Settembre 15, 2017

Democratic dystopia: India and the BJP

Narendra Modi. Photo: Flickr

On the evening of September 5, the newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken critic of India’s Hindu-nationalist government, was shot outside her home in the southern city of Bangalore. Her slaying was hardly exceptional: the Committee to Protect Journalists Impunity index ranks India at No 13, sharing space with countries like Somalia, Iraq, Mexico and Pakistan. But unlike the 41 journalists CPJ records as having been murdered in India since 1992, when it began keeping records, Lankesh’s death was widely linked to her political stance. Commentators drew comparisons with the sensational, and still unsolved, killings of three leftist, anti-BJP, social activists in 2013 and 2015. It is not yet clear who was behind the killing, but as soon as the news broke out, several on Twitter, who wore their support to the ruling party on their profiles, tweeted or retweeted their glee at the murder. When the country’s law minister stepped in to chide them, some of that hate was directed towards him.

The murder and its aftermath, which come halfway through the government’s term, is emblematic about what many fear about the new India of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Since its inauguration in 2014, the government and its supporters have gone on a drive to scrub India clean of what they see as the dross of successive left-leaning and secular administrations that have pandered to minorities, looted the nation through unbridled corruption, and hobbled the country’s economic and global ambitions. Universities have come under attack for students taking “antinational” political positions. Journalists have been harassed and termed “presstitutes” for not toeing the official line. Muslims and lower-castes have been murdered on the mere rumour that they possessed beef or were carrying cows for slaughter – the bovine being a holy animal to several Hindus and a traditional flashpoint for sectarian conflict. There has been a crackdown on activist groups. Educational curricula are being modified to present to schoolchildren and college students a questionable history that paints non-Hindu groups as alien, threatening presences in the nation. Police are investigating the finances and other affairs of political opponents. Critics have described these times as an undeclared “Emergency”, referring to the suspension of democracy in India for 18 months in 1975.

Central to these fears is the figure of Narendra Modi, the deeply polarising leader who swept up the electorate to a stunning victory in 2014 and has since decimated much of the political opposition to the BJP. To his supporters, he is the strong, no nonsense leader who is propelling India towards the economic prosperity and world stature that has long been denied to it. The 66 year old Modi built up his image of a single minded focus on economic development by showcasing the example of Gujarat, the state he governed before his elevation. But before the ‘Gujarat model’ of rapid infrastructural growth, industries, and business friendly policies, he had presided over deadly riots in the state in 2002, which killed at least 800 Muslims. Critics said he did little to quell the mobs, or to bring the main perpetrators to justice, and the country’s Supreme Court described the state government as “modern day Neroes […] looking elsewhere”. Modi has never been charged with personal involvement, nor has he admitted the riots as a failure of his government. The prime minister, extremely active on social media, has similarly been aloof about the rising tide of violence linked to member of his political stripe, preferring to focus his tweets and speeches on the good days coming ahead through his economic policies.

How did this man manage to win a plurality of votes in India, a continent-sized nation that is divided among a mindboggling number of languages, regions, religions, and castes, a feat that had not been achieved in three decades? Imagine a right-wing Austrian politician decisively winning elections across each country in Europe for that continent’s leadership. That hypothetical example would begin to convey some of the audacity of Modi’s victory. Just as that scenario would reveal for Europe, Modi’s dominance of the political landscape indicates a fundamental shift in Indian society and politics. Its ramifications for the nation’s democratic ethos are immense.

Narendra Modi’s election victory in 2014 represented a significant break from the regular flow of Indian politics. Not since 1984 had any party won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament. Political watchers had penned obituaries to one-party governments in India, arguing that a polity more akin to a continent could only be ruled by coalitions of parties. These analyses were based on the visible splintering of a national consensus that had given the Indian National Congress, the heir to the independence movement, the pole position in Indian politics. The Congress had long ruled as an umbrella coalition of multiple interests, carrying along with it a broad alliance of upper castes, Dalits – the former “untouchable” castes –, and minorities, largely Muslim.

By the 1980s, this consensus had crumbled. Outside the Indian ‘heartland’ of north India, smaller parties had emerged as challengers, representing the interests of states and their diverse linguistic and cultural politics. Within northern Indian states, the upsurge of lower caste movements took away a significant support base of the Congress. These states also saw the growth of Hindutva – sectarian Hindu – politics of the BJP, to which several upper castes  gravitated. Yet politics remained fractured: governments were formed by either combinations of smaller parties with outside support of the Congress, or by alliances  constellating around the Congress or the BJP. These alliances were manifestations of India’s political economy, with the state and its functionaries controlling the allocation and distribution of resources, despite the opening up of the economy in the 1990s. Groups’ economic might were largely determined by how much they could bargain from the state and against competing interests.

