Commentary

A collective madness

By Namit Arora

27 May 2019

What Modi's victory says about today's India.
Photo: @narendramodi / Facebook

Photo: @narendramodi / Facebook

In Varanasi recently, I took an auto-rickshaw from Godowlia to Assi Ghat. Like everyone else in town, the driver and I began talking politics. The 2019 general election was a week away and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seeking reelection from Varanasi. The driver was an ardent Modi fan and would hear no criticism of him. He even claimed that demonetisation had punished the corrupt rich. One topic led to another and soon he was loudly praising Nathuram Godse as a patriot – Gandhi deserved no less than a bullet for being a Muslim lover. “You don’t know these people,” he thundered. “Read our history! Only Muslims have killed their own fathers to become kings. Has any Hindu ever done so? Inki jaat hi aisi hai. You too should open your mobile and read on WhatsApp. Kamina Rahul is born of a Muslim and a Christian; Nehru’s grandfather, also Muslim, Mughal. Outsiders all. Modi will teach them!” Fortunately, my destination came before his passion for the topic could escalate further.

I entered Assi Ghat with a numbing sadness. Was this really Kashi, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, known for its religious pluralism and massive density of gods, creeds and houses of worship, with its long history of largely peaceful coexistence? The Kashi of the Buddha, Adi Shankara, Kabir, Ravidas and Nanak? The Kashi of shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, who lived in its tangled gullies and regularly played during the aarti in Balaji temple, or of Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi, whose family kept mannats on Muharram? What still remains of its famed Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb? No, I consoled myself, my auto driver was not the norm in Varanasi, but he did herald certain fundamental changes now sweeping the country.

On the campaign trail in 2014, Modi spoke about vikas and an ambitious model of economic development. Modi and his party also had a cultural agenda, but he didn’t make it central to his campaign. He promised a hundred new cities, modern infrastructure, crores of jobs, big reforms, black money recovery and a new era of world-class manufacturing alongside a program of skill development for Indian workers. “Development” was then the perfect sales pitch, using which, Modi slyly recast himself into a vikas purush, or development man. Many liberals too went along, ignoring his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, hoping that he would be a disciplined and pragmatic manager of the economy, deliver on campaign promises, advance science and knowledge and downplay political Hinduism, aka Hindutva, the party’s divisive Hindu nationalist ideology.

Modi soon revealed his true colors. At heart, he was still an ill-informed, vindictive, parochial man of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) with no decent moral centre. The defining feature of the Modi regime has been its bumbling incompetence. Modi appointed loutish men of the RSS, a volunteer paramilitary, part of a collective of far-right groups, the Sangh Parivar, to lead many ministries and key institutions. In its early years, his regime cut the already low public spending on health and education. It began undermining democratic institutions – the media, judiciary, the RBI, the Election Commission, public universities – the list is long. It peddled pseudo-science, fixated on the cow and her piss and changed history textbooks to glorify Hindu civilisation and Hindu rulers. His regime harassed many high-profile national and international NGOs including Sabrang, Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Making campaign financing more opaque, it legalised crony capitalism that funded the party’s lavish campaign in 2019. It gave free rein to violent vigilante groups that harassed or killed Muslims, Dalits, inter-faith couples, activists and leftist students, furthering a coarse and vicious anti-minority discourse in public life. Most offenders not only remain unpunished, some were even celebrated by a minister of state. An aging Muslim master weaver in Varanasi told me that more than communal riots, he worries about the psychological impact of hate-crime videos that show saffron-clad men lynching Muslims, which endlessly get forwarded and replayed on mobile phones among young Muslim men.

Five years later, barring qualified progress in some areas – toilets, roads, renewable energy, cooking gas – Modi’s promise of vikas has turned out empty. Even governments we rate below-average have arguably delivered similarly spotty progress, as in the preceding UPA regime. Make in India, Skill India and Digital India mostly remain slogans. Demonetisation showed the gaping idiocy and dangerous autocracy in Modi’s decision-making, which callously overruled the advice from experts that only a miniscule amount of black money was in cash. Far from raising India’s prestige and soft power in the world, the press in Europe and North America mostly brackets him and his movement with dubious figures like Trump, Putin, Ergodan and Bolsonaro. Modi has said the climate is not changing, our tolerance for the weather is. He holds asinine views about ancient Hindu feats in genetic science and cosmetic surgery. Despite a historic windfall from low oil prices, he now presides over a deepening farm crisis, an economic slowdown and the highest unemployment in 45 years. Vikas?

