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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 27 , July 1, 2023

How to Draw a Line on the Ground | Ravi Sinha

Saturday 1 July 2023


Comments for the Washington DC Diaspora Program on “Karnataka Election Outcome and the Two Contesting Ideologies”

by Ravi Sinha

I must begin with a disclaimer. I am no expert on how elections are won or lost. Nor can I claim any competence in deciphering an election result for what has worked and what has not. I will not be offering, therefore, any fresh insights into the results of recently concluded Assembly elections in Karnataka beyond what is already well-known from the media reports and analyses. I plan to focus primarily on the latter half of the title of the discussion today — the Two Contesting Ideologies.

The question of ideologies too is not easy to pose, let alone answer, especially when it comes to the muddy fields of politics on the ground. It is one thing to draw a clear ideological line on paper; it is quite another to do so on the actual ground of politics. In the normal course of politics — at least in a polity that has managed to settle into a normal course — ideological lines are seldom clearly drawn. Those who insist on drawing a clear ideological line in all circumstances are invariably pushed to the margins of the normal mode of politics.

There are times, however, when politics must undergo a paradigm shift. Ideological battle lines are, more or less, clearly drawn under such conditions, and sometimes, even if rarely, revolutionary transformations ensue from such shifts. The ideological lines may or may not be clearly visible during the actual political turbulence, but one can decipher them in hindsight after the polity and the society settle into a new normal.

One cannot say that India today sits on the brink of a political paradigm shift that promises a revolution. In fact, a shift of decidedly regressive kind has taken place with the rise of Hindutva. Nearly a decade after 2014, it is clear now, at least to those who would care to see, what a disaster India has brought upon itself. The damage done to the economy, to the social fabric, to the institutions of governance, and to the democratic process itself, is being felt in the bones of the country. India has been pushed back by decades in what has been at best a slow advance to a reasonably enlightened democratic republic with a moderately prosperous and not too uncaring economy. It will take many decades to recover what has been lost in just one decade. And yet, there is no guarantee that we will stop hurtling towards an even greater disaster in 2024.

Under these circumstances, one should not be considered naïve or conservative if one were to wish for a restorative kind of paradigm shift. One realises now that merely turning the political clock back by a decade would bring a huge sigh of relief to the country. In times of disasters like this one, it is not a crime to hope for a kind of restoration, especially when revolutions are nowhere on the horizon. It is for this reason that the success of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra followed by the resounding victory of Congress Party in the Karnataka Assembly elections have come as a big sigh of relief and a desperately needed ray of hope in the aware citizenry and, to a significant extent, even among the suffering masses and oppressed communities across the country.

One must, however, ask the question: has the Karnataka outcome resulted from clearly drawing an ideological line at the ground level? Disappointing as it may sound, the answer is largely in the negative. Actually, it should not be as disappointing as it sounds. As I said, drawing such a line in the muddy fields of electoral politics is not a simple or at times even a desirable thing to do. Insisting on this in all circumstances may in fact be counter-productive. One can however ask the converse question: do these results shed some useful light on how to draw an ideological dividing line on the ground? The answer to this question is clearly affirmative. I will be dwelling mostly on this apparently paradoxical situation.

First thing to be noted in the Karnataka outcome is that Congress, which confronted the BJP and the saffron brigade directly, did score a decisive victory, but it is far from the case that Hindutva has suffered a fatal blow. The BJP maintained its vote percentage of roughly 36 percent it had garnered in 2018. At this aggregate level of electoral analysis, the gains of Congress appear to have come at the cost of Janata Dal Secular (JDS), a regional party whose vote percentage has declined by the same 5 percentage points. Despite its name, this party has clearly moved closer to the BJP in the aftermath of the elections.

But one should not rush to conclusions just on the basis of aggregate numbers. Congress has not won only because of its gains in the Mysore region where JDS has been strong. It has won most of the seats in northern Karnataka adjacent both to the Telugu states and to Maharashtra. It has made gains in the rural areas all over the state. The point to note, however, is that not only has the BJP maintained its aggregate vote percentage, it has also made gains in many areas. It has gained ground wherever communal divide has been pronounced and Hindutva is entrenched. In the coastal region of Udupi-Mangalore it has stood its ground and even improved its vote percentage. Same is the case with the urban conglomerate of Bengaluru where it has won 15 out of 28 seats. Spectacular is the case of Srirangapatna where its vote share skyrocketed from 6.4 percent in 2018 to 22.8 percent in 2023. This is the place where an intense communal campaign has been around claims of yet another mosque being a temple. It will be foolhardy to think that Hindutva has lost its ground in Karnataka.

