Post-democratic state

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi on October 24, 2019, after the party’s victory in the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections. Photo: PTI

RSS members participate in a rally in support of the new citizenship law on the outskirts of Hyderabad on December 25, 2019. Photo: AFP

September 6, 2009: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel attend a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh gathering at Tria Mandir in Adalaj, some 20 km from Ahmedabad. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Modi visits the Atal Ghat to review the cleanliness of Sisamau Nala, in Kanpur, on December 14, 2019, along with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi. Photo: PTI

DECEMBER 5, 2009: Chief Minister Modi along with Chairman and CEO of the Adani Group, Gautam Adani, during a visit to a power plant at Mundra (SEZ) in Gujarat. Photo: PTI

A trade union rally against the Centre’s “anti-workers policies” on the second day of the nationwide strike in Bengaluru on January 9, 2019. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

A historically novel kind of state seems to be arising in many corners of the world, which combines elements derived selectively from the two classic forms of the capitalist state, the liberal and the fascist. India under Narendra Modi too may be moving in that direction.

The Indian polity is undoubtedly passing through a watershed moment, considerably more ominous than the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992, the making of the second A.B. Vajpayee government that assumed office in 1998 or the Gujarat killings of 2002. Those milestones in the rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-backed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power involved two orgies of violence a decade apart, with a smooth electoral transition in the middle of that decade. The Vajpayee governments of 1996 and 1998 would be inconceivable without years of bloodshed throughout the Ram Mandir movement and in the aftermath of the mosque’s demolition. “Militarised Hinduism” of V.D. Savarkar’s dream, and the fascist spectacles it generated, were translated into votes, proving that communal violence pays electoral dividends. The Gujarat pogrom was conducted almost immediately after Narendra Modi became Chief Minister. Electoral support for him grew with successive State elections, and more and more among the national middle class came to favour him as future Prime Minister. He never bridled his fire-eating communal vitriol even as public relations agencies re-made him into a Vikas Purush (Development Man); vitriol and promises of vikas were equally at work in getting him to form government in Delhi.

The relation between the parliamentary and the extra-parliamentary in calculations and conduct of the RSS and its progeny could not be clearer. This combination of persuasion and coercion has achieved at least four things for the Sangh Parivar. First, expansion of political power. Electoral politics always involve ups and downs but, on the whole, over a 30-year period of violent politics, from 1989 to 2019 let us say, the BJP has gone from being a relatively small party on the national scale to becoming an overwhelming political machine; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Durga Vahini—and sundry other vahinis that appear and disappear routinely—should get as much credit for this electoral success as the BJP itself, not to speak of the RSS cadres who take over the election campaigns whenever necessary. Second, there is probably an even larger expansion of the social base that adheres explicitly to the ideology of the RSS and the immeasurable numbers who have come to accept at least a part of the RSS world view in their daily dealings with the world. Mass mentalities tend to be highly malleable and very hard to assess accurately. Even so, the centre of ideological gravity has undoubtedly shifted.

Third: with that shift in ideological gravity has come further coarsening in the moral fabric of the nation. The countless millions who come out to adore the likes of Modi and Yogi Adityanath are an index of that coarsening. The population of Uttar Pradesh is roughly equal to the combined population of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. That the Yogi—in reality a Bajrang Dal activist in saffron robes—can become the Chief Minister of so large a State without provoking a major backlash speaks volumes about the point at which we have now arrived. Let it be remembered that he is a star campaigner for the BJP in many States far beyond Uttar Pradesh and is often mentioned as a possible future Prime Minister.

The fourth element of that success is, however, quite possibly the most dangerous in both the long and the short run: the ability of the RSS to command acquiescence not only from its key adversaries, such as the Congress, but also from precisely those, including the Supreme Court, whose duty it is to guarantee a law-based public life and to defend the fundamentals of the Constitution. Brief comment on only one instance should suffice: the Babri imbroglio. Preparations and cadre training for the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Parivar and the Shiv Sainiks alike were so prolonged (a year or so), so elaborate and on such a scale that intelligence agencies must have known much about it even though they feigned ignorance.

