“Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” (Naomi Klein)
Fear-based politics reaches disproportionate heights when coupled with nationalistic frenzies. As a first sign of fascism, it assumes a normalized state, masquerading as an agency to dispel fear itself. To rejuvenate the political climate with a fresh lease by resorting to masculine rhetorics becomes its core strategy. It predictably attacks the progressives as conspiratorial and traitors, while it paints the secularists as impotent and pseudo. Fear-based politics mocks constitutional frameworks, not out of concern, but from disdain. It revises historical narratives not out of an interest to engage scholastically, but because anti-intellectualism becomes its mainstay. It obsesses with geographical, cultural and religious borders. It is constantly wary of those outside as enemies, unless they acquiesce; it thrives in a climate of hatred towards those it treats as fringe elements, within its territory. Fear-based politics aims at reawakening the traditionally privileged, lest their inherited spoils are subjected to redistribution. It resorts to reaffirming the sacred, upholding the holy, instituting moralisms and reimposing strictures, often borrowed from the ancient texts to undermine the modern reforms.
Fear-based politics reinforces the reactionary aspects of a cultural status-quo, while opposing the liberal strides of a political one. It confuses social majoritarianism with democratic mandate, while employing religious discourses as an invigorating weapon. It assumes equality of all as a preexisting condition, regardless of unique histories of oppressions and privileges. It celebrates military conquests with glee, abhors the idea of lagging behind, and limits the imaginings to supersede as an authority. In short, fear-based politics celebrates the survival of the fittest in the political arena, where the leader is seen as vigorous and brawny, reveling in pride for unquestioned heritages. The desperation to lead a country’s journey into emerging as a superpower is predicated upon the unceasing fear of losing whatever remains left of an imperious status.
If histories of fascism and nazism are any indication, such desperations on part of the politicians are merely natural corollary of a suitable political climate. People deserve the kind of leaders they elect, select, or tolerate. Although it is far more tempting to paint a specific prime-ministerial aspirant as the apostle of fear-based politics at this juncture, it would be more prudent - and sincere - to hold responsible, the political culture itself - reared by the Indian citizens thus far, as the country goes to polls in a couple of months from now, in what is being hailed as a potential “turning point”.
The reality that a far-right politician is indeed legitimized as a candidate to the top political post in the country is immensely telling, whether or not, he ends up winning it. What is only more disturbing is the sheer predictability of this reality - it is almost as though we were bracing the country for this day. Our social conditioning has manifested in our misplaced patriotic duties to refuse authority to a woman not on grounds of political differences, but solely because she is a “foreigner”, despite having been more of an Indian than the countless NRIs whose funds we voluntarily have solicited to fuel hatred in the subcontinent. Our collective derision of a prime minister not because he is the architect of a neoliberal agenda, but because he was not macho enough to outgrow his “silence” that appears to us as jocular. Our unquenched thirst for the blood of imagined enemies - ranging from the Maoists to the Muslims, grounded on unfounded claims of sovereignty losses, from within the borders, and from outside. Our unabated eagerness to claim and reclaim golden ages of a monolithic culture that suits our propensity for consumption of selective glories, harking us back to celebrate a certain five-thousand years old civilization.
Such a predictable crossroads where the opinion polls suggest a significant support for a party that draws its convictions from xenophobia and isolationism has arrived not because of a single politician who once spearheaded attacks on members of a vulnerable minority group. We are confronted by it today because as a nation, we have ducked the difficult questions posed before us by historical opportunities, time and again. We have consistently refused to address the special plights of the people inhabiting occupied territories and have evaded any referendum even as we have reinforced military might without pause. We have reached this unfortunate stage where resurgence of Hindu nationalism is treated with admiration because we have unfailingly nurtured the sanctities around inherently regressive tendencies of Hinduism, a religion that must relegate a section of its followers to the abyss in order to herald another section as its panacea, and we have offered it a clean chit as a ‘way of life’ instead. In endorsing this way of life, we have flatly rejected any attempt to equate casteism with racism. Not only that, in endorsing the Hindutva philosophy that governs our everyday lives, we keep rejoicing patriarchal mores, so much so that our images abroad are the images of the assaulted and raped. And yet, instead of reflecting over how our subjugations of women and the minorities are sanctioned by the very texts we hold fundamental, and instead of finding our cultural nationalism at odds with constitutional prescriptions, we have reached a stage where rabid jingoism is the preferred flavor for most pre-poll respondents, because we have as families have continued to raise our children against the spirits of the constitution, and through installing in them values of distrusts, superstitions, ruinous competitions and superiority complexes.
