As triumphalism prevails in India following the stupendous success tasted by Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi, have we sown seeds for the death of multi-party democracy in India?
Zilu (a disciple of Confucius): How to serve a prince?
Confucius: Tell him the truth even if it offends him
When the [good] way prevails in the state, speak boldly and act boldly. When the state has lost the way, act boldly and speak softly.
The state in India had, without an iota of doubt, lost its way in the last five years. Ministers refused to face the truth lest they offend their own sensibilities and interests. The Prime Minister heaped ignominy on the country by failing to own up to his party’s and allies’ mistakes. All kinds of nonsensical nostrums were offered as excuses to cloud non-performance.
India’s voters, 814.5 million in number, have responded boldly by showing the erstwhile government and all it was indicative of — crony capitalism, corruption and sycophancy — the door. Or so they hope. That the elections recorded a turnout of 66.38 per cent — the highest in India’s history — only confirms the boldness of our voters. Voting against the previous government was a responsible but an easy part. Now comes the real challenge, seeing to it that the current government functions.
It was the 1984 general elections which hitherto held the record of highest turnout, at 64.01 per cent. The Grand Old Party, Congress, won the highest number of seats till now with 414 out of 541 seats, no doubt riding on a sympathy wave following its prima donna Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Bharatiya Janata Party — a surrogate child of the majoritarian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -- won a mere two seats. Thirty years hence, the roles are reversed. This time a new wave has written history, the Modi wave!
Wave or blitzkrieg?
Some newspapers were quick to apply the neologism ‘Tsunamo’ to the wave, which is probably the best way to describe what the country witnessed in the last two years; part of it was palpable even before the last general elections. We need to note here that the term ‘tsunami’ (literal meaning ‘harbour wave’) indicates not a spring of hope but a blitzkrieg.
We have, perhaps because of lack of a better choice, chosen to repose our faith not in an individual but in a larger-than-life image, whose nuances are eccentric at best and egregious at worst. It is a mirage behind which is hidden a zealot suspected of mass murder, one whose understanding of history is awfully distorted. He considers himself an archetype of rectitude, one in the best position to bring us the mythical Ram Rajya.
But is the Utopia of his Ram Rajya a desirable one in 21st century India? If yes, would it be of a kind where women will be asked to undergo repeated chastity tests? Where our diversified population will be clearly demarcated into binaries, with clear delineation of ‘us’ and ‘them’; of dev and asur? Where the ‘good’ will triumph over ‘evil’, not through kindness but through an unattainable march toward Utopia? Who will be the antagonist, the Raavan in this Ram Rajya? Will it be just an emotion inherent in the personalities of all of us? Or will it be an individual? Or, horror of horrors, will it be a community?
When I consider of the political import of RSS’s, and by extension BJP’s, idea of ‘Ram’, I cannot deny the dark period of early 90s, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. True, the Congress — being in power at the centre at that time — was as responsible as the BJP, for the communal polarisation and the violence that ensued. However, I cannot also deny that the BJP owes part of its very political narrative to the movement it is silently trying to disavow now.
Our Vikas Purush (Man of Development) — after having followed a similar dictum in his home state Gujarat — promises ‘development of the already developed’ and is likely to make us more unequal, more polarised and more demented.
There was a Modi wave. The whole country voted for him. We now have one India united by nationhood rather than divided by narrow community and caste sentiments. These are some assumptions we have embraced in the last three-four days. However, we also need to consider certain other findings.
This piece gives a painstaking analysis of how we as a country voted. An overwhelming proportion of votes in States having a high youth population went to the BJP.
However, the country’s largest minority — the Muslims - chose to reject Moditva. In fact, this led many of them to vote for Congress in greater numbers. Compared to Congress’s vote share among Muslims - 33 per cent - in the previous six Lok Sabha polls, it was 44 per cent this time, a historic high we can’t deny. If we consider their representation in the 16th Lok Sabha as a whole, Muslim representation has been the lowest in the past 50 years, with only 22 MPs elected, much less than the average of 30 MPs in the last 15 years. The BJP, which fielded just five Muslim candidates, failed to return any. The Muslims did not buy the BJP’s and Modi’s idea of India. Does that make his vision for India any more inclusive than his vision for Gujarat?
In his famous —also considered by some as fatuous — “Tryst with destiny” speech, our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru extolled a different wave, the wave of freedom that had touched almost all corners of our country.
“The moment comes, it comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
The soul of our nation found utterance in our Constitution. It guaranteed right of suffrage to all citizens — a revolutionary step forward when even the oldest democracy, the United States, dithered on institutionalising it.
Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, one of the prime movers in our Constituent Assembly, argued that our Constitution adopted adult suffrage with “abundant faith” in the power of the common man to exercise the right to choose his government.
From Manmohanomics to Moditva?
More than 64 years after the Constitution was adopted, when an age of neoliberalism has ended and when we are groping for succor, for a new ideology, for a new paradigm, we have found refuge in majoritarianism. It is a system that’ll be marked by running roughshod over redtapism, even if, en route, a few throats are slit. It will be one characterised by nimble-footedness when it comes to decision making, even if it benefits only a microscopic minority. And, yes, a muscular India will be able to act as an effective check on an expansionist China and a shaky Pakistan.
