Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 21, Dated May 30, 2009
end of arrogance
The Hour Of The Untamed
Bred on radical diversity and an epic culture, the voter makes a reckoning of
Narendra Modi, Prakash Karat, Mayawati and the politics of excess
ASHIS NANDY, Social Scientist
AFTER ALMOST two decades, in
many ways, the election of 2009
was a normal election. No overriding
consideration drove the voting
across the country. Diverse configurations
in diverse places determined the
fate of different candidates and parties. Different regions had
different logic even within a given state. Still, underlying the
diversity there were some common themes.
First, I think people were looking for ways to lower the
temperature of politics. High-pitched politics has reigned
in our polity for nearly 15 years now. My suspicion is people
were a bit tired of this. For example, the past two elections
showed that in Uttar Pradesh, only one percent of the
electorate was interested in Ram Janmabhoomi. The BJP
probably played down the issue this year because their internal
assessment showed the same thing. Except in West
Bengal, nowhere did the election involve an emotional
arousal of the kind we have come to routinely expect.
There are reasons for this. In our society, we live with
radical diversities — diversity that is not based on tamed
forms of difference. The US is a perfect example of tamed
diversity. You get every kind of food and dress and cultural
activity in America. You think you are very cosmopolitan if
you can distinguish Huaiyang food from Schezwan food, or
South Korean ballet from Beijing opera, or Ming dynasty
china from Han dynasty china in a museum. This is diversity
that is permissible, legitimate, tamed.
Radical diversity is when you tolerate and live with
people who challenge some of the very basic axioms of your
political life. Like most of South Asia, Indians have an old
capacity to live with such diversity. A powerful example is
Sajjad Lone contesting the election this year. Nobody
objected that a secessionist wants to take an oath of allegiance
to the Constitution. Everyone spoke of it glowingly. I
consider that a tolerance for radical diversity. In such a
society, all excesses are ultimately checkmated.
In India, we live in a country where the gods are imperfect
and the demons are never fully demonic. I call this an
‘epic culture’ because an epic is not complete without either
the gods or the demons. They make the story together. This
is a part of our consciousness, and ultimately, I think it
influences our public life. People go up to a point with their
grievance, then get tired of it. They realise that to go further
is a dangerous thing because it destroys the basic algorithm of your life. They say, enough is enough, let us go back to a
normal life. This election represents something of that
consciousness. We probably need this kind of interregnum
in politics. They have a soothing effect on our public life.
This is what most Indians feel.
The second underlying theme is that people were searching
for a sort of minimum decency. Negative campaigns,
excessively personal attacks, hostile slogans — all of this
seemed to upset the voter. When the BJP and the Left
targeted Manmohan Singh, making him the butt of jokes
and accusations, Singh became a hero for the very qualities
people joked about. His weakness, his absence of a political
base, his susceptibility to pressures of the Congress high
command — instead of looking like liabilities, these things
suddenly began to look like a marker of a genteel type of
politics. I think that paid dividends. Contrasted with their
shrill opponents, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s conduct too
(I asked a waiter at the India International Centre in
Delhi what he felt about the election results. “It’s been very
good,” he said. Was he a Congress supporter, I asked him.
“It’s not that, sahib,” he replied. “That Sardarji is a good man.
He is educated, he is not a thief, and he is a newcomer to
politics. Still, they got after him, calling him weak and
scared. Who can enjoy watching that? I am just happy that
this election result has shown there is a god watching
above.” I quote the waiter verbatim because I think the idea
of “a god above” might have been a consideration with many
other people as well.)
THE THIRD and interlinked theme this election was the
voter’s desire to bring down the arrogant. The way
Mayawati has lost, in what was once thought an
inelastic support base, points to something very significant.
Many people did not like the way she threw her weight
around; her ostentation; the dozens of statues she is
erecting in her likeness, her assumption that even if she did
nothing to serve it further, history was waiting for her.
Others did not like Narendra Modi. Yet others, Prakash
Karat. Arrogance of style. Arrogance of ambition. The
arrogance of neglecting the people. All of this was punished
by the voter.
Narendra Modi has marginalised all possible opposition
within the BJP, and sidelined the RSS, Bajrang Dal and VHP.