This ordering of political power had several consequences. Smaller states could match up to the demographic heft of the northern states, tamping down tensions that had long existed between the socio-economically dynamic southern states and their moribund northern counterparts. The presence of parties representing middle- and lower-castes, who by some accounts make more than half of India’s population, gave these groups a shot at sharing power with the traditional upper caste elites. Conversely, the golden age of the small party also witnessed stunning examples of corruption, pork barrel politics, and legislative logjams. By 2014, the Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had over two terms mutely presided over a series of bribery scandals which had, by the reckoning of India’s official auditor, caused more losses to the exchequer than the entire defence budget. Corruption has been and remains ubiquitous in India, but these astronomical figures came on the heels of rising prices and a slowing economy. Popular anger was stoked by the contrast between hardships of the common citizen and the image of reckless old school politicians. In parallel, considerable sections of Hindus were discomforted by what they perceived as undue favours towards the minority Muslims and lower castes, stemming from the need for coalition politics to appease these electorally significant groups.

The BJP’s rise went alongside with long-term decline of the Congress. The party of Hindutva has its roots in the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu-majoritarian organisation whose early leadership looked up to Hitler’s purge of the Jews as a model for India and which was briefly banned after the assassination of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi. A bit player when the party was formed in 1980, the BJP’s fortunes zoomed when it spearheaded a movement in 1990 that two years later destroyed a 16 century mosque in northern India, claimed to be built by a Muslim general upon the ravaged birthplace of the popular Hindu deity Ram. With promises of further restoring Hindu pride allegedly crushed by Muslim rulers over a millenia and by secular parties over half a century of post-independent rule, the BJP gained enough traction to become an alternative pole to the Congress. But Hindutva could only take the party so much forward, and Hindus continued to vote for caste-based, regional, or secular parties. Even more constricting to growth was the inability of the BJP to meaningfully transcend its base among the north Indian trader castes. The compulsions of alliances would dampen BJP-led governments’ unbridled championing of Hindu sectarian interests. When it lost the federal elections in 2004, the BJP went into a phase of stagnation, and struggled to regain lost ground until Modi came centre stage.

At the core of the problems of the BJP was a dilemma about its very identity: was it to pitch itself as an economically right wing party embracing free markets, or as a part that championed Hindu interests? The old BJP never quite managed to reconcile the contradictions between Hindu politics, caste movements, and neoliberal economics of growth. It had to reckon with its conservative petty bourgeoisie social base, as instinctively suspicious of big business and foreign capital as of the ‘alien’ influence of Islam, Christianity and Westernisation. Before Modi captured India, he had to remake the BJP into a war machine that could span Hindu caste and class groups, and simultaneously speak to the economic aspirations of a young and upwardly mobile population. His success in casting the party in his own image has been key to its successes under him. The new BJP supporter, unlike the party’s traditional votary, has bought into the promise of the open economy and believes that the country’s progress is dependent upon a Hindu resurgence. The model for this new politics has been termed as Hindutva 2.0 by the Hindu newspapers Varghese George, who describes it as the melding of identitarian politics with neoliberalism. It is reflected in Modi’s political stance: a careful cultivation of an image of a statesman focused on economic growth that will lift all boats. Yet come elections, he would rally his supporters by carefully placed dog-whistle messages that targeted Muslims. Modi thus represents both the Hindu warrior who has avenged centuries of Islamic rule upon Hindus, as well as the man who can deliver prosperity equal to the new ambitions of a younger India. He generates the idea that Hindu resurgence alone can bring about a new economic dawn. Islamophobia, caste prejudice, and class discrimination have been subsumed and reinvented through this model. Political activism around questions of minority rights, or caste discrimination, or economic redistribution become delegitimised as sectarian interests that seek to drag India down from its ascent to glory. The only acceptable form of politics is patriotic rallying around the strong leader, under the flag, on the onward march.

