Modi's Mandate Cannot Be Put Down to Just Bigotry

Democracy is not simply about one big election, but also about millions of everyday democratic processes, everyday micro struggles. Those micro-struggles will go on, have to go on.

It likely seems to many of us that the election results are taking us down a dark and terrifying tunnel as a country, and perhaps as a people. Many had the same doomsday feeling in the summer of 2014, and it is hard to deny the apprehension that the summer of 2019 brings a consolidation of power that could now be irreversible. This prospect is depressing because the past five years were a disaster to many. But many who voted for Narendra Modi also had a hard time during these years. Yet they voted for him again.

We should have seen it coming. It is the third time in a row that Uttar Pradesh has surprised observers. To be surprised once is bad luck, twice is incompetence, but to be surprised thrice can only be ascribed to extreme wishfulness.

In hindsight, Modi’s popularity was staring every observer in their face. In report after report, particularly two by Supriya Sharma and Sankarshan Thakur, it was clear that Modi remained exceedingly popular. Many voters admitted they were not doing well – that there were no jobs, that demonetisation had hurt them – but still wanted to give Modi another chance.

Many voted for him despite acknowledging his policy failures. Some voted for him because he could defend the country, some because he had made the country proud internationally, some because he worked very hard and they saw him as honest, and some because there was nobody else on the horizon. Many people voted for a leader who they genuinely believed was doing good for the country and would continue to do good. They voted for a leader who they believed deserved another chance.

This mandate cannot be put down to just bigotry or hate. I am not at all denying the extreme polarisation which has taken place on the Hindu-Muslim question, but that does not explain the extent of the support. If a large number backed Modi because he was, to use a euphemism, “putting a community in its place”, then they were not openly saying so. And we have no right to divine, delineate or categorise the motives of the millions of individuals who have endorsed Modi and his government.

What of the alternatives?

What then of the alternatives available to voters? Yogendra Yadav was right when he tautologically explained the verdict as falling between the Scylla of ‘asantosh’, that is, discontent with the government, and the Charybdis of ‘avishwas’, or lack of trust in the alternative.

For some, it looked like Rahul Gandhi was emerging as a leader. The voters, at least in the Hindi heartland, have resolutely rejected him. Does that mean he did not fight a good fight? No, in fact, it seems that he punched far above his weight. He was the first to frontally attack the BJP government and continued to do so till the end.

Perhaps he was too belligerent. But with the kind of swing that this election has thrown for Modi, what Rahul Gandhi did and said seems wholly immaterial. He could have formed an alliance in UP and in Delhi. But in many constituencies, the combined vote of this alliance would still be lower than the BJP’s. And where the Congress did form alliances – like Karnataka, Bihar and Jharkhand – they were still crushed.

Could the Congress have done anything different? It appears not. They were a commendably pugnacious opposition. With 44 MPs, they generated noise and invited government – and media – opprobrium that was disproportionate to their strength or influence.

From the beginning, Modi has tried to discredit and delegitimise the Congress party, perhaps because he saw that it was the only hurdle in his way, ideologically and organisationally; and that the one individual who seemed unafraid and unlikely to ever compromise was Rahul Gandhi. The hate campaign directed at Rahul Gandhi, and that is still being directed at him since results came out, is not organic. It has all the hallmarks of a constructed and misdirected anger. They still need to take him out.

Does he then need to step down? No more than any other opposition leader. No more than any other dynast in his party. Who would we rather have lead the Congress? And what would they achieve in the face of this hegemonic popularity of Modi? What is the best that we can offer in opposition to this machinery?

Congress president Rahul Gandhi campaigning for the 2019 elections. Credit: PTI

Modi’s personality

This election was fought not on ideas but on personality. Modi has perhaps modeled himself on an actor he deeply admires: Amitabh Bachchan, who was, for nearly a decade, the No. 1 to No. 10 of Indian cinema. Modi too is currently the No. 1 to No. 10 of Indian politics.

It hardly matters who heads this party or that. Many allowed their wishes to cloud their thinking, imagining that Modi no longer enjoys the hegemony of 2014. That now he only had, to use Ranajit Guha’s memorable Gramscian description of the British Empire, dominance without hegemony. But it was not to be.

Rahul Gandhi did stand up to Modi, but he came up short. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi could also not stand up to Modi because Modi, like Bachchan, is a superhero, capable in popular imagination of extraordinary feats. He is from a humble background (Sikandar, in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar), he lives by honest and humble labour (Coolie), he breaks the arrogance of the rich (Lawaris), he keeps vigil (Shahenshah), he is self-respecting (Khuddar), he can sacrifice himself for the nation (Sholay), he is capable of extraordinary physical capacity (Jadugar, Toofan), he is loyal to his friends (Yarana) and he can leave you speechless with his oratory when needed (Aakhri Rasta).

