The self-appointed champions of secular liberalism are decrying the recent electoral triumph of Hindu nationalism as a subversion of the true will of the people. Saswat Pattanayak argues that ‘we the people’ must not be let off the hook so easily….
Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.
– Albert Einstein
Contrary to dominant media claims, it is not despite divisive politics that Narendra Modi won the resounding mandate; he is, in fact, its natural culmination. Divisiveness is never the result of political assertions by oppressed socio-cultural minorities against militant nationalistic aspirations; rather, it takes concrete shape through the majoritarian identity politics reveling in patriotic overtures. Divisive is not the politics which ideologically identifies and combats fascist tendencies in one’s assumed country; divisiveness in political climate owes itself to sanctimonious imposition of opportunistic conceptions as unquestionable national priorities that override specific needs of the oppressed.
One such conception in recent times involves projection of India as emerging superpower that hosts ‘world’s oldest civilisation’– an enduring and endearing myth that unequivocally demands an end to multicultural pluralism within the country and harbours a deep suspicion toward the world outside.
The BJP’s own election manifestos are constantly updated to reflect the party’s aggressive posturing in as many words. In 2009 edition, the manifesto was less vehement in asserting the myth by stating “Indian civilisation is perhaps the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world. India has a long history and has been recognised by others as a land of great wealth and even greater wisdom.” In 2014, it dropped the word ‘perhaps’ and emphasized ‘always’by beginning the manifesto with these words: “India is the most ancient civilisation of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom.
Electoral appeals based on nationalistic outbursts are innately divisive; they require enemies before looking for allies; they condemn diversities before celebrating unity; they overlook special needs before harping on equality rights. In India’s context, they shape nationalism as uniquely Hindu. They also sacrifice dignity in the name of development, undermine humanity in the name of religion, and revoke ‘inner vitality’ in the name of civilisational march. Modi’s agenda for ‘Ek Bharat – Shreshtha Bharat’ (‘One India, Supreme India’) must also resort to depicting rival parties as ‘foreigners’ parties’. The seduction of patriotism must encompass rejection of entities who cannot impressively elevate their own jingoism. This year the expectations were so high that despite her foreign origin issue apparently laid to rest, Sonia Gandhi still had to make a televised appearance specifically to reassert her patriotism.
To absolve the Congress and the UPA of their contributions to the political miseries of today would be dishonest. Several of their neoliberal policies have indeed landed India in an economic mess which will require nothing short of a fundamental restructuring – which neither the Congress nor the BJP are prepared or willing to undertake. If the Congress has introduced policies of economic liberalisation, it is the BJP which has worked towards its greater implementation. Rhetorically, both the parties may indulge in patriotic duels, but in reality, they have never been shy of auctioning off the public lands for private interests. Contrary to popular circulations by the nationalist Right, it is not the ‘inner vitality’ of Indian nation that will be rejuvenated following the new electoral results, but perhaps, quite the contrary.
It is only appropriate to recall in these times the words of Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, who had further theorised Lenin’s use of the term hegemony, while courageously battling the fascists almost a century ago. “The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand. Often the so-called ‘foreigner’s party’ is not really the one which is commonly so termed, but precisely the most nationalistic party – which, in reality, represents not so much the vital forces of its own country, as that country’s subordination and economic enslavement to the hegemonic nation or to certain of their number.” In Gramscian times, ‘foreigner’s party’ was a term used by the nationalist Right to depict the communist parties in Italy. Prior to that, Mazzini’s Action Party used to be similarly vilified since it was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution. In our times, while the BJP tends to be perceived as the nationalistic party, the Congress Party – resembling the Action Party of the center-left ideology – remains tagged with the ‘foreigner’s party’ label, along with the various communist parties.
