Tuesday 20 May 2014

Indian elections 2014 - a milestone in the Hindutva project?

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Mukul Sinha.)

Assuming no significant electoral fraud, 31% of Indian voters voted for the BJP giving them an absolute majority in the new parliament and ushering in a new "Modi-fied" era. We can comfort ourselves that almost 70% of people didn't vote for the BJP, and more than 60% didn't vote for the NDA. To achieve the BJP's 31% took a charismatic demagogue, the powerful infrastructure of the Sangh Parivar, a desperately partisan media, the backing of big money, and vocal support from huge swathes of the educated middle classes; nevertheless the reality remains - we face an uncertain future where the dominant political force is a rejuvenated, hugely confident, extreme right.

People are naturally asking what brought us here, what happens next, and how we resist. You can't really start asking such difficult questions without some clarity about the event itself. A look at the messy electoral data, and reflection on the Modi-campaign, reveals something rather obvious at one level, but curiously ignored by some anti-Modi, anti-communal thinkers: this election is first and foremost a milestone in the Hindutva project. The problem of how to create an overarching Hindu identity - overriding but not dismantling caste and regional identities - obsessed the early Hindu nationalists. Creation and spread of a sense of Hindu-ness appears both as a means and as an end in their writings - it is both a pre-requisite for, and the definition of, "dharma rajya", the hazily defined "Hindu nation". And in this election it seems the Sangh Parivar has provided a proof of principle - they have shown that manufacturing an over-arching Hindu identity may be possible on a grand scale.

What data backs up such a claim?

Firstly, the Parivar achieved its current success without co-option/ cooperation of Muslim - or other minority - voters, or alliance with ostensibly secular forces. All the data suggests that Muslims did not vote for the BJP, and largely did not vote for the NDA. What little information is available shows the same for other minorities. Moreover, the initial polarisation that resulted from Modi's candidature made sure that parties with claims to being secular largely steered clear of the NDA, which ended up as the BJP, a few usual suspects like the Shiv Sena and the SAD, and some tiny hangers-on of little relevance. Thus, perhaps for the first time in Indian electoral history, the minority vote became entirely irrelevant. To put it bluntly, 2014 must be remembered as the election where if you were a Muslim you might as well have stayed home on voting day. Even Modi poster-boy Chetan Bhagat acknowledged the 'near boycott by the Muslim community' of the BJP. The electoral sidelining of Muslims deeply entrenched in Gujarat politics, was replicated nationally, potentially leaving Muslims all over the country - and other minority communities - the choice they face in Gujarat: deal with the BJP on its terms or face complete marginalisation.

Secondly, BJP upper caste consolidation reached new heights. It has been a consistent feature of their success, but this time round they captured an unprecendented proportion of upper caste votes. It seems that counterweights to the BJP's dominance amongst upper caste voters, like the Dalit-Brahmin electoral alliance forged by Mayawati, are a thing of the past. Given the strong correlation between caste, class and power, expanding upper caste support gave the BJP access to huge resources, both financial and in the form of social capital. On the one hand, the frenzied media and social media backing for Modi fuelled the "Modi wave"; on the other hand the wave gathered new junk from those classes and castes which dominate the mainstream media, and access social media intensively. Thus we saw a snowballing effect with Modi's elite admirers producing ever lengthier, louder and more convoluted defences of him - it became a game to guess which pillar of the liberal establishment would fall helplessly into the Modi camp next.

Thirdly, while there was no clear national breakthrough, the Parivar got enough OBC and Dalit votes to win seats in those constituencies where it really mattered - most importantly in UP and Bihar. This was achieved via capture of leaders such as Ram Vilas Paswan coupled with the Parivar's age-old strategy of inciting communal violence to break the cross-community alliances which held them back. It is no surprise that all three riot-accused BJP candidates in West UP won their seats with huge margins. It also cannot be denied that the Modi-cult and Modi's proclamation of his own OBC status may have played a role in getting OBC votes, and this is presumably why that bastion of upper caste power, the RSS, tolerated such proclamations of caste identity. The breaking of caste alliances didn't have to be extensive or complete to ensure BJP victory, for where it mattered the anti-Modi vote was hopelessly split. (On the other hand in states like Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan where the anti-Modi vote was not split, the BJP's overwhelming strength made this irrelevant.) Ironically, faced with the Parivar onslaught, many in the anti-Modi camp clung on to the hope that a certain inertia of Indian rural politics with its strong caste and community alliances would hold back the wave; the BJP-RSS machine, however, penetrated into villages and overcame historical inertias.

