By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
The wave of protests across the country for the past several weeks marks the onset of an ideological contest against the BJP administration.
Since 2014, the country has witnessed several big and small issue-based agitations.
But this is the first time these various issues are getting entwined.
On Wednesday, for instance, when there was a nationwide bandh called by central trade unions on workers’ issues, students and faculty of St Stephen’s College boycotted classes for the first time in decades over the attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Although each anti-government turnout has specific charters and the protests are, at times, against unconnected issues, the simultaneous nature of the agitations against a common target herald political volatility, ironically surfacing within months of BJP’s enhanced mandate.
Unrest across regions should be a matter of concern for the government. But it also provides an opportunity to further consolidate its support. Conversely, many non-BJP parties and members of civil society, including celebrities, are taking positions, even though the agitations are being spearheaded by the youth and students.
Undeniably, even by recent standards, political polarisation is at its highest today. However, despite attempts to mount a communally framed blowback to the protests against CAA-National Register of Citizens (NRC), so far, most people are refusing to see the issue through the prism of a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ conflict. Still, BJP and its affiliates are pursuing their campaign of depicting opposition to its policies as emanating from a so-called ‘axis’ of ‘pro-Pakistani’ elements drawn from the trademarked quartet of ‘Muslims-communists liberals-dynasts’.
Seeing the current administration emphasising on this strategy repeatedly since 2014 — instead of addressing livelihood issues — has made many people conclude that these policies and actions are part of a bigger project.
The trishul, according to one strand of Hindu mythology, is Shiv’s divine trident that can be used in the three states of wakefulness, sleep and dreaming.
In narratives, Shiv used it only once to vanquish a malevolent demon.
The trishul has been occasionally flashed in Hindutva agitations since the mid-1980s. Metaphorically, BJP’s ideological tools resemble the trishul, and the party has arrived at this point by alternating its use of three ‘isms’: populism, nationalism and authoritarianism.
When used as part of a wider political campaign, it is often difficult to distinguish between the three. Different people have been drawn to BJP after being fascinated by one of the three prongs of this trident.
Populism in India is seen solely through the prism of difficult-to-implement —or even ruinous — economic promises during polls. Post-2014, we witnessed the escalation, if not emergence, of political populism in the form of promotion of crude binaries — e.g., ‘Are you with the nation or against it?’ This has been chiselled into suspicion and hatred of the minority, whether on lines of identity or on the basis of viewpoints.
Official articulation of nationalism has largely become Pakistan-centric, providing the opportunity to label anyone questioning populist programmes as ‘anti-national’ or even ‘treacherous’.
There is an unspoken objective to abandon ‘secular weakness’ and take a quiet leaf out of Pakistan’s own communal book. Little thought is given to the fact that such a method has done little good to Pakistan and its people.
Ask no questions
There was always a section in India that abhorred democracy and was fascinated with authoritarianism. These people consider the flaws of democracy to be unsolvable, and that the only ‘way out’ is to keep a lid on dissent and debate and ‘get the work done’. The idea of a strong and decisive leader builds on this opinion, and was indeed the cornerstone of BJP’s 2019 campaign when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘firmness’ while handling difficult issues was contrasted with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘meekness’.
What we witnessed in the police action in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, and in the police inaction in JNU, was the manifestation of authoritarianism. The thing about authoritarianism is that once one gets used to rights being encroached upon and the rule of law being dispensed with, it becomes the new normal. Thereafter, any form of dissent can be considered treacherous or seditious, as it was during the Emergency.
The current wave of protests is a response to a genuine fear that India may be reaching an inflexion point when large sections of society will legitimise authoritarianism. They are showing early signs of people looking beyond the entrenched opposition and questioning political populism without fear of being labelled members of any ‘tukdetukde gang’.
This may stem from a growing realisation among some, increasingly voluble sections of the populace that it is insufficient any longer to be merely hopeful that ‘such a day will not come’, and instead it is wiser to oppose rank populism while articulating a different form of nationalism rooted in the democratic spirit.
The current administration would be wise not to ignore that the Navnirman Andolan by students and the middle class in Gujarat in 1974, and the Jayaprakash Narayan-led Total Revolution agitations in Bihar against Indira Gandhi’s central government the same year were triggered by the issue of hike in hostel food fees in December 1973.
On their part, BJP’s adversaries would be wise not to ignore former England footballer Gary Lineker’s observation, ‘Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.