Hope against hope


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THERE is a tide in the affairs of men: this is so oft-quoted that it has become a cliché. But like most cliches it contains a kernel of truth. Casting a cold eye on the second decade of the 21st century, it is possible to discern certain global political patterns and developments, all of which cannot be written off as mere coincidences. One such development is a turn away from the politics of liberalization and globalization to the politics of xenophobic nationalism powered by a rhetoric of racial and religious hatred.

These developments were manifest in India, the United States of America, Great Britain, Turkey and elsewhere in the world from around 2014-15. At the helm of this kind of political turn are leaders, democratically elected, who have scant regard for democratic processes and functions, for the rule of law, for the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and expressions of dissent. Many seem to feel that in the recent past, a dark and ominous cloud has loomed over democracy and hard-won democratic rights. It is therefore important to set the rise of this kind of politics into some context.

The era of globalization and liberalization that marked the end of the 20th century came to a sudden end at the tail of the first decade of the 21st century. In 2007-2008, there was an economic crash which, in terms of its impact, was probably more intense than the one in 1929. It began as a crisis in the sub-prime mortgage markets in the US but by September 2008 it had grown into a full-blown crisis affecting the entire banking and financial sectors. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two major mortgage banks, had to be taken over by the federal government and a week later the investment bank, Lehman Brothers, collapsed. The aftermath led to a global economic slowdown. The major financial institutions appealed for state intervention to bail them out and they got what they wanted.

The economic historian, Adam Tooze, in his study of the 2007-08 crash noted that the crisis was ‘met with a mobilization of state action without precedent in the history of capitalism.’ This was a complete turn-around from the principles of liberalization which had advocated pushing back the frontiers of the state. The US government alone spent $ 1 trillion to stabilize the financial system. Similar bailout packages had to be doled out to European banks. It is an irony that in the aftermath of liberalization, there was an increase in the role and the power of the state.


This sequence of events and its aftermath of unemployment had political consequences. It was a growing perception that the era of liberalization and globalization had only enabled the rich to get richer at the cost of the less privileged. Academic studies – Thomas Picketty to name one outstanding scholar – showed that liberalization and globalization had aggravated and increased existing inequalities. In the US and in Britain the electorate articulated their discontent against policies that they felt had been ‘anti-people’ by electing leaders – a president in one case and a prime minister in another – who were outspokenly against globalization and were champions of a narrow nationalism, which many believed, had been buried.

The resurrection of that kind of nationalism and jingoism went hand-in-hand with the suppression of democratic processes and practices and also, a complete disregard for facts. Lying blatantly to gain political mileage became par for the course for leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. There was a tide, it seemed, which was pushing politics towards illiberalism, an atmosphere in which freedoms were less important than the spread of hatred, bigotry and various forms of insularity.


India did not remain unaffected by this tide. In the general elections of 2014, the Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, was voted out of power. The verdict of the electorate was decisively in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi who became the new prime minister. The driving force of Modi’s campaign and eventual triumph, was that the previous regime, led by Manmohan Singh, had been corrupt and had halted the momentum of economic reforms.

Modi promised not only a clean government but also a government that would promote reforms. His slogan Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas advocated, in policy terms, a move away from state planning and regulation; the ushering in of tax reforms which would be pro-business; and new labour laws – all of which would lead and galvanize a new era of rapid economic growth. This programme had an obvious attraction for the business community, but it also reflected the aspirations of the upwardly mobile younger generation who were eager to fulfil their material ambitions.

There was another ideological dimension to Modi’s campaign. It was to bring about a cultural transformation which would make India into a Hindu nation-state. This ideology was integral to the BJP and the RSS ideology and meant the exclusion of non-Hindus from being authentic Indians; among the non-Hindus, the Muslims were particularly marked out as enemies and threats to the making of a Hindu Rashtra. Modi’s triumph was thus based on a two-pronged campaign: economic reforms (a project not overtly endorsed by the RSS) and a cultural project that lay at the heart of the doctrine of Hindutva which the RSS upheld.