Were the political superiors informed? If not, why not? The calculated inaction of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was stunning. Kalyan Singh’s undertaking to the Supreme Court that the mosque would be protected was at best a prevarication. The court chose to fall for the strategem. When Kalyan Singh defied the court by simply ignoring what he had promised, he got away with barely a velvet tap on the knuckles. The whole fascist spectacle was televised and everyone saw which of the BJP leaders—all luminaries of the Parivar—were present, screaming and abetting the demolition squad. None was ever punished. Justice M.S. Liberhan, commissioned to submit a report on the events surrounding the demolition in three months, took 17 years to submit one but then did name some names. Neither the Congress government of the time nor the Supreme Court chose to do much about it. The basic fact is that no major leader of the Parivar—whether from the RSS itself or the BJP, VHP, and so on—has ever been punished. In deed, when the United States and the United Kingdom governments decided to not issue visas to Modi because of the 2002 pogrom, Manmohan Singh protested against such insult to an Indian Chief Minister. Evasions of law and morality through niceties of etiquette!

Ominous juncture

Each of the moments that were mentioned earlier—1992, 1998 and 2002—contributed decisively to the ascent of the RSS to the zenith of power in the country. We are now at a far more ominous point in time, however. The fundamental difference is this. For the first 40 years of its existence—1925 to 1970, roughly speaking—the RSS remained a relatively minor force and something of an untouchable in Indian politics, until it made its first major breakthrough with its masterly role in anti-Indira agitation of the mid 1970s. Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) commanded a personality cult and bluster but no organisation. Morarji Desai had personal stature but his Congress (O) was by then a spent force.

The RSS alone had a cohesive leadership, well-trained cadre and a credible parliamentary front (the Jana Sangh). It thus dominated the right-wing coalition against Indira Gandhi and, after the 1977 elections, walked into Parliament with 94 members. That was the first time that the RSS came to be seen as a more or less normal part of the Indian political scene. That story has never been told properly. Between that and 2014 when Modi first formed government in Delhi—that is, for the next 40 years of its existence—the RSS has been on an essentially upward path of power and prestige, with downs and ups of course.

Returning to power after a 10-year gap but with a clear majority (282 seats) for the first time, Modi’s earlier innings in Delhi, 2014-19, was given largely to consolidating the accumulated power, gaining a tight grip on various institutions of the state, winning freedom from allies, undertaking greater saffronisation and lumpenisation of the BJP itself, getting the country used to more open and direct presence of the RSS in affairs of government and social life of the nation, and other such matters.

Lynching of Muslims became commonplace across a vast region, from Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh to Bengal and Assam, with other such killings punctual but less frequent across western and southern zones of the country as well. Clones of the RSS began sprouting all over while lines of demarcation remained blurred: were these covert branches of the RSS that could be disavowed whenever necessary, or were they RSS-inspired but autonomous expressions of the same ambience of Hindutva beliefs? This question became paramount with high-profile killings of greatly respected intellectuals and journalists—from Professor M.M. Kalburgi to Gauri Lankesh. These assassinations had nothing to do with the Hindutva version of majoritarian nationalism that led to lynchings of isolated Muslims or Parivar-inspired mobs spreading terror in Muslim communities. This was a transition to the very heart of the Hindutva project as a movement of the Far Right, inspired by fascist anti-rationalist legacies, that is out to re-make Indian society as a whole, including its Hindu majority, its secular scholars, liberal thinkers and activists, communists and rationalists, and everyone else who is in any fundamental way opposed to the RSS version of history, society, politics and government.

The attack on universities which also began during Modi’s first term as Prime Minister is very much a part of that same project. If poor Muslims were lynched by semi-literate individuals and mobs in small towns and rural hinterlands in the name of the cow, JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar could be beaten on the premises of a judicial court by a mob of lawyers in the name of the nation.

