Since Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014, independent India’s secular, the democratic foundation is being viciously targeted. Hindu supremacists have long hoped to turn into an anti-minority, majoritarian state and they are now aggressively implementing their insidious and exclusivist plans. The ideology that killed the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, is dominating the country again today.
Located in South Asia, India, officially the Republic of India, is the second-most populous country and the world’s fifth-largest economy by nominal GDP. The masses in India have always been susceptible to icon-building. The first icon of independent India was Mohandas Gandhi, an altruistic, anti-imperialist leader who led Indians through a long struggle for independence against the excesses of British colonial rule. He so inspired Indians, they still refer to him as Bapu – father of the nation (O’Neill, 2015). Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu extremist and follower of the Hindutva majoritarianism of the Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing Hindu extremist organisation led by Vinayak Savarkar. Following Gandhi’s death, Jawaharlal Nehru helped steer India through the tumultuous years that followed the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan (History.com, 2009). Although an economic populist, he had an inclusive view of the country and was instrumental in building up the socio-economic and educational foundation of the country.
Nehru was a popular, inclusive, humble leader (Aaron, 2020). However, his daughter Indira Gandhi, had a finger on the pulse of the nation, despite being foreign-educated. Her primary goal was self-glorification, which she cloaked in policies for the poor. During the 1971 general elections, common Indians rallied behind Indira’s populist call of Gharibi hatao! (Let poverty be abolished!) She was rewarded with a huge majority. Her pro-people, anti-poverty policies saw the nationalization of private banks in 1969, seemingly in a bid to attack poverty. Unlike her father, her politics led to right-wing populism and majoritarianism. While Nehru is considered the architect of secular India, Indira Gandhi promoted herself as a Hindu leader (Ranjan, 2018).
She was a popular leader who got away with unfruitful policies such as forced mass sterilization, carried out during the nation-wide emergency declared in 1975 and which lasted until 1977 (Biswas, 2014). She often spoke of a “dharma yudh,” a righteous religious war in Kashmir in 1983. It was under her administration that India would ultimately see large-scale post-partition communal violence. Even opposition leaders, who accused her of fostering a personality cult, referred to her as Durga, a Hindu goddess. The popular slogan of her time “Indira is India, India is Indira,” encapsulates her self-aggrandizing attitude, a belief that she alone embodied the wishes of the masses. She even called the “emergency” – the suspension of the constitution – a true expression of the popular will.
Indira Gandhi’s economic populism was challenged in 1974 by Jayaprakash Narayan. At the heart of this populist protest was the tragedy of representative democracy: India’s leaders were corrupting institutions and meddling with constitutional ideals (Devasahayam, 2018). India often witnessed “competitive populism,” which occurred during or before election time. These were a series of “freebies” or “subsidies” offered to the general population in anticipation of electoral success (Pandey and Krishna, 2020). The country is also home to majoritarian nationalism and the politics of hate and division. Division of caste, region, ethnicity, religion, language and loyalty are misused and abused, and constitutional ideals of secularism and equality are sacrificed at the altar of political expediency (Jaffrelot, 2019).
The climate of right-wing, religiously-tinged populism that dominated India today was concocted under the enabling gaze of successive Janata Party (Peoples’ Party) leaders, the precursor to the Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples’ Party). Modi led the Indian state of Gujarat, where he presided over – and, some say, enabled – the 2002 pogrom against Muslims which left thousands dead. The highest court in the country compared him with the Roman Emperor Nero for his role in the pogrom.
Modi later rebranded himself as an economic reformer and a development czar (Biswas, 2014). As state minister of Gujarat in 2012, Modi pledged to minimize red-tape and encourage business. He appealed to the culturally conservative Indian through “modernization, not Westernisation,” pointing towards the example of South Korea’s economic boom.
Modi’s ploy worked: The BJP achieved a historic electoral win in 2014 after a campaign of economic development and anti-Muslim hatred (Mishra, 2019).
His reelection in 2019 was on a similar plank of Hindu majoritarian nationalism, aided by a promise to enact a policy he critiqued when in opposition – that of direct benefit transfers to the poor. Adopting this policy has helped him secure a voter base among the economically disadvantaged. Yet, after six years in power, Modi has not delivered on the promised economic relief (The Economist, 2019). However, it was this promise that allowed the intelligentsia in India and abroad to overlook his dark past. A set of such intellectuals and academics put their weight behind Modi, citing the incumbent Indian National Congress’ ineptitude and allegations of corruption. To some, Modi seemed a fitting change to the status quo, a hard worker with a plan, albeit with a healthy dose of hate-mongering (Biswas, 2014).
This majoritarian populist-nationalist has left the economy and political institutions in significantly worse shape than the state of affairs he inherited (Mukherjee, 2020). India’s economy has taken a serious hit owing to radical moves such as the unprecedented demonetization of 97% of Indian currency, apparently in a bid to fight black money and terrorism, encourage tax-paying, and prevent counterfeiting of currency. Modi appealed to the masses, presenting the step as agony for the rich requesting the cooperation of the poor, while also promising unrealistic benefits for the latter. He also promised to set the system right in 60 days or else the public was free to lynch him on the street (Mr. Modi has been unavailable to the press, let alone to the common man). Instead, the policy was only instrumental in bringing the already ailing economy to its knees. The unemployment rate and a lack of demand are only some of the problems aggravated by Modi’s stint in power. Since his reelection with a larger vote share in the 2019 general elections, Modi’s support has centered on the Hindu nationalism that his critics so fear (The Economist, 2019).