The people have voted, but to reduce their vote simply to hatred or fundamentalism is to be very arrogant. I am not overlooking the bigotry on display in the media and in social media, but the voters on the ground far outnumber the social media ‘haters’. Certainly the people are voting differently, but it is too simplistic to deduce that people have changed fundamentally. It is difficult to even say the people have voted unwisely. Who are we to decide or determine what the people should want? And by what criterion can we determine that the people are wrong?

If you look at surveys of the mood of the nation, Indians have identified terrorism as the number one problem facing this country. If they find a leader who seems to be taking swift and decisive measures to counter terrorism then how are they wrong?

Those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s often felt helpless in the face of Pakistan’s covert and overt support for terrorist acts in this country. If a leader is seen to be giving Pakistan a fitting response, should people not support such a leader? The people have not lost their mind, they just refused to believe the critics and the opponents of the present regime.

Regime change at the Centre, or even at the state level, has hardly ever made a difference to the toiling millions, so why are we so bothered by the continuance of a regime when the poor are destined to struggle?

Didn’t the Communist Party decry the regime change of 1947 by saying, “ye azadi jhoothi hai, desh ki janta bhookhi hai“? Can we also claim that it doesn’t matter who rules Delhi because desh ki janta bhookhi hai?

Admittedly, some are uncomfortable with the identity politics that underpins this victory, but the people chose the identity they wanted to emphasise. It is not enough to say that they have been fooled and must be disabused. Will some superman or great leader, with identity politics more to our liking, arrive to enlighten the people?

The Muslim question

What of the Muslims then? It is no surprise that Modi does not have much love for Muslims. The BJP itself does not, because it is founded on Hindu resentment. Concomitantly, the Muslims have also never had much love for the RSS or the BJP.

But it is worth remembering that that resentment – and the grand project of reconstructing Hinduism, and India in that mirror image – began in the 19th century. By the time the RSS was formed, that project had enjoyed considerable success for nearly 70 years.

The denial of our collective past, and the presence of the Indo-Muslim in our present, were necessary offshoots of that reconstruction (one that incidentally began in Bengal). The Indo-Muslim’s uneasy presence in that habitat, and the traumas and humiliation of Partition, were and remain a problem still amplified today.

Many are sure that the results indicate that that project has now reached fruition. I am not so sure. The RSS is the most strident amplifier of that project and to be a hardliner in politics is, well, to be harder on your opponents. It is also in the nature of radical politics – as witnessed, say, in the French Revolution – that each new wave makes the former hardline appear moderate. We will have to wait and see, Sadhvi Pragya’s victory notwithstanding.

Pragya Thakur. Credit: PTI

The Muslims are afraid

In this election, the so-called Muslim-friendly parties have been decimated. But not just because they are seen to be pro-Muslim. They are also considered to be corrupt and therefore unpatriotic.

Admittedly, the Muslim vote has become irrelevant, dangerously so perhaps. It is sad, but such is the nature of electoral politics in the first-past-the post system. If we want substantive political change, we need a substantive electoral transformation which can only come from proportional representation. Try telling that to a country which was partitioned because of the havoc wrought by ‘separate electorates.’

The Muslims are very afraid, and the past five years have given them good reason to be. Nobody has any idea what is in store for them, but they must be reminded that they have lived through the violence of Partition, they have lived through the riots in Bhiwandi, Ahmedabad, Moradabad, Bhagalpur, Malliana, Bombay and even the 2002 pogrom. They have lived through the past five years.

The passing of the old politics is not an entirely unmixed blessing. As Ambedkar reminded us, democracy is not simply about one big election, but also about millions of everyday democratic processes, everyday micro struggles. Those micro-struggles have to go on.

Now that the RSS has finally triumphed over Gandhi, perhaps it needs to rethink what it to do with the 20 crore or so Indian Muslims. They cannot be banished; they cannot be kept in camps, they cannot be killed, they will not disappear.

If you keep them impoverished, under-confident, depressed, they will be like lead around India’s feet, or like chains. It is doubtful if India can march to glory and prosperity if nearly one-fifth of its population is full of resentment and treated like an underclass. A politics that attempts to degrade Muslims is unpatriotic and un-nationalist. It is common sense, but perhaps those India-‘bhakts’ who genuinely want India to develop and prosper, need to be reminded of this again. And again.

What hangs in the balance, though, is much more than the fate of Indian Muslims. As this existential crisis threatens to depress, browbeat or silence many of us, or lead us to sullen indifference, I can hardly do better than to paraphrase some lines from that outstanding existential play of the last century, ‘Waiting for Godot’:

I cannot go on, but I must go on. Platitude, no doubt, but have we any better.

Mahmood Farooqui is a theatre-personality and writer, well-known for reviving Dastangoi.