It must not surprise us that we have reached this crossroads where we have to choose between the secular and the communal. It should however alarm us like never before. It should alarm us because we have even begun to dismiss the relevance of secularism. By attacking it as “pseudo” and “appeasing” and simply unworkable, we are thumping our chests to decry what we have started mocking as “sick-ularism”. Just as we have done with our opposition to “reservations”. Instead of recognizing the dividends and therefore expanding them, we are choosing to dispense with the progressive policies. We don’t just stop there - our attacks on the drafters of our constitution and makers of the nation are not so much to learn from their struggles to resolve the crisis - some of which still are pending for us to do justice to them ourselves - but to revise our history books to undermine the various streams of anticolonial movements that gave birth to a fairly new republic of India for whom inevitable challenges were to far outpace prospective accomplishments.
Despite critical issues abound which we must tackle sustainably, systematically - informed by needs for social justice, we treat national elections as sensational phases to posit individuals against one another, in a farcical, albeit, spectator sport. In the most recent such attempts, we witnessed Arnab Goswami trying to outsmart Rahul Gandhi, and as the various analysis from leading commentators affirmed, he clearly outsmarted Gandhi. Some wrote that Gandhi was not prepared for the barrage of “specific” questions, and some said he just could not have answered anyway. From crude jokes to outright waves of sympathy were expressed for the ways Gandhi had to endure Goswami. And most of them were correct observations. Indeed, Goswami’s voice has started representing not just the content, but also the manners in which public discourses are taking place in India - the very reason why we are at this crossroads, to begin with.
Goswami’s overzealous attempts to elicit a duel between personalities (in this case, a “RaGa vs NaMo” match) perfectly synchronized with how we tend to treat elections. His demand for a PM candidate ahead of the polls so that he can then hold the individual responsible for the social diseases, is exactly how we are always on the run for our favorite scapegoat. His obfuscation surrounding origins critical to understanding 1984 and 2002 in context is exactly how we rationalize the rise of Hindu nationalism under various garbs. Finally his “challenging” Rahul Gandhi for “a direct one on one battle with Narendra Modi” is just reflective of the yardstick which many of us measure the national politics by. Some have argued that this interview - Rahul Gandhi’s first - was going to be disastrous for his political career; that it amply demonstrated how incapable he was in handling the tough questions, and therefore it proved him feeble in leading the country.
And yet, the reality may just be the opposite. In more ways than can be described here, the interview indeed proved that India has finally found a political leader who is immensely capable of discerning questions, identifying issues, and persisting with the necessary. When Arnab’s unrelenting question was, “Are you afraid of losing to Modi”, Rahul’s response to that was only appropriate: “What millions of youngsters in this country want is to empower and unleash the power of the women in this country.” This is as direct an answer as could have been provided to a question about Modi’s growth in Indian society. Missing the connection is precisely the point. An empowered citizenry does not opt for fascist politics. Only a fear-based political climate gives rise to despots. Hailing from a political family that has directly been targeted by fundamentalist forces, Rahul Gandhi is only acutely aware of it. The good part being, he acknowledges the same. Instead of resorting to any meritocratic claims of individualistic journeys, he recognizes the privileges, responsibilities, and the perils - of having been born in a family that has remained at the helm of Indian politics for decades.
While BJP and its ideological apparatus offers misogyny as a response to women’s rights, Rahul Gandhi keeps returning to the issue of women’s empowerment as crucial to national development. From media portrayals to dining table discourses, the space we provide to issues of gender inequality has always been dismal, and it will not be an exaggeration to state, as Rahul Gandhi has cited on a separate occasion quoting a NGO activist, that no nation will prosper which oppresses its women. And despite his insistence on deliberating over women’s issues in India, the manner in which Arnab Goswami continued to reject that as a non-issue in the only interview he had with Rahul Gandhi, is exactly the reason why we as a country need to reflect upon which questions are indeed tough, and which ones are just plain wrong.
Not all questions are relevant, just as not all changes are desirable. Often times, our temptations, and not our studied observations, clamor for a change. And more often, the changes we seek are not systemic ones, instead we merely look for a facelift. The questions before India are not just about who will lead the country, but much more importantly, which issues will govern it. What Rahul Gandhi has proposed is that constitutionally the MPs choose the PM candidate and so who will lead the country will be answered after the polls, not before. But even if it is decided that we must reject one between Gandhi and Modi, the choice is clear: only one of them is decidedly professing a majoritarian religious sentiment in a country founded upon secular values. There is no dispute here. What are at stakes, however are the core issues that will govern this country at such a defining intersection.
