Published in the Times of India
The results of the recent assembly elections have set off another spate of Congress-mukt Bharat opinion pieces. Indeed the results are sobering for the Party and its supporters – not because the Congress was realistically expected to win any of the 4 big states even if it were at the top of its game but because its loss has significantly shrunk its governance footprint. However, the Party remains the main Opposition in large parts of the country and certainly the only ideological challenge to the BJP in 2019. More than just the secular challenge – which many would-be PM aspirants also claim – to BJP’s communalism, it is only the Congress Party which presents a liberal alternative to BJP’s parochialism and bigotry. For a country which aspires to emerge as a global economic and intellectual leader, this liberal perspective to nation building is key.
By now it is evident that for all of Prime Minister Modi’s rhetoric of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, the primary aim of the RSS-led BJP is cultural hegemony not economic development. On the agenda is a Hindu majoritarian State through regression to theocracy, anti-intellectualism, vigilantism and constraints on personal liberties. Any meaningful ideological response to this cannot be “secularism” without locating it in the larger context of liberalism. However, outside of the Congress, no current or potential challengers can lay claim to this legacy. Preeminent among the challengers to PM Modi is Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. While Kumar has an admirable record in governance, his breakout idea to transcend state limits is prohibition. The idea is not only profoundly illiberal but seeks to capitalise on legitimate anxieties created by alcoholism without concern for actual feasibility of implementation. A liberal response to this issue would have paid heed to the complex socio-economic causes and looked for a more bottom-up, citizen-centric solution than this moralistic stance with blanket top-down State policed ban. The other Chief Minister positioning himself as a PM contender is Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal as evident from repeated baiting of the PM and full-page advertisements in states across India announcing local Delhi-based reforms. The AAP was certainly the beacon of liberal hope but the framework of most of Kejriwal’s policies is premised on the twin themes of surveillance (CCTVs, stings) and danda (penalty and policing). Certainly the signature anti-corruption plank built to harness anti-incumbency is no liberal plank but under the AAP, even the expansive range of women’s issues have shrunk to questions of “security” alone. The avatar that best fits the Delhi CM is that of a benevolent dictator not a proponent of liberal values. There are other Chief Ministers who may harbour Prime Ministerial ambitions but none can lay claim to liberalism. All of the Chief Ministers with national aspirations have understood the power of welfare politics and the rhetoric of development; however, their centralisation of power and clampdown on media in their states betray their contempt for liberal values of free speech and dissent. Nor incidentally can many of these Chief Ministers claim a secular legacy since there can be no secularism without the rule of law (or liberalism).
Ideologically, it is liberalism and not welfarism or secularism, which distinguishes the Congress from the clutch of one state Parties vying to be the pivot of an anti-BJP alliance. It is also the glue to stitch together a credible forward-looking alliance. Electorally, it is the only Opposition Party with a pan-national vote base. There is a perception that liberalism is an elite concern and thus unlikely to yield electoral dividends. However, this line of thinking betrays a lack of political imagination to articulate liberal values in a way which would resonate with the people of this country. Our country is overwhelmingly young with 65 percent of the population below the age of 35 years. Personal liberties – the right to dress how one wants, the right to eat (and drink) what one wants, the right to marry whom one desires, sexual freedoms – are liberal planks, which are likely to appeal to the young. They are also secular planks opposed to the communalism of the Sangh. The right to political participation, free speech, dissent, free press, freedom from vigilantism and the rule of law are all liberal planks and are likely to have widespread appeal if communicated with conviction and credibility. The Congress Party already has a well-articulated rights-based welfare paradigm, which is an integral part of its political platform. It must now expand its platform to articulate clearly its liberal ethos and their relevance to nation building in India today. It goes without saying that the Party must fix some pressing organisational issues which hobble its performance in elections and reduce its credibility in the eyes of the electorate. However having done that, there can be no challenger to the bigotry of the BJP more preeminent than the Congress Party in 2019.
Also read: More Than Secularism