“Hurricane Modi swept through the heartland and beyond…The Modi typhoon that swept away BJP’s rivals in the Hindi heartland…Modi, who mauled powerful regional satraps in states where the caste narrative marginalised national parties, showed that he has the wherewithal to beat them at their own game…The new social umbrella that Modi has forged—‘upper’ castes, OBCs, MBCs and a sizeable section of Dalits— would give the BJP a lethal support base in any electoral combat. Modi’s ‘backward caste’ image will not put off the ‘upper caste’ voter. The Modi brand has something for everyone.” (Open Magazine, 16 May, 2014)
It is said that during the period of National Emergency when journalists were asked to bend, they crawled. Under Modi, it appears as though we are doing as much, even without being asked. As if the uncritical adulation and the unabashed defense of a communal politician are not shocking enough, there are terms like ‘Hinduphobia’ floating around these days to portray the new ruling class as a potential victim of an imaginary witch-hunt. One commentator on Huffington Post alludes to a “‘civilisational Hindu point of view’ in his depiction of a fictitious battle between India and Hinduphobia and he surmises that India has voted in favour of India (much as a journalist should, while acting as a ‘stenographer for the government’ to quote I.F. Stone).
‘India has won’ was also the tweet by Modi himself to describe the results. And Modi could be right. This is the India we knew always existed amidst us and thrived over the decades. This particular ‘India’ is a socio-culturally undeniable construct, despite the occasional rise to influence by a few reformers and revolutionaries who challenged it from time to time. Religious beliefs, superstitions, casteism, nepotism, misogyny, greed, and bullying as core features of this India always preceded our keenness to pursue ideological understanding of political economy.
Gleeful celebrations of Modi over the past few months have merely brought it all to a full circle as it so happens that this robust, vibrant, shining India has now also found a complementing political outlet. For those of us who desired a different tally, it is not simply the victory of Narendra Modi. It is the victory of an India we have always cheered for, consciously or subconsciously; an India viciously right-wing in socio-cultural and, now, political character.
It is important to make distinctions between the socio-cultural and the political in understanding how a secular idea called India has ended up in the hands of the communal voters masquerading as Indians. How does a country that had its Prime Ministers celebrate norms of secularism by invariably recalling Mahatma Gandhi in their first address to the nation end up with Modi, who reminds the nation of the centenary celebrations of rightwing Hindu ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya instead? How does a country prepare itself to be headed by an active member of the RSS – an organisation banned thrice on the charges of being communal, then celebrate such an occasion with tearful joys? How do many of the country’s prominent intellectuals and cultural icons express jubilation at the victory of a political party that possibly has its origins through hate-mongering, and prosperity through orchestrated genocides?
Maybe it’s because the trends were always visible culturally, although somewhat more restrained (or, disallowed) politically. Perhaps the private lives of Indian citizens were not in consonance with the state policies outlined in the constitution. As a reflection of clear dismissal of secular ethos, the National Executive member of BJP Sheshadri Chari recently remarked following his party’s victory: ‘The jury is out. The constitution does not defend the word secularism and it was added into the Preamble in 1975.’ It is almost as though we privately abide by secularism only because it has juridical weight. To quote Gramsci who had posited two superstructural levels of society: “the one that can be called ‘civil society’, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’ and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of ‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout the society and on the other hand to that of ‘direct domination’ or command exercise through the State and ‘juridical government.’”
Hypothetically speaking, if secularism were to be removed today from the Preamble, how would the private lives be for us Indians? We the people who have historically practiced untouchability as part of our Hindu ‘way of life’ and we still very much do. Even the BJP acknowledged this in its latest manifesto by claiming to be “committed to the eradication of untouchability at all levels”. We the people who gleefully demolish shrines and persecute minorities and participate in communal riots. We the people who authorise the State to send Kashmiri freedom fighters to the gallows – from Maqbool Bhat to Afzal Guru – brushing aside legitimate concerns over prejudiced trials. From slapping sedition charges against students for cheering the Pakistani cricket team to imprisoning professors and social workers on the grounds of being Maoist sympathisers– considering that innumerable such injustices have taken place regardless of who was at the helm of power– can we, the people of India truly become secular, even if we try?
As Dr. Ambedkar wrote once, “This country has seen the conflict between ecclesiastical law and secular law long before Europeans sought to challenge the authority of the Pope. Kautilya’s Arthshastra lays down the foundation of secular law. In India unfortunately ecclesiastical law triumphed over secular law. In my opinion this was the one of the greatest disasters in the country. The unprogressive nature of the Hindu society was due to the notion that the law cannot be changed.”
