Six clear pathways to help India become more democratic and secular and counter the religious polarisation of politics.
Less than a year out from a general election, India is in a political flux.
The nation is dominated by populist, religiously polarised communal politics instead of being the secular, democratic and inclusive republic imagined in its constitution.
Indian society is governed in a largely majoritarian way — where there is little room for minority needs or views — and in a competitive and authoritarian framework.
The national government’s authoritarian tendency was evidenced by the sudden removal of the special status of the only Muslim majority province of India — Jammu and Kashmir — in the ideological capture of democratic institutions and in the weaponisation of laws against the regime’s political adversaries and critics.
Jammu and Kashmir, which previously held special status and had a level of autonomy under the Indian constitution, was broken into two Union Territories that are directly governed by Delhi.
However, India’s authoritarian tendencies are still not in the same league as Turkey, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
There is still a chance the ballot box could be India’s best chance of countering the threats to democracy and secularism.
That would require Opposition parties to develop clear strategies to challenge the prevailing Hindutva — Hindu-ness as the justification of Hindu nationalism — ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Possible pathways emerged after local elections in the southern state of Karnataka in May, where the BJP suffered a resounding defeat.
The need for Opposition unity
The parties that make up the Opposition would stand a better chance at a general election if they could put aside individual self-interest in an effort to form a united front. This was the primary lesson from the Congress Party’s significant victory in the Karnataka state legislative elections.
The formation of the “INDIA” or India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance compact at the national level between the Opposition parties is a step in that direction.
Empower regional parties
The Congress Party’s success in Karnataka also showed the Opposition alliance needs to empower state level leaders wherever their respective parties are strong.
Powerful sub-national, state-level leaders are an essential prerequisite for electoral success.
The Congress party has influential state-level leaders in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but not in other states.
Regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, enjoy an advantage over others because they are well-entrenched in their respective states.
The bigger national parties need to accept their supremacy in these states.
Partner with civil society
Civil society today can be an important ally of those challenging the majoritarianism of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Bharatiya Janata Party’s mother organisation, the formidable Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, is a force multiplier for the regime operating at the social level, spawning hundreds of so-called Hindu organisations and fronts.
However, even it can be challenged.
The Ekta Parishad played a positive role in dethroning Bharatiya Janata Party’s Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh by taking on the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh.
Similarly, the Yeddelu Karnataka network brought together a large and diverse network of civil society organisations in Karnataka that played a significant role in consolidating the Muslim and Dalit vote, critical for the victory of the Congress Party.
Make way for local leadership
In national parties like the Congress, the central leadership could guide its state units with a lighter touch, rather than opting to exert tight centralised control.
They need to pick a leader who can build consensus and resolve disputes between different party factions. They need to allow the state leadership to shine.
These were all qualities on display during the legislative elections in Karnataka.
Forge a credible alternative narrative
An alternative popular narrative is essential to defeat communalism and authoritarianism.
If the Opposition is fighting the communalism in politics, it needs a secular narrative that is inclusive of India’s religious diversity.
The Congress Party in Karnataka followed this path, fighting attempts by the ruling party to get Hindu voters to close ranks behind the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Congress fought the issue of hijab, which were efforts to ban Muslim girls wearing head coverings in schools and universities. It also opposed attempts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to communalise the polling when he urged voters to shout “Jai Bajrang Bali“, hailing the Hindu God Hanuman.
Threats were also directed at the Sufi Muslim shrine in Baba Budangiri, which is revered by both Muslims and Hindus alike.
Civil society groups successfully fought attempts to convert Baba Budangiri Dargah into yet another Ayodhya, where Hinduism is effectively pushing Muslim presence aside.
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Beyond religion: the rights-based approach
India’s Constitution guarantees its citizens the right to a decent livelihood with access to nutrition, health, education and work.
Today, that rights-based approach is being replaced by the labharthi or beneficiary approach, which aims to create voters who feel grateful to the government for their ‘freebies’.
The rights-based approach worked in Karnataka where it was articulated clearly.
Rahul Mukherji is a professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University in Germany.
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