If, as Gramsci said, ‘the counting of “votes” is the final ceremony of a long process’—a process of persuasion and alliance-building—the 2004 Indian elections were an apparent anomaly for the Gramscian schema.footnote1 The surprise installation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in New Delhi could be called neither final nor ceremonial. Rather, a grim new dynamic has entered the unfolding political developments of the last decades. The rise of Hindutva—authoritarian Hindu nationalism—and its party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, were central to these. The two successive National Democratic Alliance governments—coalitions of the bjp with the majority of the country’s regional parties—in 1998 and 1999 had constituted their climax. The 2004 verdict has now entwined the Congress within this vortex.

The nda’s tenure witnessed a systematic ‘saffronization’ of state and civil society. The personnel, practices and philosophy of the bjp’s larger family of Hindutva organizations (the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Sangh Parivar), were embedded within the country’s cultural and educational institutions, the media, politics and the economy. Although controversies raged—over history textbooks, the teaching of ‘Vedic Mathematics’ and astrology, prayers in schools, the promotion of the Hindu hymn ‘Vande Matram’ to equal status with the national anthem, and the replacements of members of regulatory bodies such as Prasar Bharti (in charge of broadcasting) with Hindutva acolytes—the scale of the changes ensured the prosecution of most without significant comment or resistance. While events such as the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in bjp-ruled Gujarat could arouse widespread outrage, media commentary and statements from the country’s political and industrial leaders indicated a new conviviality between the bjp and the country’s possessing classes. Flourishing Indian tv and Bombay’s ‘dream-factory’ film industry, always an accurate political weathercock, celebrated high-caste Hindu values and barely gentrified anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments. Those who had chalked Hindutva’s political success up to its violent communal campaigns had to face the pervasiveness of these sentiments. No better confirmation of this could be found than the Congress’s explicit adoption of ‘soft Hindutva’ themes in the late 1990s.

The surprise verdict of 2004 interrupted, rather than consummated, these processes—as though their author had suddenly remembered the unfinished business of the fate of Congress and recalled it into the narrative of Hindutva’s rise; possibly for summary dispatch. Congress vaulted into government alright, but also into the crucible of a political system deeply transformed by Hindutva. Its future now depends on how the Congress deals with one simple fact: recent political developments have allotted it an electorate that consists overwhelmingly of the poor, the lower classes and castes, and the minorities. In some ways the Congress leadership recognizes this: for example, in its pro-poor, developmental and secularist election appeals.

Shouldn’t the Congress then take the next logical step and become the authentic party—politically and programmatically—of the poor and the minorities: to rally the constituencies of the Left as a counter to the bjp’s successful organization of the Right? Logical, perhaps, but unlikely. The Congress has rarely evinced the political will and ability to stand up to Hindutva and neoliberalism—indeed, the whole weight of Congress tradition militates against this. For its populist election appeals sit uneasily alongside a quite contrary desire to regain its position as the normal party of the bourgeoisie, a position from which it was rudely dislodged by the bjp. It is this desire that still orients the Congress’s politics, ensuring that any recognition of new electoral realities remains only instrumental.

The Congress might yet acquire another, ‘second-best’ vocation in Indian politics: as an alternative to the bjp but not to Hindutva or neoliberalism, seeking only to soften their impact on its constituency sufficiently to win elections with reasonable regularity. The Congress might become a second bourgeois party alternating in power, much like the Democratic Party in the us. In this instance the two main rivals—the bjp and the Congress—would rally alternative multi-party coalitions. Even this limited ambition involves balancing opposing pressures: the desire to demonstrate to the predominantly Hindu propertied classes that the all-important ‘reforms’ are on track, and the assertion of their Hindu identity licensed, so as to detach them at least partially from Hindutva; and the need to deliver some reward to its vast, predominantly poor and minority electorate, while navigating the perils of minority government in a highly volatile situation. Failure will spell the Congress’s political end, bringing what I have elsewhere called the ‘long death of the Congress party’ to its tragic, but possibly merciful, conclusion. Formally the Congress party may live on, as other institutions that have lost their purpose, but not their resources or personnel, have done. But it would be a ghostly after-life whose prating course will only recall what once was and, perhaps, what might have been.