In 2014, Modi ran on a platform of vikas but mostly delivered Hindutva. In 2019, he ran on a platform of Hindutva, with little talk of vikas, smart cities, beti bachao, black money, or Skill India. In 2019, Modi wore his religion on his sleeve. He and his party incited fear of the ‘other’ and made dog whistles and thinly veiled threats of violence and genocide. He gave Lok Sabha tickets to noted communal bigots of the RSS, including one who calls Godse a patriot. So what can we rationally expect from Modi this time? Even less vikas, I think, when the mandate is clearly for Hindutva, paving the way for the far right’s dream of a Hindu Rashtra, a state legally conceived not as secular but a Hindu polity and whose structures and institutions are based on the forms and priorities of Hindu culture and religion.

So how did Modi win this time? A big part of the answer is the powerful opium of Hindu nationalism. The BJP won because a great many Hindus are high on Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar has learned to exploit the well-known cultural inferiority complex of the Hindu middle class, which grew out of India’s colonial encounter with Europe. Alongside, they stoke fears that a billion-plus Hindus are under siege by Muslims, refugees, leftists, Pakistan and pesky “anti-nationals.” The well-funded propaganda arms of the BJP and Sangh Parivar spread a lurid and manufactured sense of historical hurt, key to sustaining Hindutva nationalism. Run by an army of paid trolls, they fan both hate and pride by peddling fantasies of past greatness, military might, superpower dreams, surgical strikes and fake news. The ordinary Hindu’s sense of history is now filled with malicious lies and manufactured resentments against pre-colonial Muslim rule and he wants to settle the score by punishing today’s Muslims.

Other social changes are feeding the beast too. Upper-caste Hindus have been the most reliable vote bank for the BJP, but the Hindu rightwing has long emphasised a Hindu identity over caste identity to lure more Dalits and OBCs into the Hindutva fold, crucial for their electoral maths. This is working out all too well. A weaponised Hindu identity increasingly trumps caste identity. Results from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show that a consolidated Hindutva vote bank is steadily replacing the fragmented vote banks of caste. In Varanasi, I met men of Dom and Mallah castes who subscribe to Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar has extended Hindutva deeper and wider ever since they began offering useful social services to people in the early 1990s. These services became their vehicle for massive organized indoctrination in rural and small-town India, against which the left-liberals have no antidote. Consequently, too many people are now high on the social virus of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim passions – this is the new India.

A very disturbing change I’ve seen in the last five years is the impunity with which ordinary Hindus, including my friends, relatives and neighbors, now spew venom against Muslims as a group and feel no shame at all. It even seems to add meaning and intensity to their lives. They decry secularism as a depleted idea and long for a strongman to crush the ‘sickulars’, who they falsely allege have been ‘appeasing’ Muslims, a group that now has some of the worst socioeconomic indicators. They entrust the economy only to those who parade their love for the nation by chanting crude slogans and demand the same from others. A significant section of Indian professionals too – engineers, doctors, MBAs – display an uncritical adoration of Modi and his authoritarian instincts. Unlike Trump supporters in the US, the rot in India especially pervades the most educated classes and the youth. This makes the Indian situation more tragic and despairing, starkly exposing the flaws of a pedagogy that relies on rote learning and makes no time for even basic liberal education or the cultivation of civic sense and critical thinking, which might help safeguard democracy. These folks – suckers for absurd rumors and conspiracy theories about Muslims – now openly air their bigotry and willful ignorance even on social media, while discussing “the Muslim problem” and their “rapid breeding”. This sectarian poison has spread too far and it’ll take a terrible human toll in the years ahead.

Many people surely voted for the BJP because some vikas did reach them. But given how little vikas there was, most people must have had other reasons for supporting the BJP – reasons capable of explaining their fierce loyalty and unthinking devotion to Modi. Some people I know cited “no viable alternative” as a reason to vote for the BJP. But probing a little usually reveals ignoble motivations beneath their enthusiasm for the BJP, despite its nasty 2019 campaign. People in Kerala and Tamil Nadu didn’t cite that reason and kept the BJP out. In short, most people supported Modi’s BJP largely for its muscular, militant, Hindu-honoring and Muslim-baiting ideology of the nation, even as they may deny this to themselves. They’ve democratically chosen a party that has little love for democracy or its values. In his victory speech, Modi even gloated that he had silenced the entire “tribe of seculars” for good.