They cannot really muddy things for him easily anymore.
He is a man looking for power and he has used and discarded
them. He has a solid support base in West Gujarat
and among middle-class Gujaratis, so there is no question
of him fading away, but this election doubts have been
planted about his capacity to emerge as a pan-Indian leader.
He was billed as a star campaigner for the BJP, but the Indian voter has sent back a strong message scaling him down.
|‘That Sardarji is a good man. He is
educated, a newcomer to politics
and he is not a thief,’ said the waiter
Controversial leaders rarely make it to the top job in
India. Modi is determined not to talk of communities, determined
not to apologise or even make a gesture towards
the Muslim community to atone for the sins of Gujarat
2002. His refrain is that he is the leader of five-and-a-halfcrore
Gujaratis, implying he is also the leader of Muslims.
But this election should teach him some lessons in humility
and modesty. It should give him some access to the language
of politics in India. He will learn his lesson. Indian
politics has taught humility to
lots of people from Indira
Gandhi to Mayawati. It will
teach humility to Narendra
Unfortunately, there is a big
similarity between Prakash Karat
and Narendra Modi — however
unpleasant that thought might be.
They are both men who do not understand
the wisdom of accommodation and
cannot stomach the dilution of ideology.
Like Modi and Mayawati, this election has scaled down
the arrogance of Prakash Karat, but the debacle of the Left
Front points to a deeper malaise.
IN BENGAL, the party had been in power too long. In a society
like ours, when any political party is on an ascendant,
all gangs, thugs and extortionists gravitate towards that
party. In UP, this mafia element was first attached to the
Congress; then it moved to the BJP; then the SP; then the BSP,
mirroring their rising political graphs. In Bengal, 32 years
into power, all anti-social elements had become entrenched
within the CPM. The party’s coercive might was enormous.
In village after village, people from other parties were
prevented from campaigning. That arrogance and control
has not loosened very much, but it has started to crack. In
the long run, I think Prakash Karat has done a lot of good to
Bengal. These three decades of continuous rule had rotted
the system to the core. If you miss power once in a while —
however bad the Opposition may be — it keeps people and
parties on their toes.
(For instance, I believe it is good the BJP got a shot at
winning power at the Centre one time. Not only did it limber
up the Congress, it also allowed the BJP to get a sense that it can come to power if it gets its formulas right. This is
very important to keep the rabid fringe like VHP, Bajrang Dal
and Shiv Sena in check. When you have legitimate power,
you don’t have to use street power. You rein them in because
it’s counter-productive and you want respectability.)
But criminality and arrogance is not the only reason for
the Left Front’s rout in Bengal and Kerala. The trouble is,
their kind of Leninism has not survived anywhere in the
world except in Cuba, Bengal and Kerala. Chandan Mitra
would add tartly, “And the People’s Republic of Jawaharlal
Nehru University.” This ideology has such an Edwardian
ring to it, I am surprised it even captivated so many in India. The point is, this sense
of a vanguard of the proletariat,
this whole position is
protected by middle-class
activists. This is why despite 32
years in power, the truth is that the kind of revolutionary
changes in social structures that have swept across India
have not even touched West Bengal. Everything there is still
controlled by the upper castes, and in some senses, it is the
most casteist society in India. West Bengal is one state in
India, for instance, where you cannot even dream of having
a dalit chief minister. In contrast, in south India, the whole
thing has opened up. So much new energy has been
released. But has Bengal produced an AR Rahman? Or his
guru, Illayaraja? Genius flowering from the bottom of society.
Such release of energy from the non-brahminic castes
has absolutely no parallel in Bengal.
|There are similarities between
Karat and Modi — however
unpleasant that thought might be
There is little hope that the churn of this defeat will bring
in any fresh thought into Marxism in Bengal. It cannot,
because this is the last remnant of a colonial culture. That is
why our Marxists are locked into their textbooks. That is
why they haven’t picked up anything from Latin American
Marxism or European Marxism, that is why there has been
no new indigenous innovation.
In such an intellectual world, rethinking comes through
only two things: death and retirement. Once people start
retiring and dying, a new generation will come in. Then it
will be easy. They will just not bother with what has gone before. Ideas like this die out of neglect and carelessness,
not through dramatic confrontation.
