Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Mukul Kesavan - The mourning after: Ways to tackle an electoral defeat

There is a ritualized quality to mourning in some social groups. In many parts of north India a death is followed by formal lamentation or 'siyapa'. Punjabi women will beat their breasts (pitto) and wail to help the bereaved widow weep, but also to dramatize the awful finality of the moment. In other communities the tragedy of a death might be differently conveyed. It could be marked sartorially by wearing black and mourners might contain their grief as a mark of respect to the dead person and the greater grief of that person's family.

In recent times, progressives have treated electoral setbacks as deaths in the family and they have chosen to pitto. This is true of public discourse - op-eds in newspapers, their equivalent on television - but it is especially marked in the semi-private online spaces that define modern life, social media communities like Facebook. The particular consolation of Facebook is that everyone gets to be chief mourner. The moment a person posts "I can't believe this is happening", "what sort of country do we live in", "I can't read the papers I'm so depressed", a group of ancillary mourners gathers and this faux community of people has a comfortable funeral. This is harmless and possibly therapeutic; but it isn't a form of 'engagement'.

Lamentation on social media is not a form of political engagement; it is a form of virtue signalling. It is a way of indicating that you are genuinely stricken. It is a preliminary to grading the politics of your 'friends' by the force of their lamentation. It is the opposite of political engagement. If that debased term means anything it must mean working with people on your side, persuading the undecided and pushing back against the arguments of the other side. Social media narcissism does none of this; it does, however, briefly make you the hero of every piece of political theatre in this obsessively political country.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's massive win in Uttar Pradesh provoked two sorts of responses amongst middle-class people who dislike the party. One was existential despair. Another was cold-eyed realism about the prospects of mounting a challenge to Narendra Modi's BJP in the foreseeable future, accompanied by an 'I told you so' claim to prescience.

The first sort of response is both self-indulgent and self-harming. Regardless of how bad a poll result is for progressive politics, it is dangerous in a democracy to treat the aftermath of an election like a death in the family. The other side doesn't think anyone died and since progressive prospects in the next election depend on persuading some of these people, liberals can't behave as if their side is doomed because the electorate might take them at their word. Public hand-wringing and breast-beating might be cathartic for the bereaved after a real death; it is merely demoralizing after a political defeat. There is a reason why parties formally concede defeat in stable democracies and put their game face on.

The second response is useful to the extent that it helps liberals size up the magnitude of the task. The political reportage during the election, particularly the bizarre phase when every political correspondent in the province seemed persuaded that a resurgent Akhilesh Yadav had cast off the millstone of incumbency and was set to sweep the polls under the sign of good governance, was marred by magical thinking. It is good to be reminded by those who resisted wishful thinking that the prime minister and his political machine together make up a formidable political juggernaut. What is less helpful is the suggestion that everyone should - take a moment to marvel at the BJP's new mandate. To acknowledge defeat is essential; to go the extra yard and admire Modi's victory does the progressive cause no favours. The lessons of defeat might be more useful than hand-wringing or resignation.

One lesson of the UP election is that Indian politics is provincial and successful parties tailor their message to the neighbourhood. This is not to wilfully ignore the force of Narendra Modi's political persona, but to note that in less helpful circumstances - Delhi, Bihar, Punjab - it didn't sweep everything before it. The sociology of UP as well as its political history made a grand alliance of the Bihar sort impossible. The Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance was a parody of the Mahagathbandhan and went the way of all bad jokes.

The strategy of creating a political coalition that unites Muslims and OBCs and denies majorities to coalitions dominated by savarna parties has seen some success and much failure. The problem with this strategy is that the residual category of savarna Hindus that it creates by default is not just economically but also numerically powerful and able to co-opt subaltern groups: tribals, Kurmis, non-Yadav OBCs. Even before Modi's inspired use of his OBC origins, the parivar successfully fielded Vinay Katiyar, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti to consolidate its savarna-plus strategy.
The other lesson of this election is that secular coalitions should be inclusive, not excluding. They are not going to be built by rhetorically nominating savarna Hindus as the enemy. The Bahujan Samaj Party was most successful when it managed to co-opt Brahmins along with winning some support amongst Muslims and others, in what was a reprise of an old Congress strategy, but with the caste roles reversed.

But building a political combination has to combine social arithmetic with emancipatory ideas that resonate beyond this community or that. The BJP's big idea was progress and empowerment for a consolidated Hindu community that transcended caste and excluded Muslims. Mayavati's beleaguered response was a rainbow coalition with two primary colours, Muslims and Dalits. Given the vastness of UP and its myriad social fractures, she couldn't have won those communities entire and she didn't. The idea that a Samajwadi Party burdened by incumbency and split by dynastic politics would be rescued by Akhilesh Yadav's adult baptism in good governance was always unlikely. The notion that an alliance with the Congress would help the Samajwadi Party hoover up the Muslim vote was, given the state of the Congress in north India, wishful.

These fantastical political scenarios seemed plausible to their sponsors because they assumed that demonetization must have alienated some part of the BJP's base. It didn't, and they weren't. As Edward Thompson showed half a century ago, economic hardship creates resentment only when it's seen to be discriminatory; if its causes are deemed virtuous, people are willing to take it in their stride. But knowingness is easy with hindsight.

To declare desolation or to tough-mindedly announce that the BJP owns the foreseeable future are, despite their surface differences, very similar responses. They are the responses of spectators watching a game played by others. If there is one lesson that the supporters of the BJP have to teach the other side, it is this: till Anglophone progressives stop playing at being flâneurs, they are likely to remain at the receiving end of history.