Media here and abroad is portraying it as Indian PM Modi’s defeat.
This assumption is almost as misguided as the growing impression that the mandate was a clear rejection of the all-pervasive intolerant agenda of the Sangh Parivar.
Modi remains firmly ensconced at the center where his term in office does not expire for almost four years. In a house of 545, Modi’s party BJP has 10 seats more than simple majority – 282 where 272 were needed – so there is little chance of an in-house change.
Remember, if the Modi card did not work in Bihar or Delhi it did in many other places. So a snub cannot be confused with a defeat.
Likewise, it is true that recent months brought rapid social fabric decay into sharp focus. But that is not the true measure of saffronisation (read radicalisation) in India.
Sangh Parivar, the extended family of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) offshoots, has consistently been raising the threshold of acceptability of Hindutva, its ideological lifeblood. Modi’s own rise can be attributed to this trend.
Ten years ago it was unthinkable to see Modi, a man banned from entering the US and the UK and boycotted by the EU, as a potential premier of the world’s largest democracy. Something has constantly been shifting in India that led to his phenomenal rise.
But before we examine the Bihar verdict in detail, discuss the ongoing cultural transformation and radicalisation in India, as a Pakistani I want to make a few things clear.
We, Pakistanis are in no position to lecture India on the virtues of secularism, inclusive democracy and moderation. Our history is replete with the poor choices we made, paid for, and continue to pay a heavy price for. What we can tell India is not to repeat our mistakes. And it is about time it starts paying heed.
Cast versus religion
The Bihar verdict is being dubbed a referendum on Narendra Modi’s performance and his party’s growing sponsorship of bigotry.
There is no gainsaying that from Pakistan bashing, cow slaughter, economic packages and Modi’s extensive campaigns, BJP threw in everything it had.
But there is a limit to how much the result can be viewed as a reflection of national issues, communal or otherwise. For one, at the state level, the focus of politics is local. For two, a close look at the state’s demographic reveals its chief concern is not communal but caste preservation.
Bihar and UP together form what is called the Cow Belt, a reference not only to their fertile plains but also to the predominance of the Hindu population.
Out of a population of over 100 million, the Hindu population is 82.7 per cent in these areas, while Muslims and those from other faiths make up 17.3 per cent. Given the majoritarian nature of the electoral system, it is difficult to see communal concerns playing as big a role.
Caste-based divide, however, reveals where the balance lies.
As per the 2011 census, scheduled castes including Dalits and Mahadalits are 16 per cent of the population. Other backward classes and extreme backward classes (OBCs/EBCs) form 51 per cent.
Whereas the BJP’s core constituency, the upper or the forward classes (Brahmin, Rajputs, Bhumihar) make up 15 per cent of the population.
It is common knowledge that the OBCs, EBCs and Dalits in India are often bullied by the forward classes. The cherry on the top, most recently, came in the shape of a shameful comment from junior union minister and former army chief VK Singh, in which he likened the murder of two Dalit children, no matter how unwittingly, to the death of stray dogs. The comment evidently did not go down well with the majority in Bihar state.
BJP versus RSS:
RSS is the ideological fountainhead of the BJP and while during Vajpayee’s time, the prime minister of India did not appear as helpless before the sarsanghchalak of the unelected body, this government has taken complacency to a new level.
Recently, a group presentation by the union cabinet before the RSS chief showed how empowered he is.
But something still doesn’t add up. In her remarkably accurate analysis in a column/blog titled “Why RSS May Want Amit Shah to Lose Bihar” dated October 24, investigative journalist and political writer Rana Ayyub highlighted how RSS chief Mohit Bhagwat is wary of the close knit between Narendra Modi, BJP chief and Modi confidante Amit Shah, and the man with the plan, finance minister Arun Jaitley.
She also pointed out how the timing of Bhagwat’s comment to revise the reservation or the quota system was meant to rattle the backward communities in Bihar.
That indeed happened. BJP has a history of meddling with the reservation policy: In 2001, the party’s chief minister in UP, Rajnath Singh, tried to change its contours.
Modi has been humiliated without losing much power, Amit Shah’s neck is on the line and Arun Jaitley is trying to assure the media that the reform package can still be implemented. So, does it weaken the radical voices in India? Far from it. It plays right into the hands of the RSS chief, the main source of Hindu radicalism in India.
Cult of personalities and a struggling Congress
Indian politics still remains thralled to personality politics. In the 2014 elections, among other factors contributing to the drubbing Congress received was the lack of a clear prime ministerial choice.
