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2019 polls: So what should liberals do now?

The battle for a democratic India is far from lost. It is waiting to be joined.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 03, 2019, 08.59 PM IST
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The 2019 elections have opened up new opportunities for Congress, to realise which the party has to change itself. Its Kerala unit offers a good working model.
Last week’s electoral outcome is a massive endorsement of Narendra Modi, not necessarily of the Hindutva agenda. The challenge is to resist the latter — in every sphere of life, without waiting for any party to give the lead, but using individual creativity, collaboration with like-minded individuals and groups, and aggregating similar efforts, with particular focus on the social media.

Most voted Modi, in whom they see a strong leader capable of thwacking Pakistan, delivering welfare such as cooking gas connections, funds for building a home or buying an e-rickshaw, health insurance, direct payment of subsidy into their bank accounts cutting out middlemen. Modi the doer — rather than Modi the Hindutva apostle — got the vote.

Of course, the election result has advanced the Hindutva agenda. The campaign was polarising. Pragya Singh Thakur hailed Nathuram Godse. Giriraj Singh said Muslims could find themselves unable to bury their dead. Sakshi Maharaj ruled out elections by 2024. Hateful, hurtful and menacing things were said throughout the campaign. And now that BJP runs GoI and governments in most states, activists of the Sangh Parivar would feel emboldened to bully and harass their chosen enemies — minorities, communists, anyone who can be labelled ‘anti-national’.

Conflict that leads to law and order problems should be pursued as such, putting the onus on the government to maintain order and protect the citizen. Opposition party activists would be demoralised. Many would go inactive. Some would follow the dictum, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. More insidious would be the attack on education, liberal streams in the public discourse, appointment of people to key positions in the range of institutions that regulate, or are directly involved in, production of culture and knowledge.

The best way to counter this is to generate quality content in all spheres of knowledge and culture and disseminate them through all media, with special focus on audio-visual media in the regional languages. Literature, cinema, photography and painting, music, folk songs rooted in India’s syncretic culture, tamasha and comedy, TV serials, the retelling of epics, political commentary — the values of democracy must resonate in the direct and indirect critiques of India’s history, culture and society these provide.

All this calls for individual effort and determination. Political guidance and protection would be welcome but should not be a precondition. Who are these liberals who should do all this? Not the English-speaking elite who would struggle to name one Sanskrit poet besides Kalidasa, don’t read literature in any Indian language, and are shut out from the cultural universe of Indian tradition. Bilingual scholars, writers and activists must shoulder this burden.

The implicit assumption of the elite — that to be modern is to be western — has done great damage to the spread of liberal values in society. To forge a modernity that is Indian and democratic is the challenge that liberals have to undertake. The Sangh Parivar would try to create their own version of modernity that is majoritarian, at variance with India’s genius for multicultural coexistence. Globalised growth is creating a churning in society at large. Giant cohorts seek a modernity that does not tell them that their lack of English makes them ‘non-authentic’ as Indians.

What about Congress? Will junking the Gandhis save the party? On the contrary, taking off the glue that holds the diverse contingents of the party together would unravel the outfit. That means not just Rahul Gandhi but also the senior leadership, including the party’s chief ministers, who need to be empowered to save their governments and perform.

It makes more sense to appoint a working president, say, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, to oversee the party’s overhaul. The 2019 elections demonstrate that purely caste-based parties — Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — have become obsolete. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is on its way to obsolescence. This opens up new opportunities for Congress, to realise which the party has to change itself. Its Kerala unit offers a good working model.

Except for a rare outsider like Shashi Tharoor, its leaders have worked their way up from the bottom, for the most part. The party works to mediate between the people and the state round the clock, round the year. They have to, because they have to compete with the communists, who used to work like this. Coming alive only on election-eve is no longer viable.

Congress must function at every level, on every front, taking up the people’s problems, championing democracy without compromise and generating leaders in the process. The battle for a democratic India is far from lost. It is waiting to be joined.
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