A tell-tale sign of the hold of Hindutva was in the episode of Bajrang Dal and Bajrang Bali. When none other than the Prime Minister himself equated the hooligans with the monkey god, and sought help from the muscle power of one and the blessings of the other, many across the country laughed at this mockery. And yet, it was not a laughing matter. Many leaders of Congress bent over backwards to put on display their religious credentials — even D K Shivakumar, a key architect of Karnataka victory, made well-publicized visits to temples and Congress campaigners began to count how many Hanuman temples Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress President, had built in his native Hyderabad region of Karnataka. Those who knew the situation on ground, and those who knew a thing or two about how elections are won and lost in India, did not take this matter lightly.

In the electoral analyses splattered across the media, the victory of Congress has been attributed to multiple factors, but three among them stand out — the so-called anti-incumbency of an exceptionally corrupt government, the economic hardships of the poor who are a vast majority of the population, and a relatively strong organizational presence of the Congress Party in Karnataka. Such analyses also factor in the role of vote banks supposedly based on castes and communities — Lingayats, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, Dalits, Muslims and so on. But, managing such vote banks is a necessary detail of any electoral strategy — often expressed in the euphemistic phrase of social engineering. It does not define an ideological dividing line. If one tries hard to extract some such line from the enormous complexity of Indian politics, two large conglomerates of factors stand out — Hindutva, cultural nationalism, religious and other traditional identities form one such conglomerate and the issues of poverty, class, basic security of life and material well-being form the other.

Given the history of the 20th century, class has been the centre-piece of the canonical definition of ideological dividing line. Many who swear by this definition and reject the possibility of any other definition would underline the fact that the Karnataka election was won because the poor, especially in the rural hinterlands, supported Congress. While this underlines the fact that the class factor hasn’t gone away anywhere, it does not explain a far more effective presence of the other factors. As I have already mentioned, the victory of Congress does not mean that Hindutva has been defeated in Karnataka and it is not the case that the poor have voted for Congress because they detest Hindutva.

Fact of the matter is that there seem to exist two different axes along which ideological dividing lines can be drawn in today’s politics. The class axis has been the canonical one, but there seems to be another axis. For want of a well-thought-out nomenclature let us call it the cultural axis. It includes identities based on religion, caste, race, ethnicity, community, languages and even civilisations. This axis has become far more operational in the arena of democratic and electoral politics. Actually, part of the question can be posed even more sharply. Why is it that the ever-present class axis almost never gives rise to a politically operational class identity? (The same question can be posed in relation to the gender axis too, even if in a different way.) As many a leftist trade unionist would testify, the class that comes together on the factory floor seldom remembers the class identity and solidarity in the voting booth. Here I would not even try to get into the high theory of relationship between class and culture. For the purpose at hand, I will take a pragmatic tack and treat these two realms as relatively autonomous even if connected at some deep subterranean layer.

The rise of culture in politics is not confined to the so-called Third World. Samuel Huntington, the Harvard don famous for his Clash of Civilizations, can be easily chastised by other dons of the progressive kinds, especially after he showed his true colours by prodding the Americans to ask the question — Who Are We? — and encouraged them to be wary of the Latino immigrants who pose a threat, in his reckoning, to the American national identity. Chastising him is the easy part. But how does one explain the rise of Donald Trump in American politics which has happened more or less along the same lines Huntington theorised? Trumps do not arise just because the likes of Huntington construct their theories. The sources of Trumpism lie in the deeper layers of American society. Similarly, the political traction of Hindutva arises, at least in parts, from the deeper layers of the Indian social mind.

