India’s hardest fall

Updated May 30, 2019

Email

I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

BY giving Modi’s BJP a landslide victory, the Indian electorate has dealt its country a blow that might take a long time to recover from. The outcome of the polls has virtually buried India’s ideal of secularism and tightened the hold of crooks and the vulgar rich over the house of the people.

The main plank of the BJP’s election strategy was a pledge to complete India’s transformation into a Hindu state. By backing Modi, the voters have indicated that their belief in secularism was only skin-deep. They have given Modi licence to tyrannise the minorities, and settle the Kashmir issue through brute force and chicanery.

The only other plank in BJP’s electoral campaign was a threat to national security and belligerence towards Pakistan. Its triumph will put a strain on relations with all neighbours, especially Pakistan. Worse, it could increase the state’s amenability to pressure from the armed forces and lead to curtailment of basic freedoms and the rule of law.

While the BJP’s victory is spectacular, no less sensational is the defeat of Congress and the rout of the Left parties. The CPI-M that had ruled West Bengal for many years lost to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in 2014 and has failed to win any Lok Sabha seat from that state this time. Both Congress and the Left Front failed to counter Modi’s rhetoric about national security and religious exclusiveness.

Modi’s BJP has committed the capital offence of vulgarising representative governance.

The suppression of debate on citizens’ concerns — such as unemployment and farmers’ woes — in favour of a competition to promote religiosity and jingoism, constitutes a downward slide for Indian democracy, and this is a greater loss to India than the dismal performance of the anti-BJP alliances. This doesn’t mean that Modi’s predecessors in power were paragons of democratic virtues, but due admission of their contribution to a sham democracy doesn’t absolve Modi’s BJP of the capital offence of vulgarising representative governance. That the voters in West Bengal, for instance, chose to back the party that was likely to retain power is understandable. (Moreover, they could not forget the failure of Congress and CPI-M to advance their interests while they were in power.)

Still, a greater contribution to the degeneration of India’s political discourse was made by Modi himself. As had been noted in these very columns after Modi’s victory in 2014, his failure to deliver on economic pledges, one of the two main pillars of his election manifesto, led him to rely more and more on the second pillar, namely, Hindutva. He did everything conceivable, including making himself out to be an indigent yogi and a thoroughly committed Hindu revivalist, and tried to substantiate his fulminations by scapegoating Muslims, other minority communities and Dalits.

In addition, Modi cleverly played on the public’s raw nationalist sentiments by raising the bogey of threat from Pakistan, and thus brought, probably for the first time, the ‘taming’ of Pakistan in the electoral debate. He extracted the maximum possible political capital out of the air strike in Pakistan’s Balakot area. That the adventure failed to harm Pakistan did not matter. What Modi gained from the incident was the satisfaction offered to his gullible followers that he would not balk at striking at Pakistan, the latter’s nuclear capability notwithstanding.

There is a danger that his present victory could increase Modi’s arrogance and belief in his own infallibility. In 2014, he paid considerable lip service to the senior BJP leaders and the latter had no option but to support him, though somewhat grudgingly. This time around, he campaigned more or less alone, without allowing any other BJP leader of standing to share the platform with him. The only exception was Amit Shah, the loyal party chief from Gujarat, whose rabid communalism makes Modi look like a potential liberal. While over the past five years, Modi too has been criticised for casting himself as a cult figure and turning the prime minister office into a presidential one, it is difficult to imagine what the Modi-Amit duo could do to India’s hallowed parliamentary system.

Several political pundits have said the Modi campaign diminished them. One should like to hope that the Indian intelligentsia and saner elements in civil society, traditionally seen as a bulwark against the politics of hateful communalism, will have the courage and the capacity to frustrate Modi’s plans to push India back to the mediaeval period.

That Modi’s re-election poses serious challenges to Pakistan is fairly obvious. The twins that India and Pakistan are, the tradition of either of them acquiring the symptoms of a disease displayed by the other one is fairly deep-rooted. The jury is still out on the contribution to the rise of Hindu chauvinism in India by Pakistan’s drift towards theocracy, but there should be little doubt about the strength that Pakistan’s quasi-religious militants will derive from Modi’s cult of Hindutva.

One cannot say what impact, if any, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s hopes of friendship with a Modi-led India had on the latter’s election, but it couldn’t have cost BJP many votes. The Pakistani prime minister was correct in assuming the greater feasibility of a peace negotiated with the BJP than with any other party opposed by it. But this formulation was perhaps valid in a context that seems to have changed. Now the chances of any opposition party sticking its neck out for a settlement with Pakistan appear to have decreased.

The omens therefore are that the Modi sarkar will insist on extremely one-sided terms of reconciliation, but Islamabad must not lose its composure. It should continue to call for a negotiated settlement of all differences. If Modi could be convinced of the obvious fact that India will become a greater country by settling matters with Pakistan, and that the Pakistan government could at some point in time sideline the India-baiters in this country, he may still be able to reciprocate Imran Khan’s gestures of goodwill.

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2019