Saffron Sweep Reveals the Age of Unreason

The world’s biggest democracy has just elected its new government in a marathon 7-phase election. And what a mockery of democracy it has proven to be. Yet, without a sense of irony, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, says in his victory speech that “it is democracy that has won.” If democracy is merely casting your vote in an election once every five years, he would be right. But if it is a political system that also guarantees people their freedoms and rights, then he couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Of course, this is not the outcome I or anyone expected. One hoped that other political parties would put up something of a fight, and force the BJP into a wider coalition, as I had written in my previous post. But that was not to be. Instead, the entire nation seems to have been swept by a wave of saffron, save for a few states, where other parties will be sending their representatives to parliament. It is as if people had lost their sense of reason or had been hypnotized by the magical spell of this great leader. Indeed, some news channels called it “Modi magic”.

Sea of saffron at a BJP-Shiv Sena rally in Mumbai (2009); Image: Al Jazeera English on Wikimedia Commons

Well, in February this year, Amartya Sen had already compared demonetisation to magic, saying that it was “straight out of the PC Sorkar takeaway”. And at a discussion held in April 2019 at Columbia University, Sen and Prabhat Patnaik spoke of how “Modi Magic” is a constant distraction essential to governing by this BJP government.

There are various reasons for the election results that are being offered by the pundits, most common of which are nationalism, Hindutva and welfarism (a new addition to BJP’s strategy ever since it pivoted to pro-poor policies in the UP elections). 2019 was always going to be a watershed election in my mind, not so much because it was a referendum on the Modi government, but because I expected fundamental shifts in the country should the BJP return to power. Of course, Modi’s star-power and charisma cited by many political analysts helped, leading media to even coin a new term “TsuNaMo”. A biopic on Modi was to premiere timed with the elections, until the Election Commission asked for it to be held back until after the elections. In an era when we have TV reality stars and comedians becoming presidents of countries, why shouldn’t Modi the rockstar politician stake his claim to fame? Then again, haven’t we always had more than our fair share of filmy types turning politicians in India?

On a more serious note, however, I think it was the absence of any great economic development in the past five years that led the BJP to take the nationalistic, Hindutva-led tack, accompanied by sops to the farmers and the poor. Neither they, nor the Congress, managed to articulate their vision for India’s future. Modi’s talk of “New India” in the past was nothing more than a slogan, like so many others that he managed to churn out and fool the country with: Skill India, Digital India, Smart Cities, Make in India, Swachch India… we have plenty of toilets to show for the last one, but even they aren’t being used, lack of water and lack of education being the main reasons. As Abraham Lincoln is believed to have once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

If anything, economic growth in India has slowed down (GDP figures are the subject of much debate), millions of jobs have been lost and unemployment has risen to record levels (that too is the subject of debate, with an unemployment report being suppressed by the government), there is no new business investment (of the job-creating kind), and farmers are committing suicide due to falling incomes, rising debts and drought conditions. The GDP figures for the last quarter of the last financial year are expected at the end of this month. The Finance Ministry has already estimated these to come in lower than earlier expected. In such an environment, a New India would be hard to sell. Why not sell nationalism and Hindutva instead as “protection” from threatening forces, both real and imaginary?

In the end, the BJP’s defensive strategy won. BJP resorted to making India’s muscular response to Pakistan-based terrorist group’s attack the main plank of its electoral strategy. Narendra Modi even went so far as to directly invoke the national armed forces and the Balakot strikes while asking for votes, prompting many to say, rightly, that this was politicizing the armed forces. In a regime where every democratic institution has been undermined and destroyed, this was the last straw.

And if the BJP’s election manifesto was merely a last-minute rehash of their 2014 manifesto (sans the promise of millions of jobs), it was to be expected. As I see it, this is part of their incremental strategy to “keep winning”. With this election, they have progressed from giving us a “Congress-mukt” (Congress-free) India to giving us a Minority-free India (read free of Muslims and Christians, who are clearly seen as foreign to BJP’s Hindu-dominated ideology). Their Party President, Amit Shah, on the very first day of the elections vowed to throw out illegal (Bangladeshi) immigrants into the Bay of Bengal, calling them “termites”. This is mostly the kind of political discourse and rhetoric we have heard during this election, but as many media commentators observed, the termite statement has to go down as the lowest point of this election. We might be heading towards what Ramachandra Guha has called a “Hindu Pakistan”, in this recent article in The Telegraph.

The fundamental changes that I see during the next term is a steady march towards the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) and greater majoritarianism. It is informed by an extremely narrow understanding of nation state and nationalism, one that is defined by religion and caste. What is most alarming about the BJP’s idea of progress is that it aims to take us back to the Vedic age, seen as the pinnacle of Hindu achievement and in a very contorted way (as only the BJP can manage), the height of Indian civilization. When anyone who knows even a bit of Indian history will tell you that it is the Aryans who invaded India around 1500BC and destroyed the Indus civilization that we so proudly invoke whenever it suits us to talk of our civilizational culture. As Romilla Thapar writes in The New York Times, it is myth masquerading as history.

