Sometime in the late 1980s, a slogan emerged: “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain (Say with pride, we are Hindus).” It was the beginning of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, after a miserable electoral performance in 1984 when the party won just two seats in parliament.
In 1989, in a deft political manoeuvre, the party had tied up with V.P. Singh and begun to focus on Hindutva as a political strategy. Soon after came the Mandal announcement by Singh, and the BJP under L.K. Advani responded with a country wide Rath Yatra that whipped up a frenzy and resulted in mayhem and violence. This slogan was part of that campaign, to rouse the Hindu in Indians.
In response to the slogan, stickers appeared in Bombay’s suburban trains which said, “Prem se kaho hum insaan hain (Say with love, we are human beings).” It was a pithy riposte, and appealed to the heart, but those who had come up with it – secularists, for want of a better word – did not have either the wherewithal nor the reach, to say nothing of the funds, to spread their message all over the country. This slogan just tapered off.
As we know, the BJP juggernaut continued to roll on, and we also know the result. More than mere election wins, the BJP and its many sister organisations managed to plant the seed of ‘Hindu’ consciousness, which is now firmly embedded in millions of Indians who would have qualified as secular and liberal then. Today they are ready to rise to defend their culture and their Hinduness, in whatever vague terms they see it.
And those opposed to Hindutva – left, liberal, secularists, fill in the blanks – are a rapidly sinking minority, at least where the public arena is concerned. (It is difficult to come up with an omnibus term for the Hindutva right’s opponents, which by itself should indicate the lack of a cohesive force to take on this mighty beast.)
The Hindutva right, with its vast army of storm troopers, is on every platform, creating a din that just drowns out any other point of view. But it is not just that noise – the opponents really have little to say that is new, and worse, whatever they do say it in a way that is predictable, jaded and has zero resonance in the present times.
It is not as though those committed to secular values and opposed to dangerous Hindutva do not exist – they do, and perhaps in significant numbers. Not just that, they also occupy influential perches in academia, media and in other branches of public life; additionally, there is a large number of people, especially among the young, who are worried about rising communalism. Seen through the spectrum of electoral politics, their numbers may not count for enough, certainly not enough to sway results. But the opposition to Hindutva, on the ground, if not politically, does exist.
Then why doesn’t their voice carry and compete with the Hindutva voice? There are of course structural and system reasons for it – the mainstream media is under the government’s thumb, either through application of pressure or because journalists and media owners genuinely are supporters of Narendra Modi and his ideology.
Then there are the others – the neutrals, always chasing balance and objectivity, and simply not getting the point that this approach always favours the status quo. Unwittingly, they turn into useful idiots, and often call the opposition more to account than the government. In any case, none of them have loudly and firmly asserted their opposition to Hindutva or, indeed, to the Constitution.
But some fault must lie with the hardcore, ideological opponents, who, despite their earnestness and commitment, fail miserably in coming up with a robust counter. And the main reason for that is poor communication. In a world of truncated attention spans, the Left and the secularists have little in their arsenal which can, both sharply and succinctly, demolish the Right’s claims and come up with an alternate vision. The ideas are there – the tools to present them are not.
Like it or not, with the mainstream media hostile and the political opposition ineffectual or compromised, social media and grassroots work is where the battles take place. In both, the Right dominates the discourse.
Maurice Cornforth, the British Marxist, once said that capitalists speak in such an articulate way, that even their lies sound like truth while Leftists speak in such a way that even truth seems untrue.
A little harsh, perhaps, but let us consider a small, every day example. (Here, we need to substitute capitalists and leftists, though the point remains the same). A BJP minister, or a troll, will say something like, “Muslims are traitors to India.” It is a shocking statement, but it is clearly designed to reach not just supporters, but also fence sitters and to provoke opponents. It also is part of the BJP’s continuous campaign against Muslims in order to demoralise them.
Instantly, there will be responses to condemn this, but these will probably on the lines of “The BJP is othering an entire community” or this is the “BJP’s hate campaign” etc. Of course it is, and stating the obvious will not change a thing, and nor will pointing out that this is “othering”. It just doesn’t have the punch of the Hindutva statement.
