later, with the success of the mahagathbandhan. The JDU-RJD-INC alliance showed that caste remains an important part of electioneering, in the choice of candidates and campaigners, alongside a pro-growth/governance narrative.

While the Congress and the BJP straddle the national discourse, regional parties continue to hold sway in different areas. “Regional parties are appealing not just because they have a chauvinistic or caste-based character, but because they address the real issues effectively,” says Mohanty.

Published on January 27, 2019

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