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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 28 New Delhi July 4, 2015

Party with a Difference

Monday 6 July 2015, by Badri Raina

All along we have been under the impression that what makes the Bharatiya Janata Party a party with a difference is its ideological commitment to Hindu nationalism. Turns out this is only one part of its USP. A second and potentially equally consequential feature, especially noteworthy now that the party occupies state power, is its ability to filibuster any sort of fact out of existence. And without the least embarrassment.

Arguably, of course, the two specialities are closely linked in the sense that the cultural nationalists have always thought themselves above and beyond the reach or jurisdiction of ordinary forms of ethics and the mundane processes of concrete and complex existence, in or out of government. This is understandable to the extent that the bubble of self-righteousness in which they are happiest living has not been tested over any great length of time in the governance of the Republic; so that an amoral and glib management of words has chronically done service for them as a self-hypnotic talisman.

What also sets this cultural formation apart from any traditional Right-wing politics is its scant allegiance to the forms of oath that legitimate its right to govern. Where any democratic Right-wing formation would, whatever it might do to the economy, still subject the state to constitutionality and the rule of law, however suspect in intent, the cultural nationalists seek to place the state above that wherewithal of commonly accepted political and constitutional obligations without which the state can become the enemy of all that is right and proper within the contractual sanctities of a democratic order of things.

And the definition of the state is menacingly often contained merely in the bubble of words that party spokespersons may unleash from one day to another, depending on how the realities of the day are to be rubbished into non-being. Or, contrarily, how hard facts filibustered out of life and limb in one context may be revived in another in order to serve just one, undeflected purpose, namely, never to make an acknowledgement of error, violation, not to speak of wrong-doing. If all that rings many bells pertaining to the lessons of history one may be forgiven the recall. Thus a principle that may be peddled as an unvarying universal in the afternoon becomes a piece of conspiratorial chicanery by prime time.

Thus, any sort of circumstance or any form of evidence meets but one riposte: “so what?” Be it an oral witness, a deposition, a sworn affidavit, a bank statement, a blatant transgression of due process and governmental protocol, a damningly proven piece of cronyism, any brazen instance of discrimination in the operations of the law dictated by adherence to forms of identity or personal proximity—the commanding Podsnappery of the cultural nationalists brushes all aside with an in-your-face “so what?” From a brute control of the state emerges the doctlrine of “So Whatism” which percolates to the least red neck in the order of pecking. Interestingly, this “So Whatism” has come for critique from the grand old Advani who has unleashed a canny reminder that at the time of the Jain-hawala episode, he chose to resign his parliamentary seat although the then Prime Minister had dissuaded him from doing so; a reminder that he made to underscore the point that politicians must never lose the trust of the people, and that public morality must weigh as heavily on them as strictly legal considerations. We may recollect that Sonia Gandhi had similarly chosen to resign her parliamentary seat when some questions were raised about whether she occupied an office of profit, opting for fresh mandate from her constituency in Rae Bareli. Clearly, our current rulers have little use for such silly niceties. Never mind that on page 6 of the last electoral Manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party is writ that the object of the party will be to restore “credibility to and trust in” government.

It may be a saving grace that sections of the urban middle classes who had voted the party to power a year ago, in anticipation of some conjoint effects—a model of unfettered “development” delivered by state-of-the-art high-tech entrepreneurial wealth, a muscular disregard of “bleeding-heart” social justice policies, and a subtle relegation of Muslims at home and of anti-Israeli “Islamism” abroad (never mind the ravages wrought by Zionism, since the bulk of the Indian-American diaspora is strongly supportive of the latter)—are, however shamefacedly, beginning to raise a gingerly eyebrow, unwilling to go the whole hog either with an economic emphasis that, it turns out, is unabashedly tailored for big corporates—and crony ones at that—rather than for the concerns of the middle classes, and with a Hinduisation calculated to lead to a full-scale Hindutva transmogrification of state and polity. And, all-importantly, unwilling to condone top-level corruption of the kind that had raised its hackles in the first place—a condonation especially gallingly similar to an earlier paradigm of Prime Ministerial reticence. It has not gone unnoticed that whereas troubles related to lack of probity afflicted the erstwhile UPA regime towards the eighth year of a ten-year rule, the malaise has overtaken the chest-thumping anti-corruption crusaders in the very first year of their term of office. Or that whereas most protagonists in the earlier dispensation who seemed tainted came from the allied partners of the Congress Party, all four or five—and there is news of more in the offing—names now doing the rounds belong to the heartland of the Bharatiya Janata Party. With no resignations forthcoming, unlike what had happened before. A Numero Uno who has subsumed both party and government within his persona, and who cannot wait to tweet on the most trivial of happenings, or do a Sunday heart-to-heart on how to prepare for examinations or celebrate selective rituals, seems to have no place for transparency or intimacy with his loving voters when it comes to you-know-what. Silence clearly seems an integral part of his famed eloquence. And have you noticed that his trumpeted claim to accountability never seems to include any interaction with the media whatsoever. So much for the Fourth Estate which is for the most part expected to take that hint and do the needful. Same with such things as the Right to Information: only the other day the Ministry of External Affairs has refused to entertain RTI queries with respect to facts related to la affaire Lalit Modi—such as whose decision was it not to appeal the court order to issue him his passport, or whether the decision of the External Affairs Minister to facilitate his travel papers in Britain had endorsement from higher authority. These and several other germane queries have been refused on grounds that they concern matters of a private nature. Transparency and accountability writ large over this government you might say.

Whatever be the contradictions among the oppositional political formations of India, there is reason to believe that they are all equally alive to the dangers that a wholly new paradigm of politics and governance spells for the realm—dangers that transcend considerations of ordinary self-regard or discrete political survival, dangers articulated just the other day, once again, by none other than the erstwhile Cultural Nationalist patriarch, Lal Krishna Advani (always to remember that often in history many constructive perceptions have resulted from the less-than-shining of motives). It will therefore be a matter of all-consuming interest to see how democratic and constitutional resistance to a dictatorial-state-in-the-making formulates itself inside and outside Parliament as it meets for the monsoon session on July 21. As for the media channels, there seems some evidence of a corporate war underway. After all, where cronyism, be it an Adani or a Lalit Modi, seeks to supplant an even-handed policy expectation, many among those who were hoping to make a kill are bound to make themselves heard in ways which uniquely distinguish the corporate world. But, beyond all that, perhaps the single most consequential factor in relation to the future course of this government—for want of another word—will be how the now chronic and rampant agrarian distress shapes into a pan-Indian resentment.

Not to speak of the fact that the most telling answer to many of these questions may come, this way or that, from the hustings as Bihar first goes to the polls in a few months, followed by Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Will the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party’s performance in the Capital of India turn out to be a trend or a fluke will be the question.

However full of bluster and self-congratulation a dispensation, this most pluralist of all the world’s polities and republics may yet again be poised to demonstrate the folly of anyone taking it for granted. Those that never tire of reminding the nation of the fate of Indira Gandhi following her totalitarian rule of a year-and- a-half during which time civic freedoms and institutions were rendered nullities or hand-maidens may discover that the reminder is charged with a self-reflexive irony.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.