It cannot be overemphasised that India is going to achieve vikas, in the form of high economic growth. Wasn’t it our case that policy paralysis stopped our otherwise efficient economy from functioning? Too much state intervention was holding the entrepreneurial zeal of our innovative capitalists. Multiple centres of power were driving investors away to greener pastures. Now is the opportunity to correct all these.
'Strong leader', greater progress?
This takes me to another question: Will a ‘strong leader’ at the helm be able to ensure greater progress? In other words, is more power in the hands of some individuals conducive to greater prosperity for the country?
Will concentration of power in the hands of ‘messiahs of development’ like Modi bring in industry to our country? Will we be able to catch up with, say China, or Singapore through that?
Much research has been conducted toward proving that greater democracy has preceded, not succeeded higher growth. Majoritarianism, though initially backed by popular will, is not a form of greater democracy. Even China, as pointed out here, grew greater only in the 80s, when it became not just more liberal but also more representative.
Further, India’s economic growth — after being steady in the Nehruvian era — stagnated during periods when majoritarianism was the norm. The first two Prime Ministers who governed between 1960 and 1965 - Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri - invoked the power of emergency under Article-356, used to rein in ‘truant’ State governments, a total of only nine times. Indira Gandhi used her resounding mandates to use it a total of thirty six times between 1965 and 1977. Her next government, between 1980 and 1984, used it an additional thirteen times.
And both the 1967 and 1971 reelections of the Congress Party were followed by a decline of per capita GDP. “It was not democracy that failed India; it was India that failed democracy,” as Huang mentions. Will India keep up with its tryst with destiny? Or will she re-write it to create a Japan or Singapore or Turkey or even Sri Lanka out of herself?
So how will Modi’s government deal with the plunder wreaked upon Indian treasury by the previous government? How differently will it act? How will it deal with the millions of impoverished, hungry, illiterate people? What difference would it make to the lives of those who remain marginalised because of their caste more than their religion? How will it assuage the anxieties of Muslims, the largest minority, who are cautiously watching the developments unfolding, wary of what the next five years have to give them? His party’s manifesto fails to provide answers.
Hindu Right's Core Trinity
The Hindu Right (read RSS)'s core issues have always been: repealing Article-370; implementing a Uniform Civil Code and building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The first reflects its nationalistic arrogance, an inbuilt hubris stemming from its RSS origins. The second reflects a sinister intent in presenting itself as a party with a difference while trying to decimate diversity in our country. The third makes it the most communal, the most polarising national party in our country, an issue that won it great patronage in the dark decade of the 90s.
As Omar Abdullah has rightly pointed out through this interview, Article-370 is the bridge between Kashmir and the rest of India. Revoking it would mean burning that bridge.
Kashmir is a State which acceded to a fledgling Union under a gentlemen’s pact, one which the Union has done its best to scrap. It is a State which will feel totally alienated if the Constitution given to it under Article-370 were killed. This will only further inflame separatist ambitions in the valley, where the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) shows no signs of dying despite insurgency having touched historic lows. The reason Kashmir has integrated, if somewhat imperfectly, into the Indian Union while Tibet still struggles to culturally become part of China is her Constitution. Does India want to nullify all the gains made in this regard and completely decimate the Indianness in Kashmiri people’s minds?
Then comes the question of Uniform Civil Code. It is a constitutional ideal as expressed in Article-44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy. However, the party that speaks of it the most is the party which has shown little inclination toward implementing it in a principled manner, which would mean assuaging the fear of the biggest group of minorities, the 170 million Muslims. The Congress has been accused of minority appeasement but has also given space to Muslim voices in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. With the BJP - with no Muslim MP - gaining a comfortable majority, they are the ones likely to feel the most insecure. How will BJP react to that? Can it assume the support of the community, which has voted resoundingly against it?
When the party released its manifesto, prominent filmmaker Anand Patwardhan made a facebook post that pointed out a stark reality about RSS’s role in scuttling Uniform Civil Code. He said that when India’s first Law Minister Dr. B.R. Ambedkar fought to pass the Hindu Code bill that would have de-legitimised the discrimination suffered by Hindu women stemming from caste and tradition, the group that opposed it the most was the Hindu Right. On passage of the bill, a similar bill for Muslims would have been passed. Unfortunately it was blocked. He ends the post by speaking for many liberals in India when he says,
“I support a uniform civil code but one must earn the trust of the communities that live under it, a trust that the BJP has never sought to earn.”
As indicated here, Modi has made Muslims feel insecure even before his term begins. He did not mention ‘Muslims’ or ‘minorities’ even once in his victory speech. Further, he betrayed his Hindu Nationalist credentials by performing traditional Hindu rituals in Varanasi, a city from where he was elected on a traditional Hindutva plank.
Now, the third and the most dangerous question, the Ram Temple. Fortunately, BJP did not give much importance to it in its manifesto. However, at the time of writing the manifesto, even its mentor organisation, the RSS, did not anticipate such a majority. Now that it doesn’t face many coalition hurdles, will it push for a temple? If it does, how will the Parliament -- in the absence of a strong Opposition -- react? How will the masses deal with the anxieties and apprehensions raised within?
As pointed in the piece I quoted above, no mandate is a mandate to silence any opposition. And the opposition, just like last time, in a government enjoying a simple majority, has to come from India’s vibrant media and its litigious civil society.
The questions raised above are some that our representatives need to answer once Parliament starts functioning. And these are the questions that will legitimise the positions they occupy. Not rhetorics of Vikas, Ram Rajya and Maa Ganga.