Saturday, December 14, 2013

India 2014: The Possibility of Hope






The Indian Politics has reached a fever pitch, the final stretch leading up to the General Election in May 2014, an election, I believe and hope, that will mark a point of departure in India's history, perhaps the most significant since its Independence in 1947. The outcome of this election is far from certain, but whatever the outcome is, a break from the past is clearly foretold. And, while many things can go wrong, Indians like me must remain optimistic and keep their faith in the resilience of the Indian electorate. 

It does seem that the Indian politics have finally reached the twilight zone of Gandhi family politics. The regal show that dominated Indian political agenda throughout its post-independence period, first by leadership and then by reflected glory, appears to be a spent force, out of step with the young, ambitious country. The traditional mechanisation of vote bank politics, populism and wilful policy ambivalence that marked Indian politics since the 80s, appear to be a caricature to an eager and engaged electorate whose collective ambitions are set to define the tone of politics from now on. The leaders of the Congress Party, many of whom owe their political fortunes on the patronage of the Family, feel the tremors but are too timid to break ranks and demand change: As it happened in India in the past, the house of cards have to come tumbling down for these 'leaders' to shift allegiance, which will surely happen overnight, once the tsunami of public anger undid the house that Nehru built.

If this first part of the undoing of post-independence India is a tragedy, the other part is, predictably, a farce: The rise of the Hindu fundamentalist BJP with its strongman leader, Narendra Modi. This politics is one of opportunism, one that of trying to be all things to all people, centred on the overarching belief that everything can be bought. In a cynical replay of the Indian political tradition, their political calculus is based on minor regional parties falling in line when the plausibility of a BJP victory become obvious, and buying out minority votes with the promise of favoured treatment. Despite the apparent hatred between the two camps, they are united in the contempt of the Indian voters, who are imagined to be poor, illiterate and narrowly self-interested, despite many signs on the contrary. The political promise of this brand of alternative politics is based on the flipped version of the motherhood politics so favoured by the Gandhi clan, a strong leader who would dictate the agenda. The only difference between the two is if the Congress is hallucinated and can not see the fading of patronage politics, the helpful alternatives are all too aware and wants to offer its 'better' version of the same.

That sounds already bleak, but there is more: The impotent third force of Indian politics is the assortment of hereditary scions, criminal politicians too radioactive for any of the main parties, and regional megalomaniacs who are too fickle to be trusted in any coalition. Add to that the marginalised Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the rump socialists, currently dethroned from the comfort zones and deeply distrusted everywhere, and one would possibly get a clear sense how both delusional Congress and cynical BJP both dream to achieve power in 2014.

However, despite this illustrious line-up, one could still be hopeful about India. In fact, the absurdity of these choices may precisely represent a turning point in the history. The politics of absence has now become so desperate, and so much of a stumbling block in the common people's aspiration of a good life (though it remains to be defined what that is), that an alternative politics of presence and engagement is emerging. The sudden victory of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a ragtag citizens coalition formed against corruption, in the state elections of Delhi may well be a pre-cursor of things to come. It seems that the people of India is tired of living 'instead of the government' and finally want to hold those seeking power into account.

Indeed, the AAP victory in Delhi can fizzle out. Political movements often falter at the moment of triumph: It may not have a cohesive idea how to deliver the alternative government after all. Delhi is also most atypical of the Indian states, an urban conglomerate with mostly literate population, and was also galvanised by middle class activism in the wake of a recent case of rape in the City. And, indeed, AAP can attempt an overreach, as symptoms already show, and try to carve out a national presence overnight - and, quickly lose its cohesiveness given the enormity of the task. However, this may also be the moment when a new politics can emerge - if indeed AAP takes the opportunity and forms the government with outside support - and delivers the Governmental activism that the common citizens desire. In many ways, AAP's post-election conundrum marks the battle of Indian politics - politics of absence versus the engagement, of cynicism versus activism - and despite the fact that its government is certain to be pulled down at its first move against corruption (because it has to depend on either Congress or BJP support to form a government, which will invariably be withdrawn the moment they punish any corrupt politician or official), this is a great opportunity to set the agenda of alternate politics everywhere else.

It is possible to over-glorify the AAP victory and I am painfully aware of the danger of doing so : Surely the biggest danger to this nascent politics of participation is another self-defeating megalomania. However, one must not undermine this sudden possibility of hope - an alternative in step with the aspirations and demands of the ordinary young Indian, a politics defined not by groups or privileges but by ideas and demands. AAP may not even win India, it may not even set a model, but it would help bring back hope in the agenda and open the possibility in Indian politics. And, this nascent brand of political activism, one would hope, would keep in check the alternative prospects of degeneration, of 'arrangements' that any Congress-led coalition may invariably bring, or the marauding crusade against India's democratic fabric that must be mounted if Modi's gamble to power end up succeeding.

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