These days, most of us are focused on what is going to happen on May 23 – and what that will mean for our hopes for ourselves and our country. But in being preoccupied with voting and the results, it’s easy to miss the deeper significance of some of the trends this election has already thrown up.
Elections often act as a giant lens, bringing into focus subterranean trends that were already developing. And if there is one thing that these polls have brought into focus, it is the hollowing out and brittleness of what the BJP represents – at precisely what might look like its moment of greatest triumph.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing, even for those of us who are opposed to the RSS’s ideology. But it does mean that, while the future may head down several pathways – some of them terrifying – in the long term a monochromatic, dictatorial ‘Hindu Rashtra’ run by the RSS is actually quite unlikely.
To see why, let’s go back to 2014. The Modi government came to power on a tidal wave of political action by two broad sets of actors – the RSS and its Sangh parivar on the one hand, and a big business-corporate-media nexus on the other. Each had its own political project. The corporates backing Modi wanted to push their version of ‘economic reforms’. The RSS, of course, sought to push Hindutva.
Those of us who don’t agree with one or the other, or both, of these projects, tend to focus on how they result in injustice, violence and hatred. But these two projects have another problem. Not only can they not meet the expectations of the rest of us, but they also cannot meet the expectations of their own supporters. In this sense, they are fundamentally delusional.
To see this, fast forward from 2014 to 2019.
The economic project
Most commentators have noted that the economic project has vanished from the BJP’s agenda. This is a surreal election where the ruling party wants everyone to forget its own previous campaign slogan – ‘achhe din’. This isn’t an accident, nor is it merely a result of “economic mismanagement” by the Modi regime.
The problem in 2014 was that the corporate media had managed to convince both itself and a large section of the public that its ‘reforms agenda’ – withdrawing the new Land Acquisition Act, diluting labour laws, making forest and environment clearances ‘easier’ and so on – would benefit India’s businesses, and, thereby, everyone.
But in reality, and much before 2014, “reforms” in India had degenerated into steps that benefit the country’s top 100 companies and no one else. This makes them not merely unjust but actually irrelevant. Thus, forest and environmental clearances are already granted to 99% of projects, so diluting them further makes little sense; labour regulations are already so weak that many businesses don’t even realise they exist and for the vast majority of businesses, land acquisition issues are not relevant.
As a result, after trying to implement this agenda for its first two years in power, the Modi government realised it was getting nowhere in terms of winning either corporate or mass support and essentially junked its entire economic project. Since then we’ve seen the government just run an ad hoc approach combining some welfare schemes, straight handouts of resources to selected corporates and the twin blows of demonetisation and GST. This approach, in turn, has pushed the Indian economy into a growing crisis.
The Hindutva project
The Hindutva project, though, seems to be alive and well, and this is what terrifies so many people. But look beyond the surface triumphs and we can see similar problems beginning to emerge – this project too cannot satisfy its own stated goals. First off, the promise of employment and economic security was an integral part of Hindutva, and that is now sought to be quietly sidelined.
Similarly, each successive Hindutva agenda has seemed to have gotten stuck in a cul de sac. The handful of JNU students accused of being the ‘tukde tukde gang’ are today much bigger political personalities than their BJP accusers (anyone remember OP Sharma?).
Gau raksha was primarily meant to target Muslims, but it degenerated into attacks on Dalits, problems for farmers with crop destruction and general extortion. Today, most BJP leaders themselves no longer prioritise it. The Ram Mandir effort has barely moved in five years. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill got stuck with protests in the Northeast, and given the composition of the Rajya Sabha, it is not likely to be easy to pass – and without it, a nationwide National Register of Citizens will not serve Hindutva purposes.
Change in focus
For these reasons, the Sangh parivar seems to now be on a single point focus on Kashmir, ‘terrorism’ and Pakistan. But the BJP has already tied itself down here too. Within Kashmir, the BJP rule has led the state into a spiral of increasing violence, and the party has no proposal with even a remote chance of addressing that situation.
Indeed, after Balakot, the BJP has further trapped itself into the position of having to use military strikes after every major attack in Kashmir – but if there is one thing both the Israeli and American experiences have shown, such strikes have little effect on their target organisations. Moreover, in India’s case, the target country is both willing to retaliate and capable of doing so. If nothing else, the inevitable result of this will be increasing international intervention, which is unlikely to play out in the direction the Sangh parivar would want.
