Refreshing candour

Print edition : April 26, 2019
A book about the vicissitudes of contemporary politics, which points out with honesty and insight the pitfalls of the upsurge of Hindutva and the challenges before the nation post 2014.

TO many, the name of the book will bring a smile to their faces. But truth be told, Ajay Gudavarthy goes beyond sentiment to cut out the clutter. He uses the tools of a political scientist to write with refreshing candour, avoiding jargon, about the twin strategies of development and Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party has used to garner public support in elections since 2014 and about the decline of the independent Left stream and the emergence of a new axis between the Left and the Dalits.

A couple of chapters stand out in this smooth-flowing narrative. Gudavarthy astutely takes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-quoted remark on graduates selling pakodas to make a living to talk of the politics of the ruling regime being centred around only one principle: winning elections, whatever it takes.

In the chapter “Hyper-Electoralism and Pakoda Nationalism”, Gudavarthy explains how the distinction between the government and the state has increasingly blurred since 2014. Any criticism of the government is taken to be criticism of the state, giving rise to the frequent dubbing of dissenting voices as those of anti-nationals. Questioning the elected government is akin to questioning the fundamentals of the state. Democracy itself has been reduced to the art of winning elections, irrespective of the cost or consequences.

Gudavarthy writes: “Soon after his election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented, ‘sarkar nahi chalana hai, desh chalana hai’.” Nobody then knew that the Prime Minister meant it literally. He adds: “Under the current regime, the state and nation have got conflated into a single entity. Any difference or acknowledgment of their separation is seen as the weakening of the colossal ‘nation building’ project that the BJP has undertaken.... Democracy under this vision is essentially understood as winning elections, beyond that any accountability is understood as a blot on the will of the majority. After the 2002 Assembly elections in Gujarat, majority and majoritarianism have gradually collapsed to mean one and the same thing. In fact, rule of law, the autonomy of institutions and individual rights, minority rights, among other things have come to be seen as diluting the will of the majority.... The rule of law, whether in Chhattisgarh or Kashmir, is seen as diluting the strength of muscular governance, while minority rights have been re-framed as appeasement and institutional autonomy, be it that of the judiciary, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) or other constitutional or statutory bodies, is seen as unjustified or freedom without accountability.”

Some of Gudavarthy’s apprehensions were proved right when Shaktikanta Das, the Modi government’s point man for demonetisation, was appointed the Governor of the RBI. Das’ appointment came on the heels of the surprising resignation of his predecessor Urjit Patel and his public stand-off with the government. One of Das’ first moves was to give a Rs.28,000 crore payout to the government as dividend. This was even as the government failed to meet its tax collection and asset sales targets, widening the Budget gap.

About the innate dislike of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh for the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the ideology it stands for, he writes: “The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat announced that JNU is the hub of anti-national activities. The RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya had alleged that JNU is home to ‘a huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India’. Another article in it alleged ‘JNU is one such institute where nationalism is considered an offence. Presenting Indian culture in a distorted way is common. The removal of [the] Army from Kashmir is supported here. They advocate various other anti-national activities here.’” Almost on cue, there followed a crackdown on JNU for its alleged anti-national students who came to be derided as the “Tukde Tukde gang”, or a group that worked for the disintegration of India.

Gudavarthy writes: “These statements were followed up by a crackdown on JNU on February 9, 2016, with an alleged claim that students of JNU shouted anti-India slogans that supported the separation of Kashmir from India and some of them were arrested for sedition. From openly debating why the Kashmir demand for a plebiscite may be legitimate, today, even uttering a doubt on the possible human rights violations committed by security forces could count as anti-national activity. Demanding rule of law and accountability from the police and armed and paramilitary forces has become sedition. Raising slogans—however objectionable some of them might have been—is now being seen as an act of terror.”

In his own understated way, Gudavarthy goes on to expose, one after another, the government’s actions that have led to an authoritarian regime where one is expected to ask no questions, and question no dictates. Building a case for JNU as a large open space which respects freedom of speech, dialogue, even dissent, Gudavarthy quotes a public meeting of some Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members who waved black flags and raised slogans against the massive gathering of students demanding Kanhaiya Kumar’s release. “They were allowed the space to protest. In no small measure, it reflects the spirit that JNU has stood for all these years. A spirit that stands in complete opposition to the way the current political dispensation has handled students, not of JNU alone but in the University of Hyderabad, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and FTII [Film and Television Institute of India]. A spirit that refuses to be subsumed under the simple-minded, mediocre nationalism of the current dispensation that wishes away every difference of opinion and perceives it as ‘Bharat Ma ka apman’.”

The safest enemy

In another chapter, Gudavarthy talks of Muslims as the safest enemies to have in India today. The lynching of members of the community has failed to evoke anything more than fleeting interest among the majority community. He reasons that this is because they [members of the majority community] have been fed on the narrative of the “Muslim other”, much like what [M.S.] Golwalkar preached in the late 1930s, when he suggested that the minorities could live in India only on the complete subjugation of their identity to that of the majority or at the sweet will of the majority. Gudavarthy writes: “Majoritarianism in India is being constructed faster than we can imagine. There is not only a large-scale celebration of Hindu religious symbols in the public sphere but also a deeper consent, both active and tacit, to the violence, against the minorities, especially Muslims.

“Today, a cross section of castes and classes does not seem to be perturbed by the kind of lynchings that we have visualised as part of the ‘new normal’ under the current political regime. This is made possible through a commonsensical binary between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that is right at the core of the way populism works. Among many other reasons, Muslim is the safest enemy to have in India. Muslims are a numerical minority; they are socially backward and economically marginalised. An odd 15 per cent of the population stands no chance to win against a majority of Hindus who constitute over 80 per cent of India....

“Yet we continue to vilify Muslims as a grandstand enemy that threatens the security of the nation. Perhaps, this is precisely why there is such an easy consent and consensus in making the Muslim the symbol of all that is wrong with this nation. He is an enemy who is vanquished even before the war has begun. Where does this kind of cultural sensibility come from?”

Gudavarthy does not merely point to the little ripples of concern. He rings the warning bells loud and clear. For instance, he takes the cherry out of the celebratory cake in JNU after the Left parties won all the four posts of the Students’ Union soon after the Kanhaiya-Shehla Rashid-Umar Khalid episode in 2016. He points out the worrying fact that although the Left-backed candidates won in all the four seats, the ABVP, the BJP’s student wing, had come second. “Even more worrying is the growing rift between the students from the Dalit-Bahujan communities and the Left student organisations.... Left student groups, on the other hand, have equally failed to be sensitive to the changing political discourse and the pressing need for representation being demanded by the Dalit-Bahujan students. Left politics on campus has steadily become election-centric over the years, and yielding space to groups that do not speak the language they do is seen more as losing space than a political experiment worth carrying out.”

It is on such unusual and independent insights that Gudavarthy, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in JNU, builds his draft of India After Modi. It is a book that talks of the Age of Anger, the vicissitudes of contemporary politics, with the detached eye of a monk. Gudavarthy points out the pitfalls of the upsurge of Hindutva and the challenges before the nation post 2014. Blending the skills of a student of sociology with that of a contemporary political commentator, Gudavarthy gives the reader a book that throbs with immediacy.

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