Posted on 2-June-2019
"Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness"
Angela Merkel at this year's Harvard Commencement
Since the declaration of India's election results for the Lok Sabha on 23rd May, it has been open season for analysts in India and abroad. After the analysts have said all they have to say about the hows and the whys of the decisive victory of the BJP led by Narendra Modi, the simple fact remains that Narendra Modi convinced around 39 per cent of India's voters--the Congress Party during its years of ascendancy dominated the Indian electoral scene with around 42% of the popular vote except in 1984--that he was the man to take India forward and defend the people's interests at home and abroad. He got his support across caste, community and regional divides just as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi won broadbased support from the people of India during the years of their ascendancy. Those who express apprehensions about the possibility that the BJP/ RSS will now proceed towards establishing a Hindu majoritarian--a word currently in fashion--state must not delude themselves into thinking that it is only the votaries of Hindutva or it is only small traders, artisans, traders or citybred techies and yuppies with supposedly no training in critical thinking on social and political questions who voted for the BJP. Support for Narendra Modi has been growing in the last five years in the urban, educated middle class which in the media is described as the cosmopolitan elite so much so that in some of these groups there is no tolerance for any criticism of either the BJP/RSS or of Narendra Modi or of the deficiencies of the Modi government.
According to one survey India is one of those countries where the percentage of people who would prefer a strong leader above all else is among the highest. Narendra Modi presented himself as a strong leader. Narendra Modi had another advantage unavailable to most other political parties: the large number of RSS workers who, a little bit like Christian missionaries, have for long and continuously been working in the deepest interior and in some very remote areas among the people, speaking their language, using an idiom they easily understand, spreading the ideas of Hindutva. There is something else that has happened in India, not very different from what has happened in parts of the Arab world. Edward Said has described the phenomenon in Egypt and Tunisia in one of his 1993 Reith Lectures thus: "Countries like Egypt and Tunisia which have long been ruled since independence by secular nationalist parties that have degenerated into coteries and cliques, are suddenly rent by Islamic groups whose mandate, they say with considerable justice, is granted them by the oppressed, the urban poor, the landless peasants of the countryside, all those with no hope except a restored or reconstructed Islamic past." In India too, the rise of the BJP has been facilitated by the secular parties, above all by the Congress. In the upshot, Narendra Modi is back in power in greater strength than before and in the current political situation in India looks set to be in power till 2029. During its first term, the Modi government established control over as many levers of power as possible; during the second it will seek to extend its power geographically,--aiming to come to power in West Bengal and getting back into power in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and slide into position in Karnataka--and qualitatively consolidate its power everywhere.
It may be useful at this stage to look at the political parties that were opposed to Narendra Modi and the BJP during the last election. First of all they could not join together on a common platform under a common leader. At least two, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati had barely concealed prime ministerial ambitions, not knowing that the ground was slipping under their feet. Chandra Babu Naidu tried to midwife opposition unity while his party was headed towards disaster in his state not only for the Lok Sabha but also for the state legislative assembly for which elections were held simultaneously. He lost his Chief Minister's job. Another promoter of opposition unity, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, once considered invincible in Maharashtra, ended up with his party and its ally, the Congress severely wounded in Maharashtra. Arvind Kejriwal of the Aaam Admi Party has consistently overestimated his political appeal since he first did moderately well in elections to the Legislative Assembly of Delhi in December 2013.
The Congress Party, after it succeeded in reducing the strength of the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly in 2017 and scored weak victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assemblies and a full victory in Chhattisgarh Assembly in 2018, concluded that the political wind in the country was blowing strongly in its way. This regained confidence in itself became an obstacle in the way of its seizing opportunities available to it in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi if it scaled its demands down when talking to potential allies in these two states. Besides the Congress just did not understand how vulnerable it was in the eyes of a large number of voters to the criticism that it was a fief of Sonia Gandhi's family. The Congress committed other mistakes to which we shall return later. During the election campaign it became easy for Narendra Modi to dismiss a disunited opposition as being incapable of providing good governance as it also became easy for him to successfully paint the Congress as one family's party.
