Politics is often seen as a battle between political parties of left and right. The dichotomy allegedly covers the entire space and choices get allocated accordingly. Such an ideological polarity shows little understanding of the voters’ mind, either in terms of their understanding of the political process or their sense of ideology. Voters often refuse to be stirred by media or rhetoric but operate from a gut-level, existential sense of their situation. They read everything from their location. In doing so, they often distance themselves from a political process that’s obsessed with questions they do not relate to.
Worse, they often see politics as selectively indifferent to their plight. The discontent is of two kinds. There is, first, a discontent with the political process itself. Politics itself is seen as disempowering. Protest becomes noise as the voter/citizen realises politics does not aggregate his/her interests into a policy process. As a result, the voter feels a sense of benign neglect from politics itself. The voter’s other angst is about the behaviour of parties, which tend to be frozen in time, still considering the Sixties as representative of the present era.
One can sense this in the fate of Hillary Clinton. Hillary’s survival itself was a function of time but time became her worst enemy as American voters decided she was marked by the establishment and less open to them. Her responses to political issues were predictable and voters felt she was not fine-tuned to their sensitivities. They found new politicians and demagogues to be better articulators of the changing sense of politics, more attuned to the changing world. Hillary might have felt her politics had an epic quality but voters preferred the limericks and slapstick of Donald Trump. He was more sociologically resonant in an age where Hillary had become a period piece.
There was a double sense of alienation where Hillary’s alienation from the voters’ sense of politics resonated with the sense of disconnect from politics itself. It is this double alienation that I want to call the liberal disconnect. Hillary was not the first casualty of such a process. One has to emphasise the nuances of the process. The voter disconnect was a general one but it is the Right that turned it into a major electoral issue. The Right exploited the situation and did so with cascading effect.
There was a pomposity to liberalism in power that we must acknowledge and understand. Liberals assumed they were the natural inheritors, especially after the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union. In a folkloric sense, liberals felt history and the market and the new age of individualism made them the logical, inevitable alternative. As a result, liberalism created a crust over itself—a cocoon of readymade, predictable responses. I want to dub this a case of Pavlovian liberalism, with reflexes producing predictable results. Liberalism thus became a kneejerk affair, a case of reflexes, which failed to capture the new feelings that left the voter inarticulate. The liberal was indifferent or deaf to the new anxieties of the public.
There was a second part to this process. If the first was a voter disconnect, the second might be seen as a candidate’s embeddedness in interest group politics. Hillary, as a candidate, exemplified this. Far from being a fresh, articulate and representative voice sensitive to voter reaction, she pretty much ignored the voters’ anxieties—convinced she knows what is best for them. Voters not only sensed her distance, they began to feel the party leaders were catering to the interest groups, the business classes around him. Hillary Clinton as a political leader has got habituated both to power (long innings as Governor and Senator) and to catering to lobbies and interests. She operated with a quick eye to profit than to a sense of citizen angst. This holds true despite her winning the popular vote—an examination of votes for Trump from the economically distressed industrial belts will suffice to prove this.
Worse, as the globalisation process unfolded and workers lost their jobs to outsourcing, people felt the elite was more cosmopolitan and internationalist than nationalist. Hillary, as a liberal, was playing the cosmopolitan goddess advocating new legislation for LGBT and climate change. When change itself becomes a source of anxiety, the changemaker becomes a threat to the citizen or is seen as such. Liberals are good at formulating what they call progressive change while the right is more muscular about the dangers of change, catering better to the psychology of defeat, change and anxiety. Trump’s Falstaffian clown, bawdy and simplistic about economics and its consequence, worked perfectly in this context.
This great disconnect was not confined to America alone. The Brexit vote was another example of voter alienation from what it sees as the liberal snobbery of an EU class talking internationalism when local jobs and industries were folding up.
This sense of disconnect, where politics was no longer embedded in the immediacy of emerging experience, has been part of the Indian story too over the last two decades. Here, the irony that liberalisation does not guarantee the liberals a vote becomes even more apparent. If one examines the rhetoric of those years, one senses that it was not so much that the BJP was voted in but that the Congress, as a sad travesty of itself, was voted out.
There was something muscularly political about the Indira Gandhi years. A sense of the political stuck to Rajiv and Narasimha Rao, one through mimicry and the other through experience. But the decade that inaugurated the Sonia-Manmohan era has an almost surreal quality of indifference. The Congress became an inner-directed party, indifferent to the very changes Rao-Manmohan had unleashed. Sadly, Marxism in India was equally irrelevant, where the tactics of the Left were marked by a poor understanding of the fall of Communist Russia and an indifference to local movements and struggles, like those led by fishermen, the Narmada-affected, or the adivasis. Trade unionism had become a ritual game rather than an effort to obtain worker freedom.
There was one difference however. The impact of change suffered a mirror inversion. Because here, change is precisely what the masses and the middle class wanted. And the Congress, in its new liberal vintage, stood wooden about change.
India had undergone major changes. It was demographically youth-centred, and the middle and lower classes defined themselves as aspirational, emphasising a sense of achievement orientation. There was a demand for the dynamism of political change but what the Congress presented was a triptych of conservatism that made little sense to the citizens. First, Manmohan, who sounded like a stuttering professor unable to explain his equations on the blackboard. Then Sonia, who appeared like a matriarch consolidating the clan rather than addressing the nation. And finally Rahul Gandhi, who should have been the most dynamic of the lot, in tune with his mobile aspirational generation. He sounded quaint, illiterate and unrealistic, talking about the Congress as a family legacy, repeatedly echoing the sacrifices his family has made for the nation. He was a mirror inversion of what the nation desperately needed.
Rahul’s entourage was cannon fodder for Narendra Modi. Modi grew like an Antaeus every time he touched base with Rahul. Suddenly India confronted a situation where a Congress was indifferent to the cultural unconscious and material aspirations of the Indian people. It behaved like a conservative club rather than a mass party. The Left was happily out of touch, indifferent to the havoc it had wreaked in Bengal. The voter had little choice given the moribund nature of the Congress and the Communist parties. Regional parties were a possibility but a revitalised BJP with Modi playing both technocrat and demagogue to perfection filled the void. It was as if, by default, the other parties had ceded to the BJP the domain of the political. It was a double appropriation of the political. Modi grabbed the opportunity and literally reinvented himself around the political indifference of the other parties.
There is one final observation one has to make. There was a disconnect between the lifestyle and political rhetoric in the Congress which oozed both political ease and affluence. The BJP, especially in its RSS avatar, evoked an asceticism that always had a traditional appeal.
Politics in India had become void of political possibility. It was the Right which was a master of vacuums, absenteeism and distance. It realised it had the rhetoric, the performative chutzpah to play to anxieties. It revelled between the politics of anxiety and the politics of paranoia, coming to power in an age where socialism had been emasculated. The liberal disconnect we speak of is the story of that split-level disaster—a liberalism that thought itself pompously self-sufficient and a Right that has moved into power solely on the idiocy of the Left. It is a fable of disconnect parties will not forget for decades.
(Shiv Visvanathan considers himself a social science nomad.)