To add to the puzzle and to the tragedy, democracy itself, especially of the fiercely competitive kind, plays a role in bringing the worst out of the hidden layers of the social mind. Who in the world can claim to have a better alternative to democracy? And yet, there are examples galore of democracy landing itself in very strange places. The example of Hitler coming to power through democracy may sound hackneyed except that the phenomenon is far more ubiquitous in the world today. You in the United States had your Trump and I am told that Trumpism hasn’t gone away anywhere. We in India have Narendra Modi; Turkey just re-elected Erdogan who has been in power since 2003, first as Prime Minister and subsequently as President; Bolsanaro of Brazil was barely defeated; Putin is too well-known an example to forget. One can go on and on and cite examples where democracy finds curious ways to commit suicide. But one thing would be common in all such examples. The cultural axis plays a crucially important political role.

In saying all this I am aware of the fact that the cultural axis does not become operational on its own in the political arena. Popular democracy with competitive elections is not exclusively a cultural phenomenon. After all, this whole exercise is for constituting a State and electing a government for running an economic and a political system. This system constitutes itself in the political arena and ostensibly operates in that arena, but competitive electoral processes force it to dig into the cultural unconscious of the social mind. In analogy with depth psychology, I often describe it as depth politics. The cultural unconscious of the Indian social mind, whose layers have been deposited over centuries and millennia, becomes operational in modern politics through competitive electoral democracy.

In the case of the United States, one often hears about the deep state that pulls the wires of democracy while itself remaining beyond the reach of constitutional and democratic powers and procedures. In India the deep state may not be as deep, but it is definitely there and the existence of a cultural unconscious comes very handy to it. In fact, the Indian deep state does not feel the necessity to remain invisible and confined to the depths. There are examples galore of unconstitutional, undemocratic and unscrupulous acts on the part of the political as well as economic forces and agents. All that is being done to the Indian economy, to the public resources, to the constitutional and democratic institutions, is not very hidden. But the point to note is that the state, whether deep or otherwise, finds it handy to manipulate the cultural unconscious and democracy itself becomes an accomplice in this exercise.

Michael Walzer, the Princeton political philosopher, has drawn attention to another curious phenomenon in which, I suspect, the cultural axis is deeply implicated. In his book, The Paradox of Liberation, he points out examples of national liberation movements that led to independence from foreign rule and to establishment of secular, liberal and enlightened democracies, but within a few decades the secular revolutions made way for religious counter-revolutions. The irony is that the counter-revolutions were brought about through the same democratic process which had been instituted by the founding fathers for the purpose of erecting a secular, democratic and enlightened republic. India figures prominently in Walzer’s Paradox, although being a large and complex country the replacement of “revolution” by “counter-revolution” has taken its time. It took half a century after the departure of Jawaharlal Nehru for someone like Narendra Modi to come to power and replace the Nehruvian hegemony with the hegemony of Hindutva.

In saying all this my purpose is to underline the obvious that is often ignored by those who are accustomed to drawing the ideological dividing line only across the class axis. The dividing line on the actual ground of politics cuts across both the axes of class and of culture. In the rough and tumble of competitive electoral politics one is no wiser if one can prove that the latter is a derivative of the former. If class were to be the only operational axis, the Left would have conquered the world rather easily. On the other hand, if culture were to be the only operational axis, it would become impossible to ward off the ascendance of the right-wing. Fortunately, this is not the case on the ground. Even the Sangh Parivar cannot live by Hindutva alone. Even Narendra Modi has to see beyond the Hindu-Muslim divide and talk — at least talk — of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas.

It is in this light that the lessons of Karnataka should be read off. By and large the cultural axis was tilted against Congress while the class axis was tilted in its favour. The art of drawing an ideological line on the actual ground requires navigating the political topography along both these axes. Congress managed to do this in Karnataka this time. The BJP lost primarily because the class axis became steeply tilted against it. Hardships faced by the poor had been greatly exacerbated by corruption and misrule.

One should not, however, read too much into the relative importance of class in the Karnataka example. As I have mentioned already, Hindutva has not disappeared from Karnataka. Congress managed to hit the sweet spot because it could take advantage of the class dimension without hurting itself along the culture axis. This situation can be contrasted with a hypothetical situation if the Left were to be the principal opponent of BJP. An equally strong Left would not have fared as well as Congress mainly because it does not know how to navigate itself along the cultural axis which is tilted too steeply against it in most places on the subcontinent.

