Every election is an argument about who we are and where we want to go. The massive mandate for the BJP-led NDA coalition of Narendra Modi means many have lost the argument. It isn’t just the Congress that lost, but many of the beliefs that were held as a talisman by Indian liberals, pluralists and progressives have been severely tested this election.
The 300-plus ‘prachanda vijay’ that Amit Shah declared for the BJP and its allies has shaken the three touchstone mantras of Indian progressives.
Pragya Singh Thakur and legal innocence
More than Narendra Modi’s victory, many are grappling with how best to reclaim the ‘idea of India’ from terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur’s massive mandate in Bhopal. Is the ‘idea of India’ irretrievably lost?
They applied that tenet of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ template to seek solidarity when Muslim youth were arrested and locked up after the Hyderabad bomb blasts, when S.A.R. Geelani was arrested in the conspiracy to attack Parliament and when Binayak Sen was charged with conspiring with Maoists. But the progressives could not bring themselves to extend the template to someone like Pragya Singh Thakur. Now that she will sit in the Lok Sabha, something fundamental has shifted. In the ‘Godse se Pragya tak’ narrative arc of India, her ambivalent legal status challenges the liberals’ faith in legal principles and system.
Belief in democracy
How can liberals, pluralists and progressives reclaim India but still condemn Indians for voting the BJP in such large numbers, and especially for Pragya Thakur?
Many of them were heard saying they have now lost all faith in democracy, and that elections are a flawed concept, especially the first-past-the-post system. The system now appears broken to them because it is electing people who are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
They are saying this to put up a brave front, and to add an intellectual spin to their disappointment. They had held this same parliamentary democracy dear for decades, warts and all. It was expected to offer level playing field in a deeply feudal and hierarchical society, even though B.R. Ambedkar himself called it just a “top-dressing” for an essentially undemocratic society.
If the intellectuals begin to decouple themselves from the process of electoral democracy then they just risk making their privileged bubbles iron-strong. And the exit of ideas from elections means democracy loses the opportunity to improve and becomes a race to the bottom.
Who will speak for the subalterns?
Left scholarship and intellectualism thrived for long on something called “behalfism”, a wonderful coinage by Mukul Kesavan in his seminal book Secular Common Sense. Scholars spoke on behalf of the ‘subalterns’. For them, the term ‘subaltern’ was a formidable centrepiece in Indian postcolonial discourse.
Propounded by renowned scholars like Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak, it referred to all those who are outside the power structure – mostly rural, the underclass, underprivileged, marginalised, and the salt-of-the-earth. It was the responsibility of the intellectual elite to speak for the subalterns – since they could not presumably speak for themselves – and be their guardians.
They looked at India through this prism of multiple marginalisations – identities of castes, tribes, religions and languages as they are reflected on a shattered mirror. They would pose every argument on behalf of the ‘subalterns’, it was their go-to term.
That was until Modi was elected to power in 2014. The subalterns had turned. In fact, Modi was the subaltern. In Gujarat, he was the OBC; in 2014, he was the chaiwala; and then he morphed into the chowkidar in 2019.
The Congress party in its election campaign advertisement showed many Indians saying, “Main hee toh Hindustan hoon” – or the idea of a billion Indias. Against Modi’s One India.
When the progressives and the activists speak of the marginalised and their injustices, BJP president Amit Shah counters them by calling them “tukde tukde gang”. This means the BJP wants to leave no room for conversations about the million mutinies. You can only have conversations about multiple identities in the BJP’s universe if it is done in the cultural pride trope, not in the context of injustices.
Who will speak for the subalterns – is a question that shaped Indian intellectual traditions. Now that the subalterns have spoken for a different idea of India, can they be dismissed as ignorant and bigoted? That is the vexing dilemma cutting through many of their intellectual formulations.
In his victory speech at the BJP headquarters Thursday, Modi said that just like Hindu god Krishna stood by the side of Hastinapur, Indian voters had sided with India. Modi has stitched together a wide coalition with not just upper caste Hindus but also OBCs, Dalits, Muslims and tribal people.
Modi begins his second term by invoking the dark-skinned son of a cowherd, not Ram, the king. The BJP’s mythological goalpost has just moved to a subaltern god. Except in this reimagination, the subalterns were speaking for Modi, not the other way around.