Have the elites lost the argument?
Swapan Dasgupta | 27 Dec, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MISREADING AN ELECTION is an occupational hazard. It can happen to the most fair, dispassionate and observant of analysts. However, when it starts becoming a habit, it is time to sit up and take note.
The finger of derision is mainly pointed at shouty, opinionated journalists and smug intellectuals living in a bubble. It is pointed at the world inhabited by those who not only read The New York Times and The Guardian, but actually believe what they read. On December 12th, 2019, there was fresh evidence of yet another bubble bursting when the electorate of the UK quite emphatically delivered victory to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Fighting on the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson defied the prognosis of those who were insistent that the British electorate were itching to atone for having voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. Far from being landed with yet another fractured verdict that would, in effect, have nullified Brexit, the voters—except in Scotland—chose to re-affirm their rediscovery of national sovereignty.
The issue is not so much that the pundits and the ‘liberal’ ecosystem were wrong, just as they failed to read the tea leaves over Donald Trump’s election as the President of the US in 2016. The more interesting question is: why have they been so consistently wrong? A possible answer may be found in the travails of Britain’s Labour Party.
In the aftermath of a decade dominated by Margaret Thatcher that had resulted in a radical overhaul of the British economy and the decimation of the traditional working class, Labour reinvented itself under Tony Blair. Blair’s ‘New Labour’ project sought to shift the centre of gravity of the party from old-fashioned socialism—including over-reliance on the state and the public sector—to a focus on modernity. This involved creating a political constituency among the middle and professional classes and even appropriating many of the concerns of the Conservatives. Electorally, such an approach was hugely successful, and Blair was always focused on the sentiments of what he called ‘normal’ people, as opposed to activists.
Post-Blair, this approach was jettisoned as the party came to be influenced more and more by activists. The Labour Party today is an uneasy coalition of three groups. There is, first, the remnants of the traditional working classes and the trades unions. Secondly, there are the professionals and the cultural cosmopolitans, disproportionately concentrated in London and among white collar, public-sector employees. Finally, there is the cluster of students and ethnic minorities. At one time, the last group had been on the margins of the Labour Party. However, under Jeremy Corbyn, the party came to be overwhelmingly controlled by activists from the public sector (to be distinguished from the old trade unions based in manufacturing industries), student activists and ethnic minorities. Together, they steered the party in the direction of what has come to be called ‘Woke’ culture—an extreme form of political correctness. The result was the detachment of the party from both stodgy British patriotism—of the type described by George Orwell in his 1941 essay ‘England Your England’—and what the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once described as ‘ordinary decencies’. On top of that was the nostalgic yearning for the squeeze-the-rich socialism that seemed totally out of place in a globalised UK.
It was this cultural mismatch that led to Labour’s undoing. Even as the Conservative Party did its utmost to shed the image of being a bastion of privilege, Labour retreated into a social and ideological ghetto, believing the world they imagined was the real world. As a commentator described the dominant Labour Party attitudes in The Times: ‘The word ‘patriot’ causes lips to curl on the London Left where the Union Jack says imperialism, the England flag white nationalism.’ The writer’s conclusion was stark: ‘One instant lesson for Labour is that purity politics repels. Beyond social media bubbles, few believe in moral binaries of Leave=Bad, Remain=Good or that every Tory voter is a neoliberal scum.’ And, ‘When Labour puts ideology and virtue-signalling above practical politics, voting Tory ceases to be such a big reach.’
Cut to India 2014-2019 or, as they say, Narendra Modi’s India.
The pundits got 2014 wrong because they underestimated the draw of a leader who could blend anti-incumbency with both raw aspirations and a disdain for a rotten variety of entitlement politics. They believed, very much like the punditry in the UK hoped till the ballot boxes were opened, that the outcome would throw up a hung Parliament where the ‘secular consensus’ would see the BJP getting rid of Modi as an unacceptable embarrassment. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that the BJP would muster a majority on its own. They couldn’t imagine that the Congress would even fail to secure recognition as the official opposition party.
It was no different in 2019 when the opposition convinced itself that Modi was past his expiry date. Believing that an aggregation of votes and a grand alliance of liberals and farmers plus the casualties of demonetisation would secure it victory, the opposition once again managed to persuade a large section of the media, especially a disconnected foreign media whose India extends only to Lutyens’ Delhi, that regime change was in the offing. For them the limitations of Rahul Gandhi were inconsequential; what mattered was that Modi had dispossessed the liberal intelligentsia from the centres of patronage and influence. He was seen as beyond the pale.
The Old Establishment lost the general election of 2019 because they didn’t bother looking beyond the certitudes of their own little ecosystem. Rahul Gandhi screamed endlessly that the chowkidar was a chor, and the cheerleaders went wild with ecstasy, believing this was the slogan that would tilt the scales against the BJP. They attacked Modi’s most prized attribute: his integrity and commitment to India. They coupled it with an abstruse invocation of a sectional ‘idea of India’, quite forgetting that the India of open borders, of unending Hindu forgiveness and forever turning the other cheek, existed only in some people’s imagination. They scoffed at the ‘surgical strike’, rubbished the attack on Balakot and decreed that nationalism was crude xenophobia, unworthy of national acclaim. Then they professed intense surprise when the voters showed them the door, including ensuring Rahul Gandhi’s defeat from the family jagirdari.
