Assembly Elections: What Works in One State Does Not in Another

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Source: The Wire

This is still a a diverse country, and the temptation to ascribe generalisations is best avoided.

No one political shoe still fits all states in the republic.

What works in one state does not in another, the Bharatiya Janata Party victory in four states notwithstanding.

In that euphoria, or despondency if you like, the stunning lesson from Punjab must be closely attended to.


Welcome to the sack of Punjab.

See the field strewn with fallen stalwarts: Prakash Singh Badal, the forever patriarch, Sukhbir Badal, his well-heeled (come to think of it, aren’t they all well-heeled?) progeny; Captain Amrinder Singh, the wary “nationalist”; Vikram Singh Majithia, the alleged lord of potions; Navjot Singh Sidhu, the incessant oracle of cuteness; Charanjit Singh Channi, the pathetic last minute stop-gap – all felled by commoners of no name or fame, just aam admi (ordinary people) ninjas with deep roots in the soil of common humanity.

All swallowed by a mass hungry for dethronement and Spartan renewal.

Kejriwal has called this an inquilab i.e, revolution. A democratic revolution it indeed is.

(Only one Titan now seems proof against such fall, namely, Narendra Modi, having already declared himself victor in 2024. And what Election Commission may rescind that declaration?)

Kejriwal’s party went into battle on a platform of quotidian livelihood issues and quotidian pieties (that included obeisance to Hanuman, something that his idol, the atheist Bhagat Singh, may not have done), even as the party also declared, “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Esaayi/ Apas mei hein bhai bhai (Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians/ All brothers, all friends) – a secular call to shared citizenship, one most required in a realm sinking into sectarian cruelty with the weight of unrelenting hate.

The aam admi heard him, and ventured away from big ticket perorations and unfulfilled promises. Poor Channi had too little time to make his commonness credible.

Kejriwal foregrounded Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, not mentioning even Gandhi, not to speak of Nehru.

Canny and clever, he was mindful of what passes and what does not, always wary of not burning bridges with the right-wing.

He also recalled Bhagat Singh’s admonition that changes of government matter little unless “the system” is changed, wrongly believing that mere transformation of government schools – of the greatest importance as that is – and such-like is what Bhagat Singh meant by systemic change, even after unimpeded power supply, and some hospitals are thrown in.

But let that be: the aam admi may hardly be trusted to have read Bhagat Singh, especially with respect to his cogitations on the nature of class-based democracy, and the arrangements of the production and distribution of wealth therein.

But, trusting Kejriwal, Punjab did not succumb to sectarian pulls, setting itself resolutely apart from an Uttar Pradesh, for example.

What worked in Punjab may not work for a long, long time in the Gangetic belt.

But it well may in a few other states in time to come, especially the Kejriwal model of personal leadership, placing a felt and lived ordinariness at the head of the moral paradigm of eemandar sarkar (a governance of probity).

Humbleness that is seen and believed to be humble with no put-aways in the cupboard is both deeply needed and deeply appreciated by the aam admi.

(In passing, the Congress may well ponder whether the lack of that sort of connect with hoi polloi may not have been a great disabler to its nobly conceived politics. One may add quickly that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s work over the last two years or so seems a conscious and welcome departure in this regard).

If Kejriwal has ambitions of larger intent, why not, provided the humbleness and the honesty remain undented, provided the party remains one with the people without fuss or pretence, and provided, most of all, Kejriwal constantly resists the temptation to become yet another cult, and is not on the television screen 24×7. No Ambedkarite must encourage the bhakti route to greatness.

But Kejriwal must know Punjab is not Delhi. Its historical burdens are onerous, its kitty is severely depleted, and with complete hold over governance, unlike in Delhi, a Lieutenant Governor may not be made the scapegoat, however deserved the case in Delhi has been.

If the new party carries the people of Punjab through the coming five years, the republic may see a ray of light.

Uttar Pradesh

This is a state that would be the world’s sixth largest country if it was one, and has only a hundred million less than the entire population of the United States of America.

It sends some 80 members to the Indian parliament, reason why the most needed division of the state into four states at the least will continue to be resisted, especially by the ruling BJP.

(After all, Uttar Pradesh is not Jammu and Kashmir, is it? And what delimitation commission might have the gumption to make anti-national suggestions with respect to the state of states?)

While the Ambedkarite or constitutional pitch has worked in Punjab, the BJP campaign has sought ruthlessly to consolidate religious nationalism in Uttar Pradesh.

And it succeeded even in a western part of the state where the farmer’s movement, we were told, has brought the Jats and Muslims into a secular confluence.

