Narendra Modi in his ‘divide, distract, and rule’ avatar
Nothing succeeds like success. In spite of failures on almost all development fronts, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has massively won his second term. As against 282 seats in 2014, his BJP has won 303 seats in 2019. The party’s vote share has jumped from 31% to 38%, from 17 crores to 22 crores.
The question is, has India’s democracy lost in the process, both in parliamentary and federal terms. In the vote, neither the candidate nor state-specific, leave alone constituency-specific, issues figured. People voted either for Modi or against him. If not so, how can one explain that an alleged terrorist Sadhwi Pragya Singh, who thinks that cow urine cures cancer, cuddling cows reduces blood pressure, and that Mahatma Gandhi’s killer Nathruam Godse was a patriot, can defeat by a massive margin a veteran Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who is known for his secular credentials?
Modi has promised not to forgive her ever for her anti-Gandhi remark. We will wait to see how Modi’s anger is expressed in the parliament, or, who knows, in the cabinet.
BJP’s Hindutva is a clever region-specific ploy to craft a Hindu vote bank. For example, in UP, which has 20% Muslims, beef eating, location of meat shops near temples, love jihad (Muslim boys forcibly marrying Hindu girls to convert them to Islam), and ghar wapsi (Indian Muslims should reconvert to Hinduism) are the veritable tools.
For Assam and West Bengal, each of which has about 30% Muslims, and which have meat-eating food habits in general, beef is a non-issue. The issue there is Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators; Hindu infiltrators are most welcome. In Goa, Kerala, or northeast, which have sizable Christian populations, beef is not the issue. Conversion to Christianity or Hindu temple entry topics matter there.
On the national level, Hindutva is denoted by anti-Pakistanism and anti-(Islamic) terrorism. When in Christchurch Muslims are massacred, Modi sends condolences to the New Zealand prime minister. But when Muslims massacre Christians in Sri Lanka, it figures in Modi’s campaign speeches. Only adolescents will fail to recognize the connection between Modi’s reference to the Indian Air Force’s Balakot attack and his tongue-in-cheek Hindutva message.
In the international context, who cares about beef eating or beef exports. When Indians beeline for visas to go to beef-eating America, Europe, or the Middle East, I wish someone reminded them of their national credo against beef. Ironically, the stoutest section among Modi’s NRI’s support bases is comprised of vegetarian Gujaratis in beef-eating America and England.
The same Amit Shah, a Gujarati, who ridicules Bangladeshis in India as termites forgets to remember that his community had the biggest presence in America till recently (lately overtaken by people from Andhra Pradesh).
Indians are obsessed with religion and nationalism these days as never before. No drawing room conversation can be complete without it. I recall a German professor who used to frequently visit India and Pakistan telling me about 20 years ago that unlike Indians, how Pakistanis were obsessed with Islam and India.
Indians were so relaxed, he used to find. I think if the same professor visits India now he would see a mirror image of the then Pakistan in today’s India -- Indians’ obsession with Hinduism and Pakistan. This is Modi’s seminal contribution, and he deserves credit for it.
For an academic like this writer, it is always a huge trial to analyze a vote. Should his tool be normative or explanatory? The latter is simpler because it is post-facto. TV anchors keep explaining to their viewers what all went wrong with the opposition. But if they are so omniscient, why did they not say so before the results?
To be normative is to take an unaltered position both before and after the election. A mandate has, therefore, to be dissected through that single prism.
Viewed from that perspective, it is being argued here that this pro-Modi mandate does not augur well for India. So much of Hindutva linctus has been injected into India’s body politic that it needs courage for any political party to downright denounce it in the name of secularism or social inclusiveness. The chief challenger, Indian National Congress, which always had a Hindu nationalistic undercurrent yet could boldly project its secularism (in the Indian parlance equi-proximity to all religions) as its brand platform has increasingly diluted this time-tested duality in favour of completely avoiding any discussion on secularism or defending its position as an equal champion of all communities, particularly the Muslims.
