by Prof. Apoorvanand/ A K Shiburaj
The idea of India faces an unprecedented challenge. Preventing irreversible damage to the Republic of India, as we have known it, is the most pressing political task of our times. The 2024 election is crucial for India. There are fears that even the Constitution of India will be abrogated if the Sangh Parivar comes back to power. RSS is organizing its centenary celebration in 2025 and their political agenda was to make India a Hindu Nation within 100 years. On the importance of democratically defeating that move, Prof. Apoorvanand speaks.
Rahul Gandhi famously said that “nafrat ke bazaar mein, mai mohabbat ki dukan kholne nikla hoon.” This is a simple but powerful message to counter the muscular rhetoric of hate and exclusion. Do you think after passing through 12 states and two Union Territories over 150 days, BJY could recapture a sense of collective identity amid plurality?
I think the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) has brought the issues raised by that initiative into the public domain. The BJY was able to remind the people of India how people used to live with mutual respect and harmony and how our constitution envisages fraternity and equality. I believe that the yathra also could raise the issue of how a government has been fooling the people of a country in the name of sectarianism and dishonest nationalism. But I am not sure if these things could be conveyed to all sections of society. Because the damage done to our democratic systems by the Narendra Modi government in a few years is so huge and deep. It requires many efforts like Bharat Jodo Yatra to heal the wounds caused by it. Moreover, we can solve these problems only through continuous, long and sustained efforts. I believe Bharat Jodo Yatra has proved that it has potential and it is possible. Not only this, the yathra also helped to understand that when political parties make such an effort, people will respond to it. It also showed that ordinary people regard the language of love against hatred and violence. Now it is the responsibility of the political parties and the rest of society to keep working on it.
The BJY has raised three big issues – economic inequality, social polarisation, and authoritarian politics. These issues have been raised every day during Rahul Gandhi’s interactions while walking, in his press conferences, in meetings with special collectives of people, in speeches, and in rallies. Do you think the yatra has helped the Congress party to finally put its feet on the ground as an attempt to re-imagine India’s politics through sustained public action?
As I said earlier, this journey has been able to indicate the fact that there are many possibilities. It has also helped to dispel the feeling among members of congress party and leaders that all is lost and it also helped them to realize that there are people who believe in their ideas. If they remain on the ground and work with people, they can regain their confidence. They were shown the reality that not all people are in favor of politics of hate and violence. It also gave Congress an opportunity to realize that more effective political action is possible if the party works with the common people. I understand that it has created a sense of confidence in the party.
Do you think that the defeat in the assembly elections in Tripura and other states has given a blow to this self-confidence in the Congress party?
It seems that those election results should not be analyzed in conjunction with Bharat Jodo Yathra. Fighting elections is a completely different matter and what BJY was trying to do was very different. The purpose of the Bharat Jodo Yatra should not be conflated with this election. The purpose of the trip is beyond electoral success. Elections are faced by party machinery, election machinery, and many other strategies. I don’t know how much effort the Congress party has taken in these elections. Some of my friends in Tripura told me that neither the Congress Party nor the left parties worked hard enough. The Congress party did not start its BJY with the current assembly elections in sight. Gujarat elections were around the corner when the journey started. In the subsequent elections, the Congress party lost in Gujarat elections very badly. The Bharat Jodo Yatra was not much of a topic of discussion in Gujarat and it could not have been. Moreover, the fact remains that elections are fought differently in present India. Elections are being fought today by misusing campaign systems, public relations apparatus, media, money, false propaganda, bureaucratic influence, and so on. The Congress party has not been able to develop a mechanism to overcome this new situation. We should not forget that what is happening in India now is not the same old democratic systems or electoral methods. The Congress party will have to come out of the old mental frame to deal with the new situation.
In recent times, there have been a lot of things that have put the BJP on the defensive. Hindenberg report, increasing economic inequality, poverty, unemployment, inflation etc. were some of them. Do you conceive the fact that none of this affected the BJP in the elections just held?
Let me tell you certain things I understand. It is a fact that people have not been able to understand the gravity of the situation. It is true that the mass media that people access is very careful not to inform them about the major problems our country faces today. It can be seen that a lot of information is being withheld. When the Hindenburg Report came out, you can see how the media reported it. The contents of that report and its implications were barely covered by the media. Therefore, common people cannot know what is happening and how the economy is sliding down. On the contrary, the media attacks the opposition for criticizing the government. The media has convinced people that the financial crisis and unemployment in India is a part of the global crisis and pandemic, therefore the present government should not be blamed. People are beginning to believe that the government is doing its best and that all miseries are their destiny. There are many people here who believe that the post-covid miseries are the wrath of God. Stories of financial crises in Britain and America are constantly published in Hindi media to protect the Indian government.
