The dawn of a new hope

G.N. Devy on why even a hung Parliament holds the promise of a transformation to a new, genuinely participative social order

Rahul Gandhi with children displaced by ethnic violence in Manipur, June 2023
Rahul Gandhi with children displaced by ethnic violence in Manipur, June 2023

GN Devy

So much has already been said about the political outcome of the just-concluded elections — in the media, on the streets, in drawing rooms and in offices — that it may seem there is hardly anything left unsaid. Yet, the 2024 elections were so different from all previous elections — except the post-Emergency elections of March 1977 — that commentators and historians will continue to discuss it for a long time to come.

In 1977, the Emergency loomed large over the elections, and one just didn’t know what the outcome would be. The jubilation following Indira Gandhi’s stunning defeat was spontaneous. The 2024 elections were held in a highly communalised atmosphere, amid unprecedented propaganda, institutional capture, state surveillance and intimidation of political opponents and dissenters.

When it became clear on 4 June that the results were not as one-sided as the premeditated exit polls had indicated, the relief was palpable, somewhat reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1977 results. The electoral dividend the BJP had expected from the Ram Mandir and an openly divisive campaign did not materialise — clearly, the campaign did not sway voters as expected.

No single party got a decisive majority, a hung Parliament looked probable, and yet citizens were delighted by the results. They felt a new surge of hope for Indian democracy. What was the nature of this hope? To answer this question, let me refer to what Rahul Gandhi said to members of civil society in a large meeting at Chandigarh during the last leg of the elections.

He was responding to a mention of “three historical debates that laid the foundation of modern India”. The first of these was at the beginning of the 19th century, with the disputants arguing the merits of ‘sanatana’ (traditional) and ‘nutana’ (modern) values for the future of Indian society.

The second debate was on the nature of citizenship, with one side adhering to the Constitution and its conception of ‘all who are present in India’ as citizens and the other side insisting that people whose ‘pitribhoomi’ (fatherland) is also their ‘punyabhoomi’ (religious home) are the primary citizens.

The third debate was about the composition of India: as a ‘Union of states’ (as defined in the Constitution) versus India as a rashtra dominated by a strong Centre and a ‘strong leader’.

These three debates were settled long ago. Indians chose with an overwhelming consensus, via the Constitution, that India was to be ‘a modern nation’ (albeit with a long history); all citizens were guaranteed equal rights irrespective of their religion and ethnicity; and India was to be a federation of states bound by a shared history.

Rahul Gandhi agreed on the foundational nature of these debates but added that the Constitution was based on several other debates as well. In its essence, he said, the Constitution was ‘a document of transfer of power’, it is also ‘a document clearly indicating the process of power transfer’.

He then asked: “Has the transfer taken place? When nearly all Dalits, tribals, denotified tribes, scheduled castes, workers, peasants, farmers, villagers, women and other marginalised are kept out of power, how can we consider our commitment to the Constitution as fulfilled?”

Gandhi appealed to the gathering to come together and help India complete the transfer of power from the hands of a few who control everything — politicians, the bureaucracy, judiciary, the higher educational institutions and large businesses — to those whose labour supports the power pyramid.

This is a profoundly transformative idea, not restricted to who gets how many seats in Parliament and which party is more successful. Concluding his address, he said, “They (the orthodox, the unitarians, the crony capitalists) have a vision, so do we have our vision. If their vision is drawn from some esoteric ancient source, ours is based on a tradition of thought that goes back to Buddha, Basava, Nanak, Kabir, Phule, Gandhi and Ambedkar, and we shall fight for it.”

This vision of social, political transformation is much more expansive than what we hear in election meetings when politicians are canvassing for votes.

What Indians were thirsting for through the last decade was not just a regime change. The excesses of the Modi regime, its authoritarianism,its intolerance of liberal views can be fought electorally, but a fundamental transformation of Indian society — and, by extension, Indian politics — will be possible only when the country’s political and economic elites are made to make way for a genuinely equal society with dignity for all.

The vision that Rahul Gandhi has placed before India resonates with the thinking of many small sections of Indian society — community workers, social thinkers, writers, artists, rationalists, feminists, educationists, scientists, researchers, people’s movements, NRI groups, progressive entrepreneurs, environmentalists and constitution activists. They have been active over the last few years, and their collective work created a different kind of hope among people.

Now that the elections are over, and we have a government with a truncated mandate, it is time for all such groups opposed to the national drift towards fascism to come together, develop this vision and build a robust narrative around it.

The Congress will no doubt continue to be the centrepiece of the proposed alliance of political parties and civil society actors in such an initiative. The first priority should be a massive programme to promote ideological literacy among party workers at the taluka and district levels. This work must begin as quickly as possible. For soon enough, election arenas will open up in several states, and ideological reforms, as articulated by Rahul Gandhi, may take a backseat.

At the same time, if this work is left to political parties and civil society, it may never see full fruition. It is necessary to find a new way to speak about the country, its politics and social order, a way that pulls every village and town into the process of transformation. For that to happen, a massive churn is needed in the prevailing sensibility.

The change that so many millions felt was within their grasp in these elections has at its core the seed of a new sensibility. The 2024 elections mark the beginning of India’s transformation to a new way of thinking about our society, where a mere change of government is not so significant. That explains to some extent the joy people feel even though they got a hung Parliament.

G.N. Devy is a writer and activist

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