In an era where national elections have become a strange cross between an episode of Big Boss and twenty-twenty cricket, it has become quite difficult to take the end results very seriously. This is even more so when, there is widespread suspicion of the poll itself being rigged through massive deletion of names from voter lists and possible tampering with the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) used[i].
Yet, what does one really do when, a man you think is a hate-mongering demagogue, devious fool and selfie-obsessed megalomaniac becomes the Prime Minister of your country for the second time in a row? And that too, returns with a thumping majority in parliament – so bloody thumping it feels like King Kong dancing on your dinner table!
Well, the first thing you do is recover your balance (after a few stiff ones) and ask some very basic questions about WTF is really happening? Did a majority of Indians vote on real issues and in their own best interests or were they manipulated through fake news, slick marketing and heavy doses of emotional blackmail? Were they swayed by Hindu extremist sentiment and hardline nationalism and if so why? Why are Modi’s opponents disunited and in such a mess – or are they reflecting some other truth about the state of Indian polity today?
National policies everywhere are shaped by a cabal of clever ideologues, corporate lobbies and even foreign powers –so does this election make any difference to the lives of voters? What are the implications of Modi Regime 2.0? What is anyone, who wants change, supposed to do?
That’s a mouthful of questions, but there can be even more and here I will attempt to answer some of them, as briefly as possible.
Why did Narendra Modi win?
Elections emerged historically as a means of obviating the role of violence, fear and hatred in bringing about transitions of power in human societies. Every now and then though, all three make cameo appearances in the theater of participatory democracy, sending scared voters sheep-like into the arms of a benign-faced, butcher-in-chief, waiting with sharpened knives.
And so they did in the 2019 Indian elections too – a very mysterious terrorist strike killing 40 security forces in Indian Kashmir, a dubious retaliatory attack by the Indian Air Force on Pakistan and talk of possible use of nuclear weapons between the two countries. Well before the first votes were cast, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cast himself as a warrior, pretending the Indian military’s exploits were all his very own. All this was backed up further by massive amounts of money power, fake news, crude invectives and deployment of majoritarian dog whistles.
The gamble paid off handsomely. Finally, when the results came in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, a shrill advocate of pseudo-nationalism, saw its tally of seats in Parliament rise well above the majority needed to form government. Sweeping aside all other debates, concerns, basic needs across the country large sections of the public seem to have voted Modi as supreme leader for the next five years, during which he and his coterie of corporate fixers, will shape everything from education to economic policy, affecting the lives of 1.3 billion Indians.
Where did the Opposition lose out?
While using the ‘trauma of Pulwama’ to gathere votes Modi also turned the elections into a presidential-style contest, claiming the image of a ‘strong and decisive’ leader. His main opponent – Rahul Gandhi of the Congress – despite a spirited campaign and a great party manifesto emphasizing solutions to public problems, could respond adequately – mainly also because he refused to fight Modi’s war hysteria with any kind of counter hysteria. While he focused a lot on Modi’s alleged corruption or incompetence, Rahul also failed to offer a compelling vision of his own for India’s future – or at least communicate it to the population in an effective manner.
In other words, the results were really as much a rejection by the Indian public, smitten with Modi, of all the alternatives presented by his opponents, as an endorsement of Modi himself. Overall, ‘Brand Modi’, burnished by outrageous propaganda, seems to have trumped every other negative factor working against the BJP, including record unemployment, crisis in agriculture and the effects of the disastrous demonetization and GST policies.
Aiding Modi’s campaign further was also the complete inability of opposition parties to present a united front against the BJP – with petty political considerations and even big egos coming in the way. To use an analogy from twenty-twenty cricket, Modi was handed a free six off the last ball by his quarrelling rivals, when all he needed was just one run.
At a more deeper level the biggest weakness of Modi’s political opponents was they did not have a coherent answer to Modi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s increasingly ascendant idea of ‘Hindutva’ – that claims India should belong exclusively to Hindus, with all other religious denominations accepting their status as second-class citizens. The opponents of the BJP and RSS, including the Congress party,were unable to counter this by popularizing the Indian Constitution’s secular nature nor convincingly connect up in any way with the grand anti-imperialist legacy of the Indian freedom struggle. Things have come to a pass where members of the BJP, including currently elected MPs, openly celebrate Nathuram Godse, who murdered Mahatma Gandhi – the greatest leader of India’s struggle for independence.
At yet another level, barring some state governments, non-BJP parties do not seem to evoke much public confidence when it comes to delivering good governance – whether health, education, infrastructure and so on. Also, while almost all politicians operating nationally are there only to get power and steal from the state treasury – it is only non-BJP ones[ii] who get painted as being corrupt by the ‘Modified’ media. In the case of the BJP such theft is cleverly blurred from public view by saffron scarves and loud slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Either the opposition folks should get a suitable slogan to cover up their thievery or try to stop stealing altogether if they can[iii].