Unfortunately for Modi, conditions – global and national – were not especially conducive to rapid economic growth. Some policies, like demonetization actually hindered economic growth. The reasons that prompted Modi to demonetize – and the decision was his – still remains unclear even if the consequences are not. Even before the pandemic hit, it was clear that the economy was slowing down. Growth figures were clearly indicating that decline. The pandemic and resultant lockdown rendered a coup de grace to dwindling growth. The economic future in a post-pandemic era looked uncertain and grim.


The ideological project of cultural transformation galloped apace and continues to do so. At the very heart of this ideological project is a particular reading of India’s past. According to this reading, the Muslims held the Hindus in servitude for over five hundred years, beginning from 1206 and onwards. The present moment, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, is the opportune moment to reclaim India and make it a land only for the Hindus. Non-Hindus can continue to live in India but on terms set by the majority Hindus, as second class citizens at the mercy of the majority. This politico-cultural agenda allows for no dissent. To dissent is to be anti-Hindu, and through a transitive logic, anti-national since Hindus define the nation.

Thus, the assertion of Hindutva has acquired a hyper-nationalist dimension. Nationalism and Indianness have come to be inseparable from Hindu identity. And, what it means to be a Hindu and an Indian is now defined by the BJP and its associated organizations – collectively known as the sangh parivar. One immediate and inevitable consequence is that any criticism of the present government, its actions and its policies, are labelled as anti-national. The critics are described by various derogatory epithets – agents of Pakistan, security threat, urban Naxals and so on. The prime minister and his government are always held up as the only people who can project what is truly Indian.

This, their cultural project, is not confined to the world of ideas. It has become part of the grim reality of the daily lives of ordinary people, who have become perpetrators of intimidation and violence, as well as its victims. Ordinary individuals pursuing their trade and professions have begun to group themselves in localities to preserve and protect what they think of as Hindu and truly Indian, following in the steps of the sangh parivar.


Perceived threats to this Hindu India are then made targets of violence. The targets are always ordinary Muslims, who are attacked and lynched. In the name of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra, the rule of law is made to disappear and mob violence allowed to prevail. And because perpetrators of this kind of violence are always supporters of the ruling political dispensation, the police become bystanders and no action is taken against those who incite and execute violence. In fact, false cases are instituted against the victims or those who oppose and criticize the violence.

Lynching and mob violence began to rise in many parts of India almost as soon as Narendra Modi assumed power. The list of such incidents is growing at an alarming rate. And increasingly, almost always the victims of the violence are Muslims who are suspected of eating beef, selling beef and so on. The actual reason is that they are Muslims and therefore, are seen as the enemy. Bigotry, nurtured by a political ideology, has made people blind and intolerant as it always does.


There is one associated feature of this violence which needs to be flagged. In every case, the prime minister, his close associates, and leaders of the sangh parivar have failed to publicly condemn the violence. Murder in the name of Hindu Rashtra is becoming a way of life in democratic India. These events, where supporters of the sangh parivar in different parts of India have used violence, boast about using violence and inciting violence, clearly reveals an ominous political trend in India.

It is significant that there are groups of people, supported by political leaders, who are unashamed – on the contrary are proud – of their use and advocacy of violence against individuals and groups who do not share their views. The counterpart to this kind of intolerance of dissent is authoritarianism, where a political party, and its various wings, assume they have the right to impose their views on people who disagree with them because of their mandate. The first step is to label the dissenters with epithets that incite passion: some of these epithets have already been mentioned. These epithets are then used as an alibi for state action – arrests, humiliation, denial of bail.