The Modi government had made a grand mess of the economy. Demonetisation and the untidy manner in which the goods and services tax (GST) was imposed are said to have been the twin disasters. In addition, politicisation of the Reserve Bank of India has not helped, nor the use of the nationalised banks for funnelling credit toward cronies. All capitalism is crony capitalism, but the Modi-Adani variant is just very much more so. By the time the 2019 elections came around, 11 million jobs had been lost in industry and the informal sector, accounting for almost half the national economy, was standing still, generating hardly any new jobs, while youth unemployment rose to 25 million and total unemployment was estimated at 6.2 per cent of the workforce.

The rate of investment in the formal economy had also fallen below 1 per cent, indicating that no matter how much they loved Modi the great magnates did not have much confidence in the economy. It was widely expected that Modi would have to pay the price at the polling stations. Instead, he added 21 seats to his parliamentary majority, reaching a majority of 303. What happened?

The obvious can be stated quickly. Regardless of the state of the economy, the corporate sector contributed massively, amounting to the equivalent of about half a billion dollars, and over 93 per cent of it went to the BJP. If Modi had spent as much on his 2014 campaign as did Barack Obama on his re-election, in 2019 he cumulatively had more. If the abysmal rate of investment indicated that the great magnates were unhappy about the state of the economy, why were they showering such vast campaign contributions on the man whose government had made that economic mess? Three explanations seem possible: that the money was coming mainly from the very cronies who had made super-profits under Modi’s dispensation, or that the said magnates saw no alternative to Modi and were betting on the horse that was bound to win.

Second, the electronic media was by now even more universally and stringently tied to the politics of the Parivar than in 2014. With the singular exception of NDTV and a couple of very much lesser channels, virtually all the electronic media was by now profoundly corrupted and addicted to histrionics that simply regurgitated whatever it received from BJP’s election and IT cells. This was combined then with the incalculable effect of what Ravish Kumar felicitously calls “WhatsApp University”, that is, the so-called social media, most of it deeply anti-social and anti-truth, which that same IT cell and its activist Hindutva brigade has used on a vast scale, with a savvy deployment of big data, to reach millions of adherents and innocents alike.

Third, the gift of Pulwama. On February 14, 2019, less than two months before India went to polls, a terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir, for which Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad later claimed responsibility, killed 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and injured another 35. Twelve days later, on February 26, the Indian Air Force crossed into north-western Pakistan and dropped bombs close to madrassa (religious school), with the government claiming that it had killed 300 to 400 terrorists. The Pakistan government, by contrast, claimed that there had been no casualties. Open-source satellite imagery from half a dozen labs in different corners of the planet proved that even the building of the madrassa had not been significantly damaged. Soon enough, in the course of Pakistani retaliation, India lost one of its jet aircraft. The episode had thus been a real fiasco for the Indian side. But patriotic fervour is a simulated hysteria which necessarily produces identification with the ruler. Modi gained stature despite the dismal facts.

Finally, the question of manipulation of votes through balloting machines, the infamous electronic voting machines (EVMs). These are used in many countries and are known to be easily manipulated; in India itself, at least one EVM was reliably reported to have registered all votes as BJP votes. The peculiarity of Indian elections is that there is no paper trail; EVMs are the sole and final means for casting and counting votes. Countless complaints were registered with the Election Commission and petitions filed in courts—all stonewalled.

All these factors may well have favoured Modi. But a brute majority of 303 with the percentage of vote share rising by over 6 per cent? There has to be a structural and not a merely anecdotal explanation, some of which we shall indicate below. Meanwhile, let us contemplate two simple facts. The stipulation in India is that for a party to function as leader of opposition it must be the largest outside the Treasury benches and must have itself garnered at least 10 per cent of the seats in the House. The result is that Parliament has been without a formally recognised leader of the opposition since 2014. Second, 303 seats for the BJP still leave us with 245 MPs who do not belong to the ruling party. That is a very large number indeed—with a difference of less than 60. Can anyone claim that these 245 constitute any sort of coherent opposition, act in unison or have a minimum common programme or even profile? With these two simple facts alone, we can measure the degree of fragmentation and inertia among the non-BJP ranks.

