The BJP may enjoy ideological dominance today, but counter-hegemonic politics has deeper cultural resources. If we are determined and intelligent, we shall win.


It feels like a powerful gut punch,” read one of the many messages I received after the Uttar Pradesh election verdict. Perhaps we needed this punch to break free from our complacence, to think afresh. The outcome in UP and other four states leaves no room for debate. The breathing space that we got after the West Bengal election results and the farmers’ movement is over. The road to 2024 was always tough. It got tougher after the latest round of assembly elections. If we do not do something now, we are staring at a bleak future.

The road to the future begins with four noble truths.

First, a harsh truth: It is not just the contesting parties that were defeated in this election. Not just the Samajwadi Party that lost a winnable election, not just the Congress that did not even put up a good fight, not just the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that is in terminal decline, not just the political establishment of the Punjab that was deservedly decimated. We all had stakes in this election. We, who believed in the idea of a democratic republic, we who live by the Preamble to the Constitution, we who idolise Bapu, Babasaheb and Bhagat. We have been defeated. Let us not pay heed to any excuses of poll irregularities or EVM rigging (even if true, they do not explain the margin of defeat). Let there be no false consolations: a vote share increase here, the defeat of some communally tainted leaders there. The fact is that we lost it fair and square.

Second, it is not just an election that we have lost. As political scientist Suhas Palshikar reminds us, the challenge we face is bigger, deeper and enduring. We are dealing with a hegemonic power. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral dominance is based on an infinitely superior communication, organisational work, media control and money. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal charisma supplements it. This political dominance is backed by an unprecedented use of state power and street power, enough to bend all institutions and silence most voices of dissent.

Above all, there is an ideological and cultural acceptance. The BJP has managed to hijack the key cultural resources of politics in India: nationalism, Hinduism and our cultural heritage. This creates what scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls “prior trust” that enables the BJP to get away with misgovernance in most of the states it won. The fact is that a vast proportion of the Indian public has been mobilised for the project of dismantling our republic.PlayUnmuteLoaded: 0.16%Fullscreen

Also read: Abki baar, lower the bar: How BJP won UP again with just rashan, bhashan, prashasan & emotion

Do we not have an alternative? 

The third truth is that there is no readymade alternative. As it stands today, the Congress party can hardly lay claims to being the natural alternative. It still has the largest possible base, two state governments (Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) and is committed to anti-BJP (as opposed to non-BJP) politics. But these are clearly not sufficient for the grand old party to retain its position as the only national alternative to the BJP.

The regional alternatives work in some regions, but not in the Hindi heartland. And they are not scalable: Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s attempt to enter Goa has fallen flat. Simple caste arithmetic is ineffective in the face of this hegemonic assault. The SP’s over-reliance on social chemistry proves this. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is certainly more scalable than other regional parties, but it faces multiple challenges before its claims of being a natural and national challenger can be taken seriously. It has to prove its governance claims in a normal state that is revenue deficit, demonstrate an understanding of agrarian policy and show that it is not run from Dilli darbar that is anathema to Punjabis. Above all, it needs to prove its secular credentials and show that it is a counter hegemonic force, not just another claimant for a slice of the hegemonic space created by the BJP.

The fourth truth is positive: we are not without potential for alternatives. The bluster about 2024 being a ‘done deal’ is precisely to turn our attention away from the chinks in the ruling party’s armour. The BJP’s dominance is geographically more limited, electorally more vulnerable and ideologically weaker than it appears. Be it the anti-CAA protest, farmers’ movement or West Bengal election, it cannot withstand opponents with zeal, energy and tenacity. The BJP may enjoy ideological dominance today, but counter-hegemonic politics has deeper cultural resources. We have with us the heritage of our civilisation, the legacy of our national movement and the Constitution of India. If we are determined and intelligent, we shall win.

These four truths of contemporary Indian politics yield a sutra about counter-hegemonic politics: satta se sangharsh, samaj se samvad (resistance to power, dialogue with the people). If we pursue this two-pronged strategy with courage, acumen and conviction over the next two years, we can reclaim the republic.

Also read: Five takeaways from UP—Modi’s better than Vajpayee and Congress wasted trump card Priyanka

The fight is in the movements

The past eight years have demonstrated that the real resistance to the present rulers has come from movements, rather than parliamentary opposition. We have seen everyday resistance to save autonomous spaces within institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy and universities. There are regular protests against the anti-people economic policies and sporadic eruptions on issues such as unemployment. We have also witnessed exemplary movements of resistance such as the anti-CAA protest and the farmers’ movement.

So far, most of these movements have remained disconnected to one another and without a bridge to mainstream oppositional politics. Given the deepening of economic inequalities, the persistence of the unemployment crisis and rising inflation, we can expect intensification of the movements of resistance. The challenge is to support and synergise these movements, so that they link to counter-hegemonic politics.

A resolute opposition to the hegemonic power must not mean an opposition to the people who support it. Respecting popular mandate does not and must not mean applauding the outcome of every election. It would be utterly irresponsible and anti-democratic to keep quiet about the dangers that may emanate from any popular verdict. But respecting popular mandate does entail respectful listening to and engagement with the people’s reasons for voting the way they did.

The outcome of the five assembly elections undermines democracy and constitutional values, but this is not the intent of the voters. This is what I discovered in my travels through UP this time. All of us face this in our everyday life with our family, friends and WhatsApp groups. People who reinforce the politics of hate are not full of hatred. We can and must speak to them with empathy and respect. We must form a “truth army” to speak to the people in their language and their idiom. The fortress of lies can melt sooner than we imagine.

As I conclude this piece, I received another message from the same friend who wrote about gut-punch: “I am over the hopelessness and depression and have a renewed determination now. Good that we have a real sense of the enormity of the challenge and not false hopes. Good that you are not hopeless.”

courtesy The Print