What next for India’s Opposition?
Surprising as it may sound, I think while Modi and BJP have won nationally, they are going to lose steadily at the state level in the coming months and years. And this is simply because the same people who voted for Modi to be PM are not necessarily going to vote for his proxies in their own states. There is a deep dissatisfaction on the ground against many BJP-led governments, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. If the BJP’s opponents unite and put together a good alternative set of policies, with a clear leadership, they can beat the BJP in any future election at the state level.
Non-BJP parties, which are already in power in different states around the country should also offer examples of good governance and delivering genuine welfare to their people in order to break the carefully constructed myth of Modi as some kind of ‘genius’ on economic development or good governance.
At the same time, it must be pointed out here that, while most of the Modi government’s policies have been disasters there are some that are working in several places. The BJP’s opponents should study these success stories – building of toilets, provision of electricity and gas cylinders, improvement of infrastructure etc. and support them too, if they are really beneficial to the public. A blind strategy of opposing everything done by BJP governments, is neither good for public welfare nor will it improve the opposition’s public credibility.
BJP as the old Congress?
While Modi and Amit Shah have often talked about a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ ironically, the fact is that it is the BJP itself,which has become an updated, more ruthless and obviously more communal version of the Congress of the seventies and eighties. It is not a coincidence at all, that a vast number of BJP MPs and MLAs, are in fact former Congress operators, who jumped ship to protect their personal interests.
Interestingly, though Modi is a gaudy farce compared to the grand tragedy that Indira Gandhi was, the comparisons between the two do have some validity. Like Indira, Modi too is a leader much larger than his own party, brooking no dissent and eliminating all competition – including from senior leaders, who founded the BJP. Indira Gandhi, when cornered by her opponents, also imposed the infamous Emergency – a drastic move that one can easily see Modi emulate if challenges to his power mount in the years ahead.
What about Rahul Gandhi’s Congress now (let’s call it Congress RG, now that BJP has become the old Congress!)?Rahul, though hobbled by the toxic legacy of his party (which he should completely disown), has tried to bring the focus of Indian politics to social welfare, decentralization of power and respect for diversity – so the future surely belongs to him. His stature can only grow as the Indian public understands what he is trying to do better and figure out that Modi has sold them snake oil with dollops of venom in it.
The trick for Rahul, to rebuild his party, is to work towards much greater ideological clarity, attract good people with political talent, be in regular touch with the grassroots and do effective street-level agitations on burning national issues. However, it is difficult to see the Congress RG get back to power in a national election, without a lot of coalition building and willingness to share power with other players. If they fail other non-BJP political forces will have to rise to fill the slot of an effective national opposition.
Was Modi’s victory a vote for ‘Hindutva’?
Yes, it was but no one knows to what extent and how explicitly. As mentioned before there were many other political factors involved.
But honestly what the hell does that really mean in a country, where Hindu majoritarianism has always been an implicit part of mass politics, since Indian independence from British rule, with all major political parties – from right to left – led by upper-caste Hindus? No Muslim, Sikh, Christian or for that matter Dalit/ Adivasi politician –could have won any national election on their own – even in the period when the Indian polity was supposedly far more ‘secular’ than it is today.
And let us face it – while the concept of Hindutva has today attracted people across many castes – it is ultimately meant to uphold the privileges of the ‘savarnas’ – the Hindu upper castes, because it is their definition of ‘Hindu’ that dominates.
And this domination is enforced through the mysterious idea of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’, a savarna utopia seductive to its followers and frightening to everyone else, that has been around for over a century or more in various avatars. For most purposes, it is an instrument of permanent fear to keep the ‘tukde tukde gang’ and their ilk in line. In fact it is quite like Narendra Modi himself, a macabre ‘Phantom of the Vedic Opera’, that terrorizes everyone from a distance, but scoots when you get closer! Point being, it is never going to happen in the future, because it has always been with us all the time!
What the BJP, RSS together with various front organizations have done, in the last couple of decades, is openly weaponized Hindu upper caste hegemony – spreading fear, anger, anxiety and hate – while very meticulously converting a large section of the Hindu population also into a stable vote bank, blurring caste, class and regional distinction in the process. What the non-upper caste Hindus, hopelessly divided among themselves, get out of this process is similar to ‘Sanskritisation’ – whereby from being only once-born (according to Hindu scriptures) they hope to become 1.5 or 1.6-born –by imitating the twice-born savarnas, becoming vegetarian and worshipping the cow! No one knows, when they will wise up to the fact, they are not only giving their loyalty but also paying royalty to those ‘above’ them in the social order!