During the voting season, I’d predicted that BJP’s decision to lead with Hindutva and its cynical post-Pulwama airstrikes would be a winning strategy. It more than offset their failures on the economy – a trick that countless demagogues have tried. Stated differently, the BJP’s actual performance on the economy became irrelevant against the joys and psychic highs of Hindu pride and nationalism, which the BJP stoked, playing the people like a fiddle. The BJP turned hate and anger into an animating, intoxicating and rallying force – risking the unleashing of even darker forces that, in time, they may not be able to control. Among other big contributors to the BJP victory were a brazenly partisan media that stumps for Modi and cultivates support for authoritarian rule; high octane propaganda on social media; and a hopelessly divided political opposition, who undercut each other’s votes in India’s first-past-the-post system.

Many have noted the parallels between India’s collective madness of xenophobic religious nationalism and trends in Brazil, the US, Turkey, etc. But these countries differ too and each will need to find its own modes of resistance and reform. A new age now begins in India, of bigots like that auto driver in Varanasi, who are joined by white-collar bigots in my school and college WhatsApp groups. Together with their supreme leader, they’ll go down the path of the chauvinist, the dolt, the bully, the fanatic, the fascist – an India where dissent is unwelcome, diversity is suspect and the life of the mind is a threat to the republic. A new reality dawns, in which the barbarians are no longer at the gates, but are emerging vertically, as if from the trapdoors, all around us in our streets, homes, offices. For many Indian citizens, this is the time to take stock, regroup and prepare for a whole new battle for the soul of their society.

***

~ Namit Arora is the author of The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities (2017) and two forthcoming books: a novel and another on travel and history. His home on the web is shunya.net.

15 Responses to “A collective madness”

  1. P S GUHA says:

    Very analytical writing. Congratulations. If you permit I can can put it on my Face Book wall. Thanks.

  2. L Chheda says:

    BJP’s performance not only on the economy but almost on all front including decisions on defense related issue, foreign policy blunders became irrelevant against, by hook or crook managed mass media elevated populism using nationalism and Hindu psychic coupled with politics of hatred and using religious heads, saints particularly in north belt BJP cultivated support for authoritarian rule; high octane propaganda on social media; and a hopelessly divided political opposition, who undercut each other’s votes in India’s first-past-the-post system.

  3. Mani says:

    Excellent piece that reflects what many of us who have given our adult life span for positive social change have been feeling. Our failures look at us starkly as we grapple with the ground reality that was buildIng right under our feet while we looked at the slies with hope and a vision. Renewed collective struggles needed if we want to reverse the.mindsets and see a better country. We can only hope to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren…woh subaha kabhi toh ayegi…..

  4. MANDALAPARTHY KISHORE says:

    Well argued one. But, why didn’t the writer speak about features like the Bangla CPM cadre voting for BJP and a “Devout” Christian like YSJagan taking shelter under the thick shade of Hindutwa? Virtual absence of the Left from the poll scene is a slow but steady process. Bickerings, both silly and harmful to the secular social fabric, among the so called “anti-Modi forces” could onlystrengthen the Hindutwa forces. And above all under the leadership of the faceless Congress party no one can fight, better organized, BJP. The only alternative India ever had, and still has, is in the ideologically armed Left.

  5. Amir Ehsan says:

    Your commentary is quite valid, As you have mentioned the educated middle class is equally effected by extremism. Which aggravate the situation . What is the reason in your opinion.

  6. Rajat Bhatia says:

    India is suffering from a COLLECTIVE DELUSION driven by STORIES of a GLORIOUS PAST and FANTASIES of ACHE DIN which are unlikely to be delivered by fools like Modi and his ilk. The sad part is that the Congress and other opposition parties are even worse than the BJP / Sangh Parivaar. So this GAU MUTTAR and COW DUNG nonsense will continue unless the people wake up from their collective delusion

  7. Sheeba Aslam Fehmi says:

    Lucid, well captured and brilliantly diagnosed that the inferiority complexed middle class is going through a catharsis through the bigotry and false glorifications of the mythological claims.

