Rise of the right-wing agenda

Interview with independent film-maker Rakesh Sharma.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

Rakesh Sharma: "It is a very potent mix--apathy, latent communalism and blatant fundamentalism... ."

Rakesh Sharma: "It is a very potent mix--apathy, latent communalism and blatant fundamentalism... ."

Rakesh Sharma is a documentary filmmaker best known for his feature-length documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots, Final Solution (2003). It won two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2004—the Wolfgang Staudte Award, the first time this award went to a documentary and the first time an Indian film won this award at Berlin, and the Special Jury Award. Interestingly, the film, which went on to win awards at several film festivals around the world, was initially banned in India by the Central Board of Film Certification (censor board). After a sustained countrywide campaign, the ban was lifted in October 2004. He views the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 as a turning point in modern Indian history and, as a student of history and politics, believes that at the present juncture a very potent mix of apathy, latent communalism and blatant fundamentalism informs politics in India. “We are headed for interesting times,” he says on the rise of the BJP and what the future holds for the Congress and the political parties in the States. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

It appears that the BJP’s divisive politics is leading to a growing sense of fear among the minorities. As someone who has filmed the outcome of a right-wing agenda, what is your view on this?

Yes, it appears that the minorities are now experiencing the sort of fear their Gujarati brethren experienced 10-12 years ago. It’ll settle into a similar pattern—some will make peace with the devil, vote for it, rush to proclaim their loyalty, especially at showcased public events; some others will support anybody-but-the-BJP; many will become apathetic; and some will be drawn into their own campaigns of hate, intolerance and bigotry or even violence.

But, we need to see the right-wing agenda from a wider perspective. The BJP’s relentless campaign since the late 1980s has helped it raise its tally from two MPs to 282 MPs. Its agenda now is to consolidate itself both in lost territories like U.P. and in new territories such as the States of eastern India.

So, we are now witnessing different sets of strategies for different regions or different interest groups.

U.P. saw a consolidation against Muslim voters, especially among Jats and Dalits of the Muzaffarnagar belt, with the BJP weaning away [voters] from Ajit Singh or Mayawati. The “love jehad” strategy is taking it Statewide, into every district, with the known rabble-rouser Yogi Adityanath as the chosen messenger.

For the young voter of the “Aspirational India” block, it is Modi, the Vikaspurush, who’ll fix the economy, create jobs and business opportunities and provide corruption-free good governance. So, we heard ad nauseum about the so-called Gujarat model, even when analysts and commentators pointed out that Gujarat lagged behind on several social indices or that other States were ahead on economy-related parameters like FDI, etc.

Now, we’re witnessing the longer-term image makeover. As opposed to the “remote-controlled” Manmohan Singh, Modi is the decisive leader. His omnipotence is now taking on all sorts of hues—the leader the world bows to, the leader who knows how to decisively answer arch-enemy Pakistan, the leader who cracks down on impropriety (for instance, monitoring his own Ministers), the avuncular leader who shares his memories directly with schoolchildren, plays the flute, beats drums—in essence, a jolly-natured pan-Indian patriarch with an iron grip.


You speak about different strategies for different regions. Could you elaborate?

The BJP doesn’t need a sharp polarisation in Madhya Pradesh, for instance. So, the “love jehad” campaign stops at the U.P.-M.P. border. It isn’t as if the State doesn’t have interfaith romances or marriages.

Gujarat saw a similar, sharp campaign in the earlier phases—Babu Bajrangi rendered “social service” by kidnapping girls gone “astray” and reuniting them with their Hindu families. The Pavagad Pracharak [the late] Prahlad Shastri used to rattle off taluk-wise lists of cases (Hindu girls in Muslim homes) in his incendiary speeches. Post-2002, such campaigns were no longer necessary in the State.

The next serious battleground is eastern India. In [West] Bengal, Assam and parts of northeastern India, it wouldn’t be surprising to find sharper and strident ground-level campaigns invoking the “outsider” vs “son of the soil”—the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant vs the local. Such invocations have resulted in handsome dividends for the Right globally, where the “other”, that is, the enemy, is either the immigrant (Turk, Algerian or Moroccan) or the jehadist (Al Qaeda, ISIS or the local “Paki”) or a combination thereof. The Sangh Parivar, over the years, has sporadically invoked the Bangladeshi bogey countrywide. West Bengal is likely to see polarisation in terms of the BJP vs Mamata.

Bihar, too, is a likely candidate for the politics of polarisation, especially after the rather savvy and unexpected Nitish [Kumar]-Lalu Prasad alliance which has turned the electoral math upside down.