There are signs that there is widespread loyalty to Modi, however cack handed his policies might be. In November, the prime minister made a late evening appearance on national television to announce that 86 percent of India’s currency was withdrawn with immediate effect. The stated goal was to drain out ill-gotten and untaxed wealth, supposedly held in the high denomination notes that were made worthless and had to be exchanged for new currency. The hope that corrupt politicians and businessmen would destroy their hidden hoards rather than answer questions about it when they went for the swap. Few outside a tight circle around Modi knew of this ‘demonetisation’ exercise beforehand. Almost all indications are that few of India’s top economic mandarins were in thus charmed circle and the implications of this decision was fully through. The central bank and the banking system were grossly unprepared, leading to utter chaos and a breakdown of economic activity. New notes could not be printed fast enough to replace the extinguished ones, leading to rationing. For months, long lines formed outside banks as customers sought to withdraw from their accounts the little sums the government permitted them to. The informal sector that makes up the bulk of India’s economy shrivelled under the cash drought, and layoffs were reported across industries. Farmers, already reeling from two successive dry years, were hit as prices collapsed, setting off a wave of rural distress and unrest. Modi personally promised that it would take just three months to restore normalcy. The government brushed off as alarmist and unpatriotic the analyses of respected economists that the scheme was harebrained and growth would take a beating.

No decision of the government has been more foolhardy and as much an utter failure as demonetisation. Almost all of the banned currency was returned to banks, putting paid to ambitions that the vast amounts of unclaimed money could be taken over by the government. More worryingly, all indicators suggest that the economy has taken a severe hit. Farm distress is palatable, and several state governments have had to buy peace through expensive farm loans waivers. Yet, what beggars belief is that Narendra Modi’s rule is unruffled: there is no widespread discontent that threatens the government’s stability, nor significant political mobilisations to take it to task for the hardships and the wrecks of demonetisation.   At the height of cash shortages and farm distress, the BJP stormed into power in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state, scotching any talk that demonetisation had dented the party’s credibility. Modi and his government can legitimately claim that the Indian people have stood by the prime minister through the exercise.

There is certainly a sense of TINA around Modi: that There Is No Alternative. The Congress’ machinery has been gutted and its leadership clueless about reviving the party’s fortunes. The state-based parties have been steamrolled by the advance of the BJP, and been wracked with infighting, splits, and desertions. The once powerful communists have lost their strongholds and their ageing leadership has become increasingly irrelevant to the new Indian realities. Yet, as an analysis of electoral data over three decades by the Mint’s Roshan Kishore shows, the BJP’s vote share is far less than what it ought to have to guarantee parliamentary majorities for the foreseeable future. India’s first past the post system let the BJP, gaining 30 percent of votes cast in 2014, trounce other parties. Smart alliances between opposition parties and an imaginative leadership could unseat the BJP, but both are scarce. For now, Modi’s fortunes are secure and his personalised mode of government unchallenged. Driven ahead by this untrammelled power, the BJP has an unprecedented chance at reshaping India in its image. It has already begun to. For the first time, all top four offices of state – the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of the Lower House – are BJP members deep dyed in Hindutva politics. Scholarly institutions and funding agencies have been handed over to the leadership of fellow travellers, often of questionable credentials. A law that all but outlaws cow slaughter is on the books, and more legislation to wear off protection to minorities’ personal laws is on the anvil. Unbridled by leftist opposition, more pro-business policies are passed through, further weakening protective measures for the environmental and for labour.

Critical to Modi’s hold upon the sections that moved towards the new BJP is the hope that the new economy will work for them. It is there that the regime’s weakest link is. Despite promises of massive job growth, increased farm productivity, rapidly improving infrastructure, and bouyant economic expansion, the Indian economy under Modi has been sickly. Jobless growth has been a chronic feature of India since the 2000s, a chilling prospect for a young and expanding population. Rumblings of these concerns are visible in now-common protests by caste groups demanding quotas for government jobs. These claims are upon the poor returns from farming and the lack of private sector jobs, and remain unresolved. Alliances between groups that have been thrown off farming, or laid off by the collapse of small industries, or have not yet had a chance to participate in the new economy, have so far been a non-starter, and will remain so in the near future. But they point how the enthusiasm of the upwardly mobile and young voter of the BJP could sour if Modi fails to deliver on the economy. Even then, there is no straight line between the onsetting disenchantment and a rout of the BJP; clever management can yet stave that off. These tensions, between the aspirations of the youth and the potential of the economy, between caste and regional groups that will undoubtedly at some point find Hindutva a restriction to their interests, will continue to shape the future of the Indian state. Whether its democratic institutions are able to maintain themselves under the BJP’s restructuring, and the country’s social contradictions, remains an open question.

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About CJ Kuncheria

CJ Kuncheria

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