Ideally, a devastating defeat of this magnitude should have prompted a serious bout of introspection. That, however, did not happen. Instead, the country was witness to a bizarre, diversionary drama whereby Rahul Gandhi walked off in an almighty huff. The stunned courtiers fell at his feet, begged and implored him to stay claiming that nothing succeeded more than failure. This drama dragged on inconclusively for weeks, diverting attention from the monumental debacle that had triggered it in the first place, and was brought to an anti-climactic end by the Queen Mother restoring the Regency.
Nearly seven months after the Congress suffered its second consecutive electoral humiliation, there has been no collective assessment of what went wrong and the future course.
The Congress and the other opposition parties may have put off their self-assessment exercises, but the Modi-Amit Shah duo didn’t sink back into a state of complacency. In the past seven months, the Government undertook a series of measures aimed at fundamentally changing the course of Indian politics.
First, there was the legislation that both outlawed and criminalised the iniquitous practice of Triple Talaq, prevalent among some Muslim communities in India. The legislation, apparently at the behest of a Supreme Court advisory, was the first time the Muslim personal laws had been modified since the Sharia Act was brought into force in 1939.
Second, in a move that left both supporters and opponents astonished, the government secured parliamentary approval for the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘special status’ under Article 370. There was some disquiet among India’s liberals but it was easily offset by the massive support for the move in Middle India. Most important, the BJP rank and file that had always seen the removal of Article 370 as an article of unrealisable faith finally felt vindicated.
THIRD, SINCE THE demolition of the Mughal shrine on December 6th, 1992, the BJP had retreated from taking direct action on the emotive question of the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Much against the advice of Hindu radicals, it had quite purposefully reposed its faith in a court settlement. Yet the courts procrastinated until the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said enough is enough and set a deadline for the resolution of the dispute. The verdict, when it came, was a total victory for Hindus as the Supreme Court deemed that a Ram temple could be built over the entire disputed site. In theory, the Modi Government could not claim credit for a judicial decision. However, in the popular perception and the perception of the Muslim litigants who lost the battle, it was felt that the Modi Government had facilitated the construction of the temple and that the BJP had finally fulfilled its long-standing campaign promise. Politically, it was another feather in Modi’s cap.
Finally, turning its eye to another problem that had been left to fester for very long, the Modi Government pushed through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in both Houses of Parliament. The legislation was principally aimed at fast-tracking Indian citizenship for Hindu and Buddhist refugees from Bangladesh, particularly those who had entered India—mostly illegally—between 1972 and end-2014. Of course, the minorities from Bangladesh weren’t the only people who had entered India. A very large number of Bangladeshi Muslims had also come to India and settled, not merely in Assam and West Bengal, but all over India. While the Hindu refugees had seamlessly integrated with their other Bengali Hindus in the state, the Muslim migrants stuck out like a sore thumb in their ghettos. Yet the clamour among the Muslim community and among the liberals was to give a blanket immunity to all those who had entered India, including and particularly Muslims. There was also a demand that Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar should also be let in and granted Indian citizenship. If Afghanistan, they stressed, could be a nation whose minorities could find place in India, why shouldn’t Myanmar be accorded a similar favour? Underlying the objections to the new accretions to the citizenship laws was a belief that an enlightened India should move towards relatively open borders.
What is apparent from the liberal objections to the complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir, the modification of Muslim personal laws and the accommodation of Hindu and Sikh refugees from neighbouring countries is their marked detachment from the sensibilities of Middle India. Since 2014, the opposition to the Modi Government has shifted sharply to the Left. But this is not the old Left that India was familiar with. What we have been witnessing is the growing convergence of the Indian opposition with the European and American Left. Like in the Labour Party of the UK that has put the preoccupations of the activists and ethnic minorities at the forefront—and suffered electorally as a consequence—the opposition in India is today quite openly disdainful of what a very large section of Hindu India view as apparent and common sense.
Take the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that rocked various parts of India and led to the largescale destruction of public property in states such as West Bengal. All the evidence suggests that the troubles were almost entirely a consequence of Muslim mobilisation. The crowds, whether in the districts of West Bengal and places such as Aligarh, Delhi and Mangalore, were made up principally of Muslims. They were in turn joined by students, NGOs and Left activists who gave the protests a measure of legitimacy. More to the point, the reason for the Muslim protest had less to do with the accommodation of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh than a larger disquiet over the loss of Muslim influence in national politics. The protests were part of the bottled-up frustrations over the failure to defeat the BJP politically whether in Kashmir or Ayodhya.
However, in thrusting the militant opposition of the Muslim community to the forefront of the opposition charge, the anti-Modi forces may have reinforced a stereotype of parties such as the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, not to mention the Communist parties, becoming hostage to fringe interests. The Labour Party’s disengagement from the common sense of ordinary folks in the UK may be repeating itself with India’s opposition. The more Modi is rubbished in elite campuses and the more the ghettos guilt-trip liberals into parroting its angst, the less likely there will be a serious challenge to Modi and his regime.