The Saffron Surge and Tilt towards Absolutism
As various surveys project Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s soaring popularity on the third anniversary of his government, one is easily reminded of the statement by Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), soon after the March 2017 elections in five states, that “there will be no pan-Indian leader to take on Modi in 2019.”
Assuming that Abdullah’s prophecy is proven two years down the line, that will not be the first time in independent India that a TINA (there is no alternative) factor prevailed at the apex of India’s political edifice – Jawaharlal Nehru had few challengers till the end and Indira Gandhi (but for brief spell) too survived all alternatives until her final days. Yet, such lofty comparisons for the current prime minister may look like a premature anointment, akin to the ‘core leader’ status obtained by China’s Xi Jinping, visibly a bit too early in his presidential tenure.
Irrespective of whether TINA will work in Modi’s favour in 2019 or whether he will emerge as a national icon like Lee Kuan Yew, the recent elections, especially the mandate in UP, marks a metamorphic milestone for India’s political system. With almost all recent verdicts indicating the BJP’s thrust towards pan-Indian dominance, there is intense speculation (and trepidation) on how India’s political landscape will cope with the strained ideological engagement, on how far the emergent wave of cultural nationalism will permeate the national ethos and further vitiate the socio-political disequilibrium, and whether the omnipresence of one party and its leader augurs well for India’s democracy.
Described below are key trends that indicate a decisive turn in the evolution of the world’s largest democracy:
(a) Majoritarianism rears its head, and may get uglier
The resurgence of the BJP - from a meagre 2 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1980s to 180 seats at the peak of the Babri Masjid movement - was largely attributed to a Hindu revivalism, then seen as a reactionary movement to Nehruvian secularism that defined this nation-state for over four decades, until events like the shilanyas at the Ram Janmabhoomi and the Shah Bano case opened pathways for a socio-political revisionism.
While the BJP was a natural beneficiary of this churning, that this revival did not initially egress as a pan-Indian trend entailed the party’s limited growth to that extent that it remained a political pariah even while taking a shot at forming minority governments. The party’s upsurge after the Babri Masjid demolition was thus restricted to the Hindi belt with the farthest corners resisting all elements of Hindutva that the BJP espoused.
Numerous reasons could be cited to explain BJP’s spectacular return in 2014 and maintaining a steady show in 2017 sans anti-incumbency imprints. The 2014 turnaround could have more to do with the corruption scandals that swarmed the Congress than a sweeping Modi wave. The irony about 2017 was that all those issues that were supposed to hit the Modi government - be it demonetisation, Dalit uprising or the nationalism debate - eventually came out in its favour. However, attributing ‘reverse polarisation’ (as counter to minority and backward class consolidation) to recent electoral verdicts will be to contravene a larger social phenomenon that was at work. Since the advent of the Modi government, a concerted pan-Indian process of social mobilisation – with portends of majoritarianism – has been taking shape, which had potently manifested in the 2017 election. Though Hindu consolidation may sound a clichéd refrain, the scale and enormity of the ongoing social churning might be unprecedented in independent India.
In fact, its extent goes beyond the conventional thinking about majoritarian mobilisation and conceptions about the quantum of such consolidation ever possible. Sample this: numerous social collectives are randomly being formed and flourishing (especially on social media) that foster intra-cultural interactions in majoritarian religious terms (promoting cultural/identity consciousness and debating existential challenges to ‘indigenous’ culture); de-stigmatization of long-existent practices of subdued cultural symbolism with incentives for flauntingreligious identity and ‘rediscovering’ heritage (‘Hindu pride’ as depicted by Modi’s puja at Varanasi ghats); moderates, who were erstwhile secular flag-bearers, are copiously coming around to the support BJP as a ‘nationalist’ venture driven by conceptions of a competent iconic leaderand a perceived inclusive agenda.
Whilst these remain at best as latent trends, the popularising of an existent anti-secular narrative has found increasing converts from moderates and ‘middle-grounders’. They are now emerging as the frontal social force behind this consolidation, expressing collective disenchantment against what they see as state-backed suppression of their cultural identity. Perceptions that the majority has received a short-shrift, that ‘minority appeasement’ has undermined the nation’s secular fibre, and that neo-liberal values are being promoted at the expense of national interests are among the drivers of this new ‘majoritarian consensus’.