Since the Congress is still the largest party in opposition it is necessary to take a closer look at it. The first thing to be said about the Congress is that after 1973, with the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, its character changed. It became a party run by small coteries whose main objective became the retention of the hold of Indira Gandhi's family on the party. For all the Congress's talk about its attachment to democratic values, it is sobering to think of what would have happened if Sanjay Gandhi had not been killed in an act of derring-do in June 1980. He would have become the Prime Minister of India, even, conceivably, after pushing his mother aside. He would have been worse than the worst fascistic tyrant and members of the Congress would have cheered him along. After his death, Indira Gandhi simply brought her elder son, Rajiv, till then kept out by Sanjay Gandhi and her of any political action, as her second in command. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984, consumed by the fire in Punjab lit by Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh, a small cabal around Rajiv installed him as Prime Minister, setting aside all democratic norms. When the Congress returned to power in 2004 at the head of a coalition, Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi, as the President of Congress Party retained real power in her own hands after appointing Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. Her control was so tight that she could overrule the Prime Minister whenever she wanted, even over civil service appointments. During the Congress coalition's second term in office one frustrated Congressperson, a fully paid up member of Rajiv Gandhi's and later Sonia Gandhi's durbar said that not a leaf moved in the Congress Party without Sonia Gandhi's knowledge. Another member of the Rajiv/Sonia durbar said after he was exiled that Pulak Chatterjee, Secretary in the Prime Minister's office would routinely take government files to Sonia Gandhi in the evenings for her perusal, obviously not for entertainment. When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, one Italian businessman, Ottavio Quattrochi had direct access to him. In 2010, when news started coming in of various kinds of financial malfeasance in connection with the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, the Chairman of the Organising Committee, a third tier Congress politician could not be removed because he enjoyed the protection of Sonia Gandhi, though removing him would have been the obvious step to take if the Congress party had been concerned about rectitude in financial matters or even with safeguarding its reputation. Thereafter the Congress got engulfed in one corruption scandal after another. By the time of Lok Sabha elections in 2014 public revulsion with Sonia Gandhi's Congress was palpable. Large numbers of people voted to remove the Congress out of power. As a result, Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India and the Congress was reduced to a negligible 44 members in the Lok Sabha. Yet the Congress Party refused to understand that Sonia Gandhi's family had become a liability. Sonia Gandhi brought in her son Rahul as a General Secretary, then in 2013 as Vice President and in 2017 finally as President, with men and women of the Congress Party cheering and applauding. In the years since 2014 Sonia Gandhi's durbar has continued to dominate the Congress and the culture of self-abasing sycophancy continues--not so long ago one of the senior most members of the Congress said that when he closed his eyes and heard Rahul Gandhi speak he felt he was hearing Rajiv Gandhi! Others say Priyanka Gandhi reminds them of Indira Gandhi! In 2019 the Congress will have increased its members in Lok Sabha to the slightly less negligible 52. Rahul Gandhi, who lost his long held seat of Amethi, was reported after this year's election as insisting on quitting as Congress President with many senior Congressmen engaged in trying to persuade him to stay on. In the mean time Sonia Gandhi has been elected head of the Congress parliamentary party. Her dream of making Rahul Gandhi Prime Minister of India looks like remaining a dream for ever.
During this year's election campaign, Rahul Gandhi spoke on three themes mostly: the contract for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the Novmber 2016 demonetisation of currency notes of the denomination of Rs.1000 and Rs. 500. On the first he was foolishly advised to repeat ad nauseam Pradhan Mantri Chor hai or Desh ka Chowkidar Chor hai (the Prime Minister is a thief or the country's sentinel is a thief.) His advisers were probably thinking of 1987 and 1988 when in the wake of the Bofors scandal in which Rajiv Gandhi had quite successfully destroyed his credibility, a ditty, Gali gali me shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai (It is bruited about in every nook and cranny that Rajiv Gandhi is a thief) gained such wide currency that a child when asked on a children's programme on All India Radio Patna to recite a poem recited that ditty; the director of that radio station was removed promptly. That ditty quite conceivably did some damage. The way the bofors story unfolded in 1986 onwards raised widespread suspicions about the involvement at least of Sonia Gandhi's Italian relatives. Yet no political leader ever repeated that ditty. Here no one less than the Congress President was repeating a slogan about a matter on which the most he was saying was that in negotiating the purchase deal with the French the Indian government had manoeuvred to get the French manufacturer of the jets to award the 30000 crore rupee offset contract to an Indian business house close to Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi and his advisers were so out of touch with popular sentiment that they did not know that the criticism of the rafale deal was not exciting popular feeling; they forgot that, unfortunately for them and for everyone else, democratic elections are won or lost by appealing to people's emotions, not by lawyerly arguments about offset contracts and so on for which the common voter has nether the time nor the patience. They did not even have the sense to understand that if a slogan was not catching on it should be abandoned.
