It has been almost six months since the present government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power with an unexpectedly large majority. While the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance was anticipated by most analysts, the scale and reach of the electoral verdict was extraordinary, given the electoral trends of the past two decades. The results left the opposition stunned and groping for a semblance of respectability as the Congress Party pleaded for its nominee to be designated as “Leader of the Opposition” in the Lok Sabha even though it did not have the minimum required 10% of the total number of seats in the house.
The 2014 electoral verdict overturned many of the accepted certainties of Indian politics. It wrong-footed political programmes and social alliances which had stood the test of time. It left everyone groping for answers as to what exactly had happened. And five months later, the non-BJP parties still do not have a proper answer. It is but natural that in such a situation the confusion added to the defeat would lead to the opposition losing its balance, unable to hold the government to account and failing to challenge the ruling party. But it should have regained its balance by now. Instead, we are witnessing a political opposition to the Narendra Modi-led dispensation that is still on the mat. The Congress continues to lose members and credibility. Not only are important leaders leaving the party but it is also losing the support of well-entrenched social groups. The regional parties are not much better off as they face electoral and political decline (except perhaps for the Biju Janata Dal). That even those who are traditional BJP allies are running for cover indicates that this may well be a result not just of popular disenchantment with the Congress and its allies. Some had thought that the coming to power of an avowedly right-wing party would provide the political space for the Left to revive but all indications suggest that the secular decline of the Left continues unhindered.
Although this is the truth under the new reality in Indian politics, it still begs the question as to why the opposition has been unable to pick up the pieces and get its act together. Electoral defeats of a bigger magnitude have been seen earlier in Indian elections (as well as elsewhere). In 1984 the combined opposition had less than 100 members in the Lok Sabha and still earlier, Indira Gandhi won a massive mandate in 1971. Yet, the manner in which the opposition has keeled over is perhaps unprecedented. Its inability to stand up to the BJP and the Modi-led government will continue, and will remain largely inexplicable, if the answers to the defeat are not found. And that remains unlikely since the right questions are perhaps still not being asked.
It is not for these columns to suggest the answers. If Modi has come to power riding on a wave for change, we need to ask what has changed in India in the last five, perhaps 10 years, if not longer. The focus of political analysts on “corruption”, “policy paralysis” or “misgovernance”, the promise of “development” and BJP’s “communalism” are not incorrect but perhaps do not go deep enough. The past decade has seen some significant changes in the political economy of the country. The changes in the economy – tripling of the gross domestic product (GDP), rising inequality and concentration of wealth, growth in real wages and pervasive inflation, the falling share of the agricultural sector in GDP, the growing role of remittances, etc – have led to changes in the composition and nature of social classes in ways which are yet to be recognised. Migration, urbanisation and the spread (even if uneven) of urban features in rural areas, spread of telecommunications and media (both traditional and new), etc, are disrupting locality, region and social networks, and creating new patterns. Gender roles and caste, linguistic and regional identities are changing on the basis of these other transformations as well as with the coming of age of the “new” politics of the 1980s and 1990s.
India, and all the classes, regions, identities, ideologies and loyalties which go to define it, has changed in ways which make it unrecognisable to the proverbial Rip Van Winkle who wakes up after two decades. This is not to suggest a variant of the “India Shining” rhetoric; in fact many of these structural changes have been regressive, reactionary and, as the electoral verdict showed, they have strengthened the right wing. Yet, there is much that is progressive and emancipatory, even radical, in the changes that have happened over the past decade or two. The right wing has been victorious because it addressed, in both economic and cultural-political terms, the new class demands of the transforming and transformed social classes and located its politics in the possibilities thereby opened up. The non-BJP parties failed, and continue to falter, perhaps because they confine their political programmes to a world of social classes and class relations which does not exist anymore.
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