The other important trend this election has thrown up, is
the return of support to larger national level parties. One
could read this as the start of a significant course correction.
With the extreme proliferation of smaller parties and interest
groups, perhaps the fragmentation of electoral power
has stopped yielding dividends.
Voters have realised it is best to allow larger parties to
come to power at the Centre.
The interesting thing is, though the pitch has been scaled
down, one cannot read this election result as a post-Mandal
era of politics. Many of the Congress’ traditional vote banks
— the dalits and Muslims in UP, for instance — had moved
away from the Congress to more ‘specialist parties’: the
dalits moved to the BSP, the Muslims to Mulayam Singh. In
Bihar, they moved towards Lalu. The attraction of these parties
was that, being smaller, they were much more captive to
the demands of their vote base. In a large, national party like
the Congress, others’ demands checkmated your demands.
Ironically, the movement back towards the Congress is a
sign that the specialist parties like SP and BSP have become
too big and bloated with ambition, and so less responsive to
their vote banks. In effect, the Congress is now the new
small party trying to build a new support base. People feel it
might be more responsive to their needs.
There are other reasons why it would be premature to read
this election as a post-Mandal era. In India, except in very
small, modern, urban pockets, the unit of mobility is not the
individual; the unit of mobility is caste. The lowest common
denominator for any party decision on
their choice of candidates is caste
— all other considerations of
aptitude and intention
come after that. In fact,
we cannot reach a post-
Mandal era of politics yet
because entering politics
from the periphery is still a very
crucial instrument in Indian politics.
|In effect, the Congress is now
the new small party trying to build
a new support base
Some of the parties lay less emphasis on it because their
constituencies have arrived in the mainstream. The
Marathas, Patels, Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Jats. Yadavs too talk
less about it because they have just arrived. Perhaps, with
Nitish Kumar, Kurmis too will feel more secure. But there are still hundreds of communities who are not well
represented. Now that the big communities have organised
themselves and reaped the benefits, the smaller ones want a
slice of the pie. Just as the Kammas emerged in the 1970s and
1980s through NTR, the Kapus have emerged this election
through Chiranjeevi. These are much smaller communities.
Earlier, they would have voted under larger umbrellas. Now
they think they can carve out a smaller, more targeted
domain or space in the political arena.
Recently, the Gujjars began to lobby violently for
Scheduled Tribe status — as if a mere Parliamentary decree
can turn a group into a tribe. This sort of misuse, battles for
quotas, unreasonable demands for affirmative action, and
other forms of vote bank wheeling-dealing will continue to
happen. But in the long run, all of this will be good for India.
As representations in the system give different communities
larger space, everybody’s stake in the democratic system
will increase. In the long run, there will be so many crosscutting
configurations, the problem will take care of itself.
There is a big difference between caste groups angling for 35
or 40 Lok Sabha seats like Mulayam or Lalu, and a caste
group contesting for eight or ten. Chiranjeevi, for instance,
just has four or five seats. The scale is going down because
we have already accommodated a lot of people. The next
generation will not face this. They will inherit a much more
FINALLY, a last word on arrogance. The Left parties may
have been defeated this election, but the leftist
impulse is intact in our society. In fact, it is an imperative.
It would be a big mistake if the UPA saw this victory as
a mandate for unbridled liberalisation. Some care for the
bottom of the society, some belief that the
poor should be a priority focus is vital
for this society to survive and retain
its idea of itself as a humane society. You
cannot pay Rs 12,000 for a meal for two
people in a five-star hotel and come out and
throw Rs 10 to a boy competing with a dog for
the garbage and think you have done your duty.
Neither can you wait 200 years for the so-called trickle
down effect that never comes.
It is no accident that the real factor that won the
UPA this election is its NREGA scheme and loan waiver
for farmers. Even if 90 percent of this money is
pilfered, it permeates into the countryside. Not all of the
corruption is in Delhi and Bhubaneswar. A lot of the
siphoning happens lower down the chain. Even those who
rob, must spend. This boosts the local economy. This pays
electoral dividends. India’s poor always vote. That is India’s
best checkmate for arrogance.