Congress and Sena coming together marks a new shift in politics
Secularism isn’t any longer the glue for the opposition. The new mood is one of anti-BJPism, reminiscent of the anti-Congressism of the 1960s and 70s, which would bring ideological foes together.
The Congress and the Shiv Sena are set to come together – along with the Nationalist Congress Party – to stake claim to form a government in Maharashtra.
As per news reports, the three parties are likely to have an agenda for governance to ensure that ideological differences do not mar the alliance. The reports also say that the three parties – in their first coming together – will meet governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari to “prove” that they have the numbers to stake claim to power.
This development is a symptom of a major shift in Indian politics. Secularism – and the concomitant need to keep “communal forces” out – is no longer the dominant theme of politics, so far as parties like the Congress and the NCP are concerned.
The discourse is shifting to an anti-BJPism aimed at ensuring that the BJP does not dominate politics the way it has in recent years.
The communal-secular dichotomy
Indian politics since the Ram temple movement that catapulted the BJP to the status of India’s main opposition party in 1991 was mainly played around the binary of “secular” and “communal” parties. In this, the BJP, along with its ally the Shiv Sena, stood for the much-reviled “communal” aspect of Indian politics. To keep the two out of power was a major concern for all parties that saw themselves as secular.
However, as the BJP grew through the 1990s – attempting, and failing, to form a government in 1996 – and reached a tally of 182 seats in 1998, the communal-secular dichotomy developed strains, as regional parties that saw themselves as secular came around to doing business with the saffron party. This was a weakness of Indian secularism: the impassioned slogan vanished when opportunistic politics could bring a regional party to power.
By 1999, when the BJP again won 182 seats, Atal Behari Vajpayee was able to head a coalition of more than 20 parties. The National Democratic Alliance included parties like the All-India Trinamool Congress – now a sworn enemy of the BJP – the Telugu Desam Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
It was said that Vajpayee had been chosen as the BJP’s leader instead of LK Advani – who had led the Rath Yatra for a Ram temple years before this, leading to much tension and riots – so that his moderate image could make regional parties join the NDA. Advani was seen as a hardliner and, thus, someone who could not attract regional parties that wished to win the votes of Muslims in their states.
However, despite the fact that many regional parties were open to doing business with the BJP, the secular-communal dichotomy was alive in journalistic commentary and academic seminars. It was considered the leitmotif of Indian politics, and the secular was seen as central to the idea of an inclusive India. The Congress, which consistently criticized the BJP -- and also its ally Sena -- as “communal” was the fulcrum around which Indian secularism revolved.
The Congress finally deciding to join hands with the Sena – after two humiliating defeats in 2014 and 2019 – signals the end of the centrality of secularism in Indian politics. Sonia Gandhi and some other senior leaders were reportedly reluctant to join hands with the Shiv Sena – which had also openly supported the Ram temple movement and was, if anything, known to be the most strident Hindutva party – but Maharashtra MLAs reportedly got restive and convinced the leadership that the party would get finished if it did not ally with the Sena.
Perhaps the institutional legitimacy that Hindutva has got as a legitimate idea of India after the Supreme Court awarded the entire disputed land in Ayodhya to the Hindu litigants makes it easier for the Congress to take this step.
The situation is now post-ideological, where it is crucial to keep a dominant party out of power wherever possible. And in this the Congress and Sena are on the same page. While the Congress believes that it has to keep the BJP out of power and also be in power in more states to survive, the Sena walked out of the NDA because the BJP’s primacy in Maharashtra, it feared, could have soon made the regional party irrelevant in the state.
But this isn’t the first time India is witness to this.
In 1967, the socialists and the BJP’s predecessor Jana Sangh – both at opposite ends of the political spectrum – had made common cause to deny the Congress a shot at power in many states. Unstable Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal governments had come up in many states, and the secular socialists and the Jana Sangh, a Hindutva party, were part of these.
In 1971, too, there was a grand opposition alliance to take on Indira Gandhi, but she scored a clean victory to return to power. Years later, the socialists and the Jana Sangh came together again, under the umbrella of the JP movement, to take the Congress on. After the Emergency, the Jana Sangh, the socialists and a few other parties merged themselves into the Janata Party.
These were days of anti-Congressism, when the Congress had to be stopped in its tracks. And ideological foes would come together to keep it out of power. Ideology wasn’t central to politics. However, one needs to note that the Janata Party came apart in the late 1970s because of ideological differences within. The socialists and the former Jana Sangh leaders could not stick together for long.
The present times are similar to the days when the Congress towered over its rivals. The BJP is now in pole position in Indian politics. And the Congress’ willingness to ally with the Shiv Sena is the clearest sign that the coming times would be those of anti-BJPism as the glue for ideologically disparate parties that want to stem the saffron party’s tide.
With the electoral and institutional dominance of Hindutva established, secularism isn’t the glue for the opposition any longer. And communalism, too, isn’t an influential political discourse now.
The target of the opposition will be the Modi-Shah BJP. And ideological differences may no longer prevent tactical alliances for this purpose.