HAS fascism run its course in India, as Arundhati Roy told Karan Thapar in an interview last week? In her view, India’s masses have stepped in to ensure its eventual defeat. The inevitability is certain though the timeline is unclear. The unravelling, however, is well underway. Roy’s premise is compelling and uncomplicated. Among the pointers, she cites the inspirational farmers’ movement and the less reported struggles raging below the media radar, coupled with a hint of good news from the state polls that started in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday.
Reports from the first round of polls in the state, the spine of Hindutva’s campaign to uproot secular democracy, indicate an early setback for Prime Minister Modi’s party, particularly for his handpicked chief minister, the bane of journalists, Dalits and Muslims. The seven-stage election in UP has some way to go before a clear pattern emerges, the last round being on Feb 27. The air though carries a whiff of change, and just as well too. In multi-stage polls in India, well begun is half done, and the beginning for the opposition looks good. Of the 58 seats of 403 that were in the race on Thursday 53 went to the BJP in 2017. Usually reliable punters now say a majority of these seats, possibly 36, is primed to go to the opposition alliance led by two parties of agricultural communities, including Muslims, the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal. If true, the trend is likely to pick up in the other six contests.
The races in BJP-ruled Uttarakhand and Goa, and the Congress-ruled Punjab also look ranged against the BJP. Its one-trick horse of hatred was reported struggling in Goa and Uttarakhand on Monday. Modi and his senior ministers have spent much time in Uttarakhand. The state has seen three BJP chief ministers in five years reflecting confusion.
Modi’s desperation is reflected in his inability to see India in any colour other than saffron.
Sikh farmers had surrounded Delhi for over a year seeking the repeal of anti-farmer laws. They won by staying put despite the hardships, including a hostile media that described them as Pakistani agents. Around 700 farmers perished in inhospitable weather made deadlier by the Covid-19 outbreak. The Sikh farmers found support from their Hindu counterparts in UP and Haryana. Muslim farmers joined in too, the bonhomie signalling trouble for the BJP. The party had successfully with rumours and fake news induced bad blood between Hindu and Muslim farmers in UP that prepared the pitch for Mr Modi’s victory in 2014. Communalism continued to stalk the state in the 2017 assembly polls, which the BJP won. This friction has now abated if not totally vanished with communities of different religious stripes coming together in a show of force in western UP and elsewhere.
Equally critically, in their earthy way, the farmers went for Hindutva’s Achilles heel hitherto left unexplored. It was a quest deemed beyond the ken of opposition parties, who obfuscated it. The farmers targeted “BJP’s crony capitalist financiers” head-on, stressing they underpinned and underwrote the social and economic mayhem being inflicted on the country. The campaign found a catchy ditty: “India is ruled by four men from one state. Two are selling the country. The other two are buying it.”
Mr Modi’s desperation is reflected in his inability to see India in any colour other than saffron. Before Roy’s interview, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi made a strong attack on this inability to accept India as a multicultural political bouquet. “Never ever will you rule Tamil Nadu or Kerala,” Gandhi told Modi in parliament to illustrate his point about the political mix that makes up India. He got Modi’s ad hominem retort in return. It’s apparent that people are getting fed up with the BJP’s single-point agenda of spreading hate. Both Roy and Gandhi were sanguine that the people would never let fascism succeed, that the BJP would not be allowed to blindside issues of livelihood, health and education any longer.
As the going gets tough for the BJP, however, there is more vicious communalism on display. The targeting of a Muslim girl in Karnataka for wearing hijab to college could be desperation of sinking hope. The BJP hoped the issue would find traction in the polls, but the soufflé has refused to rise. Another sign of growing frustration for the BJP came from the saffron chief minister of Assam who offered remarks about Rajiv Gandhi’s parentage, again revealing the lumpen core of Hindutva.
These are areas then the opposition needs to be watchful of: the BJP’s disruptive muscle power, its corporate support and its deep penetration of the institutions of state. How would the opposition parties in saddle approach the needed undoing of the deeds at various levels to mitigate the legal, political, economic and social wrongs? There’s terrifying history to worry about. The Janata party came with a massive mandate to make it impossible to tinker with democracy again. It set up a commission of inquiry into the Congress’s excesses and left it at that. Mrs Gandhi bounced back to power in no time.
Other things could go wrong, not least a desperate measure to quell the opposition as Mrs Gandhi did by suspending democracy before democracy could suspend her. Short of the extreme measure, there is always the possibility of trouble from insidious communalism. Also, while terrorism harms the country the tragedies it inflicts have been harvested as political fodder. Mr Modi on Monday paid homage to those killed in the attack of Feb 14, 2019, in Pulwama, which India blamed on Pakistan (and that the latter denied). Modi will scour for political use on the anniversary of Balakot on Feb 26. Critics would be denounced as anti-national as recently happened with Rahul Gandhi. Is the opposition prepared for such “predictable surprises”? Or would it continue to be the masses that deliver India from its mortal crises only for the political classes to let them down?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2022