RIGHT Foot Forward
Reinvent the Khan Market Consensus: To challenge Narendra Modi, liberals need a new way forward
Instead of expecting a reformation in the Congress party and/or attacking Modi, liberals need to do some real intellectual labour.
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In the '60s, when the first United Front government came to power in West Bengal, Kolkata had its own “occupy” moment. The Calcutta Swimming Club was then the exclusive preserve of expatriates. Ram Chatterjee, a newly minted minister, raided the club with a truck-load of tribals (Santhals). While the men jumped into the swimming pool, Chatterjee and his followers broke open the Bar.
Half a decade later, on Thursday evening, a bunch of young men and women were seen partying in Delhi’s tony Khan Market, wearing t-shirts printed with “Khan Market Consensus” on the back and "Modi 2.0" in front. When Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were addressing jubilant party workers at the new BJP headquarters in the capital’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, this group was having its own celebrations of the BJP’s stunning victory.
But, unlike Ram Chatterjee’s followers, the revellers in Khan Market were not drawn from the subaltern classes. Obviously Modi supporters, they were students and young professionals, who appeared quite at home in the chic surroundings.
The slogan on their outfits was an obvious reference to Narendra Modi’s interview to a national daily a few days ago. Modi called the left liberal media the “Khan Market gang”.
#KhanMarket consensus: ‘The Khan Market gang... did not create my image’: PM Modi. (Photo: DailyO)
'Modi ki chhavi, Delhi ke Khan Market ke gang ne nahin banayi hai, Lutyens Delhi ne nahin banayi hai. 45 saal ki Modi ki tapasya ne chhavi banayi hai. Achchi hai ya buri hai' (Modi’s image has not been created by the Khan Market gang, or Lutyens Delhi, but 45 years of his toil… good or bad). You can read it here.
Narendra Modi’s troubled relationship with the Left liberal lobby dates back to 2002 — it got bitter after he became the Prime Minister in 2014 against all odds.
Stunned by the Modi’s 2014 victory, the so-called liberal and secular constituency tried to wish it away as a one-off event. They invoked Nassim Nicholas Taleb to call it a “Black Swan” election. The general consensus was that if the opposition plays its cards right and stops Modi on his tracks, he'd be a “one-term” Prime Minister.
Get a Grip: The resignation of RBI governor Raghuram Rajan was blown out of proportion by the liberals. (Photo: Reuters)
The argument presented was that, the BJP got only 31% vote-share (add another 7% for the NDA partners). Therefore, the mandate was far from conclusive. If the opposition could regroup and put up a united fight against the BJP, it would lose on arithmetic alone.
So, they got down to the cause of ‘dismantling’ Modi with gusto from Day One. As Prime Minister, Modi could not take a single step without inviting criticism or indictment from the erstwhile establishment. Whether at home, or abroad, Modi could do nothing right in their eyes.
From “Award Wapsi” to fake news on “Church Attacks” the Left liberal warriors put all their might to waylay Narendra Modi early in his innings.
The international media was also co-opted. Some leading publications like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist and TIME magazine provided space to Modi critics especially on issues like freedom of expression and the safety of minorities. NRI academics and economists were inducted into the band for taking the government apart on economy and foreign policy issues. A few among them were earlier rooting for Modi — but later switched sides, on the excuse of “post-purchase dissonance” sensing a change of season. The resignation of the RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan was blown up as a national calamity that could crash the monetary system.
From Vijay Mallya to Nirav Modi: The liberals played all their cards. They still couldn’t sway public opinion. (Photo: Business Today)
The ecosystem tasted blood with demonetisation, GST, GDP and employment data. The opposition upped the ante in August 2017. The government went on the backfoot for a short period and the impression was created about the tide turning. Next came Rafale, Vijay Mallya and the Nirav Modi scam. Rahul Gandhi looked on a roll.