Hindu saadhu on Haridwar bridge; Image: Swapnil Dwivedi on Unsplash

No one has done more to distort facts and history, indeed even attempt to rewrite history textbooks, as BJP governments have done. It can again be attributed to BJP’s belief that it is the past that defines the future. As Sunil Khilnani points out in his book, The Idea of India:

“But the BJP’s definition of Indian nationalism was precisely the contrary of Nehru’s. It explicitly declared allegiance to the Sarvarkarite idea of Hindutva, ‘Hinduness’, and celebrated a glorious Hindu past: phrases from Vivekananda – ‘It is out of the past that the future is moulded. It is the past that becomes the future’ adorned its manifestos. But Hindu nationalism also embraced the armoury of the modern state. Its ambition was to complete the project of achieving an Indian nation state by piloting it towards what it saw as the logical terminus: a culturally and ethnically cleaned-up homogenous community with a singular Indian citizenship, defended by a state that has both God and nuclear warheads on its side.”

It is no wonder then, that the current BJP leadership thinks nothing of belittling Indian leaders and freedom fighters like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, while distorting the facts all the time to an electorate that knows no better. Personal and vicious attacks on Nehru are to be found in almost all the Prime Minister’s speeches. During this election, we heard him make similar attacks on Rajiv Gandhi. This time, we also had the terror-accused candidate, Saadhvi Pragya Singh – whom Mr. Modi defended and who has won! – call Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a patriot.

The fact is that the BJP would like to undo their legacy, the way Trump is undoing Obama’s legacy. The Indian freedom struggle was almost entirely led by the Indian National Congress and that is a period of modern India’s history that the BJP would rather not engage themselves with. They would rather disown that era and discredit the Congress leadership completely and instead hark back to the age of the Aryans and the Vedas. The latest attempt in BJP’s revisionist idea of history is apparently to even claim that Hinduism predates the Aryans! This, as new facts come to light about Aryan migrations through DNA studies and research.

India will produce generations of youth brought up on a history that some of us might not even recognize. They will grow up not knowing, or perhaps knowing a very different history of our independence. What’s more, they will grow up in a world where all science will also stake its claim to be Indian and from the Vedic age. There will be nothing new to learn, invent or discover, because it all existed in the Vedic age. In this climate of moribund thought and obscurantism, we can be sure that all education will be reduced to “cultural and social indoctrination”. The government has recently announced that higher education research projects (PhD level) will only be allowed on subjects of “national interest”; it is up to us to figure out what they mean by national interest.

Children in Kolkata; Image: Loren Joseph on Unsplash

The BJP’s cultural wing and ideological fount, the RSS, had expressed their preference for some home-grown scientific study of producing “smart babies” sometime ago; if this sounds dangerously like the Nazi plan of eugenics to you, you are reading their moves right. The BJP’s idea of greatness and civilization is not very different from the Nazis’ belief in purity and superiority of their race; coupled with their idea of rallying people across social classes, Volksgemeinschaft, it made for a very potent cocktail of Nazi propaganda. Unsurprisingly, Nehru used to write regularly to the state chief ministers during his time as Prime Minister, warning them of the dangers of RSS’s ideology because of what he had seen of the Nazi movement.

When one considers all the lynchings and killings in India by cow vigilantés, there is very little to differentiate Modi’s fan following from the mob. What might be instructive and cautionary at a time like this is to heed the words of Hannah Arendt who writes in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“National institutions resisted throughout the brutality and megalomania of imperialist aspirations, and bourgeois attempts to use the state and its instruments of violence for its own economic purposes were always only half successful. This changed when the German bourgeoisie staked everything on the Hitler movement and aspired to rule with the help of the mob, but then it turned out to be too late. The bourgeoisie succeeded in destroying the nation state but won a Pyrhhic victory; the mob proved quite capable of taking care of politics by itself and liquidated the bourgeoisie along with other classes and institutions.”

Emboldened by this election victory, the next Modi government will try and push through the plan for the Citizenship Amendment Bill and for revoking Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Expect chaos and confusion and civil unrest. Temple-building will be back on the agenda and irrespective of what the Supreme Court has to say on the Ayodhya case, the government will make it an emotive issue directly with the people. It will be like all their other attempts to emasculate the institutions and make them bend to their rule. Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New York Times on this election outcome, has also highlighted the BJP’s reliance on ancient wisdom as well as their infiltration into every institution, from the police to the media and the judiciary.

Expect more emasculation of the institutions in the next five years along with greater politicisation of the armed forces. Yogi Adityanath’s irresponsible statement of “Modi ki sena” (Modi’s army) during these elections is not outside the realm of possibility. It will be Modi’s army and he will command it like a President would (hasn’t he already campaigned like a President?). Or, as he is wont to make you believe, like your “protector-in-chief”. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in this interview to The New Yorker, says that he believes that cultural majoritarianism will increase in Modi’s second term and the marginalisation of Muslims will continue.

Having pivoted to pro-poor policies in the middle of their first term in government, the BJP will struggle to balance those demands with keeping their traditional voter base of businessmen and traders happy. Large corporations are believed to have funded his campaign in a big way, and we will never know who they are thanks to the so-called reform introduced by this government of electoral bonds. However, big businesses like the Adanis and Ambanis can continue to benefit under this regime and enjoy its protection, exacerbating policy issues and inequalities that already exist.

In short, democracy is in danger in the world’s biggest democracy. We are being herded like cattle in the direction of the Hindu Rashtra and unless we resist, we will be swamped. Our last chance to resist just went by; democracy wasted it.

In sum, I see the new India under this regime as the age of unreason. I can only end this piece with a wish and a prayer for India, in this poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the Mind is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depths of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Subscribers to The Whistle Newsletter can view a Brookings Institution panel discussion, featuring Easwar Prasad and Milan Vaishnav among others, assessing the results of the Indian election 2019 as part of the June reading/viewing selection at The Whistle Library.

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