Andhra Pradesh is likely to remain insulated for now, as Chandrababu Naidu, an ally of the BJP, is in power, but Telangana is ripe for staging such politics once the euphoria over its statehood dies down. Kerala has always had RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] pockets within the Left bastion that it is, with pitched battles and political assassinations marking the terrain. As the Congress becomes more and more irrelevant nationally, the BJP is likely to gain not just from defectors but also from a consolidation of non-Left electorates.

Tamil Nadu is likely to be the toughest to penetrate, especially as its major political streams emerged from a strong anti-brahminical ethos, represented by the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] and, later, the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]. It is unlikely that the RSS brand of puritanical, brahminical Hindutva will flourish here. Rather than a strident advocacy of Hindutva, we may see a focussed attempt to expand by seizing the opposition space that the DMK is likely to cede, now that the prospect of a Stalin-Alagiri reconciliation is rather unlikely.

In middle India—M.P., Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh—the BJP is firmly entrenched. These States are unlikely to see strident politics. Here, the BJP will quietly focus on tightening its stranglehold, as it did in Gujarat.

Gujarat is said to be the laboratory of the “Hindu Nation”. Why did Hindutva work so effectively in Gujarat? How did the political consolidation take place? Since you have covered the region extensively for over a decade, how do you see it?

First, the historical perspective. Gujarat has had a history of communal violence dating back to the late 1960s, with a cycle of riots marking each subsequent decade. Each such wave sharpened the anti-minority sentiment among caste Hindus while creating a sense of fear and distrust among the minorities.

The right wing’s mobilisations in the 1980s and the early 1990s for the Ram shilapujan and the karseva found great success in Gujarat, especially among the middle class and the BJP’s traditional support base of traders and upper castes. Later karseva-in-Ayodhya campaigns saw focussed mobilisation among the recently proselytised tribal people, brought back into the “Hindu” fold through that immense network of Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras and Shishu Mandirs. In 2002, in Panchmahals, I found many of the mob leaders and riot-accused to be the earliest tribal cadres enlisted for the initial karseva campaigns.

The collapse of the mills, especially in the “Manchester of Gujarat”, Gomtipur in Ahmedabad, pushed thousands of workers into the abyss of unemployment, loss of hope, alcoholism and penury. Many died awaiting their legitimate dues and Provident Fund savings. Many Dalit-OBC workers, angry with the Congress, the party ruling at the Centre and in the State, turned away from it. A simultaneous collapse of trade unions saw the Left losing even the toehold it had. This was fertile ground for right-wing recruitment and expansion. It is not surprising to note that a majority of the karsevaks in the [train’s] S-6 coach [which was gutted in Godhra] in 2002 were from the working class, and most of the casualties were OBCs.

Earlier, the Chimanbhai Patel government, seen in the public perception as the most corrupt government ever with its patronage of a notorious underworld don, Latif, paved the way in 1995 for the BJP’s electoral forays. Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM [Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim] formula had alienated the Patels, a dominant caste grouping with land ownership and a wide range of business interests. They turned into the BJP’s early core supporters.

Once the BJP came into power, it consolidated its stranglehold, slowly but surely decimating the Congress and turning Gujarat into a virtual single-party State. Much of Congress politics right from the Gandhi-Patel era grew out of a strong network of cooperatives, many of them set up by erstwhile Gandhians. In the last decade and a half, the BJP has steadily taken over this space, assimilating dairy and farmer cooperatives and taking over cooperative banks.

The State has many quasi-religious networks. The BJP made strong inroads into sects like Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s Swadhyay Movement, with its base among the Kolis [coastal community] and some tribal communities. People like Asaram Bapu regularly rubbed shoulders with the top BJP leadership. (Much of the YouTube footage has now vanished, including one where Asaram affectionately pats Modi’s cheeks with the words, I see Lord Krishna in him.) Even the Swaminarayan sect’s members began to support the BJP. In 2002, despite repeated meetings with his savvy staff, I was unable to get the Pramukh Swami to simply condemn the violence on camera.

If Gujarat is termed the “laboratory”, we need to understand not just how it worked, but also the tremendous strategic effort that made it so successful.

Today, the Congress stands decimated, consigned to electoral insignificance, steadily losing cadre and ground in each election. But then, some of the credit for this must go to its own leaders, particularly those in the inner circle, who presided over its demise in Gujarat.

Gujarat, however, is seen as a BJP success story, a sort of model to follow. What are some of the things you see there in common with other BJP-ruled States?

Well, many from within the cadre or the sympathiser support base will get absorbed in the State machinery, be it recruitments into the police constabulary, the Home Guards or the State civil services. You might find a special emphasis on such absorption in primary and secondary schoolteacher and shiksha sahayak recruitments.

