If Shashi Tharoor was the apple of the Indian liberal’s eye during the period of the 16th Lok Sabha, it looks like he is going to have a run for his money in this 17th Lok Sabha. In her maiden speech as a parliamentarian, Mahua Moitra of the All-India Trinamool Congress has re-kindled the Indian liberal’s day dreams of putting up some sort of resistance to the Sangh Parivar’s onslaught on Indian society, its diversity, democratic systems, constitutional bodies and secular ethos.
Moitra has broken the internet, as they say, and has found her way on to our timelines on Twitter, suggestions on Facebook and forwards on WhatsApp. One ought not to be surprised by the fact that she has become an internet sensation overnight. In fact, she has all the cards stacked in her favour, when it comes to be the Indian liberal’s hero of the hour. Much like Tharoor, Moitra has been educated in the West and has worked there. She also speaks impeccable English, which needless to say, is a prerequisite for becoming the Indian liberal's saviour.
Undoubtedly, one ought to give her credit where it is due, and it certainly is due as far as her speech is concerned. She is emphatic, empathetic and emotive. She could very well be the ‘argumentative Indian’ (Amartya Sen). All that is true. But, is this sufficient to take on the RSS and the BJP?
Anyone who has a faint idea of how the Sangh works, how it deploys its cadre and its resources, would know that a good speech is not enough. Still, the Indian liberal may not necessarily know that because, essentially the liberal has only a limited understanding of how things work on the ground.
Liberals and Begusarai
In the recent parliamentary election, a select constituency and a specific candidate was highlighted across media platforms on a day to day basis. Scores of Indian liberals flocked to that constituency to aid that candidate’s campaign, without even sparing a second or a penny for their own constituencies. Yet, what was the outcome? The ‘saviour’ of the Indian liberal was routed by the Sangh Parivar by a belittling margin of over 400,000 votes.
For those who are still wondering as to whom I am talking about, let me lay your confusions to rest. The constituency was Begusarai in Bihar, and the candidate was none other than the feisty Kanhaiya Kumar who rained down fire on the Sangh Parivar and on Narendra Modi in particular, thanks to his oratory skills. All through the past couple of years in the run up to the election, and throughout the campaign trail, no other candidate had spoken so vociferously against the Sangh and Modi. His speeches in Hindi and English had won thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of hearts and minds across the country.
In the final countdown, Kanhaiya came up short; short by 422,217 votes to be exact. It seems that the hearts and minds he won had little impact on his native constituency. His candidature and campaign received considerable media coverage; it almost seemed as if he was the opposition’s joint Prime Ministerial candidate. I wonder if the liberals out there - who vouched that Kanhaiya would be the man of this election – ever pondered as to why or how this could happen; how could he lose by such a humiliating margin?
One of the most important reasons as to why and how Kanhaiya Kumar lost, to put it in a nutshell, is organisation. The vast network that the Sangh Parivar has built for itself throughout the length and breadth of this country, is like an octopus with a million tentacles. The Sangh as such is more like the mythical sea monster, the Leviathan. Nobody has seen it in its entirety, and probably, nobody understands it completely. But, one thing is certain: it is an organisational machinery that never sleeps. It is the Indian empire on which the sun never sets. Its turnaround time could even put Google’s search engines to shame.
If one needs (mis)information on something that happened or is to happen anywhere in India, the Sangh Parivar can get it to you in a matter of minutes. Suppose the information is sought regarding an issue in Uttar Pradesh by someone from Tamil Nadu, it can get the information for you in Tamil. And, for the sake of its operatives all across the country, the same information would be made available in Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Odiya, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, and so on. It is against this well-organised and mighty network that India is fighting to retain its secular ethos and democratic credentials. I doubt if the Indian liberal truly understands the gravity of this situation.
Organisation on the ground
Mahua Moitra was an investment banker in the United States. She returned to India and shortly afterwards entered electoral politics. She first worked with the Indian National Congress (INC) because – let’s face it – the INC is the dream destination of the Indian liberal. She realised quickly that the INC had no legs in her home state of West Bengal. Within a year, Moitra left the INC and joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC). To her, the goal of becoming a career politician would be made easy by the TMC as unlike the INC, they had foot soldiers on the ground in West Bengal. Also, it would ideologically work out well for her, because the TMC also has no firm opinion on anything.
To make a mark in electoral politics, Moitra thought that it was best to join a party that has an organisation on the ground. This is more efficient than wasting energy to set up an organisation on the ground for the party that she had initially joined.
One can’t blame her. She learned from those who walked ahead of her on the liberal road to Indian electoral politics. Take Shashi Tharoor, for example. The globetrotter came to his ancestral land and joined the party with an organisation on the ground – the INC. It is another issue that he and his party tilted rightward and had an affair with the Sangh Parivar in Kerala over the Sabarimala issue. Even at the risk of putting a dent to his liberal image, he stood against the Supreme Court verdict which upheld the Indian Constitution and called for gender equality in matters of faith. Do bear in mind that this is the same person who keeps reiterating in his speeches that the Indian Constitution should be preserved.
Why? Because, organisation matters when it comes to the electoral game. You need workers on the ground to put up instant fish stalls for you and bring grandmothers to your rallies so that you can hug them and pose for pictures. Tharoor knows it all too well, and so does Moitra.
And, when both have demonstrated that they will go with the stronger organisation when the need arises, what happens to their ultimate project of safeguarding Indian secularism and democracy? Liberal values disappear when it comes to the consolidation of power on the ground. Both Tharoor and Moitra know that. The liberal who watches them from afar might not.
One of the key points that Moitra makes in her speech is this: the spirit of dissent is integral to India. West Bengal, Moitra’s state, is part of India. Her party – the TMC – has been in government since 2011. Over the past eight years, the TMC has cracked down on dissent on the population of West Bengal. No mention of that. No mention of the incident when TMC leader Mamata Banerjee, as Chief Minister of West Bengal, accused college students of being Maoist and Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] supporters. No mention of the hundreds of left activists murdered in West Bengal under the TMC? No mention of the homes attacked; the livelihood destroyed of people who dissent. No mention of Sudipto Gupta, the 22-year old student killed in police custody under the TMC government.
The liberal might not care about the left. Moitra laid out a series of danger signs of fascism. One of them is the erosion of independence of our electoral system. No mention here of the destruction of the electoral system in West Bengal, the refusal to allow opposition candidates to register their papers, the refusal to allow voters to vote. No mention of the violence in last year’s local self-government elections. No mention of widespread rigging in West Bengal.
Moitra did not mention these points. They would undermine her image.
Hope of the Indian Liberal
Icons of liberalism have a record of betrayal of values. Rajiv Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee – each has been lifted up at one time or another as an icon. But each has been a disappointment – often for their complicity with hard or soft Hindutva.
Farmers and agricultural workers are on the march against the terrible crisis in the countryside. Tribals are on the march against forced evictions from forest lands. Dalits are on the march against routine and regular lynching. Minority communities are on the march against the terrible suffocation of Indian society. Children are on the march against inadequate public health systems. Women are on the march against the patriarchy. Youngsters are on the march against joblessness. There is a lot of marching in India. And yet, these hundreds of millions of people are largely ignored, not only by the liberal icons but by those who are in search of a saviour. The saviour is not in the masses, but in the occasional speech.
The Sangh Parivar is in power because of the organisation that it has built and that is its foundation. People like Tharoor and Moitra are able to make their liberal speeches because they have – beneath them – an infrastructure that is brutal and illiberal. No liberal has tried to build a liberal mass organisation. Before you put another liberal politician on the pedestal, it is worthwhile to ask: are you willing to build an organisation to challenge the Sangh Parivar and not to mimic it on the ground?
Samuel Mathew, based in Kerala, is an independent researcher. Views are personal.