The battle against fascism needs both the Left and the centre, so that the Left may prevent the centre from shifting Rightwards. That’s why Shaheen Bagh needs the Aam Aadmi Party.
Those criticising the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for not taking a strong position against NPR-NRC-CAA must continue doing so as a means of exerting pressure on the political system. How can Arvind Kejriwal seek Muslim votes and not articulate their concerns? At the same time, Kejriwal will continue doing his job of finding an acceptable middle ground.
The protests at Shaheen Bagh and the vitriol of Home Minister Amit Shah came across as two ends of the ideological spectrum during the 2020 Delhi assembly election. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal presented himself as someone occupying the centre between these two ends, thus managing to win the votes of many Muslims as well as many Hindus who had voted for Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Conventional political wisdom would have demanded Kejriwal choose his side, or else he might lose Muslim votes to the Congress and Hindu votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But he managed to walk the tightrope. This is a good example of occupying the Overton Window.
The battle for the ideological centre
Overton Window is the “window” of ideas that the general public is willing to accept. Outside the window, on the Left and Right, are unacceptable ideas.
The window can shift. Ideas can go from unthinkable to mainstream policy. As the unthinkable gains traction, it becomes radical. As the radicals make noise, it becomes acceptable over time. Once the barrier of acceptability is crossed, the once-unthinkable idea comes to be seen as sensible. What seems sensible becomes popular, and is thus converted into policy. This theory was coined in the 1990s in the US by a policy wonk named Joseph Overton, and has been used by President Donald Trump to shift American politics Rightwards.
The battle of ideas in a society is the battle to shift the Overton Window. It is the battle to make today’s Unthinkable tomorrow’s Policy. Some examples in India across the ideological spectrum include: women’s rights, Dalit rights, gay rights, Ram Mandir, dilution of Article 370, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
A nation’s political conversation is the search for the ideological centre. For this reason, we need the extremes. Lal Krishna Advani made Atal Bihari Vajpayee look moderate, for example. Asaduddin Owaisi makes secular parties look more acceptable to BJP supporters. Narendra Modi’s own journey from Hindutva mascot after 2002 to using a development plank to become prime minister tells us how those who seek mass approval attempt to occupy the Overton Window.
The centre needs the Left
As the liberal view has been losing the battle of ideas in India, the Overton Window has been shifting Rightwards.
To shift the Overton Window Leftwards, all those opposing the Chronological plan will have to try harder. That’s their role in politics.
The task of shifting the Overton Window begins with what is considered Unthinkable. And the people who propose the Unthinkable are often on the margins of public discourse.
The margins define the centre. When the Overton Window shifts on an issue, we often hear of “the new normal”.
For example, Leftists wanted Arvind Kejriwal to visit Shaheen Bagh. And the BJP wanted the protesters at Shaheen Bagh evicted. Kejriwal’s position of supporting the protests but not the halting of traffic seemed acceptable because of the two ‘extremes’ he was placing himself between. He wouldn’t support CAA-NPR-NRC but he was happy to recite the Hanuman Chalisa to counter the charge of being anti-Hindu.
In other words, if we didn’t have Shaheen Bagh, the centre for a populist like Arvind Kejriwal would have been further on the Right.
Surrender is defeat
Quite a few liberal commentators felt that Shaheen Bagh protesters needed to pack up and go home since their peaceful protest was ‘helping’ the BJP in its attempt to win the Delhi election through religious polarisation.
Thank god the Dadis of Shaheen Bagh did not heed this advice. It would have been a suicidal surrender before Hindutva. It would have amounted to conceding that voters were gravitating towards the BJP and that polarisation was succeeding. It would thus have made the AAP look weaker, potentially making swing voters desert them. Halting Shaheen Bagh would actually have helped the BJP.
The independent anti-CAA protests do for the centrist secular parties what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and independent Right-wingers do for the BJP.
The RSS is the BJP’s institutionalised mechanism of shifting the Overton Window Rightwards. What the RSS or extreme “fringe” men say today could become policy one day. That’s how criminalisation of triple talaq, abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, or the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya have happened, with decades of propaganda to take these ideas from Unthinkable to Policy.
In contrast to the RSS, which works among the masses, the Left and the liberal view in India has shrunk over the decades to the intelligentsia. That makes it all the more important for marginalised groups like Muslims and Dalits and women to have their own voices heard in the mainstream.
Interest and pressure groups influence all political parties everywhere. In India, caste groups or those of farmers and business lobbies are able to get policy shift towards them. Think tanks, NGOs, the media, social media influencers, even vapid celebrities play a role in shifting public opinion.
The fear of “polarisation” had silenced Indian Muslims and “secular” parties alike on the issue of growing majoritarianism for many years now. If Muslims speak up for themselves, it helps mainstream secular parties be seen separately from the community (a bit like the distance between the RSS and the BJP). Parties can then use this distance to occupy the Overton Window and influence policy in a secular direction. As we just saw, Amit Shah’s efforts to paint the AAP as equal to Muslims failed miserably.
That is why Shaheen Bagh (as geography, symbol, metaphor) is so very important.
Mainstream political parties that seek a plurality of votes to win elections can’t take up causes considered Unthinkable today. They have to remain within the Overton Window. The task then has to be carried out by civil society.
Taking NRC out of the Overton Window
What can we learn about anti-CAA protests if we apply the concept of Overton Window to it?
The “chronology” of NPR-NRC-CAA was the stated policy of the Home Minister of India. Thanks to the protests, he now pretends that the three are unrelated. The Modi government has to repeatedly assert that it hasn’t taken a decision over the NRC.
That’s how the anti-CAA protests have helped shift what’s acceptable slightly Leftward. But it’s far from enough. The chronological plan is moving as per its given schedule. Since the BJP has a monopoly over the means of mass propaganda, it is selling the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register (NPR) through doublespeak.
If you look at the positions taken by most mainstream opposition parties like the Congress, they are trying to do a balancing act between the Modi government’s position and those of the anti-Chronology protesters — in other words, they are trying to occupy the Overton Window to stay relevant in electoral politics. They are typically opposing the CAA and the NRC, but accepting the NPR, for example.
To shift the Overton Window on NPR-NRC-CAA, we need more Shaheen Baghs, more peaceful protests, scaled up and in more cities, and many more events. From day one, the Modi government and its supporters have been banking on the protests “fizzling out”. The day the protests fizzle out, Amit Shah will no longer need to clarify matters on every TV channel. We’ll move on to the next bigoted idea.
But if the protests scale up, it is possible that the Overton Window might shift and give us an NPR without the clauses that seek to know the date and place of birth of everyone’s parents. This information will later be used in the NRC to ask people to show citizenship documents.
The same people who were predicting the protests will “fizzle out” today say that the protests won’t succeed because nothing can make a powerful government give up its “chronological” plan. Indeed, that may seem Unthinkable today. But protests with this demand can shift the Overton Window to a position where the NPR is held without those two questions. That’s how the battle of ideas shall be won — by those who don’t fight elections exerting pressure on those who do.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.