India’s relations with her neighbors have also worsened in the past six years. The ruling BJP’s Hindutva lean has left Nepal – a country which has always been under India’s sphere of influence – alienated. The BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism has also resulted in India’s relationship with Muslim-dominated Pakistan hitting an all-time nadir. Pakistan is the BJP’s punching bag. Modi and his allies abuse and denigrate Pakistan, advancing their domestic anti-Muslim agenda. Government critics are randomly accused of speaking the “language of Pakistan” and asked to “go to Pakistan” (Puniyani, 2020).
India’s relationship has so soured with China, another immediate neighbor, that border clashes between the two resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020. The last time Indian soldiers lost their lives on India’s frontiers with China was in 1975 (Safi and Ellis-Petersen, 2020).
The unilateral revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, which granted special status to the only Muslim majority state, Jammu & Kashmir, can also be seen in the light of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist and populist policies. The unilateral announcement in the Indian Parliament in New Delhi was intended to humiliate Kashmiris, who then had to endure a harsh lockdown and information blackout. Kashmiris had no say in their fate (Khajuria, 2020). Kashmiris have long suffered a similar fate to Palestinians – land encroachment and a takeover of local resources by an external ethnic group. However, the unilateral revocation of Kashmir’s special status is expected to take the injustices against Kashmiris to a new low (Varma, 2019).
Although India is no stranger to public lynchings of members of marginalized communities, it is experiencing a rash of such incidents. The crime many victims are accused of? Slaughtering a cow, an animal considered holy by most Hindus. Despite being exhorted to denounce the trend and take action against the perpetrators, top BJP leadership, including the Prime Minister, failed to do so. According to the data-driven, public-interest platform IndiaSpend, 117 acts of violence have been carried out in the name of gau-raksha (cow protection) since 2015 (Daniyal, 2019). Furthermore, a June 2017 report of the platform says that 84% of those who died in cow-related violence since 2010 were Muslims, while 97% of the attacks happened after 2014.
Discrimination against Muslims is sadly nothing new. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 caused an avalanche in India’s domestic politics and marked the beginning of the rise of right-wing populism. It altered the political landscape: even the so-called secular and left-leaning parties scrambled to adopt a soft Hindutva line (Jaffrelot, 2019). The brand of majoritarian politics introduced by India’s Iron Lady, Indira Gandhi, came full circle with Modi’s rise (Subrahmaniam, 2018).
Academic independence has also been compromised, with college and university professors facing physical harassment and boycotts by youth and student wing members of the ruling party. Freedom of expression has suffered, too: a colonial-era law is being misused to suppress critical voices. Any disagreement with the current government is deemed an act of sedition and treason against the country, with people routinely being labeled as “anti-nationals” (Puniyani, 2020).
A protest against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) faced similar blowback from the government, which retaliated with a vengeance, clamping down on dissent. Even as the country grapples with the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, arrests without warrants and requisite paperwork continue. In December 2019, students were beaten up for protesting the CAB by a local police force on the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in Delhi; and in January 2020, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, dissident students were thrashed by BJP goons while the police looked on (Ahmad and Beg, 2020). Activists and opposition leaders are arbitrarily detained indefinitely on unclear and vaguely worded charges. In some cases, even protestors seeking other activists’ releases are charged with sedition.
The present government has also confused fact with fiction and has changed textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, an autonomous body created for curriculum development and considered the best publisher of schoolbooks in India. Civil society has been told to pursue the “saffronisation of education” – saffron (kesar) being a color associated with Hindutva politics (Jaffrelot and Jairam, 2019).
The changes made in the various legal, judicial, educational, social, and economic structures of the country will take a long time to heal. India will continue to witness the ramifications of Hindu nationalism and right-wing populism for at least the coming few decades. As it stands, India has soured its relationships with old allies and neighbors due to its exclusivist and Hindu-supremacist policies. The politics of division and hate, advanced with the active involvement of a significant section of the media, has made mainstream what was still despicable even during the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Modi, the “development messiah” has turned out to be a whimsical decisionmaker with outlandish ideas and dangerous, demagogic rhetoric.
In terms of civil and political liberties, India is considered a free country (Freedom House, 2020). Indian voters enjoy regular and competitive multiparty elections. Although discrimination in terms of access to education, employment, and housing exists to a certain extent, a moderate record of civil liberties, human rights, and political opportunities is retained. Among the major problems facing India is corruption in the form of illicit funding and outright bribery at the highest levels of government. PM Modi and the BJP also often draw limits on freedom of expression through harassment and the arrest of critical journalists. Additionally, violence and human rights abuses by the state are increasingly becoming a common practice. For instance, police violently beat people who disobeyed the Covid-19 lockdown with batons and punished them with push-ups and squats in the streets (Desai, 2020).
Though populist and majoritarian politics are not new to India, the last few years under Prime Minister Modi have marked a defining change in the prevalence and scope of such politics, and, as a result, the future of the democratic, secular republic hangs in the balance.
By Aaliya Khan(*)
August 13, 2020.
(*) AALIYA KHAN holds a Master’s degree in Economics and an MPhil in West Asian Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. Her work explores the intersections of politics and majoritarianism. She is also interested in women related issues.
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