State action is being bolstered by actions of party cadres and loyalists who harangue, abuse and beat up the so called ‘offenders’. The abuse continues on social media platforms. An ambience of terror and intimidation is generated. The targets of this terror are two predictable groups. One is the secular, anti-Hindutva, pro-democratic section of the population, India’s most endangered specie, the secular intelligentsia. It is also alarming that attacks against this group tap into a pool of public opinion that believes India should be a strong Hindu state, that tolerance is not a virtue, that nationalism is an unalloyed virtue, and that universities should have no autonomy. The second group are the Muslims who, it is averred, ‘should be taught a lesson’ for no other reason except for the fact that from 1206 to the period of British rule, Muslim dynasties ruled India. Muslims are assumed to be anti-Indian/Hindu.

It would be simplistic and erroneous to believe that only the ignorant and the obscurantists hold such outlandish views. These views are held by educated people who one would expect to uphold the rule of law and respect the tenets of the Indian Constitution. This pool of support, and the popular electoral mandate, sanction the slide towards authoritarianism. It might be asked how a slide towards authoritarianism can happen when Parliament continues to exist and function, and when the Opposition can voice its concern on the floor of both Houses of Parliament?


The authoritarianism described here is manifest in a different, but not irrelevant, theatre. It is at the street level – the way supporters and party loyalists are mobilizing themselves to suppress dissent and the articulation of criticism. They are choosing their own methods of punishing those who differ with them – smearing them with ink, humiliating them, beating them up, lynching them and so on. In other words, through mob violence. These are acts akin to those the storm troopers and the Hitler Youth carried out in Nazi Germany. What is decisive here is not the rule of law, not democracy and certainly not the Constitution, but the brutal use of muscle power to impose one ideological view, Hindutva. Such actions have the consent of ideological and political leaders.


It has become clear gleaning through many incidents that have happened, that the prime minister, even though he was elected as prime minister of India, will not utter a single word on these instances of mob violence in the cause of Hindutva, let alone condemn them. Narendra Modi, in spite of being the prime minister of India, does not condemn such acts because he does not believe they deserve to be condemned. The violent suppression of dissent and the imposition of the Hindutva ideology are essential parts of his core ideology. These are beliefs that he imbibed when he trained as a loyal member of the RSS cadre. The fact that as the chief minister of Gujarat he put a veneer of development on his ideology does not mean that he has abandoned his core beliefs. He believes in Hindutva, in making India a Hindu Rashtra and in making sections of the Indian population second class citizens. If all this requires doses of violence so be it: it will make Hindu India a strong state.

This is not to suggest that Narendra Modi is ordering or directing the violence, the intolerance and the suppression of dissent. He does not need to. His supporters are second-guessing him and carrying out actions that they know will win his approval. Modi does not need to implement his own ideological agenda; there are people – many of them physically far away from him, ordinary cadres of the sangh parivar – who are doing the job of implementation and doing it mercilessly. They are working towards Hindutva and therefore towards Modi’s core beliefs. The emergence of Narendra Modi as the undisputed and unchallenged leader of the BJP has brought greater clarity to the ideological aims of the sangh parivar. The velvet glove of moderate Hindutva has been removed to reveal the exposed fist.

This ideological direction has no particular respect for, or interest in, preserving the fabric of the Constitution, the principles of parliamentary democracy and the salient features of a cabinet form of government. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Question Hour in Parliament was removed to suppress dissent and uncomfortable questions. Thus authoritarianism is also eroding institutions of democracy by preventing them from functioning properly.


For reasons of historical accuracy, it should be made clear that this is not the first time that India is witnessing the subversion of democracy and its institutions. The undoing of democracy in certain key areas was begun by Indira Gandhi and her principal advisor P.N. Haksar through the concentration of powers in the prime minister’s office, the subversion of the cabinet form of government, a deification of the prime minister, attempts to tinker with aspects of the Constitution, a destruction of the autonomy of the judiciary and the bureaucracy and, finally of course, the complete abandoning of democracratic processes during the Emergency in 1975-77.

Narendra Modi, however, much as he loathes the Congress and the Gandhi family, is replicating every feature of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime except that he is unable, for certain constitutional restrictions, to impose an internal emergency. But it is still possible to rule through an undeclared emergency.