The journey from religious revivalism to majoritarianism comes with innate signs of a potential advance towards absolutism. With the primacy of Hindu identity gaining legitimacy (with connivance of instruments of the state), trends of absolutism are becoming evident - be it in the concerted efforts to prioritize and privilege one particular way of life, legalizing specific regional sub-cultures as well as culinary preferences at the cost of other traditions (not just beef ban but also constraints on various forms of non-vegetarianism), propagation of selective interpretations of nationalism, propensity to prefect populist narratives of political discourses, or even augmented tools of state surveillance (Aadhaar) with potential for profiling of the citizenry and misuse – to say the least.
(b) ‘Secular’ politics faces a backlash
For India’s founding fathers, secularism was more of a synthesis of the ethno-cultural and multi-lingual mosaic that defined the civilizational foundations of the new nation-state, despite the intense debates in the Constituent Assembly over its tenets. It was clear from the outset that the concept of secularism could be under stress – whether to follow a western model of tabooing religion (by separating it from state and politics) or to evolve an Indian (or rather Gandhian) model of equal respect to all religions (including right for their propagation) with the state protecting minorities from cultural hegemony. While shaping India’s socio-political ethos in the initial decades, Jawaharlal Nehru propounded a template of inclusiveness that entailed the integration of religious and linguistic minorities into the national mainstream even while ensuring that the symbols of majoritarianism were subdued and parity of cultural traditions are promoted as a state policy.
Though this practice prevailed during the four decades of Congress dominance, the rise of the BJP as well as a reactionary model of secularism (pursued by the then resurgent socialist and Left forces) began to take centre-stage since the early 1990s. Unlike Nehru’s pursuit of secularism as a socio-political project, the post-Babri Masjid version ended up more as a political venture that aspired to provide a counter-narrative to BJP’s ideology, and challenging those issues the BJP stood for - the uniform civil code and Article 370, among the core ones, or religious conversions and population control as the peripheral ones - irrespective of their constitutional merit or social imperativeness. The BJP, in turn, countered them as pseudo-secularists for their propensity towards minority appeasement and backing of sectarian and casteist interests.
An outcome of the emergence of these forces in the last three decades has been the ascendency of competitive communalism as both sides thrived on divisive politics that aggravated socio-cultural schisms instead of complementing the original idea of cultural confluence. The perception that secular politics innately allowed minority communalism to flourish - be it through fundamentalism among sections of the Muslim community or religious proselytisation by some Christian missionaries or the collective bargaining exercised by their clergies – had played no less a role in fuelling discontent among Hindu moderates and driving majoritarian mobilisation. From their reluctance to shape the contours of issues like uniform civil code or promote inter-faith dialogue to seeking polarisation of minority and backward classes vote-banks and failure to adopt bipartisan positions where national interest is concerned, the successive atrophy of political forces like the Third Front embody how the neo-secularists worked their way towards obscurity and irrelevance.
While the recent electoral verdicts, especially in UP, sounds the death-knell for reactionary secularism, the BJP and its ideological affiliates, have intrinsically supplanted the secularism discourse with a bellicose brand of nationalism – combining cultural machoism with jingoism – that has nearly uprooted the neo-secularists from the political mainstream. (The decline of the frontline Left parties is a pointer on how entities that buttressed reactionary secularism at the cost of their original ideology ended up crippling their own political spaces.) The counter-narrative offered by the neo-secularists from one end of this spectrum and liberals on the others (when conflated with slogans like ‘Azaadi’) have effectively been portrayed as ‘anti-national’ with a resounding chorus. Prominent sections of the national media have also begun to bandwagon with the majoritarian voices driven by the realisation that its liberal positioning does not amply echo in the hinterland, where the vernacular press shapes the narrative.
(c) Inclusiveness giving way to absolutism?
If it was the judicious packaging of novel governance methods with far-reaching economic (and social) implications that enabled the Modi government to beat anti-incumbency, it could be the perceptions of a nationalist crusade and purpose (even by exhorting sacrifices from the citizenry for common good) that drives the iconic status of its leader as an invincible figure. While these elements could keep it in good stead for the 2019 elections, it is widely felt that the sweeping electoral wins could embolden the BJP to discard its proclaimed inclusive agenda and latently push towards absolutist schemes. Though the Indian democracy has checks against such tendencies, absolutism carries different connotations for societies; and in this case, the near-total dominance of a party over the polity provides the ripe conditions to pursue cultural and moral absolutism that syncs with the supposedly majoritarian values.
