One of the less talked about pillars of the BJP’s dominance is the cynicism it engenders in its opponents. When opponents are turned into cynics, they start agreeing with the BJP: on the nature of the Indian nation, the outlook of the ordinary Indian, and most importantly the overwhelming and unshakeable power of the BJP. Especially over the last few years, much intellectual space among the BJP’s opponents has been colonised by this overweening cynicism, which curiously insists on making the BJP even more mainstream and themselves even more fringe. The Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan at Ayodhya is the source of the latest round of cynicism.
Hegemonic parties sustain their power by convincing people of their invincibility. This invincibility is always a myth, but it becomes a self-perpetuating myth when it spreads outside the core of its supporters. When even opponents start to believe this myth of invincibility, they either collude with the ruling regime or are reduced to paralysing cynicism.
There are three specific beliefs that are propagated by both the BJP and its so-called most vociferous opponents, which create this myth of invincibility. One, that the majority of Hindus in India subscribe to the notion of Hindutva. This majority also has an inherent and overpowering hatred of Muslims, which for some reason was dormant in 2004 and 2009. Two, that a consolidated Hindu identity has decisively triumphed over caste and regional identities in the political imagination of ordinary people. These political identities, shaped over many decades of popular struggle, have now suddenly lost relevance, as did the social justice and democratic ideas that animated them. And three, the BJP is structurally too formidable to be defeated electorally, and will therefore rule India for the foreseeable future.
The illusion of invincibility
The BJP is strategically invested in propagating all these three beliefs, because its dominance feeds off its invincibility. The massive rallies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ‘thali’ and ‘diya’ spectacles, frequent opinion polls, and the controlling of dissent — all are meant to constantly reinforce the illusion that the overwhelming majority is with Modi. If the BJP’s efforts are not effective enough, useful collaborators among its ideological opponents help reify this illusion into the dominant image of the party by agreeing with them.
For both the BJP and these opponents, the terms of reference of political debates begin in 2014. The nation has been irreversibly transformed since that year zero of Indian politics.
It’s useful to remember that three decades of Left hegemony in West Bengal was not just based on deep-rooted, local clientelist networks of patronage, but also on its image of invincibility as the only game in town. As soon as that invincibility was shattered in the panchayat polls of 2008, the Left Front’s fall was imminent. In these polls, held in the wake of Singur and Nandigram movement against land acquisition, the Left’s vote-share plunged from nearly 90 per cent to 52 per cent, and its decline has been irreversible since. In hindsight, the Left was only as strong in West Bengal as people thought It was.
No one could foresee the Left’s implosion in 2006, when it had won an even bigger majority in the assembly election. But every era of political dominance creates the seeds of its own downfall.
Yet, many of our metropolitan elites have given up on ordinary people. In such circles, it is indeed encouraged to view Indian society as wholly and irredeemably in the clutches of the worst forms of bigotry. It is considered naivety, delusion or even an outcome of ‘privilege’ to have any positive conception of India. Or to believe that we, as a people, have the moral capability and political wisdom to claw out of the undemocratic hole we find ourselves in.
Cynicism, a function of privilege
But aren’t we just too bigoted as a nation? Let’s look at Ayodhya. There was a previous, unsuccessful attempt in 1990 to break the Babri Masjid, which was met by police firing that killed 17 Hindu kar sevaks. Mulayam Singh Yadav, who ordered the firing to protect the mosque, would go on to attain even bigger political success and become the chief minister multiple times of the Hindu-majority state of Uttar Pradesh. The political trajectory of the CM who allowed the mosque to be broken, Kalyan Singh, would broadly run in the opposite direction. And, yes, this irredeemably regressive ‘cow belt’ state would make a Dalit Mayawati chief minister four times. All this was achieved within this generation, and happened with the votes of ordinary people, not the righteous outrage of online activists.
Yet, cynicism is often a function of privilege. You only lose all hope when you can afford to, when things don’t affect you directly. Is it any wonder that this cynicism is much more likely to be found among upper class Hindus than the working class Muslims who were at the forefront of Shaheen Bagh?
This is why the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement, despite its limitations, was a challenge to the government. In its composition, a largely Muslim movement, it did not pose an immediate political challenge. But it was the hope the movement generated that was dangerous — the dangerous idea that ordinary people could believe in a better India, and step up to face the might of this government, using the ideals of the Constitution.
On the contrary, cynicism can never build, it can only destroy. In its helplessness and impotent anger, it lashes out at everything in sight. Since the BJP is invincible, you start attacking the alternative forces broadly on your side. The Congress, the main opposition party, also becomes the enemy. Since it is a ‘janeudhari’, neoliberal party of ‘soft Hindutva’, it must be destroyed to usher in the utopian party of authentic, fully compliant secular and egalitarian principles. Yet, as the example of Israel shows, in a country lurching Rightward, the opposition space vacated by a long governing centre-Left party (Labour) is more likely to be taken by centre/centre-Right parties rather than a more ‘principled’ Left party.
The power of the ordinary people
This article is not an argument for denial, the BJP’s victory in 2014 did indeed represent not just an electoral victory but also an ideological triumph. Yet, the triumph is still — in historical terms — novel and shaky, let alone final. There is a large intellectual space between denial and defeatism. A grounded idealism would not only create a hope of victory, it will also help construct the alliances that make it possible. Cynicism is only good for whining and bickering, in pitting ever-small fractions of BJP’s opponents against each other in clashes of purity and virtue.
What can unite us is an allegiance to some basic, common idea of the nation and some faith in the wisdom of ordinary people. This was the basis of the freedom struggle, an umbrella movement of disparate ideologies united in a singular objective. Gandhi, the architect of the mass freedom movement, believed in the essential ‘goodness’ of human beings. This was why he could build a movement, which the more intellectual ‘moderate’ members of the Congress had put beyond the capacity of the “illiterate masses”. If, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued, we need a second freedom struggle to rescue India, we must first renew the belief that the nation of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar is not dead yet. Like any idea, it will only be truly dead if we believe it to be so.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.