President of Indian National Congress (INC) Rahul Gandhi speaks during an election campaign rally at Krishnaraja Nagar, some about 200 Kms South West of Bangalore on April 13, 2019. - India's gargantuan election, the biggest in history, kicked off on April 11 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term from the South Asian behemoth's 900 million voters. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP)
President of Indian National Congress (INC) Rahul Gandhi speaks during an election campaign rally at Krishnaraja Nagar, some about 200 Kms South West of Bangalore on April 13, 2019. - India's gargantuan election, the biggest in history, kicked off on April 11 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term from the South Asian behemoth's 900 million voters. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP)

In the first term of Modi government, between 2015 and 2019, 1100-odd intellectuals, retired bureaucrats, writers, scientists, economists, academics and artists issued public statements on different occasions critiquing intolerance, targeted attacks on Dalits and minorities, attack on scientific temper and unscientific claims, data suppression and so on. Starting from award wapsi (returning of awards), their unprecedented action spoke volumes about the state of governance.

But mere issuing of statements or writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as some of them did, apparently served no purpose. The lip service elicited no response from Modi, known for his penchant for populism and disdain for intellectualism and liberalism, variously reflected in his laboured, derisive expressions such as Lutyens’ Delhi, “Hard work” versus Harvard and Khan Market gang. Modi returned with a bang in May 2019, sadly with the same, old divisive baggage as is evident from the surreptitious attempts to curb media and the increasing shrillness of “Jai Shri Ram” cries to intimidate Muslims on the margins who are soft targets. Interestingly, upper caste and elite Muslims by and large are spared of such humiliations.

Getting down to brass tacks; the emasculated intellectuals would soon adjust to the new political temperature and only politicians can take the sting out of politicians. Even if discredited, they are authentic fighters and defenders of the Constitution and parliamentary democracy. On Monday, public intellectual and Ashoka University vice-chancellor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, hinted that fighting the BJP-RSS hegemony only through political means will be difficult. He was speaking at the memorial lecture for the late journalist Vinod Mehta at New Delhi’s India International Centre. Later, answering a question from the audience he said, “When it comes to political machinery on the ground, BJP’s parent organisation, the RSS, actually gives this populism the character of a social movement which is a trajectory and an aspiration which goes simply beyond electoral politics”.

“In that sense”, Mehta said, “the battle for reclaiming civil society cannot be fought only through political means, because the foundation of this politics has been an enormous cultural labour of institutionalising and integrating this ideology.” He said populism needs anti-intellectualism and that ideologically flexible “populism has posited itself as the central counter-force to liberalism, stitching together a set of diverse interests under a single sign”. He is partly correct. But, if fighting the divisive ideology of a bigoted behemoth through political means is difficult, who will fight them? Liberalism is dead, media co-opted and intellectuals rendered effete? How would the non-political players fight the ideological and electoral battle?

Despite unprecedented resource mobilisation and spending a mind-blowing Rs 27000 crore for the election, enjoying institutional support and RSS’s ability to use populism for social movement and communal polarisation and a fragmented Opposition, the BJP secured only 37.4 per cent votes up from the 31.1 per cent in 2014 and the NDA 45 per cent, up from 38. Still, more than 50 per cent people voted for the divided Opposition. As such, is it not a bit early to underestimate the political means?

In 1977, the Opposition felled an authoritarian Indira Gandhi without a PM face. During the infamous Emergency, the intellectuals caved in and the media when only asked to bend crawled (CIRCA 2019, the media is living up to its reputation). And still, it was the political class that under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan fought and dethroned Mrs Gandhi. Yes, 2019 is not 1977, but the political fundamentals remain the same. So, leave aside clichés like liberalism and intellectualism for some time. The need of the hour is strong, grass-roots politicians with fire in their bellies who can galvanise the silent masses watching helplessly from the periphery of their existence.

To start with, the Congress should take lead in organising mass movements with the working class, distressed farmers, unemployed youth and all the suppressed and oppressed sections, embracing the Left, Left-of-Centre and Centrist forces under a common narrative and national purpose. And for the Congress, the only way to get out of the existential crisis it is facing now is to merge. The party should sink its ego and persuade TMC, NCP and YSR Congress to merge into the parent party. The born again Congress will have 104 MPs in the Lok Sabha; a formidable bloc that can restore the confidence of the voters, India Inc and pose a serious challenge to BJP in 2024.

Nonetheless, a merger is easier said than done. TMC chief Mamata Banerjee, YSR-C boss Jagmohan Reddy and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar will not return to the Congress unless there are compelling reasons and respectable offers. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress president and party’s search for a non-Gandhi face to head the organisation are positive signals that could lower anti-Congressism and pave way for the merger in the coming years. At the same time, party insiders feel that Karnataka minister DK Shivkumar should be made the Congress chief. Last few years, Shivkumar has been valiantly fighting ED and IT as well as BJPs inducements to keep the Congress flock from being poached.

For the BJP, the TMC is a low hanging fruit in West Bengal while it is working on short-cuts to expand its base in Andhra piggybacking defectors from the TDP. Last month four out of six TDP MPs joined BJP and grapevine has it that over two dozen TDP MLAs are now in the saffron radar. It is likely that in 2024 it will be BJP vs YSR-C in Andhra.

Some even suggest that the Congress should induct powerful political communicators like Prakash Raj, Kanniah Kumar, Mahua Moitra, Hardik Patel and even Raj Thackeray to bolster its anti-Modi-Shah arsenal. TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s maiden speech in the Lok Sabha critiquing Modi government and the narrow, xenophobic, divisive nationalism of the BJP-RSS has been a cause célèbre for the Opposition. There was no intellectualism, no beating around the bush, but her terse, hard-hitting speech that went viral, shook the BJP benches, albeit momentarily.

-Kay Benedict

The writer is an independent journalist.

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