Up until now, there have been two political responses to counter the BJP’s Hindu fundamentalist dominance in India. One is what the Left and the progressives whimsically call The Revolution. The other is when Congress’ Rahul Gandhi tried the awkward combination of temple-hopping soft-Hindutva and Leftist talk on rights and justice.
But in recent months, a third political response has emerged. It is soft-nationalism – the kind that is in full glow in AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal’s politics in Delhi. It is a new political experiment and its efficacy will be known in the results of the Delhi assembly election.
Whether it was supporting Balakot air strikes and Article 370 move in Kashmir, staying away from JNU and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests at Shaheen Bagh, or chiding Pakistan for interfering in the Delhi election – Arvind Kejriwal is cautiously redrawing and refuelling the centre in Indian politics. It is the political space ceded by the Congress party. In fact, the centre has disappeared – and swallowed by the Right and the Left in recent years.
New centrism for an exhausted majority
Why does the centre in Indian politics need to be rescued and re-invented? Because very soon India will face the spectre of the phenomenon called the ‘exhausted majority’, the term used to explain how people eventually tire of extended periods of polarisation. Two Hindu gunmen near Jamia and Shaheen Bagh in one week may just be the beginning of that exhaustion.
The big question in politics today is how to counter Modi-ism. With extreme Left? Or with re-imagined, Turbo-charged centrism?
Many political analysts say that the centre is where most Hindus situate themselves anyway. They tend to be socially liberal, religious, somewhere in the middle on economic policy, but Right-of-centre on national security or on issues like illegal Muslim immigration. It is fluid and sans-ideological on most good-hair days.
And Arvind Kejriwal is directing his politics towards this new centre. The ingredients of this pragmatic, nimble centre are soft-nationalism, not saying anything to alienate the majority community, embracing religious symbols, not speaking against the military and not joining the Left’s Revolution.
It requires a certain kind of political and ideological gymnastics that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has displayed.
Can post-ideology politics be replicated?
But the Delhi election isn’t the first test-case for this new soft-nationalist centrism. It was pilot-tested in Haryana. Congress leaders Bhupinder and Deepender Hooda supported Narendra Modi government on Article 370 move in Kashmir, even though Rahul Gandhi did not. They didn’t stop there. During the Haryana election campaign, they would send a dozen Congress youth to several BJP rallies, Deepender Hooda told me. Every time Amit Shah or Manohar Lal Khattar raised the Kashmir Article 370 issue in an election rally, the youth would call out and say, ‘yes our leaders also support that, but what about jobs’.
What is so ‘soft’ about endorsing Kashmir shutdown, some would ask. It is soft because it doesn’t have the Hindutva sauce in it – the rest is the same as BJP. A social commentator once told me: “AAP is the kind of flag-waving Right-wing India needs and can stomach.”
By not going to Shaheen Bagh, by not openly standing by them even as Yogi Adityanath calls them terrorists, by continually asking Amit Shah and Delhi Police to shut down the protest, and even appealing to the people to end the protests, AAP is playing a new centrist game. It risks losing some Muslim, some liberal votes. But by visiting Shaheen Bagh, it may risk losing many Hindu votes. Arvind Kejriwal has picked his side. He is single-mindedly focussed on winning elections.
If this kind of pragmatic soft-nationalism does well in Delhi, then it will offer a template for national and regional politics to counter the BJP’s rise.
But here’s a conundrum.
If it succeeds, India risks becoming another Israel where most politics is arranged among parties on the Right-wing spectrum.
But if it fails to yield election results, then the Left will interpret this as their opportunity to get other parties to move Left-ward.
Social media and digital platforms have amplified the politics of the Left and the Right here in India and the world. But tantalising as it maybe, the Left cannot turn them into election victories on a national scale, at least not in India. Electability, as Bernie Sanders is discovering in the US and Kanhaiya Kumar did in India, is a whole different ball game. And political parties are in the business of winning elections, not campus debates. Intellectuals and activists don’t have to win elections, even if they make important, virtuous arguments.
The inclusion of the promise to review AFSPA in the Congress’ manifesto of 2019 Lok Sabha election was a noble idea but definitely not a vote-catching one against the backdrop of Balakot air strikes and Abhinandan Varthaman-worship. In fact, it was a vote-losing idea. It was especially hypocritical because the Manmohan Singh government resisted all calls to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act during 10 years of the Congress rule.
In the United States too, the Never-Trumpers are thinking this is a moment for their long-pending Revolution. They are making it into a socialism versus capitalism battle, not one to get Donald Trump out of the White House. As political strategist John Ziegler said, the progressives are trying to treat cancer with a sex-change operation. Or as Barack Obama would say, they are trying to “tear down the system and remake it”.
Can catch-all politics return?
Is there space for catch-all, reimagined middle in the era of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump? It’s all about the ‘politics of the base’ now. Both the shrill Right and the shrill Left have their base; the centrists don’t. They typically have a wide but shallow base, and this just doesn’t translate well in the era of what has been called algorithmic politics.
This is why Arvind Kejriwal surprisingly asked Delhi voters to remain loyal to their favourite parties, the BJP and the Congress, but vote for him in Delhi. Such an appeal is rare in Indian elections.
This is exactly how Democratic Party hopeful Pete Buttigieg appealed recently when he said he wanted the support from everyone, “whether you are a progressive or a moderate or what I like to call a future former Republican”.
There is a hole in the centre of politics today. And politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Some forces will have to fill the centrist space that the Congress party has abdicated. Either its regional leaders like Hoodas and Captain Amarinder Singh or the various regional parties can reconfigure that space.
Politics is now making an attempt to drag Hindus and public conversations back to the centre-ish space. It is an effort to make the centre more muscular and ambitious in order to reclaim some of the space it had ceded to the Right and Left in recent years.
This is why the Delhi election is important – not just to see who wins or loses, but to see if voters are willing to repopulate the centre, even if it doesn’t always say or do the right, virtuous thing.