Demonetisation was another issue on which Rahul Gandhi expended a great deal of energy. I have never understood why in 2019 demonetisation was made an election issue. I was travelling in an overnight train on 8th November 2016. In the morning of 9th November the other person in my train compartment told me of the demonetisation decision. Since the full impact would come only later, I was not much perturbed. I had no difficulty in getting a cab to take me home and paying for it. Then we counted the total cash we had and found that between my wife, my daughter and me we had a total of Rs.10000. This was well within the permissible limit for changing old demonetised currency notes for new notes or older notes of smaller denomination. My wife and I stood in a queue but finding that the queue was too long decided to deposit our demonetised currency notes in my daughter's bank account. Since for a long time now we have used plastic money for most of our purchases our need for cash is relatively small. For our small needs we stood in queues in front of cash machines which occasionally did not have cash or which ran out of cash by the time our turn came. None of this was pleasant but in the process we saw how others who stood in queues talked. People grumbled and cursed but all that was of a kind with annoyance at being caught in a traffic jam. I observed no sign of great public anger nor saw any media reports of it. Two months later I was getting my house painted. The painters had to be paid in cash and I needed cash for buying paint. I still managed more or less well. None of the three painters working in my house complained about demonetisation and one of them actually approved of it feeling it was right to punish the richer people who kept unaccounted money in large stashes. A carpenter whom I called in around the same time told me that due to demonetisation someone for whom he had worked had not been able to pay him some 25000 rupees--a large sum for him--but he said uncomplainigly that he would wait. His only problem was that he was not able to open a bank account because of some error in his aadhaar card and that he would have to put aside work on some day to take care of that. Many others found other solutions, fair or foul, for dealing either with the shortage of cash or of excess cash in their hands. People coped. And if there was no public anger in 2016, no public anger could be aroused in 2019. The voter would not have the time or patience for economists' arguments about decline in GDP. Rahul Gandhi's criticism of the GST was even more convoluted for the common voter to grasp easily. Obviously none of this brought in votes; nor did campaign season demonstrative conversion of Rahul Gandhi to Brahmanical Hinduism. He seems to have forgotten the days when Jawaharlal Nehru persistently debunked religion, superstition and obscurantism in his public speeches, unafraid of losing public support. To the ordinary voter Narendra Modi's devotion to Hindu gods, no matter how feigned, appears genuine while Rahul Gandhi's--of whose ancestry he is keenly aware--appears false. There were other stupidities that the Congress committed. The BJP did not hesitate to replace its leaders or members of Lok Sabha wherever it felt necessary. The Congress stuck with old and passť politicians like Sushil Kumar Shinde and Shila Dikshit: both of them lost. Another senior leader of the Congress said in the midst of the election campaign that their aim was not so much winning seats in Uttar Pradesh but to build up the party for the future: he lost the election in his own family's pocket borough.
There was one salutary development in the last election: the family enterprises of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav were reduced to irrelevance while two others, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee were shown that they were not the tigresses they pretended to be. It would be desirable for them along with Sonia Gandhi's family to retire for good from politics. Their retirement will make it possible for the emergence of new leaders and for the regrouping of all political forces opposed to the BJP/RSS into one or two cohesive political parties. This cannot happen in one or two years but it may in five to ten years. If this were to happen, it would be good for the health of Indian democracy.