Fragmented opposition

This fragmentation of the non-BJP political spectrum can be viewed in light of a public interview that Karan Thapar conducted with Arun Shourie, a veteran of Parivar politics and currently a renegade (reported in The Wire, September 2, 2018). Shourie had then argued that the 2019 elections may well be the last free elections in India, hence the last chance for anti-BJP forces to prevent the rise of long-term autocracy. His formula was simple: forget your mutual differences, get together on a united platform and field one, commonly agreed candidate against the BJP from every constituency. A statistic he cited was intriguing: in 2014 Modi received 90 per cent of the seats in States that contribute 60 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha. “If the opposition combines in just three States—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra—it will be impossible for Modi to win 90 per cent of the seats again.” The argument was unanswerable but, alas, too utopian in the Indian context. The fact that this plea for total national unity to prevent the looming definitive success of the Parivar came from Arun Shourie, not from a leader of the Congress—Rahul Gandhi, for instance, or, better still, Sonia Gandhi—speaks volumes and carries its own kind of pathos.

It was proposed earlier that the Indian polity is passing through a watershed moment. A question now needs to be posed: is this watershed moment also a possible—even probable—point of no return? The question needs to be asked seriously, not rhetorically, because the unravelling of the Republic that was founded on August 15, 1947, and re-founded on January 26, 1950, is now not beyond the realm of possibility. That question is complicated and we shall try to address it briefly, below. We could start, though, with a simpler question. Let us suppose that the current juggernaut continues and more and more of the state apparatus keeps falling to RSS control but then, three years from now, the RSS starts receiving field reports from its networks that the BJP is not likely to win the next elections regardless of who its prime ministerial face is. Will it opt to step back and allow the BJP to lose, as it has done in the past—and thus risk losing key vectors of the power that it now has at its command, not to speak of all that it will have accumulated in the coming three years? Or will that be the moment for ensuring permanence of power through exceptional means? The temptation for the RSS will be very great because those elections will be coming just a year before its hundredth birth anniversary. Will it be content to celebrate that anniversary with a defeat?

Main features of 2014

To understand the world as it now is after 2019 we have to first return to some of the main features of 2014. That was the first time in the history of independent India that with the exception of some reservations on the part of a maverick or two like Rahul Bajaj, virtually the whole of the Indian big bourgeoisie got united behind one political party and even just one man, Narendra Modi. That level of support has continued into 2019. Meanwhile, more stunning than the election of Modi was the sudden and terminal collapse of the Indian National Congress, a party that had dominated Indian politics for over a century. The diminution of its representation from 206 to 44 seats, immediately after governing the country for 10 years, was sign of an inner implosion, not a result of some spectacular failure of policies. It improved its tally by eight seats in 2019, going up to 52, but the days of glory are over, the implosion of 2014 is in place and there are no signs of rejuvenation.

Electoral decline of the Left was slower but unmistakable. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) won 43 seats in 2004 but the number came down to 16 in 2009 even though its share of the vote remained essentially the same. It then lost the elections in West Bengal in 2011. In 2014, the number of seats in the Lok Sabha came down to nine and, more significantly, the vote share itself was cut by about 40 per cent—to 3.24 per cent, the lowest in its history since 1967. The most sweeping losses were in West Bengal and the writing was now on the wall. By 2019 the Left Front’s share of the vote there declined from 29.95 per cent in 2014 to roughly 8 per cent. By comparison, the BJP’s vote share arose from 17.02 per cent in 2015 to 40.25 per cent in 2019.

