Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Hinduvta Hegemony

Today's election results in five Indian states may or may not be noticed by the world media, but they are, in a way, no less significant than the Brexit vote or Trump's victory in November. These election results indicate a shift in politics of a major country, which India is, with its huge population, growing economy, large military and preeminence among the G20. And, while the 2014 election win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (hereafter, BJP) and Narendra Modi becoming India's Prime Minister was more momentous and newsworthy than these elections, they still complete and confirm the process of change that was underway since.

Admittedly, the results of these elections are mixed. Of the five states that went into poll, Indian National Congress (INC) and BJP, with their respective allies, controlled two states each, and another, the biggest one, was ruled by a large, caste-based, regional party, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party, or SP). The BJP has now gained two states and lost two, while Congress has got back to power in Punjab, a surprise and a state won back from BJP and its allies, and emerged as the largest party in two other states but slightly short of majority. It has lost badly in Uttarakhand, which it ruled for many years and where it was crippled by defection. However, all of these almost do not matter as Congress has lost, and lost badly, to BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where it was a minnow and was never going to win, because this is India's most populous state, with lots of seats in the two chambers of Indian parliament. And, this is what matters.

In a way, Congress should even be celebrating, because, after today, they may have got some footing as India's main opposition party. In a sad narrative of decline, even the number two position was in question, with the rise of various local parties. That Congress could win the elections in Punjab, a northern state where most people are Sikhs, in Goa, a Southern state where most people are Christians, and in Manipur, in the far corner of North-eastern India with a large tribal population, gives it a preeminence over the other local parties with a narrow agenda. But, sadly for Congress, this is not the story anyone would notice: It is the UP, a state where it was always going to lose, would dominate the conversation.

And, rightly so. UP,  being the most populous, sends most parliamentarians, and BJP win there would mean an eventual shift of balance in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where BJP still does not have a majority. This would, eventually, give Mr Modi an unprecedented advantage: No Prime Minister, since the end of Congress Hegemony in Indian politics in 1989, enjoyed majorities in both houses of Parliament. And, these majorities would be big enough even to bring in Constitutional change. In short, the UP victory finally seals a Hinduvta Hegemony in India.

There are some Facebook lamentations about the end of Liberal India. I am not sure how far the INC can be called Liberal, and how far, given their chronic inability to look beyond the predominance of one family, they should be seen even as a normal political party. Whatever it seemed from outside, the UP election was fought along the caste and religious lines. Congress was never going to win: Their only contribution in the result was to enter in an ill-advised alliance that allowed a consolidation of upper caste Hindu vote, making the defeat looks grimmer. Liberalism was not on the ballot, and therefore, its death should not be mourned.

In fact, BJP under Mr Modi is classic neo-Liberal, and should be seen as that. Socially conservative and business friendly, it is a party that represents the interests of big business in India. It has found, in Mr Modi, a figure to rally around, and it has triumphed, with a clear message aimed at Indian middle classes: Development! Despite the mishmash of results, the biggest story is the rise of 'Hindu vote': This was the tactic Mr Modi successfully followed in 2014, and now he has done it again. 

Indeed, BJP has not invented the Caste and Religious voting block idea - that distinction belongs to Congress and regional parties like SP - but it has become its most successful practitioner, particularly by turning the (high) caste Hindus into a voting block. The Caste Hindus are numerous - though they are not the majority of the population - and they are disproportionately represented in education, employment, policy making and professions in India. They have, like professional classes, always had divided loyalties, whereas the other castes, and religious minorities, often voted en bloc. Mr Modi's two-tone politics - a public message of development supplemented by religious zealotry of his followers, which he rarely censors - successfully outflanked the parties dependent on caste or minority voting blocks, by uniting the Educated Hindus interested in 'development at any cost' with their less tolerant coreligionists, interested in a different agenda. The Congress, still out of favour with educated Indians for the corruption and incompetence of their administration (2004 - 2014), is completely out of sorts in a country of young strivers as they stick to dynastic privileges, and it has no answers to this Hinduvta Hegemony.

I am indeed no admirer of Mr Modi, but I recognise that public memory is fickle and moral objections are quaint. While I feared for the Indian Republic when Mr Modi got elected in 2014, such fears do not resonate with the voting public, who have more urgent, and more material, concerns. Besides, the consistent lack of political sense in Congress, and their slavish devotion to the family, makes them a lost cause, at least at the present moment. In a world where Mr Trump is the President of United States, and Marine Le Pen gets a serious consideration, Mr Modi is no anomaly, and indeed, a politician of merit in comparison. However, the current political setting in India should make people like me reconsider their position in one important way: Our key assumption that India is secular socialist democratic republic facing a challenge from Hindu nationalism is outdated, and it is time to think of Indian politics as one of hegemonic Hindu democracy, and reframe political ideas and conversations around the same.



 

 


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