There is nothing unusual about this process. Around the world, every fascist party, and most majoritarian politics has followed a similar trajectory. These organisations and leaders always promise ‘security’ by ’empowering’ their followers to oppress others. But once in power, because they cannot address the real conflicts that they themselves create, these groups rapidly create so much insecurity, instability and conflict that they themselves eventually collapse. The only projects of this kind that have been able to survive in power for long periods are those that benefit from very specific historical circumstances – ones that don’t exist in India.
Fault lines appear
But the problem arises precisely when such politics fails to deliver. At that historical conjuncture, the search begins, either within the leading organisation or among its followers, for the ‘true’ leadership that will deliver on the impossible dreams that were first promised. This process too is already starkly visible in India. For instance, it is certainly not an accident that, after Modi and Shah, the two most prominent faces in the BJP’s election campaign – Adityanath and Sadhvi Pragya Thakur – are both outsiders who were not part of the RSS.
Thakur’s case is particularly striking. The RSS claims to have five million members, but it ignored all those five million in favour of promoting a woman who was originally arrested for murdering one of its cadres and, according to the RSS itself, was also trying to assassinate its leaders.
Indeed, the tradition that Thakur belonged to explicitly set itself against the RSS, saying the Sangh has ‘poor leadership’ that is unwilling to make difficult decisions. No doubt the RSS believes it can co-opt both Adityanath and Thakur. But that is not the point. The point is that this ‘model for the future Hindu society’ is now not even the ‘model’ for the Hindutva movement itself. The fracturing process has already begun.
Of course this is not necessarily a good thing. Bigotry has permeated deep into popular culture in India and many people, above all Muslims, live with fear and hatred as a daily reality. This isn’t going to go away just because the BJP or the RSS ceases to be central. Even if the Congress or someone else comes to power – now or later – they haven’t shown a great deal of commitment to fighting such bigotry. Won’t the situation then be just as bad, if not worse?
This is certainly possible, and indeed the most dangerous potential outcome of the present situation is that we will end up, Pakistan style, with multiple majoritarian groups that fight each other as well as minorities and everyone else. General bigotry will then be combined with mass violence and a collapsing state.
Rise of opposition forces
But that is not the only possible outcome. For all that the opposition parties have not allied with each other as well as they might have in this election, it is important to remember, again, that electoral politics are not the be-all and end-all of politics. The RSS itself, after all, dominates Indian politics today precisely because it spent nearly six decades focusing on work that had nothing to do with elections.
In that sense, it is very significant that the last five years have seen deepening, and sometimes unprecedented, connections between opposition forces in Indian society and politics.
For instance, in the five years since 2014, we saw national literary figures engage in ‘award wapsi’ – something that has never happened before or since. Then the following year, as already noted, a handful of JNU students suddenly became national personalities, allied themselves with a Dalit leader from Gujarat who talks about land and Dalit rights in the same breath, and have now gone on to run an election campaign with support from film stars, comedians, writers and a social media following that outstrips that of almost all BJP leaders other than Modi.
We have also seen student protests in university after university, Dalit leaders explicitly calling for Muslim-Dalit alliances, feminist organisations challenging both Hindu and Muslim orthodoxies and every institution from the Supreme Court to the CBI to the Election Commission being questioned. Even Indian comedy has seen an efflorescence of critical political comedy. Within the wider media, while nine out of ten outlets have sold out, those media persons have not consolidated their presence and acquired an outsize influence in their own right.
All of this may or may not amount to enough in the long run, of course. This real question will become more and more apparent as the disillusionment with the Modi-Sangh brigade mounts – an inevitable outcome whether they win these elections or not. Will those who once supported them turn further right, or will the forces seeking a more democratic India become strong enough, and raise issues potent enough, that these supporters will be won over by them instead?
If that happens, the possibilities of genuinely combating bigotry increase greatly. Will that happen? No one knows. Can it happen? It certainly can, and for those of us who oppose majoritarian politics, that should be a source of both hope and urgency.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan is a researcher and an activist who has worked on issues of forest rights, natural resource politics, workers rights and communalism.