Such thinking prevails as the proclamation of ‘Sabke Saat, Sabka Vikas’ has hardly translated into realistic inter-faith confluence on the ground. Rather, the march of majoritarian symbolism has seemingly pushed minority voices into silence and subjugation, fearing further trampling of their cultural identities and ways of lives. In fact, the Modi Government’s inability to make a remarkable model out of its declared inclusive agenda has deeper ideological underpinnings. While endorsing the possibility of assimilating diverse cultural traditions under a unitary ethnic identity, the RSS (as BJP’s ideological mentor) is struggling to reconcile with the fact that Indian communities following the Abrahamic religious paths have cultural legacies that dates back to, if not older than, the Sanathana Dharma traditions to which they seek to fetter the roots of this civilisation to. While the RSS has attempted its own methods of outreach and acculturation, the BJP government is yet to harness the numerous opportunities available for holistic multi-cultural bonding – be it by commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Kerala shores well before it went to the West or celebrating the heritage of earliest peaceful Islamic schools that were established in the South before the invaders came from the North.
Though some clergies may favour segregated identities and distinctive existence owing to their bureaucratic affiliations with entities in foreign lands, the Modi government, for its inclusive agenda to attain meaning, has to not just ensure greater representation of minority communities in public life, but also adopt as well as enlighten the countrymen about its rich and variegated cultural tapestry (including resistance movements like the ‘Connan Cross Oath’ that shaped Indian Christianity, as also other such indigenous traditions that defines the unitary ethnicity) alongside the efforts to popularise our distinct symbols like Bhagavat Gita and Sanskrit. The need for cross-cultural sharing and education has never been as significant as it is now, especially to re-orient conventional narratives – that feeds on perceptions of violent Muslim invasions and conversions associated with British-era evangelists – in order to instil proper appreciation on the actual historical constructs of this civilization.
The Union is fragile, don’t weaken it further!
The BJP has a lesson from the 2009 General Elections: in the final months of UPA-I, there were widespread reports about the activities of ultra saffron groups, with some of them being accused of several terror attacks. While some sections sought to see this as retribution to the series of terror attacks attributed to Islamist groups like Indian Mujahideen, the BJP, initially, was in denial and blamed the UPA government for conjuring up ‘Hindu terror’ as a political counter for the 2009 elections. It took realisation of massive loss of urban votes and support from moderates for the party to finesse its eventual line that ‘terror has no religion’.
Though there is no denial that BJP got clear mandates in 2014 and 2017, misreading the actual tenor of electoral verdicts, and assuming it as astounding support for its ideology, could be a political misstep. Like the 2014 verdict being attributed to a pervasive anti-Congress wave (evident in its historic slump to 44 seats), the 2017 state polls have specific political undertones, especially from Uttar Pradesh. For one, there is no tangible evidence to suggest a Hindutva wave or support for the ‘Ram temple’ from the UP electorate. Rather, the unprecedented verdict represents the collective aspiration of the people for a pro-active governance model that will elevate the state from its perennial ‘Bimaru’ status. Despite having the highest representation in Parliament and successive governments, India’s largest state had severely lagged behind with lack of employment avenues, low quality of education, casteism and other signs of social decay bogging it down even as others in the Southern and Western frontiers have rapidly progressed on economic and social indicators. Years of caste-centric politics, crime and corruption had driven this backwardness with the Lohiaites (and their Brahminical predecessors) prioritising identity politics over investments in education or social projects.
A push towards the right (even if packaged with governance) will not just backfire in such states but will also alienate the moderates and huge sections of the Indian middle class whose grouse against ‘secular’ politics cannot be construed as support for majoritarianism. Pursuing any form of socio-political absolutism, besides undermining the country’s international standing, could also manifest in unpredictable forms - fostering new resistance movements, especially from alienated communities, as also diminishing faith in the nation-state as a protector or even a sustainable entity. It will be worthwhile to recall the mass migration of Sikhs after the 1984 Delhi riots and their adopting of many Western societies as illustrating how sectarian divide could erode confidence on the State as a provider of security and well being and result in withering of emotional bonding with the motherland.
(A.Vinod Kumar is a former journalist, author, and currently a fellow at India's premier strategic studies institute, IDSA.)