Putting life into a moribund Left

Now that the Jawaharlal Nehru University and its voluble supporters across India and abroad have had their liberation moment and azadi has acquired an additional meaning, the hope is that Kanhaiya Kumar can embark on his campaigns in West Bengal and Kerala, leaving normal people to get on with their lives.

TO many people, the new demonology around nationalism is a refreshing bout of fresh air. Despite their professed outrage over the so-called shrinking space for dissent, the azadi controversy in JNU and elsewhere has definitely re-defined the liberal consensus. It has brought it closer to the political permissiveness of the European and North American fringe. Whether this will also result in a profound re-definition of what constitutes the mainstream is still unknown. 

That the TV-watching classes have had an overdose of excitement and moments of indignation seems undeniable. Since there is great media percentage in posturing and insolence, the past few weeks have witnessed the unreal graduation of a student’s union functionary from excitable slogan shouting to becoming a political philosopher attracting the wide-eyed appreciation of gushing journalists. Apart from indicating how little it takes to achieve exalted status among an increasingly desperate liberal fraternity, the JNU turbulence has had other unintended consequences.

First, there is little doubt that — and despite the Judge’s admonishment of Kanhaiya while granting bail — the bar on what constitutes acceptable discourse. To many people, the new demonology around nationalism is a refreshing bout of fresh air. Despite their professed outrage over the so-called shrinking space for dissent, the azadi controversy in JNU and elsewhere has definitely re-defined the liberal consensus. It has brought it closer to the political permissiveness of the European and North American fringe. Whether this will also result in a profound re-definition of what constitutes the mainstream is still unknown. But with Kanhaiya Kumar declaring that the struggle will end when the Narendra Modi government is toppled and his adoring fan club in the media nodding in agreement, the battle between the acceptable and the non-acceptable has acquired a new and potentially interesting dimension.

Having taken sharply different positions, both sides have a lot at stake. If the Left-liberal fraternity doesn’t succeed in shifting the consensus in a more libertarian direction, the media-created euphoria over Kanhaiya’s ‘victory’ will be a pyrrhic one. There could be quite a reaction against the lifestyle features of those seeking azadi. The revolt against US involvement in the Vietnam war, for example, had a knock-on effect among youth all over the West. It also produced a significant change in social attitudes and even tastes. However, its effect on electoral politics was either negligible or, at times, counter-productive. If the sense of common decencies remain where it was before the sedition charges were levelled, it is entirely possible that those siding with the Establishing will have the upper hand once the initial excitement subsides.

Secondly, there is the troubling question of the sudden respectability conferred on those who seek civil liberties without restraint. Kanhaiya’s slogans appear to draw an interesting but valid distinction between deshdrohi and rajdrohi. In the process, they appear to have merged the opposition to the Modi sarkar with the assault on the State. Earlier, opposing Modi (or any elected government) was deemed a democratic right. But this opposition to a political face of India has now been extended to an implicit endorsement of those taking up arms against the state. This crucial shift is good news for both separatists and those seeking the armed overthrow of the present system of governing India. There is no real meeting ground between the proponents of Constitutional Patriotism and those who seek the overthrow of the Constitution through the breakup of the Indian Union. Yet, both have come under the same umbrella, at least momentarily. If the alliance persists, it will be ominous and a development of momentous significance.

Finally, the JNU events also indicated a new turn. Earlier, the Left-liberal Establishment had been remarkably inept in evolving its own imaginative idiom of political theatre. The BJP in particular had mastered the art right from the time the Ram Janmabhoomi movement took a political turn in 1988-89. For all its angularities, and thanks in no small measure to the sustained media publicity, Kanhaiya seems to have put some life into a moribund Left. This is a great achievement and the other side has to think big and respond with a vibrant counter-narrative that goes beyond chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram. At the same time, it is an open question as to whether the JNU drama was aimed at merely raising the spirits of those whose obsessive hatred of Modi is their self-identity. Or did it reach out to the non-initiated?

For the moment there are no definite answers to these questions. The events in JNU offer interesting possibilities for both sides of the great divide.

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