In the past five years, since the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the scene, India finds itself in the throes of messy developments and institutional subversion.
The RSS-BJP may hope these add up to a transition that can be taken forward to transform India into the land of their dreams. Outside this group inclined to pray for the success of Hindutva, or political Hinduism, the work toward such a transition is unlikely to send hopes soaring. This suggests that many social and political battles “for the soul of India” lie ahead, no matter who forms the next government in India.
For votaries of the special genus called Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu-supremacist re-ordering of India that can only be brought about through a denigration of the core values of India’s present Constitution, relative success in the near-term of the experiment begun under Modi depends crucially on the BJP returning to power after May 23—when the poll result for parliament is due—with a majority of its own, as in 2014.
Should this fail to materialise, the sustained work done for the Hindutva cause under the leadership of the current prime minister is at risk of dissipating, though ideological battles will not cease.
A BJP-led coalition government, but one in which the present ruling party no longer independently commands a majority in the directly elected lower chamber, is unlikely to be able to continue with the present agenda of the RSS-BJP, which the Modi regime assiduously attempted to give effect to within the constraints it faced. At least, it is not likely to be able to do so at the same pace as the Modi government.
The past five years have been very special for the politico-religious far right in India associated with the country’s religious majority. This element has gained the opportunity to build a scaffolding on which to fabricate an edifice of a certain type. Such a prospect had not been yielded when the late Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first prime minister from the RSS-BJP fold, came to office in the late 1990s.
The demolition of a medieval mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 under the aegis of the RSS, the fount of Hindu Rashtra inspiration which has spawned dozens of ideologically spirited outfits that do not balk at violence, and the simultaneous movement to build a Ram temple where the mosque had stood, had helped turn the BJP into a mass party. For the first time this Rightist force was able to extend its reach into northern India’s hinterland and could, on the basis of provocative pseudo-religious slogans, successfully tap into the votes of non-privileged Hindu caste groups—the OBCs (intermediate caste groups categorised as such on the basis of educational and social backwardness), and the dalit (the former untouchables of Hindu society) sections.
This was great going for a party that was grounded in upper-caste, Hindu elite, histories and traditions which it sought to present as India’s national values that were at the core of Indian culture. But the tendency had not been forceful enough to give the BJP of those years a parliamentary majority of its own.
Prime Minister Vajpayee was hemmed in by coalition partners who were of the “secular” persuasion—they didn’t share RSS-BJP’s Hindutva thinking and its goal of Hindu Rashtra but had opportunistically chosen to be part of government so as not to miss out on the loaves and fishes of office.
Modi, in contrast, coming ten years after the Vajpayee government was defeated in the national election of 2004, has faced no such constraints. This is on account of his sweeping Lok Sabha strength, although from time to time his government did confront difficulties and could not effect massive change by amending the Constitution as it did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of parliament.
In the Modi period, the RSS-BJP were helped by a key factor. Their main ideological and political rival on the national stage, the Congress party, which has been in office for about three fourths of the time since independence from British rule in 1947, and was largely instrumental in creating the template of post-colonial India, had an insignificant presence in the Lok Sabha.
It had fared poorly in the parliamentary poll of 2014, although in the preceding ten years the two governments it led gave strong economic growth on a decadal average basis, lifted more people out of poverty than any other government in a comparable time frame, passed important legislation in the field of citizens’ right to information, and created what is arguably the world’s largest guaranteed rural employment scheme for the poorest sections.
But the Congress party’s leadership appeared watery and uncharismatic. Its organisation had weakened visibly. These had caused its influence in the public sphere to erode over time. Also, for many- though this factor should not be over-stated in India’s context- the Congress had come to be associated with dynasts.
This was seen to be at odds with what is sometimes called “aspirational India”, the young segment of the population which has existential reasons to hope and lays greater stress on presumed merit than on any other principle to advance societal and national goals and—importantly—is thought to be impatient with any mention of “socialism”, even of the “democratic” variety, which the Congress, going back to the Nehru years, delineated.
What’s more, while Congress’ credo—which emphasised pluralism, personal liberties, democracy, a programmatic inclination to raise the lives of the needy through state intervention and balanced regional development, and placed a premium on autonomy of action in the world arena-remained more or less intact, in practice more was expected of the “the party of freedom” to stand up for its core beliefs.
In 2014, the very idea of the Congress— and the “idea of India” that it espoused and which is enshrined in our Constitution—proved no match for a rampaging RSS-BJP under the command of Modi.
In his election campaign for the Lok Sabha five years ago, the man who would be prime minister formally proclaimed a broad-spectrum persona to attract all, harnessed the energy of the unsuspecting youth by promising jobs and a bright future (the achche din slogan), dog-whistled his way into the hearts of the communal-minded Hindu who finds merit in the idea of disadvantaging the religious minorities, comprehensively won over the Hindu traditionalist, and also paved a path to reach the votaries of the market-alone principle by promising “maximum governance, minimum government”.
