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A Chronicle of an Event Foretold? Sankaran Krishna

June 1, 2014

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

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Priya Bala-Miller permalink
    June 1, 2014 12:22 PM

    Excellent post. Thanks!

  2. June 1, 2014 1:27 PM

    Reblogged this on rg301069blog.

  3. ahanasmi permalink
    June 1, 2014 1:51 PM

    BJP is an “overtly religious” party? While it may have been so twenty years so, going by the campaign tacks taken by the BJP and Congress this year, it would seem that the label “overtly religious” would apply more easily to the Congress.

    Another troubling trend that reached its zenith this year was the complete inversion of the meaning of the word “secular” in Indian political discourse, and it was ironic to see that a party (the BJP) that had originally been founded on more or less an “overtly religious” agenda running perhaps the most “secular” campaign: it was not the BJP that asked religious leaders to preach its politics to their parishes, for example, but the Congress. It was not the BJP that asked people to unite in the name of faith and caste, but its “secular” opponents. Admittedly, to a neutral observer, the BJP campaign would not have looked an epitome of “secularism” (the symbolism of Modi choosing Varanasi, for example). but it was certainly far more “secular”, objectively speaking, than the campaigns run by, say, the Congress.

  4. June 1, 2014 10:18 PM

    A brilliant analysis by Professor Sankaran Krishna. Also chilling in its portents.

    To ahanasmi, there was nothing about the BJP campaign that came through as secular, least of all the “symbolism,” at Varanasi.

    • ahanasmi permalink
      June 1, 2014 11:56 PM

      melo309: And I said exactly that things like the “symbolism” at Varanasi were what made the BJP campagin, shall we say, “non-secular”. I certainly agree with you on that count.

      On the other hand, it was still clear to me that the BJP’s campainnn was by far the most “secular” of all major political this time (with the possible exception of AAP). All their so called “secular” opponents (especially the Congress and the RJD) were meanwhile busy making a mockery of the notion of “secularism”.

    • ahanasmi permalink
      June 2, 2014 12:04 AM

      Also, almost as chilling as the radical elements in the BJP fold (specifically, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP) gaining ascendance in the current dispensation is the fear the complete anti-thesis of secularism that was marked under that label by parties like the Congress, RJD and the Samajwadi party will come to be the standard definition of “secularism” in Indian political discourse. Thankfully, at least that second fear has been put to rest for the time being. Now, one can only hope (and on the evidence of the last couple of weeks of the BJP government, that hope does not seem to be completely unfounded) that the specter of the radical right wing comprising the Bajrang Dal and the VHP gaining power will not come to pass.

  5. Satya Sagar permalink
    June 2, 2014 8:55 AM

    A very good expose of the bogus ‘secular’ credentials of the Congress. The BJP of course does by day what the Congress did by night though, i.e. the championing of upper caste Hindu domination of Indian society. The real battle in Indian society has not been about ‘Hindus vs Muslims’ but about ‘Aryan savarnas versus Rest of India’, from the time of the Ramayana. As for Jinnah, like many elite Muslims of his times (and perhaps some in our own times) the anxiety was always to establish parity with the upper-caste Hindu, with little concern for the fate of either ‘lower caste’ Hindus or Muslims and certainly none for indigenous populations. With the BJP coming to power the savarna Hindu has finally achieved his goal of making India look exactly like Pakistan politically. In due time this anal vision of India together with the shameful kowtowing to global capital will also reduce India to exactly the same size geographically. The hijacking of the aspirations of a bulk of the Indian population by a small group of Aryan brahmins, kshatriyas and baniyas – cannot go on endlessly without much violence and all the consequences it begets.

    • RDS permalink
      June 3, 2014 1:36 AM

      Sir, here is a problem. Your thesis of Savarna/Aryans and rest of India/ non-Aryans would lead to some unacceptable conclusions. Mr Modi, the Indian PM, is a non-Dallt untouchable, His Cabinet has hardly any Brahmin, His strongest adversary, W. Bengal CM, Mamata Bannerjee, is a super (Kuleen) Brahmin. She replaced CPM CM Bhattacharya, a priestly Brahmin. His moderate adversaries, Orissa CM Patanaik and Tamilnadu CM Jayalalita are also Brahmins. Then should we conclude that BJP is led by a non-Aryan/rest of India kind fellow and anti-BJPs and Communist Parties by Savarna/Aryans? I am sure, you would not. Do you know that Dr Ambedkar a non-Aryan, was financed for higher education by a Savarna/Aryan Maharajja Gaekwad, married an Aryan girl, and lost deposit in his first parliamentary election against a now unknown non-Aryan. But so did an Aryan, Savarkar. You are critic of Ramayana, and yes it talks of a great dark-skinned Aryan, but written by Dalit Valmiki, and undoubtedly a great poet and Sage! I also must add that Mahabharata was written by son of an unwed tribal girl who, if Hindus followed Manusmriti, would be considered an outcaste. But both displaced highly intellectual earlier great Brahmin, Kshatrtiya and rarely Shudra Sages of Vedanta and Buddhism, without contradicting them, but providing an alternative that resonated with every strata of society, particularly poor and uneducated. You must provide a good alternative, otherwise your criticism of a political adversary carries no weight. Sir, that is what a Marxist intellectual has to do. Aryans/non-Aryans, Savarna/ Avarna secular/communal are too simplistic descriptions of a society full of regional, social and economic complexities in present day India, irrespective of its genesis. A leftist intellectual must draw a zig-zag road map for advancement for an exploitation free society, free and fair to all, to Aryans/non-Aryans (who so ever they are, who cares), Dalits to Brahmins, Hindus to Muslims, etc., rather than being bogged down by the hills and valleys of contradictions and controversies. Further fragmentation of the society would not help either to left or to right politics.

  6. June 2, 2014 11:49 AM

    What is secularism and who is (not) secular. Congress brand of secularism meant bill on communal violence and reservation for muslims and special programs for minorities which meant more benefits for muslims. Secularism has been reduced to appeasement and vote bank politics. Sankaran Krishna perhaps does not know that in the 1960s DMK had alliance which included muslim league and Rajaji’s Swatantra Party and that alliance ended the rule of congress in tamil nadu. Nehruvian secularism was different from the secularism of UPA I& II.

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