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On the 4th of April, Ramachandra Guha wrote an essay about the importance of bipartisanship during the crisis that the nation and the world at large is going through for the Indian Daily Hindustan Times. This essay is in a response to that, as an attempt to trace the rise of extremist agendas within political parties, especially in India and the USA, and how we need to get rid of it if we are to ensure a safe post-pandemic world.

During the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential Election, Senator John McCain, the Republican Nominee, was holding a rally. He was taking questions from the crowd, and a middle-aged woman, who had obviously been taking her news from dubious sources, expressed her concern in front of her nominee: ‘I can’t trust Obama because […] He is an Arab‘. To which, Senator McCain, a war veteran, and one of the toughest men to ever walk the face of the Earth, shook his head vigorously, and replied: ‘He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I happen to have disagreements on about fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about‘. The crowd, which was filled with conservatives, responded with vociferous boos. A similar incident is noted during the run-up to the election to the Central Legislature in India in 1938, where two candidates: S. Satyamurti of the Congress Party, and A. Ramasamy Mudaliar from the Justice Party, met during a door-to-door campaign in the northern outskirts of then Madras. Back then, there was a strict ideological clash between the two parties, much of which would come to dominate Dravidian politics after the independence, particularly the question of Brahmanism and how relevant it was in the context of the southern states. When they came face-to-face Satyamurti asked Mudaliar, ‘How are your prospects?‘, to which AR repiled, ‘I don’t think they are bright‘. To this, the Congress leader said assuringly, ‘No no. They are bright.‘, and the two men parted their ways. That incident left a deep impression on one of AR‘s aides — he later even developed a reputation for unnatural civility — a then 29-year old CM Annadurai. These incidents highlight a very peculiar phenomenon that we’re observing, perhaps on an unprecedented level since the beginning of the Cold War: Polarisation.

We are undergoing, for the lack of a better word (or I’m just dumb who knows), a period of ‘tribalisation‘, across democracies around the world. Political parties, which earlier used to accommodate different ideologies and ways of thought, have seen the formation of certain superficial identities which have closed down any dissent in the rank and file in the party and have turned them into camps for all practical reasons. This has led to the radicalisation of ideas in every major political party in the world, to the point that Mitt Romney voting to convict Donald Trump after his impeachment, or someone like Subhramaniyam Swamy questioning his own party surprises us. The best example of radicalisation working on the practical level from American Politics, could be the tweets that emerged from the accounts of various Democratic Senators of a photo of bills which had passed in the Senate lying on Mitch McConnell‘s (the senate majority leader) table. McConnell is, once again, Republican, and refused to let them through, which, we know for a fact, did not arise due to his evaluation of their merits or demerits, as he has himself claimed (perhaps in a different context). Closer home, we are now living in times where one of the most long lasting impacts of the 2014 General Elections was an endless barrage of memes about the leader of a National Party, which has positively shut down his chances of assuming any power in the near future. The rhetoric has fallen down to name calling, and terms like ‘Liberals‘, or ‘Communists‘, or ‘Bhakt‘, or ‘Sanghi’ are being used to reduce people on opposing sides into categories and stereotypes, to the point where arguments are centred around justifying those tags one is giving the other person, instead of it being the other way around, which beats the whole point of a certain scientific mode of thinking, where the conclusion follows the argument, not the other way around. This vitriol, definitely, is a top-down phenomenon, parties issuing whips now even to their followers to fall in line. Historically speaking, this phenomenon is rather recent, and can be considered almost concurrent in both the democracies in question; in India, it can be traced to the popular pressure that built throughout the 60s and exploded with Indira Gandhi‘s election to the post of Prime Minister, with the Congress losing its footing across the board, and in America we can easily trace it to the emergence of Richard Nixon as the President after a few years of Democratic Governments in the country, along with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, signed by LBJ in 1965.

That is where Nehru steps in. Now, of course, in today’s political atmosphere, Nehru is a very politically charged term, but the invocation of his name is kind of the whole point behind this long post. Once again, any criticism just on the basis of him being Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian Congress must be evaluated, for there is more to life than one’s immediate impulse, and following that impulse would mean falling into the same pattern of tribalism I have spent two paragraphs talking about. Consider this an exercise in patience, and a little rationality. India, over a long period of 300 years, had slowly had most of its economic resources consumed by the British for their own interests, we can’t call them necessarily economic because in certain cases, they were also recreational. Therefore, when the country got its independence, it was necessary that it had its best minds working on the process of nation-building, a process that was also hampered due to the mass migration of people to and from Pakistan during the horrible instance of the Partition. And Nehru realised it. He also realised that these minds, however bright they were, did not necessarily belong to the same political party, let alone political affiliation. Therefore, we got a cabinet where Syama Prasad Mukherjee (for however a short period he might have served) was serving as the Minister of Commerce and Industry and BR Ambedkar was serving as the Law Minister, even though they disagreed with each other, and the Congress, on fundamental issues. Yet, they came together and decided to work together, for the sake of building a nation. Their basis of qualification was not an affiliation, but the fact that they were both accomplished individuals in their respective fields.

Those were unnatural circumstances for any democracy to be in, but then the times we are living through, the circumstances, still, are far from natural or normal. We are fighting a global pandemic in a country where actual, scientific information faces a very real threat from sensationalist news, which in most cases turns out to be fake. Therefore, we must bring together, regardless of their party affiliations, and work towards safeguarding our citizens, both in the short and long terms. Of course, this addresses the prospect that some people in the opposition parties might be more competent on a relative scale than ones in their same organisation, but that cost is miniscule as compared to what benefits might follow such a decision. This would perhaps give the government the freedom to consult people who have had years of experience being in the positions that their ministers are in currently, and a plethora of experience could be drawn from to move the country forward.

Srajit M Kumar is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.

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Written by Srajit M Kumar

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