In this annual season of Christmas consumerism and shopping, the big fashion trend in the West is undeniably a return to all things 1990s! From acid-washed jeans, neon colours to hair scrunchies, this is a hard-to-miss blast from the past. Closer home too, it seems the ’90s are back with a vengeance. And not just the high-waisted jeans that the fashion-conscious young are sporting. The all-important and high-octane world of Indian politics is stalked with the spectre of make-or-break political coalitions.
Decade of coalitions
In case you are (lucky enough) to have been born in the new millennium then perhaps the jostling of various regional leaders that has captured news headlines, memes and pictures this week may appear to be not just new but perhaps even an exciting drama starring India’s political elites as they aim to encircle the once-invincible Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The recent hectic flight schedule of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — jetting from Kolkata and Mumbai to Delhi followed by publicised meetings with Sharad Pawar to Swara Bhaskar and indeed the young Aaditya Thackrey and possibly even disgruntled Congress leaders or the so-called G-22 faction — has left a definite impression that the Didi from Bengal has set her sights on Delhi. Having left the Congress in 1997, she has emerged as a formidable and populist regional leader who initially pensioned off the Communists and, more recently, has staved off the BJP in Bengal.
In scaling up her political ambitions, Mamata Banerjee seems to be repeating the old playbook of coalitions that became the norm of Indian politics in the 1990s as Congress hegemony came undone. The twinning of Mandal-Mandir in that decade was in effect the fight between caste politics and Hindutva. Discovered and anointed as the key new voting bloc, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) emerged as a bulwark of small and big regional parties against both Hindu nationalism and the Grand Old Party. Marked by a distinct absence of charismatic leadership, the ’90s saw a slew of prime ministers, one even for less than a fortnight, as India’s democratic matrix convulsed to produce what has been called its ‘second democratic upsurge.’ A term rightly denoting the expansion and deepening of enfranchisement and the assured arrival of new political elites. The decade ensured that India became a multiparty democracy. So far, so very ’90s.
This is 2021
In the new century, India’s political matrix stands redefined, and the new political map belies and resists any easy replay of 1990s-style party politics. For one, the dominant national party against which such a coalition might stake power is a pure political behemoth. Unlike the Congress of the ’90s, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while facing significant anti-incumbency, is a big, tight and obedient ship of party cadres with a strict and effective intra-party control and command. Second, the politics of caste has been transformed since then. Not only is there a plethora of OBC parties, both the national parties, the BJP and the Congress, have with varying degrees of success, co-opted the OBCs within their national folds. In short, there are too many claimants to the OBC vote and that simply evacuates the secure baseline from which the ’90s coalitions sprung to power. Third, Dalit politics has matured and is undergoing a renaissance that is initially at the cost of the first Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Fourth, and still with caste, well-noted upper-caste assertion is back, in a new form of not just Yogi Adityanath but several small and big players who can channel a politics of resentment. Didi and her ambitions rely on election gamers of whom Prashant Kishor is the ace warrior and who will no doubt be able to work up some small sums in the hope of a new big election arithmetic. But this is not just it.
Above all, Indian politics is now properly bipartisan. Didi might wish to bypass the Congress, or even succeed in breaking and prising apart its discontented edges as she moves to guzzle through Congress party units ranging from Tripura to Goa, and all the way up to G-22. To be sure, it’s a bold, if obvious, move. And it makes for great political gossip. But this move is based on the idea that being anti-BJP or anti-Modi will be enough to stitch together a ‘common minimum programme’ (another ’90s cliché) among these regional parties that are often tied in acrimony and competition with each other.
2024 and two Ideas
Ironically, the political initiative against Modi lies with the Congress party. Occupying a national footprint and a significant voter share, it is no regional power monger. Unlike the ’90s, there is not one national party against which a regional front could pose a challenge. Marked by a heightened asymmetry of political power, the BJP and the Congress are however two national parties embodying two visions of the past and the future of India.
We all know what the BJP stands for and its rise to power in the last three decades has been honed over decades of preparation for it. The Congress started as a party of protest and mobilisation for its first years and that morphed easily into the party of unquestionable power for the next 50 years. The Congress lifecycle now is at odds with that of the BJP.
If you, like me, watch if not follow fashion trends, then you know rip-offs might be available, accessible and can be worn for a bit and discarded as soon as something worth its staying power as a classic comes along. For now, it’s clear that the return of the political ’90s is but a shiny rip-off that has little to no staying power.
The author’s new book ‘Violent Fraternity; Indian Political Thought in the Global Age’ is now out from Penguin India. She is Associate Professor of Indian History and Global Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)