Or, if another worthy says, “A woman’s place is at home, they should not go out and work”, responding with “This is a typical example of patriarchy” is not going to cut it. Here the point is not what was said, but the intent behind it. And more often than not, that intent is achieved.
Sadhvi Pragya, MP, recently said that reciting the Hanuman Chalisa will cure COVID-19; another, Jeuskar Meena, has assured the nation that once construction of the Ram temple begins the virus will disappear, another party man said eating papads was the best cure. Cries of outrage all around, the television channels present panel discussions with a lot of shouting and a few jokey tweets to make fun of them – it’s all fun and it’s all predictable.
Did those politicians mean what they said? Probably. Did even their followers agree with those claims? A few may have, but there must be even hardcore Hindutva supporters who would have ignored it. But it provoked an outcry among the party’s critics and kept them busy with this diversion for a day or so.
The many comments that have no basis in science or history may anger rational Indians, but the followers of Modi or the Sangh in general are not interested in learning about either subject from their leaders. They simply shrug it off and move on, leaving their opponents to fume.
We also see finger pointing and name calling within the secular ranks. Comradeship and common purpose doesn’t stop vigilantes from keeping an eye out for any tiny infraction in terminology with someone’s expression, call them out and dance whoops of joy at making their point, even though that someone may be a comrade. Much time is spent on nitpicking the ‘correct’ way to say something, in the end wasting attention on minutiae rather than on the main objective, that of the serious damage being done to the Indian fabric.
Academia is even more obtuse in dealing with critical issues of the day, when it does. This is not to suggest that all academics are against the right or on the left, but a large number of them do fall into the progressive camp. They are the ones who are armed with the analytical tools, the research and the voice, thus making them natural allies – but often, their expression is so disconnected from quotidian arguments and public conversations that they just remain within their ivory tower. Which is a pity, because many strong points of view are simply lost.
Meanwhile, behind the fog of distraction, created by the Pragyas and the Meenas, this government pushes ahead with its larger agenda – changing text books, enacting repressive laws, helping crony capitalists and arresting dissidents. The Sanghi Right is moving, swiftly and in plain sight, towards its destination.
The government does not care about the petty fights and comments of the usual outragists on social media – it goes after dissidents who matter. An Anand Teltumbde, a Sudha Bharadwaj and an 80-year-old Varavara Rao really worry the government and the entire Hindutva ecosystem. A poet, a writer, a scholar, a journalist, even a comedian are more dangerous than a politician or a someone who has predictable things to say on Twitter.
To this dispensation, ideas are more dangerous than hand-wringing. The media, the judiciary, the institutions and the political opposition are no longer a bother for this establishment – the maverick rebels, who do real work and will not be bought over, are. Is it surprising they have all have been imprisoned?
To this onslaught on constitutional values, liberalism and democratic traditions by using legal tools, the Left has no answer. There is protest, but it is feeble. It certainly does not get amplified, because the mainstream media is not interested. Barring a few exceptions, most media houses and journalists are busy being praise singers.
US President Donald Trump too has a core support which buys his outrageous claims, but the big media is sharply critical of him and fact-checks him regularly.
Like Black Lives Matter, which has shaken Trump more than the media or mainstream Democratic critics, opposition to the Modi dispensation has come from the citizens. It was the campus and anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests that proved to be the first big challenge to the Modi government after its re-election in 2019. Women, young and old, sat in protest against the pernicious Act, and they were unaligned with any political party or ideology. Theirs was not posed outrage – they were fighting for dignity and their rightful place in the Indian Republic. The media pilloried them, Hindutva forces tried to provoke them and police was openly hostile, but nothing could shake their resolve. Predictably, the Delhi police, under the control of home minister Amit Shah, went after some of them soon aftr the lockdown was declared, such as Safoora Zargar. Al the while, the ecosystem of the Sangh continues to raise a din to keep the public busy.
As we move ahead, the Sangh establishment and the BJP government will be relentless in their onslaught on constitutional values and on dissenters. At the same time, its propaganda machine will continue to push out lies and tall claims. This will call for an equally sustained campaign of resistance in whichever way possible. But the key skill that the Left, secularists and liberals need to learn is how to communicate their point of view to the people at large. Otherwise, the battle is as good as lost.