Macho sloganeering of “India First” is directly benefitting the popularity of right-wing nationalism in the country today. It is an embarrassing development for a nation that urgently needs to check its own powers, not expand those any further. “India First” is also reminiscent of the dark days of Pokharan test - a filthy display of militarist pride borne out of disregard towards humane priorities. It is important to remember that India was never designed to be a first. India’s emancipation lies in its setting an example for the world, in being an equal partner in progress for the Third World, which still suffers from excesses of capitalism and neocolonial projects. India’s future lies in acknowledging its own transgressions, ending the war on its own people, confirming with international standards set in dealing with occupied territories. India’s future lies in empowering the Dalits, the women, the working poor, in preparing for a nation that respects the spirits of its constitution and the fundamental duties it prescribes, among which feature the development of “the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”
Economic development - no matter what the model is called - cannot be a substitute for social democracy that embraces values of humanism and inclusiveness. In 2010, Sonia Gandhi aptly described what it implies, “Social democracy is not populism, it is not generosity; it is the justice that our constitution promises. The backlog is huge, but without social democracy, Indian democracy could well be undermined.” Taking a leaf off Indira Gandhi’s own visions, she cited the four features of a social democracy that India must strive towards: first, a belief that social democracy must not only be responsive or responsible, but also be representative of many diversities; second, a conviction that social democracy is unachievable unless economic growth empowers the disadvantaged, deprived and the discriminated against; third, a yearning for social democracy must pay highest attention to the preservation of environment and regeneration of natural resources; and finally, a passion for social democracy must provide for a nation-state as an instrument for change and protection of national sovereignty.
Last year, eminent Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah hailed Sonia Gandhi as one of the greatest foreign-born Indian women to have left a deep imprint on our history, he was not stretching the truth. He articulated at least four legal measures, in which Sonia Gandhi had “changed the course of the Indian welfare state” and enabled Indian democracy to become “seriously transformative”: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the Food Security Ordinance (FSO).
Ilaiah argued that the UPA government had empowered the villagers to get their wages without being subjected to any humiliations via contractual engagements with feudal lords. For the first time in memory, villagers are telling stories about their increased food intake. On matters of transparency, RTI was a radical step towards the right direction and required a level of courage on part of a political party, that was not commonplace. Right to Education Act put in place by the UPA has also been revolutionary and has given hope to parents who could not have otherwise afforded education for their children. Most importantly, Right to Food Ordinance is a direct attack on casteist superstructure of India, apart from being an exemplary contribution to alleviate poverty.
Going by Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, the four measures above apply to the poorest in India, but at the same time, they may not be impacting the lives of the middle class or the rich, which explains partly why the corporate media refuses to engage in conversations on these issues. A “Shining India” slogan invariably overlooks issues concerning food, clothing, shelter, literacy and rural employment, because, it can afford to take these for granted. But even more critically, the deliberate oversight owes itself to the ongoing class war in India - the war waged by the rich upon the poor, which subsequently helps in agenda-setting for the media.
As a result, the central electoral issues end up becoming the ones that concern the upwardly mobile. One question often posed to Rahul Gandhi in this regard is, “How can India be a superpower if we continue to depend on the United States?” His answer has been unequivocal: “It is not so much that we depend on another country. We don’t need favors from others. But there is a certain amount of integration, and it has massive advantages. If we built an inward-looking IT industry, and we don’t allow it to go beyond Indian borders, that will be very limited. Our strength is we are young and highly educated. We are not saying we should depend on another country, in fact, what we are saying is others should depend on us. It’s a different way of looking at the world.” Thereafter in a classic instance of misunderstanding this “different way of looking”, the convener concluded with glee that, Rahul Gandhi had said other countries should depend on us. And Rahul had to immediately clarify that it is not what he had meant at all: “It is not that the other countries should depend on us. The world is integrated. We have offices in Bangalore and Hyderabad contributing to the world economy. Once you believe in yourself and can compete with anyone, it’s not about whether we are depending on others, it is about their views on us.”
