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BJP and the emergence of an aggressive general power: Is there a way out?

Ranabir Samaddar | Updated on: 23 March 2017, 18:26 IST
(Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

With the BJP’s overwhelming victories in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and its success in forming governments in states where it did not get a majority – namely Manipur and Goa – political observers are now dumbfounded.

Newspapers, but more noticeably the television channels, are vying with each other to present a developmentalist image of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress is presented as a soft organisation, and other parties have been smothered to the ground.

The victory is seen as victory of the demonetisation decision and the policy of “development”. This development policy supposedly includes development with all and for all, with no appeasement of anyone – meaning weaker sections and minorities – curtailment of NREGA and other welfare measures which are supposedly draining out precious money, and an iron-fist policy towards Pakistan backed by an aggressive nationalism.

For the first time we are told national development policy has received a firm footing.

While quarrels will go on regarding the significance of these, we may presently ask, what is the significance of these victories in the changing grammar of power?

We may also, while we keep guessing if the Yogi will turn into a developmental commissar, inquire how much space will this potent cocktail of developmentalism, aggressive nationalism and Hinduism leave for others? Or will this witch’s brew put all the adversaries to sleep?

Also, one other question will become pertinent: How do authorities with command over infrastructure programmes coupled with their urge for rent-seeking, shape their modes of gaining electoral support?

Looking back

The last few elections, beyond a doubt, show that the government elites in the parliamentary system are amassing rent-seeking opportunities in their own hands while facilitating public goods provision in their constituencies of popular support.

Higher levels of infrastructural provision (like roads) are matched by higher levels of rent-seeking opportunities. The process demonstrates how politicised distribution of resources can sometimes combine with programmes of infrastructure provision.

Hard right-wing nationalism, Hindu republicanism, based on denial of any caste, gender or religious inequality, and brooking no challenge on that score is the cast of this new ideology providing the goblet for the witch’s brew.

In this milieu either the Yogi is a bourgeois with more than a thousand crore rupee-worth business of medicines, edible oils, etc. or with a command of men, muscle, money, and resources of religious seminaries he transforms into a developmental manager.

As the ex-CM of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, indicated after the poll verdict – probably the electorate had liked the idea of bullet trains more than roads!

Different devils

However, this is not the populist developmentalism that we are familiar with in the reign of Mamata Bandopadhyay-led Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal, or the Nitish Kumar-led government in Bihar or the late Jayalalitha-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu.

The difference lies in the presence of the ideological cast on one and the absence of it in the other. But how crucial will this difference be?

It is difficult to tell at this point, though to be sure, a hard struggle for power in the states lies ahead.

Populist developmentalism strongly entrenched in the states will now have to face a powerful adversary in the form of this rent-seeking, right-wing nationalist developmentalism that will don an extreme, hard republican mask, couched in the slogan – Sabka saath, Sabka vikas.

Take West Bengal as an instance. Already a chant – to the effect that the Hindu population is going down, RSS schools are under attack, ISIS holds are proliferating in the state, and the state is the shelter for toughs, mercenaries, and terrorists from across the border – is in the air.

Already, small-scale communal clashes have been provoked and organised between intermediary castes and Dalits on the one hand and Muslims on the other. The large, impoverished population mostly belonging to Dalits and Muslim communities, engaged in small and unorganised occupations and hit hardest by demonetisation, is already socially vilified as criminals and rootless groups posing threats to social stability.

Yet these were the groups, along with a section of backward castes, that provided stability to the populist governments of the states. Now, this unity is threatened as backward castes brimming with cash, new-rich individuals, those with rental income, are increasingly veering towards this aggressive republican politics. The very politics which denies any existence of social differences and inequalities, and the need for a plural developmental approach.

Counting threats

There is now one more threat to the power of the states. Populism forming the core of the autonomy of states, as in West Bengal, was in some sense dialogic. Which is why it became populist in the sense that it claimed to represent the interest of the people of the entire state.

Thus, the AITC government wanted to bridge the North Bengal–South Bengal divide, city-village divide, and several other divides. Towards this end, it created new districts, set up colleges and universities in backward areas, improved rural and district road network. But as a consequence, these moves, willingly or unwillingly facilitated the emergence of a crop of new leaders at the grassroots, who were utterly disliked by the cultured media in the metropolis.

These leaders reflected the hegemonic role of the populist parties which also knew how to combine strong-arm tactics, when necessary, with their overarching positions.

In fact, as a rule in the grammar of politics, one can say, this was the precondition for the survival and success of populism in the states.

The new aggressive developmental nationalism now poses as a big threat to autonomous politics of the states, as it creates new fissures and spreads its rent-seeking tentacles through an entire state and wins away a sizeable section of the backward castes from the populist assemblage.

Exit strategy?

What will be the way out? Play the soft game as the SP government had tried in UP for the last five years by becoming a soft Hindu party, shunning the ideological path of defining its own type of populism on which its own idea of nationalism will be predicated?

Or, play the game hard by judiciously, ferociously protecting its autonomous variety of populism, and cracking down on any attempt to break the popular unity that formed the core of this populism?

We cannot say which way the battle will go, but as said it will be a long and hard one.

But make no mistake, we are witnessing the emergence of an aggressive general power. The old general power has mellowed. It will not be much of a support in this battle, except where it too can contribute to the autonomy of populism.

And the success of the uphill task of building a federal front will depend on how much populist politics can steel itself against this aggressive general power.

The author is the Distinguished Chair at Calcutta Research Group

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 23 March 2017, 18:26 IST