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Mainstream, VOL LX No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2022

The Pathology of Electoral Politics | Avijit Pathak

Friday 18 March 2022, by Avijit Pathak


I am not a professional politician; nor am I a political philosopher. Yet, as a learner filled with the spirit of studentship, I believe that we need to sharpen the ethos of political education. Is it possible to retain a democratic culture without political education—the education that enables us to see through the discourse of power, think intelligently and critically, and exist as alert/active/reflexive agents of our collective destiny? I know there are many who would not find any meaning in my quest. They would rather celebrate our democracy— the recurrence of elections and the narrative of the popular mandate. No wonder, as we have just passed through the ritualization of elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, newspaper editorials and television commentaries are continually reminding us of the aliveness of our democracy , and the way people have exercised their voting power, and chosen their representatives. The ‘magic’ of Modi and Yogi, the victory of the BJP in four states, the steady decline of the Congress, and the emergence of Aam Admi Party as an ‘alternative’ in Punjab: everything, we are told, suggests the vibrancy of our democracy. Is it really true?

Is it the absence of political education?

To begin with, let me ask a simple question which does not necessarily have a simple answer: Are we really capable of thinking clearly and critically, and behaving responsibly as voters? Can we altogether rule out the possibility that even a nasty/authoritarian political culture can be promoted through the ritualization of elections and the valorization of the popular mandate? Think of the forces that often blur our thinking and vision.

 First, in the age of media simulations and a huge network of propaganda machinery, it is not easy to distinguish the real from the hyper- real. Quite often, political figures are projected as consumable brands with ‘magical’ qualities—say, Yogi’s ‘toughness’ and Modi’s ‘charisma’. The marketization of political figures is not qualitatively different from the way corporate houses advertise their products through attractive mythologies. The constant dissemination and circulation of these images through billboards, television channels and social media often disrupt the possibility of critical thinking—the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and inflated claims of achievement from the ground reality. Otherwise, how do we explain the ‘magic’ of Modi and Yogi in Uttar Pradesh, even amid economic misery, terrible health infrastructure, the all-pervading violence (from Hathras to Lakhimpur Kheri ) and ruthless repression of the right to protest and civil liberties? Is it like drinking Pepsi in the absence of safe drinking water, and feeling ‘good’?

 Second, the overwhelming presence of caste and religion in our mental landscape does not help us to expand our horizon, and ask critical questions. True, ours is a caste-ridden/hierarchical society characterized by all sorts of exclusionary practices. And a truly emancipatory politics must interrogate these hierarchical and oppressive practices. However, this sort of emancipatory politics is qualitatively different from the politics that, far from liberating us from caste fixations, stimulates and exploits these identities for a purely instrumental/power-centric drive. And quite often, we too begin to see ourselves and our politicians primarily through ‘Brahmin/Rajput Yadav/Dalit’ paradigms. I am a Brahmin; and I must vote for a Brahmin politician, even if he is corrupt; or, I am a Dalit; and I must support a Dalit candidate even if she is a narcissist, and serves primarily her own interests. This kind of political behavior does by no means help us to think critically, and enquire whether the politicians we are voting for are honest and spirited, and really concerned about our collective aspirations—health, education, employment opportunities and socio-economic equality. The awareness of caste hierarchy, or the willingness to fight it is one thing; and to see politics only through one’s caste, and thereby limit one’s mental horizon is its opposite. This is the tragedy of Indian politics. Far from overcoming this oppressive ideology, we are further intensifying and reproducing it.

Well, these days with the assertive ideology of Hindutva, one’s broad ‘Hindu identity’ seeks to overcome fragmented caste identities. And even though the Sangh Parivar is seen to be dominated by ‘forward’ castes, the fact is that the OBCs and even Dalits are getting incorporated by this triumphant ideology. Is it that, as the UP election results indicate, the hyper-nationalism of Hindutva has undermined the fragmentation of caste politics? It is for the experts to reflect on this complex interplay of caste and religion in our orientation to politics. However, what needs to be understood is that if we see the world only through the categories of caste and religion we miss a great deal. For instance, the Hindutva politics, like any other communal politics, goes against the ethos of inclusive pluralism. Moreover, the politics in the name of identity (be it caste or religion) fails to take into account, say, the class question. Imagine a situation. I am a ‘Hindu’ working as a security guard in an unorganized sector. And I begin to think that the ‘Hindu’ leader is necessarily working for people like me. Who knows possibly this ‘Hindu’ leader is serving the interests of the Adani-Ambani empire, while poor Hindus, Muslims and Christians continue to live under extremely exploitative circumstances? Or, for that matter, even the ‘Dalit’/’OBC’ leader I vote for might prove to be an agent of the corporate-mafia nexus. In other words, if we allow our visions to be restricted by caste, religion or hyper-nationalism, we fail to behave morally, critically and responsibly. In the name of glorifying the ‘popular mandate’, we should not forget to ask these critical questions relating to the pathetic state of political education.

