Punjab Today brings you this English iteration of SP Singh’s column published in the Punjabi Tribune earlier this week. The author, well known to the Punjabi readers for his Likhtum BaDaleel column, had juxtaposed the pandemic hit political situation in India with the latest twists in US politics. In response to our request for an English translation of the piece, he chose to virtually write one anew, expanding upon the line of argument in his column. You can access the original piece here.
THE MOST HOPEFUL among India’s Opposition are now banking on the pandemic. Such has been the mismanagement on the part of the Modi government that his critics now expect the backlash at the hustings. In fact, that’s their only hope.
Gored by death, apathy and the horrible scenes of dead bodies in rivers; devastated by loss of jobs, sustenance and opportunities; and angry at denial of basic health facilities, people are expected to lash out at the face of the ruling establishment – Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and their BJP.
The hope is that this triumvirate and its bedfellows will not be able to stave off the waves of rage and anger when people come stomping to the polling booths and vote with their heels. At least those who are alive then.
In a classically functioning electoral democracy, this could have been the likely scenario. A decisively inept administration is voted out even when the opposition does not hold better promise.
After all, the principle of not rewarding the same bullshit remains the bulwark of ballotting; so even new bullshit is accepted.
Apart from the ubiquitous truth that the opposition has not covered itself with glory as the pandemic scorched through our land, communities, families, economy and lives, it also is a miscalculation on the part of the opposition to depend on the pandemic’s ferocity to bring it to power, or at least, relevance.
When the time comes for people – masked or not, vaccinated or not, having suffered Covid or not, having lost loved ones or not, having found a hospital bed or not, having received oxygen or not, having found a spot to cremate their dead beloved or not – to press that button on the EVM, there will be considerations other than the pandemic, too.
It sounds atrocious at this stage to say that – almost preposterous, even – that a voter will consider issues other than the death of her parent or child or friend or neighbour or lover while casting her vote and deciding who next she puts in charge of the healthcare system and our lives, but politics is a slippery animal.
Of course, not all voters are liable to slip on that tricky turf. People do consider core issues of health, education, employment, opportunities, peasantry, urbanisation, trade, commerce, security and harmony while voting for a political party but then political parties in a system of adversarial electioneering do not work towards convincing the entire collective of voters.
All political parties select their voters. It is only the voters’ fantasy that they select their party. The parties identify blocks, and then work to cajole them, curry favours with them, prod them, or mould them to align them with their own thinking or strategic line of action.
A Donald Trump does not seek the votes of groups of young girls hailing Nancy Pelosi as their hero; he seeks out young Americans angry with the system which they believe has outsourced so many jobs that there are none left for them.
The anti-war demonstrators fall in one camp, those defending the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms fall in the other. These camps are clearly identified and parties guard them with some deliberate effort.
So, will Modi and company be able to guard their camp in spite of the pandemic?
Electoral outcomes are now decided by slivers of these votebanks; that’s what explains the crucial need for a genre of politics called Prashant Kishore and his laptop wielding, ready-to-rent data-crunching mercenaries.
There is a strong unbroken undercurrent from pre-Covid years that continues to undergird the narrative that Modi and his government have been doing all they could to fight this pandemic, and there is no one else who has proven that he or she could have done better than what the Centre did. The rest of the blame should go to the pandemic.
This is a strong Rightwing, Hindutva vote bank – sometimes only Rightwing, but often both.
Let us look at the mother of all democracies, the United States of America, for some real time education in this respect. While the better known narrative is that Donald Trump was booted out of the White House, apart from social media handles, the actual reality of American politics is that Trump continues to be at the front, centre, left and right of US political scene.
Republican lawmakers have recently underscored the grip that the perceivably increasingly unpopular Trump retains on their ranks. Saner Republicans stand demoralized, the party finds itself unable to move on from his tenure; and a display of loyalty to Trump and his thought process seems to be the ticket to survival even when we think Joe Biden’s victory brought back an era of decency and sobriety in politics.
If the Republican Party is today unable to resolve the conundrum of how to accommodate a former president who is beloved by its core voters even when the larger public is more detested than ever with the same leader, how do you think the scenario will play out in India once the pictures of floating bodies in Ganges no more find space in newspapers or on screen?
Once those images fade into memory, there will be new images, new Mann Ki Baat, new schemes, new rallies, new shenanigans, new campaigns of retribution against those who were only pulling the prime minister’s leg when he was fighting the Covid with a broken healthcare system that was the legacy of Nehru and his ilk.
Dick Cheney was one of the most powerful vice presidents in the history of the United States. His family is political royalty in Wyoming. His daughter, Liz Cheney inherited that legacy and was the number three leader of her party in the House of Representatives till a few days back, but ever since she voted against Trump in the second impeachment trial earlier this year, Trump’s more strident allies had been baying for her head. They finally have it.