In short, the implosion of the Congress benefited exclusively the Right, not the Left, and it is quite possible that the electoral decline of the Left in West Bengal has also benefited the BJP. Moreover, it was the Left that had previously provided the centre of gravity for the formation of non-Congress, anti-BJP alliances, often conceived as a third force; with the Congress having imploded and the Left itself undergoing electoral decline, chances of assembling a third force are nil. Nor is it at all clear just how many of those 245 non-BJP members of the Lok Sabha are really opposed to the BJP. Some are already in the effectively defunct National Democratic Alliance (NDA); many others would go over if the BJP offered them a suitable bargain. Any inhibition about alliances with the BJP because it was a front of the RSS had disappeared for most political parties well before the end of the last century. Prospects for effective challenge to the Parivar in the electoral arena are bleak indeed, not because of any inherent strength or superiority of either the RSS or the BJP but because of the atomisation of alternative parties.

Failure of institutions

Almost the most striking feature of the past five years under Modi is how much partisan obedience he has been able to elicit from key institutions of the Indian state. This is as true of the higher judiciary as of the police force in small towns and big cities alike. As for the calculated and partisan dereliction of duty on the part of the Supreme Court, the most notable example is that of the judgment in the Babri Masjid case which amounts to rewarding the culprits of December 1992 and basing the judgment not on evidence but the primacy of faith—rather, one particular faith. This particular judgment has come, furthermore, after a record of passivity and evasion over many years and over many aspects of the crime of demolition itself. Many other instances of such partisanship can be cited.

Aside from the Supreme Court we have the case of the previous Army chief getting a Cabinet post almost immediately after retirement and the case of the General Bipin Rawat, Modi’s appointee as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, going out of his way to criticise the people whom he takes to be the “leaders” of the recent popular protests. A serving general, and a Chief of Defence Staff at that, publicly criticising people who are protesting against the Prime Minister to whom he owes his appointment? Sign of times to come?

And then there are the policemen, with their own orgies of communal violence all across Uttar Pradesh, uncaring of the fact that so much of it is on video and in the public domain; no one is going to punish them in any case.

Similarly, we have video recordings of the police tear-gassing in hostels and libraries of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia; policemen and goons intermingling as Ramachandra Guha, the famous historian, is manhandled in Bengaluru and when Yogendra Yadav, the psephologist and political activist, is pushed to the ground and mauled at the gates of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Registering first information reports (FIRs) not against the perpetrators of communal violence but against its victims has been a common practice in Uttar Pradesh. Inspired by such practices elsewhere, officials of the Delhi Police have registered cases against the president of the JNUSU, charging her with organising violence even as her own head was split open by masked men.

These particular institutions of state—the higher judiciary, the army high brass, and the far more numerous police force—are getting special mention here because these are among the key institutions that the Parivar will need to do its bidding if and when it decides that it needs to suspend democratic norms and declare what German jurisprudence called “the State of Exception”. Or, in plain English, Emergency—not the half-hearted, short-lived Emergency of the sort that Indira Gandhi imposed, but the real stuff.

A historically novel kind of state seems to be arising in many corners of the world, which combines elements derived selectively from the two classic forms of the capitalist state, the liberal and the fascist. My provisional term for such a state form is “post-democratic” and India too may be moving in that direction. This type of state keeps intact many of the institutional features of the liberal state (elections, freedom of press and assembly, etc.) but in fact signals the decay of the Lockean frames of political liberalism while authoritarian political parties with a Far Right agenda come to dominate the formally liberal structures, modifying them but not abolishing them altogether.

From the Nazi past this form takes not the economic nationalism but the ethno-racial nationalism of Blood & Soil. For the Nazis that meant the will to exterminate the minority that is seen as the foreign element that corrupts the body politic of the true nation. In the Israeli scheme of things, the 20 per cent of the population that is Palestinian must be constantly terrorised, killed and maimed occasionally, expelled if at all possible but kept for the most part as second-class citizenry with highly restricted set of rights.