  8. Venugopal says:

    I sincerely hope that things don’t get worse and people live peacefully. A very well written article !!

  9. Shekar Viswanathan says:

    Am no admirer of Hindutva but shameless pandering to Muslims over several decades remember the Shah Bano case ? Remember Manmohan comment to NDC – muslims have the first claim on the resources of the country…. this animosity on the part of Hindus has been building up over time and Hindus were made to believe that only other communities were secular and Hindus were communal … just for the record I have several Muslim and Christian friends and they are as valuable to me as many of my Hindu friends are…I can talk about how innocent Hindu minds were raped and converted to other faiths … what you are seeing today is the backlash of communal pandering for which poor Rahul is paying the price…. anyway this is our India and please don’t spread hatred with your articles

  10. SHARANG RAINA says:

    Another opinionated article without proper facts and research!!!….

  11. Smit says:

    You have hit the nail on its head. Amazing read. I’m struggling nowadays to converse with even my family members all well educated but extremely intolerant of any criticism for modi.

  12. Cama. NJ says:

    Well expressed fears. One can only hope they will not materialise significantly. But that’s a weak hope, because Hate & Vengeance are always stronger and longer lasting motivators than Love & Forgiveness. Even if the results of the recent elections don’t, just a cursory high-school level reading of history should make that clear.  

  13. Raja Panwar says:

    Modi, like all strongmen is following the template set by Erdogan. If you want to see India’s future see what is happening in Turkey. In India, institutions are weak and are being further weakened to the point they will become extra levers of power for the Prime Minister to take on dictatorial perogatives.
    What is especially unnerving is the support for the BJP from Indians in the USA and the UK. There is a wave of Hindu nationalism sweeping not just India but also the Hindu diaspora. There are some unintended comical aspects such as news report in an English language paper on the power of cow urine to scare away Frankenstein!! I’m not making this up. At first I thought it satire, but no. It was serious reportage. More embarrassing to India’s scientists are the claims of Indians developing TV technology, theory of the atom, etc.
    Relations with Pakistan and terror attacks have been used to catalyze Hindu nationalism. Efforts are well underway to create a singular Hindu identity and religious practices, and hybridity is out. If you are not with us then you are against us!
    Modi is here to stay and sadly India is increasingly resembling Pakistan and other Islamic states in West Asia.

  14. Saiful Islam says:

    I am going to repeat most of the observations made by Namit and a few by other readers. Not being an Indian, but a Bangladeshi on a trip to India during the elections, I was observing the hype and hysteria, the media and talk shows, speaking with ordinary Indians as I travelled from Kolkata to Bangalore, through Mumbai and Delhi. I wrote back home, 3 weeks before the results were in with the calamitous prediction that Modi would win, based on (it doesn’t matter what the truth is) what every guide, taxi driver, cafe eater….the overwhelming majority said. They would because he;

    – had brought gas and electricity to their houses (though only 60% of plan was covered)
    – demonetised and gave a shock to the rich, squeezing black money out of the system (most economists dispute this)
    – gave Pakistan a black eye, bombing them (Pakistan got hold of an Indian pilot, India nil)
    – has brought India on the international stage (no change from previous)
    – he projects Hindutva (that’s right)
    Lastly, I watched Rahul’s 20 min interview on a channel…he was completely unconvincing, nice mannered but clueless. Modi won, like Trump because of Hillary!

  15. I. R. Sheikh says:

    Please don’t compare India to Pakistan.
    We have our fair share of bigots.They are vocal, and our relatively free press gives them more space than I think they deserve, but for sure no religious party wins many seats in any election. This shows what the silent majority thinks, unlike in India.
    While political will has not been mobilised to strike off our blasphemy law it no longer is allowed freedom of mis-use by the courts, with counter-punishment the law now for false accusation.
    India seems ill-advised by Israel in the path it has chosen. Ghettos a la Palestine for Muslims sadly no longer seems improbable. The destruction of Muslim Pakistan seems high on the declared Indian agenda, starting with the declared policy of isolating Pakistan at every fora. This will make Pakistan feel insecure, and cause a reaction.
    It is time those still thinking in India change the narrative to showing muslims as human beings first, and hate being corrosive for every human soul, and the anti-thesis of an enjoyable life for the hater.

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