Prof Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi, is the author of various important books on the Indian political party system. In an extensive email interview with The Federal, she spoke about the current status of the Congress amid its successive electoral reverses. Edited excerpts:
A disturbing trend in the recent elections is the weakening of opposition parties, with the sole exception of Punjab. Does this portend the emergence of an ‘elected autocracy’ in India?
Independent India introduced a full-fledged democracy in a multi-religious, hierarchical society traumatised by Partition and the horrendous violence surrounding it. Democracy was sustained for over seven decades with only a brief interregnum of the Emergency. The key to the success of India’s democracy lies in its inclusiveness. But in the past few years there is an unmistakable erosion of democracy even as there’s greater emphasis on elections than even before.
There’s more to democracy than holding regular elections. What happens between elections is as important as what happens in elections. Talking down what happens between elections will reduce democracy to an electoral democracy which is the case in India today.
The general elections of 2014 signalled a tectonic shift in the political landscape to the Right. The assumption of power at the Centre by a right-wing party is the most important political development since Independence. For the first time, the electoral majority rests with the party that overtly represents Hindu nationalism inspired by Hindutva, which is distinct from the perceived Indian nationalism. This is beginning to change the meaning of democracy in the direction of majority rule – a system of political rule by a political/ethno/religious group elected under a system of universal suffrage. The Ayodhya and Kashmir events indicate strong attempts to operationalise the majoritarian version of nationalism.
The government is both majoritarian and authoritarian. The overall objective is to create an authoritarian state with only a token opposition, either at the electoral or legislative forums, or at the ideological level in terms of alternative views and ideas. The combination of majoritarianism and authoritarianism has resulted in democracy becoming thinner, not accidentally, but deliberately. These two processes have reinforced each other giving rise to disquiet about its impact on India’s democracy.
The strength of a democratic society depends on a system of checks and balances amongst institutions, and how robust the checks are. The checks and balances have been weakened lately, democratic deliberation has been bypassed, major public institutions don’t function autonomously, and the government has little patience for popular protests. This has caused democratic backsliding which has led many commentators and institutions to conclude that Indian democracy is an electoral autocracy. Although this term is conceptually problematic, it draws attention to the sustained and deliberate process of subversion of basic democratic tenets by political actors and government in various countries, including India.
In particular, are we witnessing the irreversible decline and demise of the Indian National Congress?
The Congress is certainly on decline but it’s premature to declare its demise. The last time it won a clear majority was in 1984, even though the party formed a government at the Centre in 1991, 2004 and 2009. Since 2009, it has been a steep downhill curve for the Congress. Its defeat in 2014 and 2019 was the worst. The BJP has taken a huge chunk of its vote and regional parties have cut into its vote in other states where the BJP is not its main opponent.
However, the Congress decline is not unique to it. It is not the only centrist party to be knocked off its pedestal. The global context in which the centrist project is collapsing worldwide is worth noting. Several Centre-Left parties and centrist type parties have faced difficulties in grappling with right-wing populism and majoritarian nationalism. The support for such parties has dwindled if not collapsed in many countries. The global rise of right-wing strongmen such as Donald Trump in the US, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Victor Orban in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has changed the political landscape.
Thus, to understand the Congress decline, it is important to start by looking first at the underlying conditions that led to the decline and, second, the challenges confronting the Congress. The decline was not entirely due to factors that were internal to the Congress or because of the top leadership’s centralising drive, important as they were, but also because of the paradigmatic changes underway in the polity, economy, and society.
The party was both shaping and being shaped by social transformations. As the Congress was changing, so was India. Its ideology of secular nationalism, social justice and developmentalism had fewer takers than before. This change was caused by the shift from state regulated economy to a market and business centred model of economic growth begun by the Congress government in 1991. While it accelerated economic growth, it also deepened class, regional, and rural-urban divisions.
The inability of the Congress to accommodate newly mobilized interests such as the backward castes and newly rich agrarian classes in north India after the Green Revolution was an important factor in its decline. Backward castes drifted towards regional parties while the upper castes gravitated to the BJP. In addition, the Congress hold over the Dalit and Muslim vote in several states was shaken. The party tried to remain broadly centrist but the centre ground was squeezed and pressed from both sides by identity politics.
