Writing to Members of Parliament a few days before the vice-presidential election, held on August 5, 2017, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the joint candidate of 18 political parties belonging predominantly to the opposition, invoked the speeches and statements made by four legendary leaders of India at the cusp of Independence. His objective in citing Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—in that order—was to highlight the idea of India that these freedom fighters had cherished when the nation was making a new beginning on August 14-15, 1947. The apprehensions too that each of them had even while hoping for an illustrious future for the country was ingrained in these articulations. Collectively, the hopes and apprehensions expressed in their comments underscored the vision and farsightedness of these statesmen. The act of highlighting them, Gopalkrishna Gandhi pointed out, was part of an attempt to look back at the past seven decades of independent India and evaluate how responsibly the aspirations and concerns had been addressed during this period. Interestingly, strains of their points of view would seem like commentaries on the state of affairs, 70 years later, in contemporary India.
For instance, in a speech made at the special midnight session of the Constituent Assembly on the night of August 14-15, 1947, S. Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s first Vice President, talks about “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, our intolerance, which have assumed different forms of obscurantism, of narrow-mindedness, of superstitious bigotry” and warns that “our opportunities are great but... when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days”. Gopalkrishna Gandhi highlights the “penetrating vision” of the “father of the Indian Constitution”, Ambedkar, who, in his speech at the same midnight session, stated: “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against.”
Speaking from Kolkata a day before this Constituent Assembly session, Mahatma Gandhi drew attention to “the perils of sectarian divisions” that confronted independent India and the “responsibility” that this brought upon the country. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s letter to MPs quotes the father of the nation: “From tomorrow we shall be delivered from the bondage of British rule. But from midnight tonight India will be partitioned. While therefore tomorrow will be a day of rejoicing, it will be a day of sorrow as well. It will throw a heavy responsibility upon us. Let us pray to God that He may give us strength to bear it worthily....”
The letter adds that Jawaharlal Nehru’s emphasis too was on the responsibility that freedom and power brought. Addressing the nation from Parliament, Nehru stated: “Freedom and power bring responsibility. That responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India.”
The four leaders represented different political and ideological shades and nuances within the national movement, but at the cusp of independence there was a convergence of sorts as to what should represent the core of the political processes in the country. Classified into broad categories, they emphasised freedom and power with responsibility, overcoming despotism, intolerance, obscurantism and bigotry, all along making sure that the nation was placed over any kind of creed.
Indeed, political, social and cultural tendencies that violated the fundamental tenets identified by these statesmen had come up in India during their lifetimes. In Gandhiji’s case it made a dastardly appearance in his death at the hands of the Hindutva communalist Nathuram Godse, who shot him in 1948, less than a year into independent India. Still, the principles identified by these leaders formed an important part of the overall political discourse during the early years of independent India.
S. Radhakrishnan was the last of the four leaders to pass away, in April 1975. The monumental and perilous fall of Indian democracy into the Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was still two months away. The Emergency in June 1975 was unambiguously the most foreboding event in the 28-year-old history of Indian democracy. It was also the most momentous violation, until then, of the tenets laid out by the founding fathers, marked as it was by gross negation of democratic and citizens’ rights, including freedom of speech, expression and movement, as also the propagation of intolerance and bigotry under a despotic regime.
Over four decades from that abominable juncture in the history of the nation and in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence, the message that once again emanates from a number of major political developments centres around the blatant violations of the principles advanced by the founding fathers of the Constitution and governance systems.
Intolerance and arrogant patriotism Instances of this nature have abounded in the past several months, but to list the prominent ones closest to the 70th anniversary, one needs to look at the happenings that have a connection of sorts to the new Vice President’s election. Specifically, this relates to the manner in which the outgoing Vice President, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, was treated by some of the leaders as well as the self-proclaimed “social media warriors” of the ruling party and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. In media interactions and public engagements towards the end of his tenure, Hamid Ansari had raised the plight of the marginalised sections of society in general and the perceptions of heightened threat and insecurity among some of these communities in recent times. He had pointed out that there were “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.
He had also said that “the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism” and that “it promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism”. Ansari had termed this as hyper-nationalism, which entailed a closing of the mind that is also a manifestation of the insecurity about one’s place in the world. Quoting S. Radhakrishnan, Ansari had stated that “a democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities” and that it was “likely to degenerate into tyranny if it does not allow the opposition groups to criticise fairly, freely and frankly the policies of the government”.
The response to these observations from the Hindutva “social media warrior” groups was extremely spiteful and communally sectarian. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary Kailash Vijayavargiya said the outgoing Vice President’s remarks were an “insult to the country” and that it had “damaged the country’s image”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and M. Venkaiah Naidu became party to this vituperative exercise though without being directly abusive. Both Modi and Naidu addressed Ansari directly at his farewell function. Modi stated that “it is possible that there was some restlessness within you [Ansari] as well but from today you will not face that crisis”. This was widely perceived as Modi’s reference to Ansari’s “restlessness” under a BJP regime and the deliverance from the “crisis” of holding a constitutional office under this regime. Naidu sought to dismiss outright all the concerns flagged by his predecessor.