On the political front, the BJP’s sweep of the Uttar Pradesh elections, close on the heels of demonetisation, came as an unexpected setback. But hopes were restored in some of the by-elections to the Lok Sabha especially in Uttar Pradesh, where the opposition put up common candidates. This was repeated in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where there were signs of anti-incumbency setting in.
The Karnataka Congress-JDS experiment was a confidence booster, showing that the glue of power can bring strange bedfellows together.
In Gujarat, the Congress got the first whiff of success after many decades. This made the pundits opine — “Modi is no longer invincible”. Excitement reached a crescendo with Rahul Gandhi’s much awaited was elevation as Congress President.
Rahul Gandhi was finally said to have arrived.
He was meant to have arrived. But before time? (Photo: Reuters)
If any doubt was left, it was comprehensively settled by the results of the Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assembly elections. So, Rahul Gandhi entered his Lok Sabha campaign with new energy and momentum. This injected fresh hope among all those opposed to the BJP-RSS at large — and Narendra Modi in particular.
Gandhi’s speeches became more combative and he turned belligerent on social media, which was happily lapped up by his yuppie fans. His carefully planned foreign trips got better media traction. The attempt to repackage him as a modern and progressive Gen-Next politician seemed to be working. The international community started taking him more seriously and contrary to claims of the party, there were clear signs of funds flowing in for his campaign.
This contributed to minor euphoria in the liberal universe. A number of left-wing news portals mushroomed, whose sole editorial mandate was apparently to attack Narendra Modi and the BJP government. Shoddy investigative stories and stings were carried out to taint the BJP top-brass. Op-ed writers and public intellectuals writing for them turned more caustic by the day.
The activist lobby was marshalled and a new form of judicial activism came into vogue. It became fashionable to accuse the government of compromising constitutional institutions — at times, targeting its heads. The media lapped it all up. The echo chambers of the capital were abuzz with various scripts leading to the same ending — the ouster of Narendra Modi.
Finally, when Rahul Gandhi conducted a rather spunky press conference after the close of campaigning on Friday, the 17th of May, he almost signaled to his favourite restaurateurs in Khan Market to get their places ready for partying on May 23rd.
A party that never happened: Alas, Rahul Gandhi could not have a grand party at Khan Market on May 23. (Photo: India Today)
The near convergence of most Exit Poll results, announced after the seventh and final phase of polling got over on Sunday, the 19th, pretty much put paid to all those theories. Still hopes were kept alive on the oxygen of rumours about EVM tampering and stock market scams.
But the sheer scale of the BJP’s victory on Thursday blew all hopes and objections away. .
Realisation finally set in among the liberati that they were betting on the wrong player and team — Rahul Gandhi and the Congress — all along.
Perhaps in a moment of acute frustration, Yogendra Yadav, psephologist-turned politician and farmer leader and the “go to” intellectual for TV channels, expressed the rather extreme view — 'The Congress must die'.
The Congress must die.If it could not stop the BJP in this election to save the idea of India, this party has no positive role in Indian history. Today it represents the single biggest obstacle to creation of an alternative.My reaction to @sardesairajdeep https://t.co/IwlmBmf75d— Yogendra Yadav (@_YogendraYadav) May 19, 2019
Ramachandra Guha, reigning doyen of the liberals, repeated his prescription for Rahul Gandhi to resign and appoint a non-Gandhi as party President.
It is astonishing that Rahul Gandhi has not yet resigned as Congress President. His party performed very poorly; he lost his own pocket borough. Both self-respect, as well as political pragmatism, demand that the Congress elect a new leader. But perhaps the Congress has neither.— Ramachandra Guha (@Ram_Guha) May 24, 2019
Other stalwarts were reverted to their old refrain — “the Congress must re-invent itself”.
Many liberals have indignantly commented, what the Congress does to reinvent itself is its internal matter. Outsiders, especially right-wing BJP supporters, have no business poking their nose into it. They are right in saying so. However, the problem lies in the fact that even they do not have either an alternate leader or a model on offer.
