Kolkata was less warm than Delhi but more humid. At this time of the year the haze of heat was punctuated by the scintillating red of the gulmohar trees that, unlike their slightly reticent cousins in Delhi, were in full bloom. I was in the eternal city on the invitation of the Kolkata Ladies Study Group, a 50-year-old institution run by the most influential women of the city, to speak, along with P. Chidambaram, on the subject: “Positive Conflict: On the Democratic Chess Board of India”. Senior journalist Jyoti Malhotra conducted the discussion.
I could sense some apprehension in the audience on whether the debate would be fiery enough, considering that both PC and I are, broadly, on the same side of the political divide. After all, what is the use of a discussion where decibel levels don’t clang, panelists don’t speak to each other but at each other, and sparks don’t fly around to illuminate the slanging match? But thanks to Jyoti’s provocative style, and the questions that popped up from the floor, I think the audience was not very disappointed.
One issue that cropped up more than once was the BJP’s emphatic victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh election, and what it means for Indian politics in the future. PC’s view was that the Congress’ poor performance was due to organisational weaknesses, which the party must work to rectify. I said that UP’s results connoted not so much the victory of the BJP as the failure of the Opposition. The gathbandhan between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party was a last-minute, ad hoc and perfunctory alliance, arrived at a few days before the last date of filing nominations for the first phase of the elections. By then both alliance partners had already announced their respective candidates, not to speak of rebels from factions within their parties. There was no groundwork to take the alliance up to the poll booth, or to systematically structure outreach to the electorate. From the point of view of preparedness such a show was in complete contrast to the systematic electoral planning done by the BJP for the past 18 months. There was a near total neglect of the large segment of non-Yadav OBC votes, which, as a consequence swung largely to the BJP. Besides, no attempt was made to co-opt Mayawati. Hence, this was not a mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, as was forged in Bihar.
The prospect of Opposition unity was also discussed. Is it possible for a disparate group of regional satraps to eschew their personal egos and local priorities to come together as a convincing force to oppose the BJP? PC appeared confident. He said that in any vibrant democracy, a strong Opposition is needed. What would be the role of the Congress, given that it is the one party in the Opposition with the largest national footprint? PC was frank, that the party should play such a role, but for this it would be essential for it to also focus inwards for vital structural changes that can revive its traditional support base right up to the block level. It was his view that this process has already begun, but many in the audience were less than convinced.
I ventured to add that Opposition unity means little only as an arithmetical equation. To be effective it must be able to present a credible alternative vision of India, and also show why this vision would be in the greater interest of India. A ragtag coalition, without ideological clarity and organisational rigour cannot be sold to the people of India. The question of who should lead this coalition can only be taken up after questions of ideology and organisation are sorted out.
A lady in the audience asked how long identity issues, focused on caste and religion, would dominate Indian politics. It was my view that this is a complex issue with no simple answers. At one level, societal inequalities continue to nurture identity issues. In a highly entrenched hierarchical system, how can a dalit forget, or be allowed to forget, where he stands in the traditional social order? Perhaps, this is less visible in the more cosmopolitan environment of our metropolises, but as PC rightly pointed out, such identities are still a big factor in most of India. Equally, as a consequence of the ultra-right Hindu groups proliferating under BJP patronage, a Hindu is being asked to see himself as a Hindu first and a citizen later, while a Muslim is being forced to withdraw further into the confines of his own community. Moreover, the truth is that all political parties take into account identity issues in planning their electoral strategies.
Mr Chidambaram made the point that the BJP is trying to impose a Hindu-Hindi hegemony. He was also worried about authoritarian trends in the polity, including through the practice of neutralising the constitutionally mandated role of the Rajya Sabha by categorising non-money bills as money bills, a point I strongly concurred with. The way in which self-anointed groups, like the so-called gau rakshaks, or the Yuva Vahini, were taking the law in their own hands, with the powers that be benignly looking on, was also a matter of deep concern. The disastrous situation in Kashmir was also discussed. We both made the point that while security issues were paramount, some form of engagement with our citizens in Kashmir was essential. The policy paralysis of the BJP in this endeavour, both in Srinagar and Delhi, was both obvious and incomprehensible.
At the end of a rather spirited debate, one question, like Banquo’s ghost, remained invisible but palpably present in the room: If some of the policies of the BJP need to be opposed, how can the Opposition come together effectively to do so? That question remained inadequately answered, although, I suspect, both I and PC were aware about what needs to be done.