Since Trump’s defeat, political pundits have calculated that the core vote base remained loyal to Trump. The House goes for elections next year, as will one-third of the Senate seats.
Hopeful Republicans know that their only chance of managing enough votes from among the Republicans in the primaries is to seek a vote of approval from Trump. So, the party, instead of breaking away from Trump, has tied itself even more strongly with him and his narrative.
Even after Biden’s first-100-day mark, Trump continues to present Republicans with their most vexing problem. They may not like what he stands for, but they cannot bypass the thick sliver of voters that have stayed loyal to him. So they have to accommodate him. The moment they do that, Trump owns them.
Liz Cheney was removed from her leadership position for her refusal to stay quiet about Trump’s election lies. She has been crying herself hoarse, harking the Republican Party to be “the party of truth.”
The episode underlines the core voter base’s intolerance for dissent and the power of this sliver of voters that vows unswerving fealty to the former president.
Nearer home, the hold and sway that the likes of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath enjoy over the party makes even party presidents the likes of JP Nadda seem like puppets. The entire saner element in the party is not effective enough to deny a ticket to a Pragya Thakur. The sheer weight of this core voter base makes it impossible for the saner elements to stop responsible members of parliament and federal ministers from delivering lectures on scientific benefits of slurping over a glug of cow urine.
You think this sliver of voters is going to go anywhere else when it comes to voting for Modi, dead bodies afloat in Ganges or not?
The problem is that India’s Opposition is choosing its own voting blocks carefully, deliberately, and in a cowardly manner. It wants to criticise Modi but only enough so that it does not end up riling the Hindutva sliver.
It wants to question Modi’s poor pandemic management without, at the same time, questioning his hard nationalism that has destroyed the country’s communal fabric.
It wants its leaders to talk about Oxygen and ventilators, but not mix up that criticism with the ruling party’s overt and covert support to vigilante groups lynching Muslims.
So you can talk about one kind of construction and question its timing – the Central Vista in New Delhi – but not the construction and timing of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
The Congress failed to put its own house in order. It has done everything to prove that Modi-Amit Shah-and everybody else is seen as purveyor of the truth when they call it the party of one family. Rahul Gandhi and his ilk could not democratise the party enough, so you cannot throw it in the BJP’s face and claim higher moral ground when it comes to intra-party democracy.
It only strengthens Modi’s and Amit Shah’s hold over BJP. While the Congress still has a situation where 23 can sign a petition to party president, the BJP cannot have a single Liz Cheney in its ranks.
The hold is complete and the pandemic has left Modi-Shah-Yogi lordship over the party intact – the pandemic dead stats notwithstanding. Add to it the strong bond of fealty among the Hindutva brigades and you get a clear picture of what can happen if a Liz Cheney raises her head.
Multiply that with the sheer ineffectiveness of the opposition’s narrative and the leaders of straw masquerading as state satraps. Temper it with the utterly hollowed out institutional mechanisms and system of checks and balances. Garnish it with the proven obsequiousness of instruments like CBI, ED, IT, DRI and what not. You think some dead floating and bloating in the waters of Ganges will change the equation?
Any change can happen when those who believe in politics go back to raising real political questions. The larger unsigned tactical understanding among the entire Indian political elite to no more ask Modi and his men the hard questions about Gujarat 2002 has to be tossed aside.
Parties like Congress will have to contend with the cost-benefit analysis of their decision to go for unabated privatisation of core sectors and their pursuit of pragmatic communalism and weakening of institutions. We need to ask what have we done to the Muslims. The Congress will need to answer what it did to the Sikhs. It will have to travel back and explain how, it, too, messed up institutions and safeguards.
Only and only this will enable the Liz Cheneys within the BJP to raise their heads and ask some tough questions of their leaders. Liz Cheney is a damn right winger. She is not someone who will stand up and be counted as a fighter on the climate change front. Her people worship Trump because he stood for oil, minerals, mining, gas lobby. She does the same. Still, she gives hope that it is possible to have a right wing politics without stupidity, without being a moron.
Our right wing does not have space for a Sudheendra Kulkarni. It does not even accommodate an Arun Shourie. Instead, it makes space for a Pragya Thakur.
That actually reduces the space for a rightwing politics without communalism. The BJP, with its current leadership, cannot have a Thatcher’ite politics or a Reagon’omics-informed idea of economic development without a dimension of hard communalism. That squeezes out some of the brightest right wingers from its political turf. It even taints an E Sreedharan.
The onus of setting a new tradition befalls the Opposition. Idiocy needs sanity for juxtaposition, but as of now, that supply line is also broken.
The dead are swimming in an ocean of apathy, but ask the vultures feeding on human flesh, and they will thank all as a society for their meal.
So do not bet on what the pandemic will do next time the EVMs beep. Indian political scene remains shrill, and melody is still far away. The dead are listening to a music our politics composed, and we all struck the wrong chords.
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