Opportunism, authoritarianism and ugly politics

In this context, it is important to reflect on three distinctive characteristics of mainstream politics. First, politics is becoming increasingly personality-centric. The cult of the narcissistic leader is what unites diverse political parties—from the BJP to the Aam Admi Party. The followers are supposed to sing together, and praise the narcissistic leader for everything. This is like saying that the BJP is essentially the ‘brand’ called Narendra Modi; the Aam Admi Party is the one-sided glory of Arvind Kejriwal; the Bahujan Samaj Party is inseparable from Mayawati’s whims and desires; and the Trinamul Congress is the celebration of Mamata Banerjee. In a way, this personality-cult politics is not very different from the dynastic politics. It is no longer possible to blame only the Nehru-Gandhi family for perpetuating it. From Mulayam Singh Yadav to Akhislesh Jadav; or from Laloo Prasad Yadav to Tejashwi Yadav —what else do we see? In a way, some sort of authoritarian culture is implicit in the way these political parties function. As the cult of personality becomes important, we begin to sow the seeds of authoritarianism. It is important to realize that neither Modi nor Mamata can save us, unless we become alert, active and reflexive agents of social transformation, and argue with them, interrogate them, and make them accountable.

Second, what is really shocking is the crudely utilitarian/instrumental motive that characterizes most of our mainstream politicians. Gone are the days of commitment to a vision, a perspective, or an ideology. Is it, therefore, surprising that we are getting used to the phenomenon called defection? Yes, MLAs or MPs are bought and sold; today’s Congress cadre becomes tomorrow’s Modi-bhakt; or today’s BJP activist changes his position without any hesitation, and begins to cherish Mamata’s victory, and joins the TMC. And this naked act of buying and selling (for a position in the Ministry, or some lucrative offer) is encouraged by the political bosses across parties. In fact, this career-centric politics can be seen in the way ordinary cadres behave. It would not be wrong to say that goons and criminals have occupied this space. Is it this violence or gross emotion that unites the ‘followers’ of Yogi Adityanath, Mamata Banerjee or Akhilesh Yadav?

And third, we see the popularization of the kind of politics that, far from raising deeper structural/ideological issues, lures people through diverse packages of instant relief—say, distributing smart phones or bicycles to schoolchildren, depositing a token amount in the bank accounts of widows or farmers, or organizing religious pilgrimage for senior citizens. Even the ‘alternative’ Aam Admi Party, it has to be realized, is not free from this. In fact, the AAP refuses to take any ideological position relating to, say, the assertive discourse of Hindutva (instead, it speaks of all sorts of ‘deshbhakti’ packages in the realm of education), the neoliberal assault on economy and culture, or the issues relating to social justice and equal citizenship. Instead, through a series of delivery packages—say, working on the quality of government schools, or establishing mohalla clinics, it legitimizes its distinctive form of governance. While these efforts are indeed praise worthy, it is equally important to realize that politics is not just about piecemeal social engineering; the politics of radical social transformation ought to have a vision for the larger society—its economy, social formations, environment and development. Well, we live amid massive corruption; and hence, the welfare activities that the AAP government in Delhi has initiated might look promising, and appeal to the sanitized urban middle class. However, we should not forget that emancipatory politics (say, the kind of politics that the likes of Gandhi, Marx and Ambedkar would have imagined) has to commit itself to a long term vision of social transformation. In a way, the absence of this vision, and resultant utilitarianism (winning the elections at any cost) have corrupted the culture of electoral politics in India.

Yet, we continue to vote, and allow ourselves to be governed by this sort of ugly political culture. Or, as the cynics would say, we are free to choose the ‘lesser evil’! Is it democracy? Is it what loud television actors regard as people’s victory? Or is it an act of mass deception? We need deeply insightful political education to respond to these questions. And for spreading this education, critical pedagogues, public intellectuals and honest social activists have to play a key role.
It is not an easy struggle.

(Author: Avijit Pathak taught sociology at JNU for thirty one years. He writes extensively on education, culture and politics)

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