Sociologically, this process has been aided by dramatic changes in the Indian economy since its liberalization– incidentally initiated by the Congress party in the early nineties[iv] – spurring widespread urbanization, concentration of wealth in a few hands and massive rural migrations to cities. For many of these geographically uprooted and culturally displaced sections of the population the meta ‘Hindu’ identity projected by the RSS and BJP has given a sense of belonging to a larger community – making them willing to give up more local identities of language and caste.
Further, deflecting attention from harsh living conditions and economic misery they have found – in the Muslims and other minorities, deliberately pushed below them in the social order – an easy target to vent all their frustrations against. This scapegoating of minorities, which one can see in many the countries undergoing similar social transformations, is not going to change very easily, given it has become an integral part of ensuring success in electoral politics – unless of course there is a fightback by other social forces espousing a more potent vote-winning idea.
What are the long-term implications of Modi’svictory?
There are many ominous trends, but the real dangerous one emerging from the 2019 elections, is the way the Indian armed forces themselves have been coopted by the Modi campaign.
Apart from fudging facts about how successful their so called ‘surgical strike’ inside Pakistani territory really was,the Indian military meekly accepted Narendra Modi spreading half-truths or even claiming a personal(though very cloudy) role, in the actual operation. Most appallingly, the Indian Air Force hid, till the elections were over, the fact that during a shootout with Pakistani fighter planes, they had shot down their own helicopter, killing six officers. These martyrs were given a very quiet burial, along with many other politically inconvenient facts.
This mixing of Modi’s needs with the military’s priorities is going to have serious repercussions in the future for both Indian politics as well as society. Though it seems unthinkable right now, if politicians continue to use the army for furthering their own causes it will only degrade the latter’s capabilities in real terms apart from politicizing them in a crude, electoral way. And, if the men in green get a taste of political power it is the country’s democracy that will turn black and blue – exactly like what has happened in neighbouring Pakistan.
What can citizens do?
Over the next five years, what is clear is that Modi Regime 2.0 is going to face an even more dismal economy than before and this will surely spillover to the streets of India sooner or later. Whether it is unemployment, shrinking business opportunities, rural distress – there is no evidence to show Modi or his team have a clue about how to solve these problems. The global economic situation is also not likely to improve and help the domestic one very much.
This is a period, where more and more ordinary citizens should organize, educate and agitate to ensure a fair share of resources goes to those who need it the most. In particular, apart from organizing around civic and other local issues at the national level, there has to be a widespread movement against the phenomenal income and wealth inequalities in India today.
There will also be greater resistance from the states to the tendency of Modi and the BJP – seen rightly as mostly a party of the Hindi belt – to monopolize power, resources, while imposing their narrow cultural hegemony. While the new Modi regime may foolishly seek to repeal Article 35 A and Article 370 to remove Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution, it should be prepared for many more Kashmir-like situations brewing in other parts of India.
How long will people of such a vast and diverse land put up with a bunch of cow belt brahmins, banias and thakurs dictating terms, before showing them their middle fingers[v]? Also, if large sections of the BJP are openly rejecting Gandhi and the spirit of the Indian freedom itself by celebrating Godse, what is anyway left of the India that was born on 15 August 1947?
In a sense, we are headed into the turbulent period that followed Mrs. Gandhi’s electoral victory in 1971 and leading up to the Emergency. This time around though, a Modi-run Emergency will be far more serious and drastic,as it will also come with the diversionary tactic of targeting religious minorities and whipping up nationalist hysteria.
That is why the fate of India’s minorities, also Dalits and Adivasi populations, is inescapably bound with that of Indian democracy itself – injustice towards one will become injustice towards all very fast. The sooner political forces opposed to Hindutva recognize and organize around this principle, the more effective they will be in fighting the looming period of dictatorship and oppression ahead.
India has beaten the Emergency once before and will thrash it once again.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be contacted at [email protected]
[i]Though there are some anecdotal reports of EVMs malfunctioning or not tallying with paper records there is no hard evidence of large-scale manipulation of these devices available yet. More research awaited.
[ii]Lalu Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Kanimozhi – all anti-BJP politicians have been selectively picked out as being ‘very corrupt’ while there was no corruption involved during Modi’s demonetization madness or the purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft!
[iii]I do believe that stopping ‘corruption’ will only increase violence all around as India is a land run by various warlords, who will take by force if not allowed to gain by subterfuge. Stopping corruption is not a priority at the moment, except for those whose forefathers stole long ago and now claim ‘legal ownership’ over property.
[iv]Did you know Namo’s first break as a chaiwallah was given by none other than MMS?
[v]This can be done in a very polite and culturally sensitive way. Contact me for further details.