Centrism, as an essential characteristic of Indian politics, signifies the institutional incentive that political parties have to adopt a set of policies aimed at harmonising societal and cultural contradictions rather than accentuating them. Some of its essential elements are: centrality of an accommodative approach, appeal to minorities, welfarism and a broader space for dissent from the Left and the Right. No wonder, given the richness of Indian society and its multiple fault lines, centrism has been the hegemonic framework ensuring electoral success since Independence. Barring a few exceptions, this also accounts for the relative marginalisation of a leftward and rightward agenda in India until 2014. Can the setbacks to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Hindi heartland States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh be seen in this context?
The spectacular success of the BJP in the 2014 general election marked a rightward shift wherein Narendra Modi, a fulcrum of “subaltern agency”, developmental aspiration and fierce Hindutva, claimed to speak for 125 crore Indians. He privileged the developmental aspirations of the electorate in his speeches, thereby arguing that ‘politics of development’ is ‘politics of inclusion’, wherein everyone, including the minorities by implication, has a rightful place.
The whopping success of the Modi-led BJP in abstract terms signified the ability of right-wing frames to contain all the constitutive elements of centrism and thereby make a persuasive claim of not being exclusive of any section of Indian society. It appeared that in the era of developmental aspiration, the Right had emerged as a better claimant to carry forward the mantle of centrism than the centrist parties.
The idea of ‘India First’ and ‘Achhe Din’ implied the heralding of welfare-laden Indian citizenry across the board, claiming their rightful place in the comity of nations. The votaries of the economic right affirmed and celebrated the easy fit between centrism and the Right under Mr. Modi. Rural India shared the enthusiasm.
However, the political trajectory of the BJP since 2014 has two big takeaways. The promised material plurality never came and the unsaid cultural singularity emanating from the Hindutva discourse acquired prominence. The former is visible in the initiation of a series of welfare policies, especially for poorer sections, like cheap housing (Pradhan MantriAwasYojana), toilets for all, disbursal of LPG cylinders (UjjwalaYojana), the health insurance scheme (Ayushman Bharat), besides schemes such as BetiBachaoBetiPadhao, SukanyaSamriddhiYojana, Atal Pension Yojana, Pradhan MantriFasalBimaYojana, and Pradhan Mantri Jan-DhanYojana.
The ground narratives reveal that none of these welfare schemes has been successful in capturing the imagination of the people, amid general price rise and joblessness. Moreover, the debilitating impact of demonetisation on pre-existing rural distress and agrarian crisis is getting strong credence with a corresponding resonance among rural voters. It seems the government’s material policies/schemes resemble a scenario of people being served with starters upon starters without a main course.
Simultaneously, parallel to the material plurality, India has witnessed the emergence of a series of cultural policies/issues focussed around the themes of cow, Mandir, changing names of places and questions of citizenship, all emanating from Hindutva’s framework of cultural singularity.
This attempt to not only infuse the cultural singularity of Hindutva with material plurality of welfare schemes but also see the former superseding the latter problematises the claim that centrism could have an easy fit with a rightward polity. Centrism, by definition, desires a parity between the material and the cultural in their pluralities. As a corollary, a singularity in any realm is the antithesis of centrism. Thus, the emerging crisis of the material realm and attempts to overshadow it with cultural politics reveal that while the Right could negotiate with the framework of centrism in a material realm by speaking for all, in the cultural realm it remains diametrically opposed to this pitch, excluding the minorities in subtle ways. Hence, the argument that both the centre and centrism witnessed a rightward shift seems shaky.
To contextualise the interplay of ‘cultural singularity and material plurality’ in the electoral verdicts in the just-concluded Assembly elections, especially in three Hindi-speaking States where the BJP and the Congress were pitted directly against each other, one needs to go back a bit back and take the Uttar Pradesh election as the starting point where Mr. Modi used the binary of ‘kabristan-shamshan’ and ‘Diwali-Ramzan’ while exhorting voters to choose the BJP to end the “exile of development” in the State.
Not to be left behind, both BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav competed to emerge as champions of ‘Muslim interests’ and, by extension, of secularism. Ms. Mayawati claimed in almost all her rallies that she gave 100 seats to Muslims — a rhetoric the BJP exploited to the hilt.
Demonetisation and people’s suffering — the material issues — took a back seat in political calculations. The unprecedented victory of the BJP and the selection of firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath as U.P. Chief Minister signified the ascendency of cultural singularity being a condition to developmental politics.
The glimmers of this were visible in the Gujarat election though the equations had changed by then. The BJP suffered serious setbacks in rural seats. The historic win in Tripura gave the BJP the mistaken confidence about the invincibility of cultural issues qualifying the material promises. It rejected the subsequent setbacks in by-elections as aberrations until it suffered defeat in the recent Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections in varying degrees.
The factors that revived the Congress from dormancy were the material crisis after demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. The combination of rural distress, joblessness and rural inflation are the issues that significantly account for the BJP’s electoral loss. There is no reason to believe that these issues will not be relevant in 2019, as is argued in the oft-repeated electoral cliché that the dynamics for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections are qualitatively different. Also, it would be wrong to read too much in the Congress’s recent flirtation with soft Hindutva. The Congress did not get votes due to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. The cultural posturing of the Congress was just a symbolic labelling beneath which lay its position of being a default alternative and spelling promise for farmers and the youth.
All attempts to whip up issues of a Ram temple and name-changing did not prevent the BJP from losing a substantial portion of votes to the Congress. The success of cultural politics presupposes the delivery of a basic minimum denominator of material interest. The BSP, too, did not resonate with Dalit voters in the three States despite controversy and anger around the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, as the party did not have any material narrative.
Similarly, Muslims voted more enthusiastically for the Telangana RashtraSamithi (TRS) in Telangana rather than the Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-IttehadulMuslimeen on account of the TRS’s populist welfare policies.
This marked material crisis informing the Indian polity indicates the shrinking space of cultural politics. Hence, the road to 2019 lies in the framework of centrism that guarantees electoral success in resurrecting material politics without any polarising attempt to privilege the cultural singularity of Hindutva or its rhetorical counterpart from the Left’s attempt to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance.