A collective madness

What Modi’s victory says about today’s India.

n 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.