Manmohan Singh had already made clear he would not be running for office and Rahul Gandhi did not seem ready to fill his shoes. He is still not.
On the other side, Modi was a clear choice, his profile being built by a strong media campaign sponsored by big businesses. In Delhi and in Bihar, there were clear alternative choices available for voters to choose from. In fact in both cases BJP’s desire to project Modi more than their local candidates meant that the local leadership could not be as empowered.
That might have proven to be the undoing of the party in the two states.
Nitish Kumar, in general too, has been an excellent answer to the Modi problem. Both are ex-chief ministers and both pride themselves on their governance models and reform agendas. Kumar seems to harbour ambition to run for India’s premiership in 2019.
In 2013, as a BJP ally, he took a principled stand against the elevation of Modi to the national level and weathered the resulting storm.
Together with Lalu Prasad Yadav, he managed to defeat BJP in Bihar. It seems alliances can easily weaken the BJP where individual parties cannot right now.
That is a useful lesson but does not affect Indian politics at the center as elections are still four years away.
This might have revived the dreams of a third front against Congress and BJP. But that is also too early to tell.
Congress claims to have performed better this time but compared to Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Kumar’s Janata Dal United, it is far behind.
It will continue to perform poorly until it clearly identifies its new leader and premiership candidate. If Rahul Gandhi is still not ready then the party will have to find a strong substitute.
Heart of darkness – The RSS
Meanwhile, the RSS seems to be thriving. It has over 51 thousand shakhas (branches). It boasts high enrollment as 500,000 new members joined its ranks in 2013 and 600,000 in 2014. And that was during the days when it was mostly out of power.
Now that it has quite skillfully drawn attention to itself, the number of recruits must be going through the roof. Its offshoots like Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and BJP boast of commanding considerable support. VHP has 6.8 million members and BJP a whopping 100 million.
And I could find 55 names of the offshoots, some big, some small. And then there are hyper-radical breakaway factions like Abhinav Bharat that often have points of convergence with the Sangh Parivar.
In light of this proliferation, it is important to ask what the Sangh’s key ideas are. Perhaps this often quoted excerpt from the book “We, or Our Nationhood Defined” by MS Golwalkar, the founder of the VHP, second Sarsanghchalak (Supreme Leader) of the RSS and an enduring influence on the Sangh Parivar ideology.
On page 104, he writes, “There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only sound view on the minorities’ problem.
“From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.”
Let us now also see how relevant his thoughts are today.
Narendra Modi wrote a book Jyotipunj (Beams of Light) in 2008. It is a book of reverential sketches of 16 people who inspired him. The longest profile is that of Golwalkar. Aakar Patel has done a remarkable job of translating this sketch.
Unaware of how Modi’s mind works, I have found this profile quite incoherent, where minor details are presented as earthshattering truths.
But just to give you a taste here, a nugget of incoherence: “Dr Hedgewar did not stay up all night to tell Guruji what the nation’s condition was, how many bad things had entered Hindu culture after 1,000 years of slavery. He did not speak of this. He taught him no songs of patriotism. He said simply: ‘Madhavrao, you handle this work.’”
I copied this quote here to highlight that in Modi's mind, the bad things that entered Hindu culture after 1,000 years of slavery are still of significance.
No wonder then that Modi's cultural minister so openly talks of cultural cleansing. Dr Mahesh Sharma, the minister, recently said, "We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored — be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years."
So that, dear readers, is the scope of the problem. Thinking that a state election can undo or reverse this creeping radicalisation is nothing but fooling yourself.
In Pakistan, when actual radicalisation was taking place, many of our moderates thought that it was easily reversible. It was not.
Only when the state woke up to the challenge and started fighting the terrorists did we realise how enormous the problem was. We have fought for 14 years and lost over sixty thousand souls but the war is still far from over.
In India, the state can play a significant role. But how can it do that when it is under control of a party that is the offshoot of the most radicalising influence, when men like Modi rule the country?
Right now, secularism in India and democracy have started looking like competing values. There are only two democratic options to control some damage.
One, if BJP has a change of heart and distances itself from the RSS and replaces Modi with some moderate individual.
Two, Supreme Court of India intervenes. Then, there is an undemocratic method too. But something tells me none of these things is possible. So this radicalising trend will continue. And to believe that the Bihar verdict somehow can put a stop to it is to live in denial.