Responses from different segments of the polity, including the grass-roots, have sought to underscore the duplicity and deceit ingrained in the argumentations of the ruling dispensation as well as its political-organisational structure. Varanasi-based grass-roots social activist and political analyst, Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, who focusses on empowerment issues of the marginalised communities in Uttar Pradesh, said the contentions of the BJP leaders did not stand up to scrutiny. “What they are trying to do is to camouflage and push things under the carpet. What Hamid Ansari has flagged are the right concerns agitating the grass-roots across the country, and particularly in north India. In fact, the very manner in which these people have responded to somebody like Ansari ji exposes the level of discrimination that exists in our polity and society,” he said.
Appu Singh also pointed out that reports from all parts of the country upheld Ansari’s point. Incidents from Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) to Una (Gujarat) to Ballabgarh (Haryana) have repeatedly underscored this. “But all that matters to Sangh Parivar apologists is the hegemony of Hindutva at the level of politics and society. And they are going all out to make this a unidimensional sociopolitical entity,” he said.
Evidently, the ruling forces have created a situation that Ambedkar saw as a grave danger to India’s existence and independence—a situation where creed is placed above country and one in which independence is put in jeopardy. Talking to Frontline , Gopalkrishna Gandhi said that he had referred, in his letter to MPs, to “a subtle fear pervading our politics today”, essentially on the basis of the imposition of the political practice of “creed over country”. Reiterating it, he said that this “converts a majority from an honest weightage of democratic opinion into majoritarianism, the very antithesis of democracy”.
The Emergency and after Interestingly, the strengthening of the Hindutva Right, which has led to massive infringements on democratic rights, is also in some ways related to the struggle for democracy and against the Emergency in the 1975-77 period. The challenge then to democratic and citizens’ rights resulted in a broad unity among a large section of the people cutting across ideological, political, social and cultural divides. The left-of-centre socialists inspired by the ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia, the freedom fighter who worked closely with Gandhi and Nehru, the Marxist Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Hindutva Right guided and controlled by the RSS-led Sangh Parivar were all part of the struggle waged against the Congress party, which was led by Nehru’s daughter but had conspicuously moved away from the ideals delineated by the country’s first Prime Minister. Both this struggle and the success in defeating the forces of the Emergency one and a half years later, through the elections of 1977, marked the unleashing and strengthening of diverse social, cultural and political forces representing both progressive and regressive ideologies.
The Hindutva Right, the left-of-centre socialists and a section of the Congress that had revolted against Indira Gandhi’s leadership joined hands to form the Janata Party in the immediate aftermath of the 1977 electoral success. This new party formed the government at the Centre, but obvious ideological differences led to the breakdown of the political outfit and the government. But by then, the RSS had gained legitimacy in Indian polity, which it had never hoped to achieve earlier. The acceptance of the organisation by some leaders such as Jayprakash Narayan of the anti-Emergency struggle and the Janata Party contributed in a big way to this legitimisation.
The 1980s and 1990s, the two decades that followed the Emergency, marked the rise of identity politics of different characters and denominations. One of them was the Hindutva-oriented identity politics that sought to take the idea of pan-Hindu politics to new areas. Broadly following a paradigm etched out by Lohia, the marginalised Other Backward Classes (OBCs) advanced their own form of identity politics under the auspices of the erstwhile Socialist parties that had divided into several regional parties.
The stream of Ambedkarite ideas on empowerment of the most downtrodden Dalits also gathered new wind as a special stream of assertive politics through leaders like Kanshiram and Mayawati. The assertion of these diverse streams and the consequent carving out of electoral support bases led to a period of political instability signified by hung parliaments and coalition governments.
Parallel to this, the political economy of the 1990s witnessed the widespread implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Congress and other governments. The Congress and the Hindutva Right were the prime movers of this political economy in practice, but the Left—particularly of the Lohiaite Socialist variety—was unable to evolve a cogent and concrete response to this both at the level of governance and as mass movements. Amidst this, the Hindutva Right moved on, pursuing communal pan-Hindu politics at one level and assimilating neoliberal economic policies at another.
There were visions of a brief course correction in terms of larger polity when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was dependent on the Left to sustain its government during the 2004-09 period. The collapse of that political understanding and the formation of a UPA government on its own in the 2009-14 period also strengthened the Hindutva Right, particularly on account of the many corruption scandals that came up against several Ministers of that period. In many ways, the UPA government of 2009-14 became the “Weimar Republic” foundation for the formation of the Modi-led NDA government in 2014.