Since Hindu society has always remained the dominant group in India, Ambedkar was not averse to discarding the entire identification with Hinduism. He conceptualised an India where there would be no scope for “Hindu nationalists”, no possibility for anyone like Modi to proudly claim as he did in his interview to Reuters last year: “I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu.” Dr. Ambedkar had foreseen such an advent, which is precisely why he had warned the country in the following words, “Personally myself I say openly that I do not believe that there is any place in this country for any particular culture, whether it is Hindu culture, or a Muhammadan culture, or a Kanarese culture or a Gujarati culture. There are things we cannot deny, but they are not to be cultivated as advantages, they are to be treated as disadvantages as something which divides our loyalty and takes away from us our common goal. That common goal is the building up of a feeling that we are all Indians. I do not like what some people say, that we are Indians first and Hindus afterwards or Muslims afterwards. I am not satisfied with that, I frankly say that I am not satisfied with that. I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indian first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.”
Nothing else but Indians has been predictably compromised during BJP’s campaigns in various states this season. Amit Shah’s call for ‘revenge for the insult’ in Uttar Pradesh should have resulted in a boycott of the BJP in the state, and yet it ended up with an overwhelmingly majority of the seats there. What became worse was how in a unique backlash against minority assertions, Islamic leaders were compared with Hindu supremacists by media and election commission alike. Once the minorities were brought to the level of the Hindu majority in receiving the equal flak, it was just a matter of competitive loyalty then on, in which the majority, quite naturally, had a comfortable victory.
Oppressed minorities in any society are not equal to the oppressive majority. This is a simple proposition which often gets lost amidst modern criticisms of secularism. Whereas it is perfectly all right for various minority groups to organise themselves for cultural promotion, linguistic preservation or even political self-defense to a certain degree, it is absolutely unacceptable for members of the dominant group of a given society to organise themselves accordingly. Whereas what results from minority organisations is a celebration/possibility of diversity and pluralism, what results from majority organisations is blatant display of fascist politics. In other words, whereas it is not hate speech to claim that Indian Muslims have sacrificed themselves in wars against Pakistan, it is clearly hate speech to assert that Muslims are unpatriotic Indians; because in the former instance, minorities speak in their defense in order to doubly attempt to prove their loyalty to the nation, whereas the latter instance would be one where even an irresponsible remark by a member of the majority can further isolate and jeopardise the minority individuals and communities.
The Indian nationalism of Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru, therefore, differs fundamentally from Hindu nationalism. Rajnath Singh rightly said recently that the dream of Deendayal Upadhyaya was pursued by Advani and Vajpayee, and finally has been fulfilled by Modi. He is right because Indian nationalism has resoundingly departed from Gandhi’s path, and has been replaced by Hindu nationalism, a philosophy that had once succeeded in assassinating Gandhi.
Even as the focus has been identified, the fight for social justice must go beyond the Modi government and one’s imaginations for political possibilities must not be surrendered only within the confines of democratic elections. For, this replacement of values did not take place overnight. It did not start with Narendra Modi. It began with regular Hindu families – your family and mine. It started over the dining table discussions over the evils of reservations. It started with great expectations from our meritorious children to leave others behind in the race for excellence. It started with our charitable cooperation towards the status quo, where giving alms to the beggars took precedence over translating empowering literatures. It started with our collective jubilation at defeating neighbouring nations in sports, in distributing ladoos at the hanging of ‘terrorists’, and in remaining ever prepared to lay down our lives in the name of territorial sanctities. It started with our pious denunciation of meat-eaters and needless reverence towards vegetarians– privileged enough to be selective about their diets. Narendra Modi merely provided a punching bag. For us Indian liberals so committed to thwarting Modi’s designs, the real battle must take place inside our own homes, around the textbooks our children unquestioningly consume, with our family values that continue to be shaped by Brahminical scriptures, calendars and wisdom. And just because some caste folks eat meat or vote against BJP or unfriend bigots on social media, it has no bearing upon the amount of sustained efforts required to challenge the Hindu supremacist system that has been glorified in India from well before any modern political party came into existence. The Dictatorial Modi may be running a vicious one-man show for the BJP. But the well-meaning liberals in India have been running the Hindutva show for several generations now.