There is a perception that The Yatra demonstrated a significant shift in Rahul Gandhi’s leadership skills and ability to reach out to a cross-section of the masses. He has succeeded in shedding the image portrayed by the current ruling establishment that marked him as an immature politician or a privileged prince, disconnected from ground realities. How do you see Rahul Gandhi as a leader?
I think we should use the word leader very carefully and responsibly. Who is a leader? We call a leader a person who leads a society. In which direction one lead also is equally important. For one to become a leader one has to sacrifice his life for the sake of the people and invest in their lives. It happens in many ways but on a daily basis. It does not happen as a project or as a program. I think it is not unfair to expect that a leader who talks about embracing love and letting go of fear should have visited the families of Nazir and Junaid when they were killed by self-proclaimed ‘cow protectors’ in Rajasthan. What I’m saying is that being a leader is something that needs to be active all day long. Otherwise people will doubt your leadership ability and they may hesitate to accept you as a leader. A leader has to be close to people’s lives, stand with them in their struggles, have their trust – that’s how one becomes a leader. Rahul Gandhi still needs to do more to be invested in the lives of the people to be loved and respected as their leader. That is how Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar came to leadership positions. Rahul Gandhi still needs to have that leadership ability. I think his heart is in the right place and he knows the problems people are facing. I think he should be able to detach himself from the electoral compulsions of the congress party. He must be able to speak unadulterated truth and put it into practice. He has to break away from the kind of politics he requires to be silent on certain issues, reacting and acting strategically on others. If he manages to do that I think he can emerge as a true leader. During the Bharat Jodo Yatra, common people got to know his personality as someone who was approachable, who can hold your hand, and a person willing to listen to people.
There is an argument that Congress felt that the BJP had succeeded in persuading voters to equate secularism with anti-Hinduism. So, Rahul Gandhi began wearing a sacred thread, visiting temples, and calling himself a Shiv bhakt. The Congress and other Opposition parties tried to boost their Hindu credentials believing they had to compete with the BJP for the Hindutva vote. Do you think congress miserably fails to understand Soft Hindutva cannot beat hard Hindutva?
First, we need to clarify what is the political agenda of Hindutva. It is essentially an ideology against Muslims and Christians. It disapproves of minorities and glorifies the supremacy of the majority community. It has nothing to do with Hindu rituals, temple visits, costumes, or following certain beliefs. Aam Aadmi Party is a good example of a true practitioner of soft Hindutva. How they used the murder of a young man named Rinku Sharma in Delhi in February 2021 can be an example of that. The Aam Aadmi Party claimed that Rinku Sharma was killed for raising the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. This is an attack against the Muslim community. I think there was no such approach from Rahul Gandhi or Congress. It is true that some Congress leaders are trying to woo Hindu votes. It is not going to help Congress in any way. It is not the right course of action. It is against the ideology of Congress. Congress has made such mistakes in the past. This is why Congress is often unable to express open solidarity with Muslims and Christians when they are persecuted. That is why Congress is often silent when the rights of minorities are violated. Rahul Gandhi is trying to address this problem but cannot say that he has succeeded. The fact remains that BJP gets a section of Hindu votes not because of the Hindu religion. But don’t forget that it is in the name of Hindutva that I mentioned earlier.
When we see the history of congress, we can find that there was a section that was always in favor of Hindutva ideology with the influence of organizations like Aryasamaja and Brahma Samaj in the early days, though they were not as aggressive as Hindumaha Sabha or RSS. You may remember the role they played during Indira Gandhi and finally, the emergency was declared. Don’t you think the Congress party still could not find a vision different from the values of upper-caste Hindus?
That’s what I said earlier. Such episodes can be seen in the early history of Congress. It is a fact that many Congress leaders had that weakness. Congress has been greatly influenced by right-wing leaders at various times. They have often been able to bring Congress closer to the politics of the RSS. Congress needs to correct that mistake. It is not enough to do it in a strategic way. Congress has to honestly correct the mistake and pursue a policy that properly accommodates the marginalized people of India.