Yet another development in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence is the fact that the present ruling dispensation and its political masters are bent on creating and enforcing this majoritarianism at whatever means and cost. This manifested itself in the manner in which the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, the home State of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, was fought with the express objective of defeating the Congress bigwig Ahmed Patel. Implementing the so-called Indian system of power machinations involving saam , daan , bhed , dand (combination of peaceful, beneficial, discriminatory and forceful methods), Shah directly led this Rajya Sabha election campaign, wooing and terrorising members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to other parties, including the principal opposition Congress. At the end of it all, these ploys did not succeed, and Ahmed Patel won by a whisker.
But as the Lucknow-based political commentator Professor Sudhir Panwar pointed out, beyond the immediate result of the elections there was a larger objective, and an understanding of the intent of the BJP and the Modi regime was required to make sense of the state of politics 70 years after Independence. “This larger intent is to create a political state where there is no opposition, either at the level of realpolitik and in its electoral and legislative forums or at the ideological level in the form of propagation and expression of alternative views, concepts and ideas,” he said.
Panwar added that when one considered the happenings close to the 70th anniversary of Independence it was not just the manner in which the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections were fought that unravelled this. He said: “The manner in which the final struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was dealt with using blatant force against activists, including Medha Patkar, is the manifestation at the level of non-electoral opposition. But then, if you look around the country it is not one people’s movement on the Sardar Sarovar project that is being oppressed like this. Hundreds of other similar people’s movements are facing the same situation day in and day out. All this signifies a larger social and political context.” Panwar was of the view that even a person with basic political understanding would know that these dimensions fit in with the establishment of an authoritarian and fascist regime, whatever be its minute classifications and nuances.
Suppression of alternative thinking The historian M.G.S. Narayanan also finds a growing tendency in the current ruling regime to control all facets of life, whether it is politics or social equations or culture or culinary habits. “Put simply, it is suppression of all forms of alternative thinking, not to speak of dissent,” he said. According to Narayanan, the political practice of all hues and colours that have held varying degrees of sway and influence over India’s polity have contributed to this state of affairs as we complete seven decades of independence as a nation.
He said: “The political and social positions adopted by the Congress since the early years of governance at the Centre have all been honed to extremities and converted to hugely politically rewarding platforms by the Sangh Parivar organisations. These include the pursuit of nationalism and religious symbolism of the Hindu variety. The politics of assertion followed by the self-professedly social justice-oriented parties of the Marxist and socialist variety have also been appropriated in varying degrees by the different Sangh Parivar outfits. As this process developed, these political forces contributed also to the whittling of government institutions.”
As repeatedly elucidated to this writer by the late Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans, a prominent leader of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation in the 1980s and 1990s, the Sangh Parivar is not pursuing politics for just governance or social and economic development but as an instrument to achieve the larger goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Paramahans, who passed away in 2004, was of the view that social justice-oriented and caste-based assertions of OBCs and Dalits were the biggest challenge to Hindutva and that the Sangh Parivar had evolved concrete plans to stave their threat off by the late 1990s. Of course, it took another decade for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to get those “concrete plans” to work.
The tactics and strategy employed by the Sangh Parivar to advance its political project, its realpolitik and electoral manifestations fit in well with the history of fascist political and organisational practices as analysed by Dave Renton in his seminal work Fascism, Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999). “Fascism thrives on bitterness and alienation, both of which capitalism nourishes with regular doses of unemployment and crisis. This fuels despair, which further stimulates fascism to grow. Fascism lives off racism, sexism and elitism, while capitalism promotes its own prejudices, guised as common-sense beliefs, which seem to fit people’s experiences, while effectively holding them back from challenging the system. Capitalism generates the myths of racism and elitism, which fascists use for themselves.” Citing the experiences of countries such as Italy, Renton says that by building itself as an independent force, fascism is capable of making the most revolutionary promises, including refuge for the politically homeless, for the socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned.
However, Panwar points out that like all fascist establishments of the past and the present, these revolutionary promises remain on paper, as the primary economic facilitator and promoter of fascism is capitalism. “The world over, there are signs of a revival of nuanced fascism in diverse forms, and the new forms of capitalism, including crony capitalism, is facilitating these diverse forms. One could say that among the practitioners worldwide of this devious political practice, what we have in India is one of the most organised, well-entrenched and effective practices. It is corrupt and has a symbiotic relationship with capitalism, especially the agents of crony capitalism,” he said. Veteran Bihar politician and former Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwari is of the view that even in the midst of this association with crony capitalism, the BJP-Sangh Parivar establishment will continue to throw the history of the foibles of corruption at all political opponents and voices of resistance.
“So, the real resistance to this could be built up only by exposing the corruption of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leaderships as well as the governments and institutions run by them. But for that is required a resolute leadership that does not buckle under pressure or is not carried away by the lure of power,” he said. Tiwari is certain that only with the emergence of such a movement and leadership will the idea of India as envisioned by the founding fathers of the Constitution and democratic governance get revived in its true spirit.