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The ‘People’s Court’ has spoken: Moving towards Anishchit Kaal

The ‘People’s Court’ has spoken: Moving towards Anishchit Kaal

Narendra Modi’s New India over the last decade has only amplified this society-State distinction.

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Last Updated : 12 June 2024, 22:45 IST
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It’s been a few critical weeks in Indian politics. Electoral democracy is alive and kicking -- and the Opposition, despite its inability to create a cohesive, unified electoral narrative against the BJP -- got a shot in the arm with the recent Lok Sabha electoral results.

I discuss two systemic afflictions (and a third one in a following column) affecting India’s social and political economy landscape, which would require the new NDA government’s -- and the Opposition’s -- immediate attention. 

Lack of an Inclusive Development Plan 

The Preamble to the Constitution begins with a republican assertion -- We, the people of India...One wonders how ‘the people’ here could be perceived as innocent, trustworthy, self-conscious, and respectful in collectivity, while being contrasted with the corrupt, dishonest, interest-oriented ruling oligarchy. 

As scholars Hilal Ahmed and Subir Sinha argue, “Success in (Indian) politics is described as ‘the people’s decision; while political debacles are seen as a tactical failure to attract them.” 

It is true that ascertaining the ‘will of the people’ as a governing principle in India’s political system has been a recent phenomenon. In a direct political sense, according to Sinha and Ahmed, ‘the people’ are defined as “voters and consumers” who must be wooed. 

This imagination of ‘the people’ rests on the assumption that political parties, like companies, make electoral promises as ‘products’ and voters as ‘consumers’ choose the best package according to his/her collective as well as individual political needs. 

Since the consumer is given an imaginary privileged position in a market scenario, people as voters are also treated like this in the realm of competitive electoral politics. It even legitimises the slogan ‘voter is always right’.

What happened then? 

Social Reform or Competitive Electoral-ism

The 2024 election was about new ‘promises’, ‘entitlements’ to seduce the poor, vulnerable, marginalised, minority, to come to the ballot without working towards their actual developmental needs. It’s part of a continuum that has become an unfortunate trend.

Many scholars and political scientists believe that a system of competitive electoral politics produced a very different political mechanism in post-independent India, especially in recent decades. 

The Nehruvian State introduced a series of radical social reforms in the 1950s through legal constitutional means and gave the State, and the ruling elite, a pedagogical function. ‘The people’, in this framework, were to be educated and reformed by the State to make them fully democratic and adequately modern. 

Narendra Modi’s New India over the last decade has only amplified this society-State distinction. 

Politics today isn’t about fighting or securing social reforms anymore. Rights-based people centred movements that enabled governing processes of transparency and accountability in State-society relations, say through legislated enactments of the Right to Information Act, or allowed improved nutritional access to the poor (through the Right to Food movement), or better healthcare access in states, are received with disdain by the Indian State.

In fact, the practice of satyagraha used as a means to protest injustice by the State is treated with punishment and jail, much like how the British Raj responded during the pre-independence nationalist movement. The imperial project of the Raj, which aimed at centralising power to codify laws, enforce coercive measures on de-unionsied labour/workers, forcing them to comply with a weakened bargaining position, is being reimagined under Modi’s governmentality.

For now, what we observe is a radical substitution of rule of law bulldozed with the rule by law, combined with an insidious motive of undertaking political action that is consequentially only relevant for ‘winning elections’ -- and at all costs. The hope is that NDA’s coalition political compulsions -- and a more vibrant Opposition -- may help restrain BJP’s ‘bulldozer Raj’.

There is  another key structural issue: the growth crisis in identity-based marginalisation and Ambedkarism, which seems to be rooted in the limited, circumscribed ability to apply Ambedkar’s ideational-philosophical thoughts, his socio-legal contributions towards positive affirmative action, and the progressive realisation of basic rights for the marginalised communities (Dalits, Adivasis, Women and LGBTQ+). 

Crisis in Ambedkarism(?)

In popular Dalit discourse, post-Babasaheb’s passing, Ambedkarites and Ambedkarism became involved in disseminating his ideas and teachings, while seeking (like him) to apply those to the fight for the rights, lives and livelihoods of marginalised communities. 

Ambedkarites have been in vogue in a variety of arenas -- politics, academia, social organisations, literary and cultural organisations, employees’ organisations, NGOs, virtual social networks, and more. The last few decades have also seen a greater emphasis on Ambedkar’s ideas in the reimagining of critical social and economic policies across India.

Nevertheless, as Anand Teltumbde argued in one of his Ambedkar Memorial Lectures at Bengaluru’s ‘Ambedkar Habba’ on April 14, 2011, “Every Ambedkarite, whether (s)he is conscious of it or not, experiences some crisis”. These crises are enumerated by Teltumbde as the: 1) Crisis of Identity; 2) Crisis of Ideology; 3) Crisis of Leadership; 4) Crisis of Politics; 5) Crisis of Morality; 6) Crisis of Living; 7) Organisational Crisis.

These crises, as well as Teltumbde’s other points, merit deeper reflection, not just by Ambedkarites, but by all those who truly believe in Ambedkarism. The foremost challenge before Ambedkarites going forward is to construct Ambedkarism as a guiding philosophy for the struggle of the Dalit masses (and those in marginalised spaces) while recognising the reasons behind the structural crises that Teltumbde described. 

We can’t continue basing an entire movement on the past alone but rather need to take the present conditions of marginalised communities and minorities as a statement to project an inclusive vision for a better, more aspirational future for all marginalised communities. The way the Opposition, and the new elected political order, takes these issues forward will define India’s socio-political landscape for the next decade.

(The writer is Professor of Economics and Dean, IDEAS, Office of Inter
Disciplinary Studies, OP Jindal Global University. This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will appear on Friday)

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