As regards Muslims, the post-democratic state of the RSS, if that ever comes about, is likely to adopt not the Nazi but the Israeli model, possibly with direct participation of Israelis. The real problem they will face is not with Muslims who can be cowed into submission with all the means that the Parivar already has at its disposal. The problem and the likely confrontation will be with many, many elements of Hindu society itself (and I use the word “Hindu” here in a very broad sense, as a sociological category rather than a religious one: a matter merely of family origin and cultural heritage).

Modi’s second innings has just begun and we have seen how swiftly he has moved on a whole range of issues of the RSS agenda, with the aid of various state agencies: on Kashmir, the Ram Mandir, triple talaaq, rights of citizenship, control of institutions of higher learning. This process of closing the gap between BJP policies and actual RSS agenda is likely to accelerate. RSS leadership did not make itself too visible in the days of the Vajpayee government, putting in just a few appearances; nor were there quasi-military marches of khaki phalanxes through the cities, like the one witnessed in Hyderabad recently. All this began more methodically during Modi’s first term. More and more of the BJP leaders who are members of Modi’s administration or just elected members of the Lok Sabha and the provincial Assemblies are already speaking the language of the RSS more punctually and freely, not only because they probably are all veterans of the RSS but because the RSS now seems to feel that its hold on power is firm enough for it now to start speaking its own thoughts, often in its own name.

This second innings may even witness a gradual shift from the merely authoritarian to the post-democratic, that is, dimming of the liberal colours, sharpening of the fascist methods. Or, so the intention will be. The liberal frame of electoral politics has a better chance of survival if the Parivar is quite sure of winning the next elections. No one knows what might happen if they fear they are going to lose.

There are two things that can buttress dreams of dictatorship. One, they have at their disposal a mass political movement of Hindutva hysterics, a multiplicity of fronts, and a well-trained, well-indoctrinated membership of five to 10 million. Secondly, key institutions of state, from the Supreme Court to the lowly police force, have been remarkably pliant. Given all the stories of sadistic brutality that have accumulated about the communal character of the U.P. police—and not only the U.P. police—as well as the Indian soldiery in Kashmir suggest that they will have at their disposal a very large complex of state personnel that acts in the classic fascist fashion.

On the other hand, though, India is too diverse—regionally, linguistically, in matters of ritual, custom and political conviction—to submit itself to a singular will. And, with a population of 1.3 billion people speaking dozens of languages and dialects, India is too large. By comparison, Germany of the Nazis was a monolingual country of barely 50 million or so. Even the idea of an integrated Hindu society is largely fictitious; good bit is not Hindu at all and all the rest is even in matter of faith mostly a web of differences despite Brahminical injunctions of orthopraxy. And much of the educated urban India has been brought up on left-liberal and leftist ideas, and those ideas have gone very deep. Even a plan to verify everyone’s citizenship touched such a nerve that something like a spontaneous national uprising began spreading from city to city precisely because there is an instinctive revulsion against regimentation and intrusion in personal lives.

In conclusion

The last sentence of the previous paragraph points toward a phenomenon that has also arisen at the very beginning of Modi’s second innings but is unlike anything discussed in much of this essay—the popular rebellion of many shades that has erupted in all sorts of places in the country, ranging from sprawling university campuses to ghetto-like neighbourhoods of poor and lower middle class Muslims, ostensibly on the question of verification of citizenship and even the use of religion as the criterion for bestowing citizenship on some and denying it to others. All sorts of other grievances are woven into these most obvious ones. This rebellion is spearheaded by no political party, and only the Left seems to be active in its protests and mobilisations. Instead a whole new generation has taken charge of most things related to this rebellion, not only on campuses but also in all sorts of public places across the land. And, there has also been within the last couple of days an all-India strike involving, according to the organisers, some 250 million workers, which would make it the largest strike in human history. A popular rebellion and a workers’ strike of that magnitude. Can the two overlap and intersect? Potentials are immense.

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