Modi also projected for himself a larger-than-life figure- that of a true “great leader” in whose hands the country would be safe, a man of the masses who had risen to the top through hard work and was a “nationalist” to the core. By this, of course, he meant a “Hindu nationalist”, his description of himself in a Reuters interview in the run-up to the 2014 election which earned him plaudits from his expanding constituency. This set up a contrast with “Indian nationalist”. India was evidently changing.
Many loved the “New India”—Modi’s coinage—that was unfolding under the ‘great leader’, but serious fears too came to be expressed. The principal characteristic of the governing dispensation turned out to be too much talk, too little action, and considerable action with negative consequences for society.
The poor got little out of it, the owning classes didn’t feel they were supported, the unemployed youth were adrift, the farmers seemed to lose hope, and there was violence against Muslims and Christians (mainly the former), against the dalit community, against journalists and intellectuals if they didn’t fall in line, and against the very idea of dissent. Alongside, hocus-pocus from Hindu mythology—peddled as the acme of scientific glory in Hindu India—was passionately projected. This has led Hyderabad-based social scientist Kancha Ilaiah to suggest that the Modi government has promoted “primitivism”.
And yet—such was the scale of the support from a craven media, especially television—Modi, in opinion polls that are routinely published on God knows what basis, remains India’s most trusted leader, the safest pair of hands in the country to take us to “glory”, to take us to the point where India will be acclaimed as vishwa guru or teacher to the world—which is actually a demand put forth by the current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat.
So disappointing have been the results of government policy in the past five years, the famous journalist-author Arun Shourie, who once edited one of India’s finest newspapers and was afterward a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, asked with acuity, “There is a lot of sizzle, but where’s the steak?”
To overcome such criticism, the regime has taken self-serving propaganda to absurd limits, and amusingly its all-round failures have been laid at the door of its opponents (voted out five years earlier), thanks to the media flagrantly acting at the regime’s behest.
Why did mainstream media in India- honourable exceptions apart—abandon the practice of journalism in the Modi raj can be the subject of fruitful scholarly research, but what one hears in journalist circles is mortifying. A sting operation last year showed that the crème de la crème of Indian journalism were only too willing, for a suitable price, to let poisonous Hindutva propaganda prevail in their news columns.
The penetration of social media and television has increased in India by leaps and bounds in recent years. Social media has been used to spread hate and intolerance against whole communities, and against critics, through what appears to be a carefully orchestrated programme of action that involves thousands of foot soldiers. And, mainstream media has succumbed, by and large. Together social media and conventional media have worked to magnify the government’s and the RSS-BJP’s message, and lampooned their opponents.
If the media had stuck to its job, the Modi government is likely to have been running for cover. It is, in fact, plausible to argue that while the Modi government is no doubt a creature of RSS ideology and organisation, it may have found it difficult to establish itself if it weren’t for the fawning media, which was responsible for the building of the Modi persona.
In the absence of institutional restraint, and of independent journalism, which is not afraid to excavate the wrong-doings of the rulers and expose the mechanism through which their dark deeds are performed, democracy in India can today be said to be on the brink of a precipice. It has never been laid so low before, though there have been bad times for democracy in the past and unedifying policy failures.
The Modi government has been unlike any other government India has known. Its actions show that it has been ideology-driven in the extreme, and has limited inclination for the material development of society—which is serious, dogged, time-consuming, business. Its aim appears to be no less than the transformation of both state and society in India along prescriptive religious lines through the misuse of state power.
This has been sought to be done not only through governmental effort and public funds, but also the odious organised actions of a cadre of tens of thousands of persons outside of government—akin to a paramilitary force in civvies- who resort to physical violence and threats, the dissemination of fake news to achieve narrow political and ideological ends, and intense activity on social media to vilify, abuse and threaten opponents, all the while uttering traditional Hindu pieties.
This is their path to force their imagined Hindu way of life upon the country, with “force” being the operative word. The great, all-knowing, leader, who sits at the top of the pyramid, guides and inspires the ‘virtuous’. But he gives no succour to the poor; his solace is reserved for plutocrats. To cement his place, he must purvey false narratives of nationalism and resort to militaristic rhetoric.
The pages that follow are a compilation of opinion articles by the present writer published in newspapers and on current affairs portals, and are a chronicle of our times. They constitute a sustained journalistic scrutiny of Modi raj. They offer an interpretation of events as these unfolded, and a critique of some terrible things to which we have been witness in this country, above all the vanity and the vainglorious ways of those who rode a public mandate to give us democratic governance but wilfully served other-disturbing- agendas.
(Extract carried with permission from the publisher)