In the eyes of Narendra Modi's supporters, he is a new messiah come to restore Hindu pride and strength and in doing so, raise India to hitherto unattained heights, make India a world power, make India once again a jagadguru ( teacher of the world). He is an effective orator--this expression can also be an euphemism for a demagogue. He is all set to rule India at least for five years, probably for ten, without any effective political opposition. Given the behaviour of the BJP/RSS during the last five years and given their way of thinking, there are three dangers that the present situation entails. The first is the most obvious and it is that religious minorities, above all Muslims, will be targeted from different angles and on different pretexts. Sooner or later, the richer, the upper caste Muslims, among whom are also those who claim to speak on behalf of all other Muslims will reach their accommodation with the BJP/RSS. Some poor ones will be killed for one reason or the other with the support or connivance of the Hindu constabulary. The majority will settle into sullen silence, afraid to speak, happy to be left alone to lead their daily lives. Some will be tempted to turn to extremist violence--if there are only a few such people they will be crushed with all the power of the state; if their numbers increase, the government will have a major problem on their hands. Poor Kashmiri Muslims will become special targets not only of Hindu zealots but also of Indian security services, because it is so easy to call any Muslim in Kashmir a terrorist or a pro Pakistani separatist, an enemy of the state.
The second danger is insidious and potentially much more damaging than the first. With the votaries of Hindutva in control of the state, there is a real risk that India might descend into an intellectual dark age. The government will almost certainly support vedic mathematics, vedic science, astrology, yoga, the benefits of panchagavya (five matters including cowdung and cow's urine that the cow produces), ayurveda, homoeopathy and maybe unani medicine (as a sop to Muslim sentiment) as subjects of serious scientific enquiry. Those who promote the RSS versions of History, Politics or Sociology will receive government patronage; others who disagree will either be ignored or, worse, silenced. All kinds of charlatans will parade as scholars and run institutions of learning. In time many of yesteryear's critics of the BJP/RSS will turn into admirers. If such developments take place, which is highly probable, spirit of enquiry and free thought will be eclipsed. For creativity not only in literature and the fine arts but also in the sciences to flourish freedom of thought is essential. Moral policing and thought policing could increase. Thought leaders will prosper and critics will languish--I owe this distinction to Anand Giridharadas. And self-censorship--which is the worst kind of censorship--might become widely prevalent. The walls that Angela Merkel talked of at Harvard will become higher.
The third danger is perhaps only a theoretical possibility. Messianic leaders in the past have wrought disasters for the people they enticed with promises of paradise. Adolf Hitler was one such. He rose to power tapping into the anger and frustration of a people rendered poor and hopeless by the exactions imposed upon Germany by the victorious powers after the War of 1914-18. Once in power, he used unfounded myths about a superior Aryan race to justify persecution of Jews, and Gypsies and anyone else considered non-Aryan. He used doctors to run a wide program of eugenics for breeding pure, war-like, heroic Aryan men and women. He came to power through a democratic election and once in power, made sure to suppress and eradicate political opposition to him. Like the BJP/RSS he was anti-intellectual. In time he received support from sections of German aristocracy and German bourgeoisie. Major German industrialists became willing collaborators. He took Germany into a war that ruined the country. Another messianic leader, Mao dze Dong did not take China into any external war but contented himself with discovering ever newer class and people's enemies to persecute, causing at least one quarter million deaths from famine. Neither Hitler nor Mao had any political opposition to restrain them. Narendra Modi likewise faces no political opposition. How he uses his unrestricted power is a question that should preoccupy all patriotic Indians.
There is one person who can eliminate the above three dangers:
Narendra Modi. He may undergo a miraculous conversion--such
conversions are not unknown--and rise above the narrow viewpoint of
very large numbers in the RSS and in his political party and decide
that respect for human life and freedom of thought, freedom of
enquiry, compassion, belief in the common humanity of us all,
promotion of reason and rationality, science and human flourishing
are far more important than religious zeal, bigotry and adherence to
an ideology that was developed about ninety-five years ago. He has
the power and the authority now to suppress zealotry and adherence
to anti-scientific views and ignorant superstition not only among
his followers but everywhere else in India. He has the power to
promote respect for a Narendra Dabholkar rather than a Nathuram
Godse. This is the way of light. If Narendra Modi were to do all
this he would make a place for himself as the greatest Indian of our
times. The alternative is the way of darkness and if Narendra Modi
were to choose this, he would end up being a despised figure
after the collapse of the political edifice under construction at
the moment for all political edifices collapse eventually. Then
today's admirers will turn into tomorrow's denigrators.