Secularism as an ethos of Indian polity was seldom audible during the entire campaign. Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s chief challenger, was busy projecting himself as a Shiv Bhakt with vermillion on his forehead and by hopping from temple to temple. His cronies even proudly talked about him as a jenau (the sacred thread, poitey, in Bengali) wearing Brahmin.
The same was true of Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister, and the party’s star campaigner in UP. No wonder that BJP would score the point that even Congress had to concede to their Hindutva thrust.
Even an avowedly liberal Congress leader like Shashi Tharoor, who wrote such a brilliant book Why I am a Hindu highlighting the syncretic nature of Hinduism and its doctrinal inclusiveness, thoroughly disillusioned his fans by taking a weird position in respect of the Sabarimala Temple in his home state Kerala, when he argued in favour of upholding the temple’s tradition of disallowing menstruating women from worshipping there, that too in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling. His political excuse was that the ruling Left Front government in Kerala was inciting the BJP there to carve out a space to poach into the Congress vote bank.
That Tharoor’s idea has politically worked is evident from the fact that while in entire India Congress has a lacklustre performance, in Kerala it has massively succeeded in defeating the Left and preventing the BJP from making any headway. But the fact remains that his political positioning has reduced his secular, liberal, and modernist stature.
In the larger South Asian context, since the region is one political-cultural space, notwithstanding its inherent religious and societal contradictions, the rise of Hindutva in India, which is three-fourths of the region (barring Afghanistan), sends a wrong signal. The way Myanmar is dealing with its Rohingyas with tacit Indian support, or the way militant Buddhism is up in arms in Sri Lanka against the country’s 6% Muslims, once again having the clandestine blessings from India’s Hindu nationalistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), South Asia may be characterized as a sleeping volcano ready to erupt anytime.
There is enough incendiary material in the neighbouring Muslim countries starting from Indonesia in the east to the Islamic State in the west to trigger the eruption. And thanks to Donald Trump’s adventurism, these fears are no longer academic.
In all likelihood, in the forthcoming Sri Lankan elections, the Buddhist chauvinistic Mahinda Rajapaksa will sweep the polls. Given his record, anti-Muslimism as his political platform is foreseeable. Remember his policy during the 2004 Tsunami relief. The way he took care of Hambantota, his Sinhala-Buddhist majority constituency in the Southern Province, and the way he displayed at the same time step-motherly treatment towards Tamil-speaking Muslim majority Ampara district in the Eastern Province, indicate which way the wind will blow once he becomes the president.
According to the 2006 report of the National Reconstruction and Development Agency (NRDA), almost double the number of houses were reconstructed in Hambantota than what was actually required while just 50% of such houses were built in Ampara.
I have no doubt that if anti-Muslimism in India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka is not contained, Pakistan and Bangladesh will not be able to withstand the heat for a long time. The challenge for Bangladesh is much bigger, for it has a sizeable Hindu population and a strong Islamic political force ever ready to disrupt the democratic process. I pray that I am proved naïve.
Now that Modi is comfortably ensconced in power with the massive majority would his leopard stripes change? All humans love to hope. I too hope that Modi would shed his malicious language against the opposition leaders and would be more accommodative of minority interests, which is the essence of any democracy.
One of Winston Churchill’s dictums was: In Victory, Magnanimity. Should we expect some kind of magnanimity from the victorious Modi? If we go by his first post-victory tweet we seem to have reasons to hope. It said: Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. The word “inclusive” is significant. It is a secular/Congress catch phrase. To the best of my memory, it has never figured in BJP’s lexicon. On the contrary, secularism has become an abusive term in Modi’s India.
Postscript: India, probably the entire South Asia, is a strange region. While on the one hand religious fanaticism is on the ascendancy everywhere, on the other we keep hearing of extraordinary stories of inter-communal bonhomie, rather routinely. This latest one comes, of all the places, from Delhi’s dreaded Tihar jail. This year the number of Hindu criminals observing the Ramadan to express solidarity with their Muslim counterparts has reached an all-time high of 150. Isn’t India an incredible country?
Partha S Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.