Curated by Prof. Rahul Mukherji

Bringing ‘Normal’ Politics Back: Forget Radical Transformation, Strive For The Democratic Minimum

The rupture brought about by the pandemic would have helped the non-BJP parties to introspect and muster enough imagination to comprehend the nature of the present political moment that threatens their existence.

Suhas Palshikar | August 29, 2020

Bringing ‘Normal’ Politics Back: Forget Radical Transformation, Strive For The Democratic Minimum

  Picture Courtesy: ThePrint

Lockdown posed a challenge to all forms of collective mobilization bringing politics to a standstill. But even before the pandemic, disarray in some parties and confusion over what BJP rule means had already paralyzed routine politics. Combined with the aggressive publicity machine of the ruling party this resulted into suspension of normal politics over the past six years. One can hope that the rupture brought about by the pandemic would have helped the non-BJP parties to introspect and muster enough imagination to comprehend the nature of the present political moment that threatens their existence.

Elections cause fluctuations in the fortunes of parties, but elections also occasionally throw up a government that seeks to change the regime. In India’s case, such a regime change began in 2014 without prior announcement or formal change in the rules of the game. Most political parties besides the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then believed that this was only an outcome of anti-incumbency and an unavoidable alternation that electoral politics involves. After all, the UPA did get two terms and having wasted the second term, its defeat was not entirely unexpected. Therefore, the inability of many parties to comprehend the moment correctly, was, though lacking in political wisdom, somewhat understandable. But when in 2019 too, most non-BJP parties again failed to realize the significance of the return of the BJP, that could only be accounted for as grave political failure.

It is time non-BJP parties begin to compensate for that failure. But even before they begin to realize their failure, the political system is changing fundamentally (as I have recently argued–Indian Express, 4 Aug. 2020). This change is eclipsing the cherished dreams and central features of India’s hardly fought Republic.

Four consequences of this transition are all too visible: the breakdown of institutional and procedural component of India’s democracy, the acceptability of ‘electoral autocracy’, overemphasis on regulatory capabilities of the state and the spread of majoritarian tendency. It could be argued that each of these pre-existed the rise of the BJP—which is of course, true. However, each of these sporadically emerged and had only a limited life each time; seldom did these factors exist simultaneously and above all, these were not seen as the right way of doing politics—politicians and parties did indulge in these practices but these were seen as the underbelly of politics. Today, these factors are converted into the core of the body politic.

So, where do we go from here? Is this a moment of closure? What can weaken, postpone or perhaps reverse the slide down toward a closure?

First, it may be conceded that the deeper changes brought about by the current moment in both political culture and institutional behaviour cannot be reversed quickly or easily. In that sense, retrieving the original republic envisioned by the constitution is not going to be an easy task—it will perhaps require monumental efforts for over a generation for us to be able to think of reenergizing the original dream. The immediate challenge and possibility is to stem the tide. This requires resolute agenda setting by the Opposition. This can happen only if non-BJP parties stop looking, talking and behaving like the BJP. They face the challenge of building credibility as opposition and also as potential rulers on the basis of a different narrative.

The second issue we must be clear about is this: When democratic politics is nearly halted through a combination of hegemony and ruthless practices of state repression, the first casualty is diversity of political menus, the other casualty is politics of protests. As the experience of past six years shows, the space for routine protests has not only shrunk; politics of protests has suddenly become impossible. In an atmosphere where any departure from the official rhetoric is treated as anti-national and worse, where the police apparatus is too willing to exercise repression and where judicial protection has practically disappeared, it would be unrealistic to expect protests to be able to challenge the regime—unless political parties themselves take up that route and show the courage to face the consequences.

Third, past six years have manifested ‘wilful suspension of disbelief’ on the part of the public resulting in credulity and resignation. This is in large part a result of what I have described as BJP’s success in shaping a new hegemony (EPW, 18 Aug. 2018). The present hegemony in particular is armed with an unprecedented media complicity and construction of an autonomous, mythological reality that defies empirical verification. As such, past six years have witnessed continued popular disdain for reasoned critiques. In particular, the routine occurrence of popular fatigue with the ruling party is not likely to have much traction and non-BJP parties cannot lazily expect that popular disenchantment will constitute the basis for electoral upsets. In the absence of grand narratives and large scale mass movements, only a diffuse politics of attending to local disappointments may offer an opening to the opposition.

Fourth, the fact that many states are still governed by non-BJP parties is sometimes held as an indication that the BJP is yet to emerge as politically invincible. In particular state parties are seen as the bulwark of opposition politics. But it is also useful to remember that the pathway through which BJP has taken over many states (besides power at the centre) consists of exposing the weak governance record of the ruling parties that it replaces. Therefore, better governance is going to be the first test for non-BJP parties in winning popular confidence.

Fifth, in a deeper sense, normal democratic politics can become the first speed-breaker for the current regime—that is why the BJP makes every effort at avoiding the resumption of normal democratic politics. Parties want power, they require space in the competitive arena, they are the first to feel the pinch from the closure of normal politics. The sheer self-interest of parties should alert them to the urgency of restoring normal politics. That normal politics will be messy, full of intrigues and one-upmanship; nevertheless, it will also have the promise of—selfishly and cynically—claiming some principles, at least superficially adhering to the idea of diversity and accommodation and despite practicing it, decrying electoral autocracy. Therefore, any restoration of ‘normal’ politics is predicated on non-BJP parties upholding institutional autonomy and procedural norms in their own actions and rhetoric.

In sum, as the closure of democratic politics stares us in the face, let us not wait for revolutions, radical dreams or new messiahs; only messy moves and uncertain clamours for power might open a recess through which the neatness of majoritarian and authoritarian politics can be ruptured. In this sense, the prospects of the democratic minimum hang precariously on the survival instinct of parties and politicians.

Such a development might produce—in a non-ideological and non-theoretical manner—space for arresting the shift away from India’s constitutional republic. If on the other hand, non-BJP parties choose to beat the BJP by offering more of the same or wait for the BJP to make the slip, then the original republic will be consigned to history, ceasing to even remain as a distant dream.

Suhas Palshikar, based at Pune, is the author of Indian Democracy, (OUP, 2017). He taught political science, writes in English and Marathi on contemporary Indian politics and is currently chief editor of the journal, Studies in Indian Politics.


Opinion