The forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, widely seen as a watershed event in our contemporary history, are expected to redraw the nation’s political landscape with implications for the future of Indian democracy.
The coming together of political leaders at Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Kolkata on January 19, representing a wide political spectrum opposed to the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to be noted. It signalled a common resolve to oust his government despite challenges inherent in such a coalescence. This coalition would not have been possible without massive disenchantment with the Prime Minister’s leadership, confirmed by an unravelling of the National Democratic Alliance, setting the stage for a transformative political change in the months ahead.
The dominant mood of the nation barely 100 days before the general election, reflects a sense of betrayal by its political chief executive who has failed to deliver on the promises made in 2014. Rising unemployment, acute agrarian distress, corruption in high places, rising social disparities, continuing marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis, insensitivity to the plight of vulnerable sections and glaring inequities of wealth et al have decisively demolished the Prime Minister’s claim to good governance. Mis-governance and the accentuated social, political and economic inequities interrogate the government’s claim of ‘Sushashan’ and ‘Sabka Vikas’.
But this election is not only about failed promises and governance deficit. It is about foundational principles of the republic centered around the idea of India crystallised in United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s message for the Kolkata rally. In her message, she lamented that the nation’s “pluralist fabric stands vitiated” and declared that “this will be an election to restore the nation’s faith in democracy, defend our secular ethos and our heritage, and defeat forces that are trying to sabotage the Constitution of India”. Mrs. Gandhi’s exhortation together with statements to similar effect by Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Ms. Banerjee and others should leave none in doubt that as far as the Opposition is concerned, this election is about the defence of democracy from the “tyrannies of power”. Viewed thus, the ‘mahagathbandhan’ is not a ‘summit of contradictions’ but a loud affirmation of collective political will to rise in defence of freedom, inclusion, equality, justice and dignity of citizens.
Indeed, this election is about the ends of power, the legitimacy of its exercise and means of its pursuit. It is about a proclaimed preference of politics “grounded in humanism than in force”. It should be about the end objectives of the state as much as about addressing challenges of an impoverished politics and debilitated institutions of democracy. The election must also be about restoring ideology and reason at the centre of politics and a reclaiming of the constitutional centre founded on our liberal, secular, progressive and dignity-based heritage.
This election is about a contest of ideas, about the meaning of democracy and for galvanising maximum support for the dignitarian values that gave birth to the nation. It is about the rejection of “convenient moralities” in favour of allegiance to an ideal of a just, inclusive and compassionate society. It is about a campaign that must yield politics elevated beyond the assertion of sub-identities towards a deepening of democracy that holds hope for all our people.
Those who suggest that the campaign against the BJP should focus essentially on issues related to “roti, kapda aur makaan” underestimate the nation’s passion for freedom and liberty. How else can we explain the crushing defeat of the Congress in 1977 under one of its tallest leaders? Freedom, national security and patriotism are not mutually incompatible. No reason, tactical or otherwise, can justify less than a frontal, sustained and vigorous censure of the ruling party’s divisive, sectarian, exclusionary, anti-libertarian and anti-dignity agenda of governance. It is imperative, however, to ensure an appropriate idiom to communicate a powerful appeal built around the assertion of the republic’s core values. The politics of a free people wedded to the idea of accountable and restrained power must, forever lean on the side of freedom because “the battle of freedom is never done, and the field never quiet”.
Hopefully, the electoral mandate of 2019 will serve to strengthen the foundations of deliberative democracy and repel onslaughts on our liberties in the name of invented insecurities. The mandate must also serve to restore the credibility of political parties as protagonists of constitutional goals, and integral to the democratic process. We are entitled to expect that the outcome of the general election will vindicate national conscience so that freedom prevails over fear, inclusion over exclusion and secularism over communalism. We know that the triumph of democracy is anchored in the equality of citizens and is sustained through freedom and assertion. The French philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville, reminded us years ago that “ a liberal, wise and energetic government” cannot “spring from the suffrage of a subservient people” and that “no citizen is so obscure that it is not dangerous to allow him to be oppressed, no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government”.
The dismal track record of the BJP’s rule, irretrievably diminished by suppression of free thought, persecution and intimidation of political opponents, citizens and students, will hopefully carry the burden of argument against the party’s continuation in office. Finally, we cannot forget that the pledge in defence of liberty and dignity of our people that we took as a nation on the midnight of freedom is a continuing one since we are once again called upon to ensure “that the soul of a suppressed nation finds utterance”. Therein lies the extraordinary significance of the electoral outcome this year.