How BJP successfully discredited ‘secularism’: Lessons for the opposition from 2019     

Globally, the Right have responded with aggressive hate-politics, racism, anti-immigrant hysteria and Islamophobia, powered by finance, big data analytics and the social media.

How BJP successfully discredited ‘secularism’: Lessons for the opposition from 2019      
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Prasenjit Bose

The second consecutive victory of the Narendra Modi led BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections has rattled the opposition. The fact that the BJP managed to win over 300 seats and secure around 37% of the national vote share on its own has triggered disbelief, with many in the opposition camp alleging foul play involving EVMs. This is a grossly erroneous response to the election results.

It is true that the elections happened after five years of muddle-headed policy-making by the Modi-I government, which also included self-goals like demonetisation and the hasty implementation of the GST that inflicted pain on small businesses, farmers and informal workers. The now released official data has also confirmed that the unemployment rate is over 6%, which is certainly at a four-decade high, notwithstanding the methodological changes that have been brought about in the survey design.

The defeat of the BJP in the assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in November-December 2018 had indicated popular discontent over deteriorating economic conditions. But the 2019 Lok Sabha election results demonstrate that immediate economic conditions need not be the only determinant of electoral outcomes; people make decisions on the basis of available political alternatives. The opposition should accept with due humility that they have collectively failed to present a better, cohesive and inspiring alternative at the national level.

There was neither any alternative common programme nor an effective nation-wide coalition with a transparently decided leadership, which could pose a credible challenge to the mighty propaganda and organisational machinery of the BJP. Much of the energies of secular parties were expended in fighting each other, rather than putting up a united battle against the BJP-led NDA.

Such a united opposition front could have been built through popular struggles and movements against the excesses of the Modi regime, which were largely absent. The best that the opposition could offer before the elections was a hung parliament, which was decisively rejected by the electorate. All the secular parties should self-critically introspect and initiate corrective steps in this regard. This is particularly true of the CPI(M)-led Left parties, which registered its worst electoral performance in the post-independence period with severe erosion witnessed in its former strongholds like West Bengal and Tripura.

BJP's Successes, Opposition's Failures

The secular opposition parties like the Congress, SP, BSP, Trinamool Congress, RJD, NCP, JD(S) etc. are faced with a serious ideological-political crisis. Secularism, which in the Nehruvian sense broadly implied not mixing any religion with politics and affairs of the state, has unfortunately degenerated into a political praxis where religious sentiments are brazenly misused for opportunistic political ends.

The fact that secular parties have rampantly swung between "soft-Hindutva" and "minority appeasement" manifests the lack of any solid commitment to the secular cause. In recent times, the inability of the secular parties to evolve and adopt transparent and firm positions based on constitutional principles, on issues such as mob lynching, cow-vigilantism, Assam NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Ayodhya dispute, triple-talaq etc. has only helped the RSS-BJP in discrediting the very concept of secularism among a very large section of the people.

Similarly, practitioners of the politics of social justice have reduced the noble aim of annihilating the caste-system set by Dr. Ambedkar to cynical vote-bank politics based on castes and sub-castes. The BJP/NDA has mastered the art of such caste-based social engineering today and has outmanoeuvred parties like the SP, BSP, RJD etc. in the Hindi heartland by reaching out to the non-dominant sub-castes among the OBCs and SCs by providing them greater representation and co-opting them into the Hindutva fold.

The legislation to provide reservation for the general category (economically weaker sections) also helped in consolidating the forward caste vote behind the BJP. The long-term work of the RSS among the tribal peoples across the country, including the North East region, has led to the marginalisation of the progressive forces.

The larger failure of the politics of social justice lies in its inability to move beyond exclusivist identitarian demands towards a larger transformative and inclusive agenda, which can dismantle and annihilate the centuries old oppressive structures based on caste and gender oppression alongside intense class exploitation.

The marriage of political liberalism with economic neoliberalism, which has become the consensual political-economy framework of almost all mainstream parties in post-liberalisation India, has come to be identified with elitism, crony capitalism and dynastic politics. This is not only true for India, but a similar trend is being witnessed across the world, following the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the Great Recession. The rise and mainstreaming of far-right forces, epitomised by Trump (US), Farage (UK), Le Pen (France), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Erdogan (Turkey), Netanyahu (Israel) et. al. is a direct reaction to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, which has enhanced joblessness and increased income and wealth inequalities to historic highs.

Globally, the right-reactionaries have responded more effectively to the crisis, rather than the Left and/or liberal camp, with aggressive hate-politics, racist, anti-immigrant hysteria and Islamophobia, powered by finance, big data analytics and the social media. The continuing dominance of conservative and retrograde leadership in the Islamic world along with growth of jehadi terrorism has fed into this far-right surge. The autocratic regimes in Russia and China have so far been supportive of this regressive trend. With hate-politics in an upswing, we seem to be heading towards intensified global conflicts and wars, with a heightened sense of insecurity gripping the people of each country, resulting in a quest for "strong leaders" who can protect them from "outsiders".

It is in this global setting that the RSS-BJP led by Modi has succeeded in cross-selling militant nationalism/jingoism and great power ambition, under the rubric of Hindutva. Terrorist attacks supported and instigated by the Pakistani establishment, like the one in Pulwama in February 2019, has helped in justifying and popularising the BJP's aggressive stance. Localised communal polarisations based on riots, cow-terror and mob-lynchings; heavy repression in the Kashmir valley and anti-refugee initiatives like the NRC and the divisive Citizenship Amendment Bill have all complemented the overall majoritarian narrative. Unfortunately, like in much of the world today, the opposition in India has been too meek to stand up to this aggressive hard-right posturing. The response of the Congress and other opposition parties on the Pulwama attack—Balakot air strikes is a case in point, where patently false and exaggerated claims of terrorist casualties were allowed to go unchallenged and the security establishment not held to account for glaring security lapses and avoidable military casualties.

The victory of the terror accused Pragya Thakur fielded by the BJP in Bhopal, who openly defended Gandhi's assassination, is yet another instance of the weakness of the opposition camp in effectively combating the RSS-BJP's ideology and politics. What is required now is a renewed and principled ideological-political standpoint in defence of the constitutional values coupled with grassroots level initiatives to regain the trust of the common people.

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