Silently, the shenanigans of 2013 continued to impact voters there, against claims made off and on publicly, by either side.

What does any secular formation do when it hears the aam admi in Uttar Pradesh say, “The prices are chilling, we cannot refill our Ujwala cylinders any more, unemployment is killing, the cattle-on-the-loose puts paid to all our labours in the field, the COVID-19 trauma was unprecedented, the farmers are destitute, not everyone has got the bounties the Yogi government claims to have dispensed” and then laud the same Yogi government’s bulldozer anyway, finding an excuse for his sense of empowerment as a Hindu?

Not easy.

And when the beneficiaries of a pittance of “free rations” (much in monarchical style of old) feel overwhelmed by the government’s munificence, not inclined to absorb the fact that moneys for those free rations come from his own pocket as well through exorbitant indirect taxes and the skyrocketing price of commodities?

The poet William Blake wrote, “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor”.

First make the populace destitute then be merciful with free rations, taking care to assuage lamentations about wretchedness with slogans raised to the presiding deity of the land.

Was that opium, you said?

Some said give us work rather than rations so we can sustain a livelihood, but the call to salvage culture-in-jeopardy via the bulldozer won out.

If there were no Muslims, how would majoritarianism work? Indeed, the religious divide would then be overtaken by the ominous caste divide – one that would not but stymie the grand thesis of Hindu homogeneity; or, god forbid, by the class divide that would bring to the fore elements happily somnolent in the face of the power of religion.

Would the Aryan project in Germany have worked had there been no Jews? You may add to that Gypsies as well, most of Indian extraction, historians tell us.

So it is that in the state of the Ganga, of Ayodhya, of Mathura, and Kashi, the Kejriwal model must fall flat, being, after all, only a refurbished clone of the time-tested secular Congress-welfarist model.

Something that makes the performance of the Samajwadi party admirable is that in the face of the religious onslaught, Akhilesh Yadav’s party enhanced its vote share by a whopping 14%. But even as Akhilesh refused religious-sectarian politics, his marshalling of social identities gave him support that the Kejriwal model did not seem to have.

The Congress

The Indian National Congress ran a laudably decent and effective campaign, grounded in the old idea of India, but no canny voter wishes to waste her vote.

At the national level, the Congress still remains the foremost challenger to the nationalism of the right-wing; polling country-wide most numerously after the ruling BJP.

But, if its decline continues, this challenge may dwindle merely to one in theory.

If in the regions it is democratic sub-nationalisms that thwart the juggernaut of majoritarianism, at the national level these sub-nationalisms still fail to gel into a centrally formulated alternate nationalism.

It will remain to be seen how any alternate nationalism grounded in the constitutional idea of India may or may not shape and be ready for battle in 2024.

Sad to say, but it does seem that the grand old party must now first creatively disintegrate before it reintegrates as a force to reckon with.

And it does not have an hour to lose. Those within the Congress who fret, often with justice, must ask themselves if they are willing and have the resolve to forge that reintegration without the Gandhis either in leadership or as whipping boys.

Let the Gandhis make a clean break, let all hell break loose, and let their counsel be voiced only when sought, and if then.

The reintegration I speak of will be no small matter; the Congress will be faced with the task of retaining its graces, refusing the crude and disingenuous praxis of the right-wing, and yet transform into a feisty combatant on behalf of the constitutional republic. This latter strength is often in evidence in the excellence of the spokespersons who bat for the party on television.

The other three states that went to the polls need not detain us here; these are swing states where considerations as stated above do not run deep. These and others like them come and go with the season’s wind.

It is the ideological paradigms that Punjab and Uttar Pradesh now offer us that must occupy our political and intellectual probe.

That probe will be relevant to such states as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the main. Bihar has too much of the intellectual autonomy and diversity and depth of historical experience to be easily subsumed into religious nationalism. And most other states remain beyond the pall of religious hegemonisation.

I leave out Karnataka as well, believing that there is still an effectively influential body of secular politics there, capable of besting regressive forces, although the latter have indeed been gaining rapid traction in recent years.

Jammu and Kashmir is clearly now an outcast, for reasons not far from political comprehension. Its fate may well depend upon how the contest between the idea of India as it obtains in Uttar Pradesh and conversely in Punjab, southern states, Odisha and West Bengal pans out.

The outcome of that contest will also determine how the life of parliament, of the media, of state agencies, of autonomous institutions, prosecutorial and juridical ones not excluded, of democratic verities across the board, indeed, of the secular-democratic republic in its entirety, may come to be in the foreseeable future.

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