BJP’s stellar performance is not the contribution of a failed Rahul Gandhi. It is a mandate by the country ever so in denial of its supremacist potential. Even in the mammoth defeat of the liberals, we scrounge for figures that would suggest that BJP has received merely one-third vote share. Apparently, that provides us the solace. Before Modi came to power, we continued to reject any Modi-wave whatsoever. And even after he bosses over the parliament, the educated liberal Hindu folks are looking for convenient numbers to absolve ourselves of our responsibilities, if not complicity. Intellectuals are not only able to articulate the direction that a country takes, they also lend credence to that direction. Gramsci said as much about the roles of intellectuals in furthering the prestige of the dominant group in any society, until the group emerges too dangerous to be tackled anymore. “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise: 1) The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. 2) The apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed.”
The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the Indian people to the BJP is in fact caused by India’s historical propensity for Hindu dominance. Until now, barring intermittent sessions, Hindu nationalism was part of the civil society (the private)., But now they are dominating the political society (the State) with unprecedented success. Reversal in sight through electoral reconfigurations is merely hogwash, since it changes very little. Let’s take Odisha as an instance, where there has been no Modi wave, and yet Christians are routinely harassed and the Hindu way of life prevents Dalits, Muslims and foreigners from sharing Lord Jagannath’s blessings in the same way the caste Hindus do. The ‘Modi wave’ may only legitimise the coercive power of state apparatus, but the privileges of the dominant group that gave rise to Modi have remained constant due to our refusal to take a stand against religious absurdities. What Gopalkrishna Gandhi recently hoped for in his open letter to Narendra Modi reinforces once again the hegemonist notion that it is indeed possible for someone “to be Savarkar in the heart and yet Ambedkar in the mind”. The truth is there is no reconciliation among the two. There is no reconciliation between Savarkar’s Hindu and Ambedkar’s India; they stand diametrically opposed. India can never be a Hindu nation and a Hindu nation can never be India.
Contradictions abound in the new political landscape. Like Savarkar’s divisive Hindutva excluded other religions, so does Modi’s prescription of Hinduism as the way of life for Indians. To reemphasise my point: Modi did not win the people’s mandate because he opposed divisive politics, but because he profited from it. Not because he spoke against identity politics but because it is the victory of the identity politics – specifically that of the Hindu identity. It is the victory of the idea of a Hindu nation. A supremacist majoritarian identity has merely triumphed over the stifled oppressed identities. It is not the unity of Indians across caste/religion lines that gave rise to Modi. It is the disunity of people who are divided along various social divisions– thanks to the all pervading Hindu ethos– to distrust each other, rather than to unite as a politically empowered working class to thwart domestic and global capitalists, which has empowered the fascists. BJP is a political vulture (with due apologies to the bird) that aimed to gain the most from a divided working class. And it has amply succeeded, thanks to the virulently anticommunist Indian society.
At the cost of incurring the wrath of the politically correct who must treat the act of voting as sacrosanct, we should be able to denounce a backward society that thrives on feudal values, a nation whose literacy quest remains abysmally apolitical, a country whose ruling class remains emphatically anti-intellectual, a people that remain conflicted based on fictitious religious romanticisms rather than expressing solidarities to foster class interests among the oppressed. If religion is the opium of the masses, the communal politicians remain the drug dealers. In allowing them to legally operate as cultural peddlers and in ennobling them to take the political center stage, it is we the people who must bear responsibility and solemnly resolve once again to reconstitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.
Our resolve must be strong enough to prevent encounters of Ishrat Jahans, jail terms for Binayak Sens, sedition charges against Arundhati Roys; our resolve must become strong enough to prevent arrests of G.N. Saibabas, Hem Mishras, Prashant Rahis; our resolve must emerge strong enough to let no politician call Kerala a nursery for terrorism, or to demand Hindu ancestry of religious minorities. Finally, our resolve must be relentless in not forgetting, amidst all the electoral festivities, that elections are not about personalities or parties; they are about ideas. The Idea of India as a sovereign democratic republic needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country surrenders to imperialistic designs – threats from foreign powers or through its own military– or chooses to remain sovereign and therefore respects struggles for sovereignty by lands oppressed by it. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether it allows capitalistic expansions by private capital, regardless of whether it is global or domestic, or it chooses to pursue socialist economy. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country remains at the disposal of Hindu supremacists or it celebrates secularism by allowing for sufficient reflections and correctional measures to check the growth of majoritarian militancy.
And if we fail at our renewed resolve in safeguarding even the Constitution we once dedicated to ourselves, now that we discover the political crossroads – contrary to what the champions of resurgent nationalism claim– India might even have won, but Indians would eventually lose.