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Consequences of Indian democracy forgetting the ‘art of the possible’

In conversation with Article 19

Politics is no longer viewed as an art of the possible in Indian democracy. The new ethos of government promotes majoritarianism and the ‘othering’ of everyone who does not conform to majoritarian ideals. This apparent ‘muscularity’ of the Central government has made it untenable to accommodate divergent viewpoints, depriving India of the diversity it has always bragged about.

FROM 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck to economist John Kenneth Galbraith and, more recently, US President Joe Biden, politics has been described as the “art of the possible” by many crafty practitioners of the art.

All of these craftsmen have varyingly posited that realism, pragmatism and inclusivity are necessary for the greater good, even if it comes at the expense of lofty idealism or even with the danger of seemingly contradicting themselves to their hardcore constituents.

This principle is extremely relevant for the Indian experiment in democracy which is made up of unmatched diversities (of religion, region, race, ethnicities, castes etc.), and of perceived wounds and inequities, that have led to political persuasions of immense differences.

The entire edifice of the constitutional and civilisational ‘Idea of India’ is predicated on inclusiveness rather than on exclusion.

A brilliant practitioner of this accommodative spirit was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but he had to consequently put up with innuendoes of being a mukhota (mask) or the proverbial ‘right man in the wrong party’.

Vajpayee’s ideological commitment notwithstanding, his civilisational secularity, approachability and affability enabled him to stitch the winning formulation of the disparate Rashtriya Janatantrik Gathabandhan or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

It is telling that aside from Vajpayee’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), none of the other five major parties, namely the Janata Dal (United), the Telugu Desam Party, Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, or even the Shiv Sena (as it existed then) are part of the NDA anymore.

Certainly, the compulsions for coalition were more compelling then, as the arithmetic in the House today no longer warrants BJP to be accommodative anymore.

This situation has a clear impact on the societal tenor and culture of politics between then and now.

However, beyond the calculus of numbers warranting such outreach with other parties, Vajpayee was openly guided by the likes of Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Brijesh Mishra, Arun Shourie and Sushma Swaraj, people of a certain moderation and restraint, who would not cut ice with the requirements of today. 

Many other regional parties of the NDA under Vajpayee, such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, Mizo National Front, Naga People’s Front and Sikkim Democratic Front, had avowedly regional and ethno-cultural ideologies and sensibilities that were distinct from the BJP’s ‘nationalistic’ and Hindutva-centric moorings.

Some, like the Akalis, had remained deeply dissatisfied with ‘Delhi’ since the violent 1980s, while others, like the Naga People’s Front, believed in conservative Christianity, and the Mizo National Front was created by former insurgents who had previously picked up a gun and led a secessionist movement.

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However, by embracing diverse party ideologies, including those with counterintuitive anchorage, within the generous contours of the Indian Constitution, the approach of the NDA under Vajpayee was restorative and inclusive. Societal tempers had by and large thawed, though instances like the 2002 riots did challenge Vajpayee’s preferences.

The residual, though fleeting spirit of ‘Vajpayeeism’ lingered and manifested in the early years of BJP’s third coming (2014 onwards) at the Centre, when it struck yet another ‘unnatural alliance’ with People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir.

All political and partisan considerations to bring the two starkly contrasting parties aside, it was essential for the Indian democracy to posture the ‘art of the possible’.

Even the most contentious issues, such as Article 370, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990, delimitation exercise and so on were given to possibilities of understanding under its ‘Common Minimum Programme’.

Emotions and connections made across the Banihal Tunnel had yielded positive results, echoing Vajpayee’s clarion call of “Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat, Insaniyat”.

Accommodation does not imply weakening of the security apparatus, rather, it is a demand to exhibit political maturity and sagaciousness.

However, this experiment had a short shelf-life and the obvious contradictions besetting this equation imploded. Soon, fissures had been managed earlier, became untenable and even the ‘longest allies’ such as Akali Dal and Shiv Sena broke away.

Each ally had their own unique reasons for bolting out and some, such as Shiv Sena, could even claim to have returned to the fold, albeit, with a different leadership. But what is apparent is that the ostensible ‘muscularity’ of the Union government is making accommodation of contrarian perspectives unsustainable.

This new style and ethos of the Union government has resulted in majoritarianism, with the ‘othering’ of anyone who does not fit in a tightly prescribed template. Consequently, polarisation has been on the rise in India.

It is important to question if the current dispensation has indeed boxed itself into make-believe ‘muscularity’ that has drastically reduced its possibilities of outreach (partisan, historical or societal), as afforded by the Indian Constitution, or even by its own history?

The entire edifice of the constitutional and civilisational ‘Idea of India’ is predicated on inclusivity and not on exclusion, and if ‘Delhi’ emanates and postures centripetal forces as opposed to centrifugal preferences, dissonances like the one currently taking place in Manipur can be addressed.

It is the same electorally hardwired approach that has given rise to disconcerting murmurs of bias in handling the affairs in Manipur, as far as the Kuki-Zo communities are concerned.

Mizoram, which borders Manipur, serves as an excellent example of the absolute necessity and fragility of accommodation and co-optation in bringing about peace and unity as well as integrating those who are outside or on the fringes of constitutionality into the lofty “Idea of India.” 

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Interestingly, and for wholly electoral or topical considerations, the government in Mizoram is an alliance between the BJP and Mizo National Front. The antecedents of the Mizo National Front are one of a secessionist organisation that took up the gun against India (far more extreme than anything that the PDP has ever done), but after engaging in a deadly conflict, disarmed itself in accordance with the Mizoram Accord of 1986.

The issue is normalising intransigence, majoritarianism and refusing to accommodate and include ‘others’ in the wider ‘Idea of India’.

In that year, Laldenga, the former chief of the violent insurgent group, was appointed chief minister. The usual political turbulence soon subsided, and Mizoram quickly rose to prominence as one of Northeast’s peaceful states.

Ironically, Zoramthanga, who is currently Mizoram’s chief minister in alliance with the BJP, was second-in-command to Laldenga in his insurgent avatar.

But it was important for bygones to be bygones and mainstream even those who had once rebelled against India (but subsequently accepted the supremacy of the Indian Constitution). It was the optimum way of winning the hearts and perceptions and can be the only way forward.

The ‘art of possible’ is not a sign of weakness in diversified democracies like India but rather of strength.

That was broadly the tact and practice in Indian politics in the past, be it with the United Progressive Alliance or the NDA.

India, Indian politics and Indian society were better with having normalised inclusivity and accommodation. Importantly, accommodation does not imply capitulation or a weakening of the security apparatus, as is commonly perceived; rather, it is a demand to exhibit political maturity and sagaciousness, reminiscent of the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Tellingly, it is not just the Kuki-Zo legislators of the BJP who are openly queasy but also its alliance partner in neighbouring Mizoram, i.e., Zoramthanga, who is threatening to leave the NDA.

The issue is never just of electoral mathematics, but one of the consequences of normalising intransigence and majoritarianism, and refusing to accommodate and include ‘others’ towards the larger ‘Idea of India’. 

In democracies of diverse lands like India, the ‘art of the possible’ is a sign of strength and not weakness, as it is unfortunately made out to be. 

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