At the same time, one should not take the eyes off the absolute necessity of drawing a clear ideological line. In the situation that has arisen in India after nearly a decade of Modi Rule, this has become a must even for electoral battles. Given the importance of two axes and the uneven-ness of the political topography, such a line may not be straight, but it must be clear. One can see its importance in the example of the Janata Dal (Secular) debacle. It failed to take up a clear ideological position and planned for winning enough seats through its traditional influence and regular vote-bank politics to be in the position of a king-maker. This tactic has worked in the past but it backfired in the present situation. People were wary of its lack of ideological commitment.

Beyond uplifting the morale of forces opposed to Hindutva and in addition to appearing as a ray of hope in the distressing political atmosphere in India, Karnataka results also have reasonably clear lessons for the all-important battle of 2024. But there are no strong indications that these lessons are being learnt by the entire opposition. In the loud clamours for opposition unity, parties and leaders are adopting negotiating positions as if they are already on the table for seat-sharing. Everyone seems to be angling for the largest piece of the opposition cake. There are talks of putting up one candidate of united opposition against each BJP candidate. There is much advice to Congress to be large-hearted and make sacrifices for the sake of opposition unity.

The obvious necessity of drawing a clear ideological line is getting lost in this noise of opposition unity. There are only two political forces with a relatively unblemished record of fighting against Hindutva — the Congress and the Left. The record of every other force is tainted in varying degrees. Some have been confused or short-sighted while there are many who have been downright opportunists.

There are problems with the two resolute fighters too. Left, as mentioned already, has been especially inept at fighting along the axis of culture. This adds to its handicaps arising out of other ailments such as dogmatism, sectarianism or unthinking populism. Congress, on the other hand, is a much larger political force, but it also has had much bigger problems. Given its long and complicated history, and its more recent omissions and commissions in the political arena, it cannot entirely be absolved from accusations of paving the way for Hindutva. It has often functioned as a half-way-house between secularism and Hindutva and has had leaders and cadres who can cross over to the other side without batting an eye-lid. Congress has never been a shining example of a clear ideology or a cadre-based party. And yet, things have been changing for the better in recent months and years. There has been much internal churning and Congress has emerged as the central force around which all other anti-Hindutva forces could be mobilised for the battle at hand.

Emergence of Rahul Gandhi as an ideological leader and a resolute fighter has been a turning point in the recent history of Congress. Bharat Jodo Yatra has changed the political atmosphere in the country. And yet, Rahul’s Congress is not in a strong enough position to bring about an ideological unity among the disparate political forces of the opposition. The problem is further complicated by the fact that many of the regional parties stand to lose if Congress gains ground in their part of the country. Nearly everyone wants Congress to be strong elsewhere but weak or non-existent in their own areas.

People like us cannot really chart out the course for the opposition in India. We are neither at the drawing board nor at the negotiating table. All we can do is to have a reasonable wish-list. But we have to be receptive to complexity when it comes to larger strategies. One corner of India is so different from another. In Kerala, for example, where Congress and Left are faced with each other, it will be alright if they continue to be at each other’s neck provided they keep the doors shut for BJP. In West Bengal on the other hand, it is not unthinkable that Congress and Left together fight against Mamta Banerjee’s TMC but in such a way that they snatch the ground from BJP and become the main opposition to TMC. In that part of India, this may be the most effective way to fight BJP at the national level. There are other parts of the country where, for example, opposing BJP by putting up one united opposition candidate in each constituency will be tantamount to ensuring that BJP gets more than 50 percent of the votes. One could go on and on about the complexities of India’s political geography.

Ideological line must be drawn but we cannot expect it to be very straight. We should expect Congress to play the lead role in the battle at hand and yet we should not expect it to bind its hand and feet with ideological ropes in such a way that it becomes as ineffective in fighting the real battle against Hindutva as, for example, Left has become.

In the end, we should also remember that fascists may come to power through elections but they are not very amenable to being dislodged from power through elections. January 6th in the United States had a happy outcome thanks to the relative robustness of American institutions. The Indian analogue of the January 6th would more likely be a death knell for Indian democracy which is already under a great deal of stress.

On that depressing note, let me stop here.

June 10, 2023

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