A Chronicle of an Event Foretold? Sankaran Krishna
Guest Post by SANKARAN KRISHNA
As journalists, academics and other pundits scramble to make sense of the just concluded elections to the Indian parliament, one can discern a few broad strands of opinion. One group – lets call them the Optimists – point to India’s almost seven-decades long experiment with electoral democracy and aver that we have the institutional strength and resilience in civil society to keep Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party confined to a moderate middle that will be, ultimately, not very different from other regimes (single-party or coalition) that have ruled from Delhi. Prominent voices among the Optimists are Ashutosh Varshney, Ram Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
A second group – lets call them the Alarmists- see the BJP’s clear parliamentary majority (albeit arising from a mere 31% of the popular vote) as inaugurating an era of unapologetic Hindu majoritarianism that could severely strain and irreparably damage the plural fabric of Indian society. They are especially concerned about the fate of the Muslim minority and regard the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat as a foretaste of things to come. The Alarmists range across activists like the late Asghar Ali Engineer, politicos like Mani Shankar Aiyar and intellectuals such as Akeel Bilgrami.
A third group –lets call them Lefties for now – argue that the predominant forces impelling the BJP were weak and jobless economic growth alongside the corruption and rudderless quality of the incumbent UPA regime. In other words, BJP’s success had less to do with its Hindu-ness and more to do with the desperate desire – especially amongst the huge cohort of new and young voters- for inclusive economic growth and improved prospects for employment. A well-orchestrated media and advertizing campaign funded in large part by impatient domestic and international corporate groups imparted that critical final push. This position is usually occupied by analysts such as Achin Vanaik, politicians like Sitaram Yechury, and many an academic in left-liberal spaces such as JNU and Delhi University.
And there is a final group, provisionally titled the neo-Gandhians which avers that the ascent of the BJP is proof that a transplanted ideology, secularism, never really took root in Indian soil and these results mark the predictable if long postponed end of a period of Indian exceptionalism. We are a deeply religious people and secularism invariably came as part of an elitist modernity that held the simple faith of most Indians in thinly-veiled contempt. With these elections, finally the distribution of our religious and our political allegiances are in sync with each other. Prominent neo-Gandhians include Ashis Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan and T.N. Madan.
It bears reminding that these are analytical distinctions that don’t necessarily capture all the variance of opinion or exhaust possible explanations. Nor does their broad-brush character do justice to the detailed filigree of the positions taken by many of the individuals mentioned as exemplars. Moreover, particular individuals (including this author) may inhabit more than one of these positions, and –being supple Indian minds – even be allegiant to all of them at different points in time and context.
In this brief essay, I would like to assess the significance of these elections from a slightly different tangent, one that arguably eludes all of the outlined positions. I pose these questions: what does it mean for an openly religious party to achieve a clear majority in our national Parliament? What does that mean for our ideas of nationhood, and our desired futures? And how does it alter our understanding of the dominant narratives that we have hitherto used to understand our past?
To me, the most significant aspect of the elections of 2014 is that for the very first time in the history of our Republic, a political party explicitly based on religious identity has secured more than 50% of the seats in our Parliament. There is little comfort in either the fact that there have been regimes in the past where the BJP (or its former incarnations such as the Jan Sangh) was part of a ruling coalition, or “only” a minority of Indians voted for it, or that such votes were motivated more by economic interests or anti-incumbency than were by religion. All said and done, the fact is that what distinguishes the BJP in our political landscape is that it is an overtly and unashamedly religion-based party – and it has just come to power on its own steam.
With all its compromises on caste, untouchability, private property, gender rights, sexual preference, and a host of other issues including secularism, Congress represented –more often in rhetoric than in practice- a variant of nationalism that was inclusive, pluralist, and, for its times, rather exceptional. Perhaps it was the very divisiveness of the Indian social formation (caste and religion being major instances), or its racial and linguistic diversity, that necessitated it but our sense of Indian-ness emphasized shared history over more “tangible” elements like blood, book, and biology that animated altogether too many nationalist projects elsewhere.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in a judgment that later historians would come to gradually and grudgingly accept, averred that Congress’s secularism was not so much an index of either its respect for minority rights or a desire to maintain a firewall between religion and politics. Rather, secularism was the most expedient discourse for a political party whose Hindu identity and worldview were so ubiquitous that they were hidden in plain sight, especially from its own leadership. Just as the fish cannot seem to see the water it looks through, Congress seemed oblivious to its own Hindu-ness – whether it was on the sacrality of the cow, or the upper castes who were its social base, or the Hinduness of nearly every one of its leaders (can one seriously think of Mahatma Gandhi or Sardar Patel or Babu Rajendra Prasad or Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari in ways shorn of their high Hinduism?), or the heavy overlap between membership in the Congress party and various Hindu community and religious organizations in the cities, towns and villages, and in multiple other ways.
It took the eye of a minority – a Muslim – to see what was invisible to the “average” Indian: Congress secularism and an upper-caste Hindu sense of Indian-ness were ideal bedfellows rather than opposing principles. It was the political myopia of the Hindu right – the RSS and earlier variants of the contemporary Sangh Parivar- that they wanted explicit recognition for something that was implicitly theirs to begin with, namely, that India was an overwhelmingly Hindu space in terms of its political and public culture.
Just as the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville had insightfully argued that the secularism of the mid-19th century United States was not so much a departure from but a sign of its deep Christianity, Jinnah correctly surmised that Congress’s secularism was at best the self-confident “neutrality” of a comfortable religious majority that refused to name itself as such, and at worst, an expedient discourse that sought to lure the gullible Muslim and permit a transfer of power to this majority. Or as he pithily put it in an address to the Muslim League in 1940 – after the chastening experience of trying to work with Congress majorities in a number of Provincial Assemblies in the years just prior, and as talks of a transfer of power to Indians based on universal mass suffrage gathered momentum: ultimately the Muslim had to mobilize as a Muslim while Congress could afford the luxury of appearing to be above religion and appeal to a secular idea of nationhood because “brother Gandhi has three votes, and I have only one.”
For all of Congress’s failures, its repeated inabilities to live up to the ideals of secular nationalism, its cynical use of communal strife (often fomented by itself under Mrs. Gandhi,) it did remain the repository of an ideal – of a commitment to a pluralist and composite national space and culture, one that was above religious and other sectarian claims. One could seek some solace in the idea that this composite and inclusive nationalism was something aspirational, our own version of a movement “towards a more perfect union.” As decades have gone by, the ability to articulate and defend that vision of secular nationalism eroded amongst the leadership of the Congress. It has possibly reached its nadir when left to the eloquence (such as it is) of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The elections of 2014 may represent a significant moment in the consigning of that pluralist vision of the nation to the wayside of history. That may yet prove to be its enduring – and damning- contribution to the history of our Republic.
My generation which came of political age in the afterglow of the Nehruvian era found Jinnah’s insistence that the subcontinent comprised of two nations – one Hindu and one Muslim- difficult to accept empirically or experientially, and even more anathema at an ideational level. As Narendra Modi orchestrated a media spectacle at Varanasi replete with all the symbols of high Hindu culture, and made his grand entry into Delhi, a wave of cynical laughter echoes down the labyrinth of my mind. My blood runs cold as I recognize the mocking guffaw of that prescient Gujarati, wracked with tuberculosis and aware of his own impending death, who had long ago said it was always and would ever be thus.
Sankaran Krishna is professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, USA and can be reached at Krishna@hawaii.edu