Narendra Modi, much like Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s, has fashioned a personalized form of governance by eroding all forms of collective decision-making. Everyone at every level of political power knows where the real power lies – with the prime minister, and the implementation of policy matters resides in the hands of a few handpicked bureaucrats in the prime minister’s office. Prime Minister Modi has tamed the larger media except for some notable exceptions who are harassed and threatened.


The politics of violence, the pandering to this kind of hatred by political leaders, the diminishing of all dissent, the creeping erosion of democratic and civil society institutions and the deification of the prime minister are all these features India witnessed during Indira Gandhi’s rule. Today we are witnessing the same with the added features of anti-Muslim responses and the growth of an irrational intellectual space.

This slide towards authoritarianism was most manifest in the way Modi handled the pandemic. On 22/23 March he announced a lockdown giving the Indian people exactly four hours notice. The impact of the lockdown was different for different sections of society. The urban middle and upper middle classes resorted to working from home after stocking up on essential supplies of food and medicines. It required a major change in lifestyle with men and women who had previously done very little – in the case of most males none at all – household chores and were now being forced to carry out tasks that had earlier been done by domestic and menial staff, many of whom come from a floating population of migrant workers from the rural world. However, it must be said that the middle and upper middle classes hunkered down without complaint.

The scenario for the migrant labourer, the daily wage earner, the petty trader et al was tragically different. In a time span of four hours, they found themselves, jobless, income-less and homeless. No effort was made by the Modi government to ensure any kind of safety or guarantees for this population. They were in their hundreds, in some cases in the thousands, miles away from their villages, their families and their homes. This floating population, often defying the lockdown, began a trek back to their villages, walking long distances with their wives and little children, without food and water. Some died on the way.


It was a heart wrenching episode in the history of independent India. The Modi government appeared to be not only myopic, but also heartless. The lockdown could easily have been better planned: more notice should have been given and transport provided to those who perforce had to go back to their villages. The rush to impose a lockdown was especially ironic because through the month of February the Modi government had dragged its feet refusing to take the rapid spread of the virus seriously. Even today the Modi government refuses to take serious cognizance of the hardship that the poor and labouring population are having to endure.

All this notwithstanding, there is no denying that Narendra Modi’s popularity remains undiminished. Large numbers of people – not all of them upholders of the Hindutva cultural project of making India a Hindu Rashtra – continue to believe he is the leader who will make India strong and all Indians prosperous. This is obvious from the state election outcomes, the most recent being Bihar.

There are many reasons for his undiminished popularity. The most important is the growing and persistent disillusionment with the Congress party, with its enthusiasm to cling onto a dynasty. In ideological terms, the Congress stands for a secular and an inclusive India. But its organization is in shambles. It is unable to formulate an alternative to Narendra Modi and the BJP, beyond Rahul Gandhi’s occasional broadsides. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Congress’s position is the following: the Congress party wants to follow the same economic and foreign policy as Modi has, but it is not anti-Muslim. Therefore, it is not an effective alternative.

The Congress is in no position to oppose Narendra Modi at an all-India level. There are various regional and provincial political formations that are powerful opponents of the BJP and of Modi. These political parties have a strong, popular base in their respective regions – bases that are under constant attack from the BJP. Bengal is the immediate example that comes to mind. The presence of these forces in the provinces opens up the possibility of a different kind of polity, of a federal polity, in which the states will continue to assert their autonomy and priorities against a Modi/BJP-led centre.


To return to from where I began. The turning trajectory towards narrow nationalism and illiberalism has received a blow with the defeat of Donald Trump. His behaviour post his defeat only reinforces the contempt he has for democratic processes and function. The winds from across the Atlantic have ruffled feathers in Britain, within the Tory Party, with a section articulating its reservations about Brexit without a deal, and even about Brexit per se. Is the tide turning or are we mistaking these mild ripples as being a tide? If it is a tide will it be strong enough to arrive at the vast land mass that stretches from the Himalaya to a peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean?


* The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own.