Originally published on the LRB blog.
That Narendra Modi would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the Bharatiya Janata Party would be forced to seek coalition partners in the Lok Sabha, or repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, they asked, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit-bourgeois (who can’t even speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi. The BJP-dominated alliance has 351 seats, the Congress alternative 95. Another landslide victory for the orchestrator of pogroms against Muslims. Hardly a surprise that Modi, Trump and Netanyahu share electoral affinities.
Modi’s triumph is unpalatable to the metropolitan liberal elite and many on its left. But they need to ask themselves some tough questions. In the decade before the BJP came to power, the Congress pioneered neo-liberalism under a caretaker PM, Manmohan Singh (as he waited for the Nehru-Gandhi kids to grow up and claim their inheritance); it often competed with the BJP in fanning anti-minority prejudice in Gujarat and elsewhere. India’s liberals and some on the left hold similar positions to Modi on Kashmir, class inequalities and the institutionalised discrimination against Muslims that started soon after Partition and is now worse than ever.
Many commentators have written that Modi’s electoral victory was helped by a ‘surgical’ attack on Pakistan in February after a terrorist assault in Kashmir that killed Indian soldiers and led to a surge in military-style clothes. But the India military response was a disaster: they lost a plane and targeted an empty camp. The fact is that a majority of Indian voters preferred the BJP to the national opposition. Despite economic problems and mass youth unemployment, they preferred Modi to the remnants of a crumbling dynasty.
The BJP, and its parent RSS, are now pacemakers, embedded in the heart of a modernising Indian state. And they are using all its resources to impose their ideology and punish those who do not conform. History is a crucial battleground. They have not yet burned the books of Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib or Arundhati Roy. But most mainstream publishers will be scared away from publishing critical, scholarly works on the origins and development of Hinduism, the RSS etc. This has already happened and will get much worse.
What of secularism? As many Indian writers have argued over the years, the idea of secularism was limited to defending and tolerating all religions equally and without discrimination. This was not a variant of French or Turkish republicanism, but an expression of intent. It was never implemented. India’s Muslims have suffered on many levels, but ‘secularism’ was also used by the clergy and the Muslim elite to prevent any reforms on divorce and other gender-related issue. While Pakistan reformed its divorce laws, nothing changed in India. The BJP leaders use this as yet another weapon against Muslims, conveniently overlooking Hindu restrictions on women entering temples and much else.
The Maharajas of Indian capitalism – Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata among them – have had no problems working with Modi. They have given a great deal of money to the BJP.
Congress seems a busted flush. At the very least it needs to get rid of the dynasty. The Nehru-Gandhi magic has gone. But will Shashi Tharoor and other modernisers be capable of taking on the BJP by offering another vision for India? it looks unlikely at the moment. Elsewhere regional parties continue to rule the roost. In three states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telangana – parties built by non-Hindi popular movie stars (pre-Reagan) dominate the scene, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Bollywood is now trying to mimic this success with appalling movies that effectively defend the new ‘national culture’: chauvinism, glorification of the military, gratutious appearances by Hindu gods and the worship of money are common themes, marking a break with the culture of previous decades.
There are exceptions. I just re-watched Newton, a wonderful, satirical indy movie directed by Amit Masurkar. Made in 2017, it’s a send-up of Indian elections and politicians. Newton Kumar (played by Rajkummar Rao) is a rookie clerk sent to monitor and supervise voting in Chhattisgarh in central India, where an ongoing Maoist insurgency has led to pitched battles between peasants and the security forces. Newton has to endure a Democracy workshop where he is informed that an election costs five billion rupees, there are nine million polling booths, 840 million people vote and ‘we break our own records every year.’
The movie opens with an election in progress and a BJP type politician entering a small town. ‘I am not here to seek your votes!’ he shouts unconvincingly. ‘Don’t vote for me. My dream is to see every child with a laptop in their right hand and a cellphone in their left. The Commies quote parables. I perform miracles.’ A power cut soon follows. Because the roads are unsafe, Newton is flown to the polling booth in a helicopter. The village has largely been destroyed by the security forces and finally people are forced to vote by the police. A visiting journalist from the United States is impressed. Whatever else, she thinks, this is the world’s largest democracy.