Uttar Pradesh is not only a linchpin of Indian politics, but also a state that often confuses lucidity abilities in thinking about the nature of Indian politics.
It may have something to do with the constant need for instant theories of Indian life in order to demonstrate the novelty of one’s perspective in a highly competitive media environment.
In this fierce competition for the new, we lose sight that historical issues don’t go away just because we say so.
Consider the various comments in the aftermath of the recently concluded election in the state whose political inclinations have – like it or not – significant consequences for the life of the Republic.
It is best to ignore the pre-election pundits who predicted a Bharatiya Janata Party defeat, as this stems from an even more tenuous engagement with the empirical nature of Indian society discussed below.
An important strand of post-election analysis suggests that the BJP’s success is tied to public distaste for dynastic politics and the saffron party’s ability to present itself as the harbinger of a new India of enterprising and self-taught men.
This, it is said, explains the success achieved at national and state level by politicians such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath respectively. Neither, the argument concludes, is stigmatized by the dynastic “stain” attached to Congress.
This perspective assumes that there is, indeed, a “new” India that is deeply committed to new ideas of merit and dismissive of older histories of family and family patronage that are believed to have hindered individual and societal progress.
The most significant aspect of this view is something implicit: that suddenly – after voting one way until 2014 – the Indian electorate, or at least the North Indian electorate, changed his attitude towards the types of people he wanted to elect. Or, to put it another way, he had been waiting for the opportunity to vote for non-dynastic politicians, an opportunity (at last) offered by the BJP.
Is there broad sociological evidence for this? Not really. Consider This: The idea of dynastic politics fits into the same context where caste, family, and religious affiliations are equally favored. In fact, the latter is the foundation of the former. The social and cultural environment that produces political dynasties is nurtured by beliefs about the importance of caste, family, and religious affiliations.
So, was there a sea change in attitude towards these aspects of Indian life that led to the BJP’s success in Uttar Pradesh? Certainly not, if one sticks to the evidence provided frequently by the same commentators who claim the importance of the self-made individual in Indian political life.
Besides the consensus on the continued importance of caste and religion in electoral politics, it is equally strongly – and rightly – suggested that the success of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh is due to the inroads it has made. made among the castes who did not vote for it earlier: other backward classes, apart from the Yadav and the Jatav, for example.
The key point to remember is that when observers point to the rise of the “individualistic” politician, they are simultaneously explaining electoral strategies in terms of the continued importance of collective, or caste, identities. Both cannot be true.
On the contrary, what could happen is this: daily life in India unfolds through processes of collective individualism. If you think about how seriously people take the idea of an “arranged love marriage,” you get the idea. Our individualism is very collective in nature. Thus, various theories of a “neoliberal India”, characterized by autonomous and self-regulating individuals, are simply empirically untenable.
There are, of course, neoliberal processes – where, for example, the private sector increasingly takes over many functions of the state such as education and health care – but this does not necessarily produce neoliberal issues.
Equally important, as long as “the job is done,” there is no evidence that Indians dislike dynastic politics and the various practices of hierarchy, pomp, and patronage that come with it. Rather than the “new politician” argument, we will have to look for other reasons for the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in convincing people to vote for it.
The “problem” of Congress
The other important theme of the post-election commentary – or rather an intensification of a long-standing commentary – is that the Congress party’s key problem is the destructive impact of the Nehru-Gandhi family. They must, the argument goes, resign immediately and hand over power to others with greater capacity to reinvigorate the party and make it the effective opposition that India needs.
Is the absence of effective opposition only the legacy of the apparent influence of members of the same family – however evocative – on the Grand Old Party? This perspective ignores the fact that no party at heart of Hindi can now afford to conduct an election on an anti-Hindutva plank.
The reign of the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi surely demonstrates this: it may not be advocating for Hindutva-fueled politics, but it never makes explicit statements against it either.
Leaving aside the question of their place in national politics, the problem of an effective Opposition may not lie in abandoning the Nehru-Gandhis as key players in the Congress hierarchy. Because that does not take into account the nature of the voting people, which liberal thought too easily reproduces in its own image.
It may not be so much dynastic and structural issues that are hampering Congress, but the nature of the new normal: Congress, at least in its traditional core regions, can now only succeed if it is more like its main executioner, the BJP. The BJP has successfully combined ‘development’, caste and majority politics, and a reshuffling of deck chairs on the Congress ship is unlikely to provide an effective counterpoint.
The fundamental question is: is it possible, any longer, to find a fire to fight one that is radically different from the one lit by the BJP and, if not, what part of the country will have to burn in the process? The comments about the rise of the new political type and the abandonment of the congressional elite are pious diversions from a question we dare not address.
Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.