Development with secularism is the mantra

Development with secularism is the mantra

We are in the midst of pre-election political festivities when different political parties begin to re-incarnate themselves through their pre-poll theatrical performances to cajole and convince the voters.

In a large democracy like India, both general and state level elections are times of political trials and tribulations for the ruling as well as Opposition parties. The political climate for the 2014 elections is already setting in with both Congress and BJP working hard to stake their claims in the electoral field. It is not surprising to see how Congress and BJP are indulging in their war of words over various issues, policies, programmes and even their own ideological positioning.   
Congress party occupies a distinctly advantageous ideological position in Indian politics. It sits at the centre of the political spectrum. It has strategically moved, at times, to the left or the right depending upon the pragmatic calculation of its vote bank politics.  However, having taken a centrist position most of the time, it easily escapes from the accusations of being a fascist or an ultra-nationalist party. The issues of development, governance, corruption, political leadership, Telangana statehood and secularism, among others, have become significant rallying points for Congress in  2014 elections. Can Congress stick to Aam Aadmi welfare plank even if Kejriwal has taken away the name of the Aam Aadmi for his party, or shift focus to the secularism debate through Modi bashing  or use both in equal or different measures?

Centrist vs right-most

With the increasing personification of political parties through their leaders, personal diatribes and rhetoric has become a permanent feature of Indian politics. As the elections approach, we will see much more colourful bashing of Modi as well as Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and even Manmohan Singh. At the state and local levels, it would be more pungent and direct.  Since BJP, placed at the right-most position, can’t have anything other than the two issues of nationalism and economic growth, it will perennially talk about facades of secularism. On the other hand, Congress can’t leave the so called secularist stand without undermining its centrist position and also alienate its entire minority vote-bank. Even if in states like Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav had attracted Muslims through ordering firing on Kar Sevaks in Barabanki in 1989 and, thereafter, has steadfastly maintained a deliberate and calculative pro-Muslim stance, in other states, Muslims and other minorities are mostly with the Congress, and not with the BJP. In Gujarat, the claims that Muslims voted for Modi is certainly a question to be pondered over. Whether Muslims voted for Modi out of fear or out of love or to hide their identity of being anti-Modi and share the state’s largesse for their benefits is the issue to be debated and discussed. Therefore, while BJP under Modi has very limited options, Congress has the entire world to itself. This will require BJP under Modi to be more strident, direct and illiberal in Indian politics.

Congress would have to favour the agenda of development with secularism. A certain kind of economic development or progress is at times facilitated by corruption and even through totalitarian measures. Therefore, Congress too would speak about development in a truncated voice denouncing under-development, regional inequalities (as in case of Telangana) and carry on with its package of welfare agenda for the aam aadmi. But it can’t go back on its promises of economic liberalisation and corporatisation, and thus will have to weigh its options carefully between good and bad growth-oriented development, the former of course imbued with notions of justice and egalitarian distribution of resources among the most disadvantaged sections of the society as a primary concern. It will force Congress to take a step back from its pro-rich and pro-market oriented reforms. Economic development in itself without trickling down to poor would not mean much for political gains. Congress would, therefore, stick to a point of view of development of the poor through MNREGA or Food Security Bill to blunt BJP’s arguments of bourgeois national development. Congress will have to stay with aam aadmi on the one hand for development and on secularism for nurturing a sense of security in the minds of minority communities on the other. It needs to ensure the social and cultural empowerment of Muslims and other minorities under its development agenda unlike subjecting them to a coercive cultural nationalism of BJP’s Hindutva.

BJP does not have a platform other than Hindu nationalism, and it is here that Congress will have to espouse secularism, however half-heartedly it may do so. In fact, straight-jacketed BJP with limited options opens out the vast area for Congress. BJP’s first consolidation in politico-administrative arena took place in Gujarat riots.
Second time, such a consolidation is taking place by projecting Modi as a leader of pan Indian BJP. It makes Congress’s job simpler because it has both aam aadmi and secularism on its side.  

(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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