Rahul Gandhi’s assertions of a changing India that will be a key participant in world economy, and not a haven for domestic capitalism, is one that needs to be understood with the “different mindset” he keeps harping on. He draws from the Nehruvian legacies of peaceful co-existence, not Reaganesque argument of one-upmanship. His view has been that “We should not be in the business of making decisions based on fear. We have to think about not how we will be affected by the problems but how we shall affect the problems. Instead of having a mindset where we fear that we might get pushed around by someone, we should recognize that we have a place in the world and we should occupy that place in the world. If we don’t have this attitude, rest of the world will not respect us.”
Respect, not fear, is what Gandhi’s central thesis has been. His party has been infested with corrupt politicians and yet he has earned praises from Anna Hazare for his anti-corruption crusades in getting the Lokpal Bill passed. If corruption has been a core electoral issue, Rahul Gandhi has rightfully taken credits for his activisms involving Right to Information, Aadhaar and NREGA as transformative anti-corruption projects. He is not ashamed of the socialistic aspects of Indian economy, despite being at odds with Dr. Manmohan Singh himself. Calling them as unmatched transfers of power, he applauds his party for its efforts at ensuring “bank nationalization, telecom revolution, rights paradigm, fight against the British - everything for power to the people. Answer to every single problem is to push this democratization further, to make it reach the heart of this country.”
One of the ways democratization takes place is through political machinery, by restoring the faith in the legislature, so that the MLAs and the MPs do what their business is: to make laws. Addressing the elected representatives recently, Gandhi said, “This is not just another turn or another election - this is a turning point. No one is in a mood to accept less than full or to compromise; they want individual choice, participation, fair deal - and frankly, they deserve it. Either we wake up to their aspiration, or we have no business to claim that we represent them. While the work you do in the ground is very important, today laws are being made by the media, by judges, on the streets of this country, and the people elected to make laws are being sidelined. We have to get you - our MLAs, MPs and Pradhans - back.”
In a time when politics is a dirty word and politicians are most distrusted in the society, so much so that Arvind Kejriwal won the elections with his “anti-politician” rhetoric, what Rahul Gandhi is saying is refreshingly different: “Real change is structural, and for that we need to work continuously through legislation, reform and sustained political efforts…Imperative before us is not whether to change, but when and how to change. What does this mean for us as a political party? Responding to an immense demand to change…But we can’t complain without articulating clearly what is going to be done about it, we can’t oversimplify non-solutions, we can’t subvert democratic institutions by blocking parliamentary sessions; we cannot turn people against one another, or spread communal hatred or propose that structures be handed over to one man or they be viciously destroyed.”
Rahul Gandhi has democratized the Youth Congress and NSUI and succeeded in multiplying the numbers of new members, but more laudable is the way Congress Manifesto itself is now demanding mass participations in its revisions. As a first step in the country, Congress also intends to introduce direct candidate selection process in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies. As an electoral promise that certainly sounds tall, but truly emancipatory, Rahul Gandhi has assured that 50% of Congress Chief Ministers shall be women, in addition to his support for the reservation for women in Parliament. Gandhi’s stress on reservations is based on his assertion that there is not one India, but two. The India that is left behind in the race needs to catch up with the India which has surged ahead rapidly. For this to happen, the means need to be peaceful, democratic and constitutional. While, he contends, the opposition parties are headed exactly in the opposite directions.
Time will tell if Rahul Gandhi lives upto the different attitude and mindset he is espousing. But suffice it to say, contrary to mainstream media contention, his words and actions as a political leader, have been reassuring and inspiring so far, enabling imaginations, while thankfully remaining devoid of fear tactics and warmongering. Most of all, he has a principled composure difficult to maintain at a time when nationalistic rhetorics have started reverberating, almost to the point of stifling out voices of reason. He reminds us of what patriotism truly entails, howsoever unpopular it may sound at the moment: “We do not love our country because it is powerful or because it is rich. We love our country because it upholds the ideals we wish to live by, we love it because it stands on the ideals of humanity, inclusion, and no matter how much our shortcomings might frustrate us, and they do; we love this country because it always taught us to love one another, how to remain united in the face of adversity and to never ever give up, no matter how hard or difficult the struggle is, or how dark the night. India teaches us to fight on, with compassion in heart and faith in future.”
No one knows who shall lead India this year, and how much of reflections we as a nation may have to undergo post this election, but hopefully it will be someone who truly believes in compassion in heart and faith in the future. Because, in the current climate of desperation and vacuum, politics needs to be filled with hope, not fear.
(Published in Kindle Magazine, March 2014)