As far as leaders go, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was widely seen as the “trump card” or Brahmastra”, waiting in the wings. After these elections, her fans may not be so sure.
She was meant to be the Congress' Brahmastra. Has that misfired? (Photo: Reuters)
Many think the answer lies in cutting the umbilical cord of the Gandhi-Nehru Dynasty. But that may not be an option in a family-owned enterprise.
A half-way solution suggested was to bring a “Gen-Next” educated and progressive leader to centre-stage. Many of them come from political dynasties and were part of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle. Therefore, their compatibility with the ruling family was likely to be better. But the limitations of this “Baba-log” brigade were also exposed at these hustings.
Another radical thought was the possibility of a “leadership coup”. But, the “khandaan” has ensured that there are no leaders of either stature or substance to pull the rug from behind.
Sometime ago, a Nehruvian public intellectual had come up with the novel idea of “importing” a leader from outside. He had taken the name of Nitish Kumar. Others thought a reverse merger with some breakaway groups, like the NCP or Trinamool, could be a way forward. But, to be honest, these sound like idle fantasy.
Looking beyond the Congress, AAP and Arvind Kejriwal were seen as the great new hope. But it fizzled out in no time, out of its own contradictions. To keep the BJP out, the liberals were willing to look the other way from corruption and minority appeasement and back parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal. After Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashri Yadav was spotted as the next star on the secular pantheon. Some pragmatists even argued in favour of coalitions, however disparate, and made a case for why a period of instability is preferable to a majoritarian regime.
However, from the results of May 2019 it would appear that such an idea did not favour with the people.
However, an alternative must be found. It would be a truism to say democracy needs built-in checks and balances. The risks of a government with absolute majority under a highly charismatic leader with incipient authoritarian streaks and a strong-arm deputy in tow cannot be wished away.
Celebrate him, by all means. But it is crucial to also have counters to his powers. (Photo: India Today)
But for that, the liberals will have to first dump the Congress and cut their losses.
More than the Congress, they need to “re-invent” themselves.
They have to recognise the world around them has changed.
The old 31% argument will not hold. In these elections the BJP has breached 50% vote share in 13 states. Its overall vote share has gone up to 40.3% and with allies, 47%.
The future generations of Khan Market customers will not all be products of JNU, St Stephen’s and LSR. Many of them will come out of Lovely, Galgotia and Amity universities. And they would have grown up reading Chetan Bhagat and Devdutt Patnaik rather than Kafka, Camus and Sartre.
The Congress had underestimated the impact of toilets, cooking gas and electricity in villages. These successes showed how the aspirations of the rural masses have changed. Rather than doles, much of which was in any case pocketed by middlemen, universal healthcare, crop insurance and Mudra loans make greater sense to farmers. Selling pakodas is indeed seen as a better occupation than serving tea in government offices.
Those on the left of centre have to accept that Modi has changed the socio-political paradigm irreversibly. Therefore, a remix of the caste, religion and povertarian economics will not work any longer. Nor will the monopoly of a select class hold. Coming to terms with this new reality can be a good starting point.
Instead of trying to resist the inevitable, the liberals should put intellectual capital in creating a new meeting ground, much like the middle alley of Khan Market. Expecting a perestroika in the Congress or a revolt of the old BJP-RSS guard against Modi — both would be a lazy approach.
However, the nation needs an alternative. And, for that, it cannot wait indefinitely. Necessity, as the cliché goes, is the mother of invention. Equally, nature abhors a vacuum. Therefore, if the liberals cannot provide an answer, other options will naturally emerge.
After five years of disruptive and obstructionist politics, that has been rejected by the people, the Left should realise if they have to yield space to those on the right of centre. Otherwise, they will become as irrelevant as the Communists in Parliament.
Come, let’s make the Khan Market Consensus more ‘inclusive’