Can it be seen as a part of correcting that kind of mistakes that the Congress adopted an amendment in the 85th Plenary Session of the Congress in Chhattisgarh’s Nava Raipur to ensure fifty percent reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs, Women, Minorities and Youth?
That’s how I see it. But Congress is often found in crisis as part of the process of correcting that mistake. It can be seen that congress is struggling even to find that language to express and is losing its edge. It doesn’t seem like Congress will be able to overcome that struggle easily.
To counter-hegemonic politics needs a new political instrument and the forthcoming general elections must be a battle for transformation. Do you think the established political parties are fit for this purpose? And also do you think the political opposition parties really have the commitment to take up this challenge and do they understand business as usual won’t get them anywhere?
Opposition parties can prepare to face the current political crisis only when they work together with the people on the ground. They have to work with the people in each constituency with courage and conviction. The reality is that it is not happening. It doesn’t matter if problems are pointed out in meetings or in private conversations. The political parties have to talk directly to the people about the various crises the minorities face and how the very idea of India is being challenged. Only then can they fulfill their role as opposition.
BJP got 37% votes in the 2019 elections. How do you see the possibility of the opposition parties standing for a democratic secular India coming together in the next elections? When Rahul Gandhi contests in Wayanad in Kerala, the possibility of the Left and Congress standing together becomes difficult. Similarly, it is a reality that the alliance for the central election with the rival party makes their political existence at the state level questionable. How can non-NDA political parties overcome the situation of not being able to join hands against the BJP?
This is not an easy question to answer. I don’t know how a coalition of several political parties in each state can successfully fight the elections. If the left party supports Rahul Gandhi, how will they work in Kerala after the election is a hard nut to crack. I don’t know how different political parties are going to deal with this issue. But one thing is clear. Parties will have to give up their parochial attitudes for a greater cause. The people have to be convinced of the reality that the opposition parties are unitedly concerned about the present state of India and that if this state of affairs continues, there will be no nation called India. It should be done very carefully. It is necessary to know the psychology of the voters. The care and caution that should be shown when caring for someone who is deeply and seriously injured should be shown here. In what language and how to speak to the wounded people of India is a very confusing matter.It will be a big challenge for political parties. Talking to many political party leaders, I realized that many are helpless and confused.
One thing that sets Narendra Modi apart from other politicians is that he has nothing less than electoral success on his agenda. It is impossible to say how the Modi-Amit Shah alliance will react to a situation where they have to accept defeat and be in the opposition. How do you see the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in this context?
Modi’s is a very different kind of political leadership that the country of India has seen. It is true that he is not the typical politician who can imagine losing power. The great danger facing our country is that India is ruled today by people who do not accept the general principle that victory and defeat are normal in a democracy. They are the ones who do not accept the principle that the opposition parties are also relevant. Therefore, they will surely try to maintain power by hook or crook. That is what we are seeing in many states. They are waging a war that does not respect their opponents. Moreover, the situation is aggravated by the fact that there are constitutional institutions to support BJP. Even the Election Commission is now working in a biased manner. Haven’t we seen Eknath Shinde declare the party as the real Shiv Sena? We also see courts ignoring unconstitutional actions by the government. Like any citizen believing in democracy, I am deeply concerned about this pathetic situation.
Nationalism continues to be the currency of politics allowing the Sangh Parivar to use it for their narrow political gains. Even the Hindenburg report was described as a war against India as a nation. Is it not a tough task to counter the weapon of Nationalism being used by Sanghparivar at every critical juncture?
This is why many people call nationalism a ‘curse’ and a ‘disease’. Once a majority of the population is infected with this disease, it is not easy to cure it. Nor can it be dealt with through normal political activities. Moreover, it is very easy to hold the opposition accountable for it. Don’t we see many political parties struggling to deal with it? BJP and RSS have convinced their followers that they are continuing the war for a hundred years to reclaim the land from the invaders and they started it with the Mughals for the sake of nationalism. Therefore, they can easily brand those who criticize the government as anti-national who should be rampaged. Moreover, it can be seen that they do not use any standard of ethics in this war. Therefore, they can easily create lies, hide the truth and act injustices. Another reality is that some sections of people do not mind it as all they want is success. It is very difficult for the opposition parties to lead people away from that path.
Do you think the fall in Adani Enterprises’ stock market after the Hindenburg report will have an impact on the upcoming elections? Will the collapse of Adani, Modi’s biggest source of finance, affect the next election?
