As a general rule, Indian politics, like the politics of most vibrant democracies, tend to be excessively self-contained. Never mind the rest of the world, the political preoccupation of the majority of people tend to be regional and only fleetingly national—except when it comes to the security of the nation.
In West Bengal, to take the random of a state that I visit frequently, the topic of political conversation tends to be disproportionately Mamata Banerjee-centric. The CM’s truncated London visit was of greater interest to people in the state than the bedlam in Parliament and the storm over Sushma Swaraj. In Uttar Pradesh, the grapevine is buzzing with chatter over the apparent discomfiture in the Samajwadi Party camp over the CBI inquiry into the activities of Yadav Singh, a former Chief Engineer of Noida; in Bihar, the speculation centres on minute-by-minute reports of CM Nitish Kumar’s relations with his prospective ally Lalu Yadav; and in Tamil Nadu, the PM’s meeting with CM Jayalalithaa has delighted the soothsayers and political forward traders.
There is, of course, the proverbial Man from Matunga who has some casual interest in the politics of the Centre, not least because it constitutes the staple diet of the ‘national’ TV channels. But at the risk of over-generalisation, I would hazard the guess that a single-minded focus on the Centre is limited to a fraction of the political class, their hangers-on, the Delhi-based media, the business lobbies, the civil service and a slice of the citizenry of the National Capital Region. Beyond this is perhaps the real India where viewership of sports and entertainment channels massively outweigh the tiny viewership of the fractious news channels. Sonia Gandhi may not perhaps be pleased that there was greater interest in the theatrics of the newest god woman Radhe Maa than in her rarest of rare political pronouncement on the thespian skills of Sushma Swaraj.
There is always a danger of over-reading the larger significance of these competing narratives. After all, the sheer ghoulishness of a hanging did bring an all-India focus to Yakub Memon and the associated concerns of terrorism and Muslim victimhood. However, exceptions apart, I would hazard the guess that unless something happens to disturb their lives—tax rises, shrinking opportunities, abrupt changes in education policy and a breakdown of law and order—the popular engagement with politics is episodic. Voting intentions are determined either by habit/ inheritance/ social status or a consequence of layered impressions formed over a period of time. The demographic bulge of first-time voters may convey an impression of electoral volatility but this will become less marked once the proportion of new voters into the system stabilise.
It is necessary to stress the relative unimportance of politics in everyday life because of hyperbolic statements being made by politicians who have chosen to derail parliamentary proceedings. From Arnab Goswami to Rahul Gandhi, there are multiple claimants for being the epitome of either the ‘nation’ or the ‘people’. But these claims are unlikely to stand rigorous, empirical scrutiny. Even Mahatma Gandhi—carelessly described as the ‘father’ of the nation by those who mistakenly believe India was born in 1947—couldn’t really claim to speak for the entire nation. At best he inspired most of India.
In his autobiography, Tony Blair has made a crucial difference between “normal people” and political activists. It’s an important one that is often forgotten by both leaders and certainly the media. Normal people are not habitually inclined to take interest in the minutiae of political manoeuvres. Nor do they work themselves up into frenzy over each and every development. The Lalit Modi controversy obsessed the media and maybe touched a larger section of the population than the shenanigans of the FTII students. But it is likely to be less than a footnote in either the Bihar election or the general election of 2019 unless—and this is important—it becomes the first layer of an impression that the government is venal.
To activists, not least those who took off their shirts and demonstrated outside Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s house, it is the immediate be all and end all. Tomorrow the concerns will change as their leaders switch tack. Activists tend to live in an echo chamber. And this is true for all political activists in the democratic world. Why is the outlandish Donald Trump leading the race among Republican activists? Why is the completely unelectable Jeremy Corbyn on top of the leadership charts among Labour Party activists in Britain? The answers to both are simple. Both Trump and Corbyn are speaking to the converted. When their message goes out to the larger world, they are likely to be greeted with ridicule and derision.
Something broadly similar is happening in India today. The Gandhi family may imagine that its message is directed at India but in reality it is aimed at that section which went into mourning on May 16, 2014, the day India elected a majority government led by Narendra Modi. They are not really talking to the electorate but talking up their own demoralised activists and members of the old elite that fears the total loss of privilege and entitlements. Yes, motivating the foot soldiers is an essential part of politics but experience suggests that what motivates the combatants isn’t necessarily what shapes the perceptions of the casual bystanders whose votes dictate who will govern and who will sit in opposition.
At present, the Congress is on an over-drive and almost working itself to a point where it is left without an honourable exit route. In 1999, the Congress followed the same path when it relentlessly rubbished the conduct of the Kargil war even as the guns were blazing and soldiers dying. The activists were motivated and there was a belief among them that a return to power was imminent. Today, we are witnessing something eerily similar as Congress refuses to be a part of a national outrage against Pakistani terror in Gurdaspur and Udhampur, and even gets its CMs to attempt a sabotage of a settlement of a Naga insurgency.
The Gandhis have re-ingratiated themselves with their activist base. Are ‘normal people’ equally enamoured? The answer will depend on how the government now responds.