Thus the BJP consolidated upper caste support and made sufficient inroads into OBC/Dalit votes to ensure the complete electoral sidelining of Muslims, the majority of Dalits, many OBC communities, and of course secular, rational and thoughtful Indians of all communities. A momentous victory for Hindutva in the political sphere. But what about the sphere of the mind? Was every Modi-voter motivated by visions of the Hindu nation? Unquestionably, many people longing for vaguely defined "change", or looking to escape some ugly realities of life, joined the cult of the great leader/ were dragged along by the wave. They didn't all enter the movement as ideologues. But the point is that participation in historic movements such as these - and not introspection and soul-searching - shapes and reshapes identities. This participation may occur on the streets, or in the virtual world, or even via passive longing in front of TV screens followed by the great joy of victory. You travel a road with hundreds of millions of others and come out as one. The shifting identities may sometimes be fragile and conflict with some idea of a plural India. But if there was angst along the way, then the expertly manufactured new common sense around "dynasty", "corruption", "pseudo-secularism", "appeasement", "pampering", etc., provided stepping-stones onto the Hindutva shore. Anyone who listens to new Modi-bhakts - the affluent, educated ones too - will know that through all the talk of development and strong leadership, they never really doubt Modi's centrality in the Gujarat violence of 2002. Hiding behind the joy of victory is an immense satisfaction that somebody - who? - has been taught a lesson. Lurking beneath the new national pride is a communal - perhaps even racial - pride, hinged on hatred for the "anti-nationals", the "Bangladeshi infiltrators", those who "should go to Pakistan". The more honest or confident say it out loud: "Why should we not be a Hindu nation? Look at all the Islamic nations. Look at all the Christian nations."

If this election is all about the Hindutva project, then what about the NaMo effect? Was Modi himself just a vehicle for the Sangh Parivar? To some extent. The RSS worked tirelessly on the ground with "video-raths" going village to village projecting the Modi message, aided by NRI volunteers. They won Modi the election where it mattered. The RSS clearly did not itself buy into the Modi-cult, but saw the significance of these elections and sensed the magnitude of the opportunity offered by Modi-mania. Right now Modi is the most extraordinarily powerful member of the Parivar, and has a private army of starry-eyed fans - they were a great help. But had the RSS-apparatus not decided to seize the day, back his candidature, and throw its full weight behind his campaign, the efforts of this NaMo army would not have amounted to much. Despite Modi's self-absorption and delusions of grandeur it remains to be seen whether the Parivar subjugates itself to his will, whether he is ultimately undermined by them, whether internal conflict tears the whole edifice down, or whether some mutually beneficial compromise is worked out.

So, despite the relatively small BJP vote-share, and the regional variations, this election must be seen as a milestone for the Hindutva project. If mile one was completed with the destruction of the Babri Masjid, then this election - the campaign as much as the outcome - completes mile two. Common sense has been altered, identities shifted, and the reality of this shift proved at the ballot box. Modi himself serves both as the symbol and the vehicle for a new idea of India. They know it is just a beginning. Having learnt from their most successful experiment - Gujarat - the BJP-RSS will work intensively to consolidate the new realities they have constructed. Their shakhas, schools, and religious and "cultural" organisations will sprout. There will be manufactured outrage at apparent insults to Hinduism. They will threaten their enemies with everything at their disposal. Agitations for censorship and moral policing, and periodic episodes of communal or vigilante violence, will provide moments for group bonding and new recruiting.

The election period showed that the anti-Modi, anti-communal forces also have huge resources to draw on. But no resistance to the RSS project can start from the complacent perspective that their current victory is just another move by the neo-liberal, anti-poor team in some grand game of chess. It is this, but it is much more. Indian democracy, flawed and incomplete as it is, is teetering on the edge, and needs defending. We may hope that the family which has seized power will crumble under some internal dynamic - but we can't wait for this. If we manage some regrouping and coalescing, the question is whether our efforts can outpace BJP-RSS consolidation. It is unclear which institutions will be corrupted first by their new overlords, how rapid this corruption will be, and what room there will be for manoeuvre. It is unclear what levels of violence to expect. There is an onslaught coming and facing it will require courage, solidarity and imagination.

Some sources