As long as people don’t know what is really happening, whatever happens, is not going to affect the election. I have already said that the media does not bring any such news to the people. Then the political parties will have to find new ways to convey the truth to the people. They should also consider disseminating relevant parts of the Hindenberg Report in local languages. What I am saying is that the opposition parties have to take up the challenges in a new way to educate the people. Social media alone is not enough to spread ideas.
An Uttar Pradesh court has acquitted three accused in the 2020 Hathras gang-rape-murder case. But when Siddique Kappan, who went to report it, was arrested, he had to cross many hurdles to get bail. Isn’t that a big tragedy of the Indian justice system?
I would not blame the court or the judge who passed the order for acquitting the three accused in the Hathras gang-rape-murder case. It is the responsibility of the prosecution to make a strong case by securing necessary evidence and witnesses during the trial. If the police investigate the case without strong evidence and witnesses and give a weak report, then the judge has nothing much to do. It was a weakened case only to be lost during the investigation itself. This is the case with most of the atrocities committed against Dalits and minorities. I understand that even the forensic report was manipulated. The Uttar Pradesh police hastily buried the body without releasing it even to the relatives. Both the government and the police were against the victim girl’s family. Instead, they did a character assassination of that girl. The upper caste villagers denied rape. The bias was very obvious right from the beginning. The court was very partial towards the prosecution and gave it a long rope. Its method of reaching judgment was flawed and disappointing. Then the investigation should be conducted by an independent investigative agency other than the police. Unfortunately, there is no such thing in India now. Neither NIA nor CBI is likely to give a different report. It was clear from the beginning that justice would not be served in the Hathras case. Like Siddique Kappan, those who dared to report the truth were arrested or threatened. The UP government had decided that the world should not know what happened. Another reason is that Siddique Kappan is from Kerala and he is a Muslim. Sangh Parivar has taught the Hindus of North India that the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are dangerous places.
BJP’s election campaign is not just based on governmental performance. In every election campaign, there is an image of PM as ‘hardworking’, ‘tough’, ‘selfless’, and ‘driven by larger national goals’ is used. Don’t you think charismatic leadership from the opposition parties is required to lead the 2024 election campaign?
First, we have to decide what is the basis of charisma. What is the charisma of Narendra Modi? Is it the belief of a constituency that he is a man determined to punish Muslims and Christians and he is able to do that? Is it his cleverness to hand over the country’s public wealth to the corporate world unscrupulously? Is it his willingness to allow private companies to capture natural resources for their profit? Are we supposed to have no shame or conscience in doing such things? He is not ashamed or embarrassed about all these actions. So to see charisma in him is like believing in a goonda and making him a dada. If that is his charisma It is important that the opposition parties should not compete with these qualities. Rahul Gandhi and other leaders are generally blamed for not being aggressive. I don’t think it is desirable for democracy to be so aggressive. What needs to be considered now is how and what can be done collectively to create a progressive political environment to develop a language of persuasion. And how to share maximum facts with people so they become informed citizens. They should also be able to prevent as much propaganda and lies from reaching them as possible. We must not forget that democracy is not a war of words between two opposing political parties. Democracy is kept alive by various institutions, political parties, universities, media, and people. The concept of India is facing an unprecedented challenge. The responsibility to restore democracy lies not only with the opposition political parties. It is the responsibility of every citizen.
It is true that the idea of India faces unprecedented challenges. Is there anything that gives you hope in this situation?
As an individual, a teacher, and a writer I can only say that uncertainty hangs in front of me. Hindi literature is my field and I am a man of language. I feel defeated when I find my colleagues, society, and my students losing their sense of language, sense of justice, and sense of knowledge. It worries me a lot. I am afraid that if the present administration continues like this even after 2024, we will have to work for a long time to regain our country. I don’t know what the road ahead is. I also see people, and students with good intentions, but I see citizens failing to fulfill their roles and responsibilities everywhere. Teachers, bureaucrats, and other people could try to perform their roles and responsibilities by raising the resistance line. But many are refraining from playing their crucial role to defend justice and democracy. Do they realize that the sense of security rendered to them by doing so is unreal? Despite these uncertainties, I firmly believe that our mission is not to sit idle. This is the time when we all must work hard for democracy, justice, and secularism. We must win the war for democracy and justice in 2024. We can not afford to lose the 2024 battle.
Apoorvanand is a professor at Delhi University
A.K. Shiburaj is a freelance journalist