Academics have long argued that the world is heading towards a post-ideological phase, in which ideology is no longer the defining feature of our political culture. The odd coupling of the Shiv Sena and the centre-left Congress-NCP seems to lend credence to that theory.
When the far right and the centre-left form a coalition, the fragility of ideological thinking is underscored. All too often, we have heard politicans prating of an alliance with “like-minded parties”. Yet, unlike parties seem to have no qualms about entering into alliances.
The Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP alliance is manifestly a marriage of convenience, but it also blurs the ideological spectrum. A coalition of the centre-right BJP and the Congress-NCP would have been less unlikely than the Congress 'hand' clasping the Sena tiger's claw. But ideologies are not in play in Maharashtra. The drama is driven by the urge to power, a vice common to all shades of politics.
Within the BJP, the post-electoral sentiment was that the feel-good factor engendered by the Ram Janmabhoomi judgement would bring the Sena to the negotiating table. Instead, it pushed the Sena further away. The political actors in Maharashtra have clearly decided that ideological distinctions don't matter. By that logic, the communal-secular rhetoric that has dominated Indian politics since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, may well be on its way out.
Does this mean that politics has been liberated from the never-ending debates on minority rights and religious pluralism? It is not unthinkable for the Left to support a far-Right government or vice-versa. Europe offers us recent examples of strange political bedfellows.
The Congress was wary of the alliance. By all accounts, it was strongly opposed by tall leaders from the South, who are deeply invested in the party's secular identity and wary of 'saffronisation'. Only after it was pointed out that nothing other than forming a government could stave off a split in the state unit, did they agree. But a section of the old guard is obviously still uncomfortable about being in bed with the Sena.
This is despite the fact that the grand old party has always been quite flexible, ideologically speaking. From Nehru's Fabian tendencies and Indira Gandhi's socialist project to P V Narasimha Rao's right-ward shift and Manmohan Singh's neoliberal socialism, the Congress has taken diverse positions. The assertion of the Right as a major political force from the late 1990s drove Sonia Gandhi into the welcoming embrace of the Left parties (UPA I), leading to populist policies and a strident secular narrative that many voters perceived as minorityism. Her successor, Rahul Gandhi, mirrored the conservative-liberal oscillations of his late father.
The Congress may have finally come to terms with the fact that the BJP is now a mainstream party and the bogey of fascism is a construct that most voters do not accept. The BJP has shown that it is not the radical, sectarian party it is made out to be. Nor is it authoritarian, in that it has sought to exercise control over institutions, but not to destroy them. The limits of the Constitution may have been stretched a tiny bit, but have not been breached.
As a result, the Congress' secular-communal rhetoric has been largely ineffective. The party was discredited, partly on account of its perceived soft stance on terror but mainly for its record in office. Both contributed to the rise of the BJP and drove the Congress to its nadir. The party is no longer perched on its ideological high horse and after the events of Maharashtra, it will find it difficult to criticize the RSS project, which includes a uniform civil code.
However, that doesn't mean the Congress will lapse into silence. It can focus instead on the NDA's record of governance and the crisis-ridden economy. The commissions and omissions of the NDA offer plenty of fodder for interventions in and outside Parliament. The BJP's setbacks in the recent assembly elections should be proof enough of voters' disenchantment with the prolonged economic slowdown.
The Maharashtra alliance will have an impact across the country and may even lead to a political reconfiguration. For the BJP, the challenge is to keep its allies close. For the architect of the coalition, Sharad Pawar, it is to make sure that it survives and that the NCP regains its votebase in the state. For the Sena, it is to stave off the inevitable BJP depredations on its core support base. For the Congress, it is an opportunity to break free from the shackles of the outdated secular-communal binary and address issues of public concern.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.