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Saturation of Democratic Politics in India

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For students and critical observers of Indian political trajectory, at least since the last three to four decades would glare at the fructification of a social and cultural impasse that could threaten the balance between democratic politics of emancipation, agency, social change and the inherently contradictory ‘sectarian’ logic of recognition and representation. In a postcolonial democracy like India, the roots of party-political formations and social coalitions were laid in the period of anti-colonial nationalism. The author will interrogate the political limits to the theoretical frames of accommodation and inherent logic of social separation that has created a vacuum of social and political imagination which has transpired into a historically mediated social equilibrium of Hindutva.

The colonially mediated Western liberal modernity introduced new idioms and frames such as individualism, natural rights and social efficiency upon which social equality was envisaged to produce specific commonalities around which identities are constructed to forge solidarity for the purposes of political mobilization. This process of exteriorization within which interiorized identities came to be negotiated, concrete equivalences produced transformative changes in social relations which were fundamentally “unequal and uneven”. Inherent structural ambiguities are negated under the common creed of “nationality” or the ideology of inclusive nationalism which the Indian freedom movement came to represent.

Within this context, the legal-constitutional discourse of equality and justice were infused to rectify the inherited ideological persistence of social inequities across disparate social groups. Unlike in the democratic transitions of Western liberal democracies, Indian democracy has in the words of D. D. Kosambi occurred through a unique process of “adjustment and not displacement” through the intervention of ‘culture’. The fissiparous tendency of Indian Democracy was/is the proportionality of social and cultural inequity while sustaining the modes of a democratic setup. B. R. Ambedkar had presciently warned of this inherent contradiction in Indian democracy - the fragile coexistence of social inequality with political democracy.

Postcolonial intellectual interventions into the study of Indian politics has produced proclivities for social categorization along the lines of unilinear conceptions of binarized conflicts between the “dominated” and the “dominant”. The traditional Marxist preoccupation with class dialectics came to be challenged by later postcolonial and post-modern thought which sought to locate ‘internal’ modern regime of power while simultaneously cultivate scrupulous ‘singular’ identities as the agency for emancipation. The poststructural concept of “difference” in the words of Deepesh Chakraborty could act as a praxis for practical political action while “containing and subsuming all our differences with others and within ourselves”. The category of subaltern was an agency of the historically marginalized which possessed radical relationality with the external as well as, at least theoretically internally critiquing the imperialism of dominant discourses from within. “Subaltern” was more of a figurative historical-social category rather than a concrete one.

At a level of practicable political action and the epistemes, the categories of socialization intellectually envisaged have produced electoral failures in the context of hegemonic social formulations. The regimented modes of representative politics rooted in the reification of identities as the legitimate form of counter-hegemonic assertion have progressively limited political dividends. Chantal Mouffe’s critique of such a trope is helpful here… She rightfully argues that multiplicities of antagonisms have been overlooked in the traditional Marxist paradigm with its preoccupation with “class”. She further criticises the rational limits to the left politics in an age of broad-based discontent with social atomization, absence of shared meaning and the threat of labour arbitrage in a neoliberal economy. In a way, therefore, the epistemic limits to Left politics have created a vacuum for a counter-revolutionary form of right-wing cultural nationalism.

On the extension of it, the progressive-secular political formations of the Dalit-Muslim kind has been appropriated and subverted into a post-materialist, cultural nationalist imagination of social exclusion which has significantly weakened the subaltern politics in India. Partly speaking, the exclusionary trope of identitarian mobilization which was premised upon autonomous cultural and social domain exclusive of “external” intrusion has emptied the progressive politics of a social imagination along with the structures of caste, class and gender within “the subaltern”. Embedded social injustices and uneven distribution of social equality and justice thrust by the legal-constitutional discourse albeit with limits have been overlooked to forge hollow social solidarities.

An Indian Express study showed that 90% of communal conflicts in the so-called Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh occurred between Muslims and the Dalits. Dalit-Muslim unity has been reduced to political rhetoric rather than substantial social solidarity born out of a shared sense of socialization and injustices. Intersectional identity formations based on the commonality of injustice and inequality while demolishing claims of authenticity could lead to an active interpretation of subjugation. One of the active issues of ‘internal’ forms of subjugation has been the emergence of Dalit feminism as an autonomous discourse within the Dalit social category which challenges the universality of feminist discourses from external while simultaneously challenging the embedded patriarchy from within. Rajni Kothari called it the “discourse of descent”. Gopal Guru’s emphasis on the social location vis a vis caste becomes an agency for counter-hegemonic socialization rather than Stuart Hall’s formulation of class.

What is the vacuum of social imagination when it comes to articulating social position for the Bahujans as opposed to the newly fashionable appropriation of Brahmin symbols? The essential limit of left-progressive politics has been in-differential class politics and difference formation external to the sensorial embodiment of what Andrew Sayers called “lay normativity” - pride, envy, compassion, shame etc. The bare materiality of class politics has made Bahujan politics vacant of a sense of cultural and sensorial agency. On the other hand, the essentialization of identities has had an effect of re-production rather than transformation. Here, Uday Chandra’s formulation of “rethinking subalternity” becomes helpful. The mode of resistance has gone beyond the traditional binarised conceptions of resistance/dominance where negotiation rather than a negation of social power where dualities of power exist.

The evolution of Muslim politics in India has been fraught with the contradictions and epistemic limits of liberal centrism which came to define a particular phase of pattern and determinations in electoral politics. Susanne Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph argued that the characteristic feature of Indian Democracy has been “persistent centrism”. They attribute three features to this character of Indian party politics: first, national apex organization and goals, second, centrist ideology and policies & third, the pluralist basis for political support in a socially divided polity. Liberal centrism was therefore politics of accommodation negotiated for radical social vision. The politicization of Shah Bano verdict by the then Rajiv Gandhi government and “politics of recognition” divested from “politics of redistribution” illustrate the limits to centrist politics of accommodation. Zoya Hassan in her book “Congress After Indira” notes that the Congress Party’s “compromising overtures and tactics” aggravated social tension rather than mitigate political disagreement.

The inability to reconcile politics of emancipation with the localized power structures inevitably led progressive-secular politics to an impasse. Anti-CAA protests symbolised in the Shaheen Bagh demonstrations led by Muslim women illustrates the limits of identity politics. The tryst with political democracy did not necessarily translate into claims for social equality and recognition of autonomous Muslim women identity away from the obligations to the personal laws. Pritam Singh argues in the same vein that communalism of the minority kind can be uncritically located within the larger purposes of political democracy for the religious minorities in a Hindu majoritarian polity. Ghazala Wahab in a reference to Salman Khurshid notes that Muslim politics has been rife with a paradox where the religious clergy and the ‘progressive’ cultural elites often push Muslims further into social conservatism and extract political dividends out of it.

Sachar committee report demonstrated the fact of socio-economic deprivation among Muslims even compared to the Dalits. While neoliberal restructuring has produced a perception of mobility among the Dalits, social conservatism has experientially dislodged Muslims from the Dalits. On the one hand, the social vacuum created by the left-progressive politics has been occupied by an alternative social imagination of Hindutva cultural hegemony, neoliberalism has ‘elevated’ the socio-economic location of Dalits from abject poverty to relative vulnerability. It is a particular historical juncture where the traditionally dominant social groups and the marginalized have formed an equilibrium that has enabled the construction of a contingent social identity of “the Hindu” with the Muslims and Christians as the other.

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