Is secular democracy bound to bow out of the race against Hindutva-sponsored cultural nationalism?
Undoubtedly, there has been a gradual erosion of secular discourse. But secularism has survived for all these years and has been undermined in recent years by the emergence of Hindu nationalism as a powerful force. Until the early 1990s, India’s secular model seemed to work reasonably well. Religion and religious polarisation were not exploited for political gain.
However, opportunism and repeated attempts by political parties to play the communal card has weakened secularism. This has given rise to the interpretation that secular parties are responsible for the decline of secularism. However, the story of secular decline is much more complex and goes beyond the failure of secular political parties. It is true that the BJP-RSS alone are not responsible for the politicisation and instrumentalisation of religion in our society. A major part of the blame must fall at the door of the Congress, which found the idea of scoring quick electoral gains by tampering with secular principles and institutions, too tempting to resist.
But, for all their mistakes and failures, Congress and other secular parties are not the chief architects of the growth of majoritarian politics. Hindu nationalism has a long history and a momentum which is independent of the failings of secularism and the Congress. The assiduous work of the Sangh Parivar for the last 100 years and the nationwide campaigns for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the propaganda about Hindu hurt have facilitated the shift from a secular discourse to a majoritarian one.
The divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of politics is a central axis of politics in India today. Winning elections on the basis of Hindu nationalism has emboldened the ruling dispensation to establish a new political order based on Hindu supremacy even if it goes against constitutional democracy. Hindu nationalism was not a significant electoral force until the Ayodhya movement. But things began to change with the two successive electoral victories in 2014 and 2019. Electoral legitimation of Hindu nationalism has transformed the power of Hindu nationalism.
Polarisation in India is more toxic today than ever before, and it shows no signs of abating. In fact, it has increased in the last few months with a profusion of hate speeches and violence across the country. Communal violence is not new but the state openly abandoning the principle of neutrality vis-à-vis religious groups is a new development.
The top leadership is maintaining silence presumably because violence flows out of the ruling ideology, and nationally the ruling dispensation has repeatedly won elections despite all this and internationally India is also not worried about western criticism because the calculation is that India is needed by the West as a counterweight to China.
Do you agree with the view that the genius of modern history is against aristocracy? If so, has dynastic politics outlasted its days in India? Or, is the problem with the Congress only that it has been ideologically enfeebled by long years in power?
Political dynasties are pervasive across political parties regardless of ideology, leadership and support base. India is not unique in the role that dynasties have come to play in democracy. Political dynasties are of course very different from traditional aristocracies because they depend on electoral endorsement. In a traditional aristocracy, birth is sufficient to guarantee entry. But in a democracy even members of powerful political families must win elections. Although voters have become more discerning, they vote for dynasties across the board with the exception of the Gandhis.
Seven Chief Ministers of major Indian states are dynasts: MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu), Navin Patnaik (Odisha), Uddhav Thackeray (Maharashtra, with another dynast — Ajit Pawar — as his deputy), Basavaraj Bommai (Karnataka), Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh), KCR (Telangana), Hemant Soren (Jharkhand). The list expands further if one includes family-run parties. So, while most parties in India are dynastic, it is the Congress which is deeply embedded in popular imagination as a party of dynasts because three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family were prime ministers for a total of 38 years not counting the 10 years of UPA when Sonia Gandhi played a decisive role in the affairs of the government.
Political dynasties indubitably distort the organisation of political parties and are responsible for weakening their institutional structures. Dynastic politics has had a profound effect on the working of the Congress although it is not the only family dominated party.
Dynastic politics is alive and kicking in many parties, including the BJP, which is opposed to dynasticism but is not averse to taking dynastic MPs defecting from the Congress to its side. But the BJP has succeeded in creating a narrative around nepotism and the Gandhis and successive electoral defeats only add to that narrative. With each election becoming more and more personality centric, it suits the BJP to focus on the dynastic proclivities of the Congress party and turn elections into a personality centred campaign of Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi.