In a press conference held a few days back, the hitherto electorally irrelevant Swaraj India party seems to have made an offbeat yet refreshing announcement. Announcing a campaign called ICAN-2019(Indian Citizens Action for Nation- 2019, Yogendra Yadav called for constructive agenda-setting for the 2019 elections in stark contrast to the mandi-masjid and blame game politics being played by most political parties. The campaign whose participants can be individuals, people’s movements, NGOs and even political parties would probe into what the ‘real issues’ for the country are. Then a manifesto would be framed about how these problems will be addressed, and what policies need to be adopted. The participants of the campaign would then give their input in the selection of a list of people who are suitable to raise these issues in the Parliament. A dispassionate panel of eminent people will then choose these candidates. These people would then fight the elections on the solid plank of their constructive visions about solving those problems.

As the 2019 election nears there is an attempt to polarise the electorate. The Ram Janmabhoomi issue is being thrown up as a last ditch attempt by the BJP to maintain its Pan-Hindu appeal. The weakening of institutions like the Supreme Court, CBI and RBI and even the CIC has been the hallmark of this government. More importantly there has been an attempt to clampdown on civil liberties. Even the common man has borne the brunt of rising prices and what is being called ‘jobless growth’. The farmers and workers who were neglected even by the UPA have been forgotten by this government. The opposition is seeking to unite to defeat the BJP without any ideological consensus let alone any Common Minimum Programme. What potential then does this new initiative and the ICAN campaign hold not just for Swaraj India, but for electoral democracy in this country? Swaraj India has dared to make this election about the country and not about its own political success. Here is how.

Growing alienation of farmers and workers

The alienation of farmers and workers seems to have reached a crescendo under this government. The Jai Kisan rally which saw participation of lakhs of farmers in Delhi was one of the largest in recent memory. While demonetization, Aadhar and faulty NREGA have broken the back of the organized and unorganized workers, policies like PM Fasal Bima Yogna and non-implementation of MSP measures are starving the already impoverished farmers. There are severe droughts in Maharashtra and elsewhere. P Sainath and others have highlighted the dire state of affairs. Amidst all this hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to Delhi on the 30th of Novembers to make their plight known. On the stage of the rally were all the major opposition leaders, though the march was in no way organized by these parties. This has made the issue of farmers and workers a new priority which no political party can dare to neglect. The analysis about the recently concluded elections which were touted to be the ‘semi-final’ before the grand finale suggests that BJP is losing in rural areas where there is acute agrarian distress. Congress seems to be enjoying the benefit of that, though it has nothing substantial to offer either.

The Swaraj India party was a big political force behind this march of farmers. It is difficult to say whether they now possess a strong electoral base amongst the farmers, but their connect with farmers and understanding of their issues is unparalleled in the spectrum of political parties. If not anything they have set the agenda for the 2019 elections, which will hinge on farmers issues and political parties will have to engage with this in their manifestoes. It must be highlighted that since 1991, there has been a political consensus about the type of development which India needs to have. Both UPA and the NDA have focused on neo-liberal policies and GDP growth figures which has made the rich richer while completely neglecting agriculture and workers. Increasing opening up of farm sectors to FDI have hit farmers and the ‘shift from an agricultural economy to a service economy’ has meant increasing joblessness for the farm sector, which is not even  being made up by job creation in manufacturing or services. Seen in this context ICAN can presage a shift from this dangerous political consensus about economic development. Once real issues are identified as farmers’ suicides and exploitation of labour, political parties will have to engage with these problems by repudiating neo-liberal policies.

Social Movements turning into political movements

The invitation of people’s movements into the ICAN fold coupled with the twin legacies of ‘India Against Corruption movement’ and ‘Jai Kishan Andolan’ which the Swaraj India party holds presents a unique opportunity. The transition of social movements into successful political movements seems desirable if not necessary for the preservation of the democracy. They set refreshing agendas which are more in touch with the real feelings of the people. India against corruption movement made ‘the appearance of being Anti-corrupt’ a priority in electoral democracy. More recently Jignesh Mevani’s demand for land to landless Dalits and call for them to move away from manual scavenging and skinning of dead animals has been awarded with electoral success. The BJP in Gujarat had to face this major roadblock on its way to power in the last elections. BAMCEF and the movement for Bahujan upliftment similarly set the agenda for social upliftment of bahujans.

New conception of development

More importantly social movements provide a certain radical relook at the ideological approaches of different political parties. Today the West and its institutions dictate the terms of development and good life for the Indian government and Indians. The ICAN movement is therefore novel in that, the responsive way of agenda-setting and solution finding it proposes is unlikely to be mimicry of the West. People’s movements and grassroots NGOs often know best which policy will work to improve the lives of people who have been rendered helpless by these neo-liberal policies. A policy which addresses farmer’s suicide, exploitative wage rates, annihilates caste and tackles displacement will be ‘Indian’ and not import the western model which does not fit out unique context. Gandhian and Ambedkarite thought whose thought political movements draw from and enliven and likely to be the real margdarshaks of this ICAN campaign. Thus those parties who pay lip service to these Gandhi and Ambedkar and show false sympathy for farmers and workers will have a hard time engaging with the new agenda.

Diversity and Identity

Two reasons are being increasingly identified by social scientists for the rise of the right wing, around the world. First are ‘neoliberal economic policies which lead to job loss, displacement and economic crisis (like 2008 financial crisis). These policies make it easy for the radical right to point to the ‘immigrant’ or the ‘Dalit/Muslim’ as the reason for the state of their country like Hitler did to Jews in wake of the 1930s depression. Second is the feeling of resentment which comes on being uprooted from ones cultural roots due to modernisation and westernisation. This has tempted many youth who know nothing about Islam or Hinduism ( thanks to their ‘westernised’ upbringing) to take up arms to secure their lost roots. The youth is then taught to rally around something as shallow as gauraksha and ram-mandir to save his culture. Juxtaposed with this the constructive sense of belonging Indianised social movements offer seems to assuage this feeling of rootlessness. They trace their roots from Gandhian Socialism, Ambedkarite thought and the rich tradition of Indian socialists embodied by the likes of Lohia and Kishen Patnaik. ‘Anti-corruption’ and ‘Pro-farmer’ then become more than just buzzwords, they a new rallying point of constitutional patriotism, which need not hate another to ‘organise as a community’ or ‘drain the swamp’. As the slogan goes ‘Hindu na Mussalman, bas Kisan aur Naujavan’

Join the ICAN movement here.


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