There is likely to be greater patronage of Sangh Parivar organisations. Many centres run by them turn into natural beneficiaries of government largesse—financial grants, cheap land, roads and so on.

But the tectonic shift happens away from these discernible actions, at the ground level. Our system still works on the patronage model, an overhang of our feudal past. The patronage can either be bought [bribes] or wangled through community and local networks. Whether it is to get a BPL [below poverty line] card, an Aadhar ID, a seed subsidy, a low-interest crop loan, a village check-dam or a stretch of pucca road, people need to get their work done through the local sarpanch or corporator or MLA. It is easier done through ruling party representatives. Once you’re thus obligated, do you support or vote for any other party?

The present-day Congress has been out of power in Gujarat for four terms. As a party, it has been an opportunistic alliance of interests rather than an ideologically driven, cadre-based party. The opportunists shift their allegiance once they themselves are bereft of such patronage and are, in turn, unable to provide patronage to their own support bases. They may wait for a term or two, but then the shift becomes expedient. In Gujarat, one of the oft-heard observations when people refer to the local Congressman has been, “he can’t even get things done for himself, what will he do for us?”

Wherever the BJP has been in power for more than two consecutive terms, the Congress has been decimated, M.P. and Gujarat being the prime examples. As the Congress loses more State elections and is seen as being weak, unlikely to return to power, such a silent tectonic shift will happen, with the Congress reduced to a statistically significant but electorally irrelevant vote share.

People have been able to look past Modi and Amit Shah being charged for not just communal violence but heinous crimes such as encounter killings. How did they shake off those labels?

I think the more relevant point is what makes Indians look past this. As a society, perhaps, our defining trait is apathy. It is evident at various levels—“clean” home interiors with garbage merrily dumped on the street, or the belief of being above the everyday law (jumping queues, breaking traffic signals and such like), or in the erstwhile grudging and now blatant admiration of those who “bend” the system. Its most common manifestation is to forget and move on. We want to bury unpleasant memories and experiences—be it a molestation by an uncle within the extended family or an accident victim we failed to help, or the horrors of violence we witnessed. We have hardly dealt with the horrors of Partition, unlike, say, Germany, where the anti-Nazi discourse has been in the public realm—in literature, art, cinema, academia and even school textbooks. Perhaps that’s why we’re condemned to repeat our horrifying history, to paraphrase [the Spanish philosopher George] Santayana.

In addition to apathy, the last couple of decades have seen the rise of latent communalism. These may be people who do not support a hard-core agenda but are happy to have a no-Muslim-tenant society or a fully vegetarian complex, or agitate for a meat-free McDonalds. Our urban spaces, including that great metropolis Mumbai, are no melting pots, but are transforming into clusters of community-based ghettos or class-driven gated communities.

It is a very potent mix—apathy, latent communalism and blatant fundamentalism, especially if the fires are stoked to keep the cauldron boiling over.

When you shot the documentary “Final Solution” did you ever think that right-wing politics could lead to such carnage and destruction? That Modi’s and the BJP’s strategy had worked?

I saw the 2002 carnage as a turning point in our political history, the second phase of assertion of aggressive Hindutva, the first being the 1992 Babri [Masjid] demolition. I didn’t, however, see Modi as a potential Prime Minister, despite the evident nature of his political ambitions.

When Modi swept the [Assembly] elections in 2007, and the image makeover began to take place (Vibrant Gujarat summits, Tata Nano project, and so on), it began to seem possible. But after filming the 2012 Gujarat elections, where I witnessed not just Modi’s electoral pull, but also the party’s vice-like grip on election management and the Congress’ flummoxed inability to be a challenger, it seemed inevitable. UPA-II made such a mess in the last couple of years of its term that Modi seemed unstoppable. Even then, 282 seats and a majority for the BJP on its own were a surprise, for which Modi’s election machinery and managers need to be credited.


As a keen observer of politics, how do you see the landscape ahead?

We are headed for very interesting times. If the Congress doesn’t reinvent itself and waits either for a 2004-like verdict that took the party by surprise or for the BJP to inflict enough self-goals to make people yearn for the [Nehru-]Gandhis, then the party is headed for terminal decline.

The opposition space ceded by it is up for grabs. The AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] could have been a serious contender were it not prone to knee-jerk campaigns, whimsical politics and an astounding lack of vision to turn their volunteer base into a democratic party with robust mechanisms in place.

If our earlier polity was marked by an aversion to the Congress, it is quite possible to witness a consolidation among electoral parties along the lines of anyone-but-BJP, especially if their own existence is threatened, with their support base being poached by the BJP.

The BJP itself is already on the cusp of an interesting dilemma. It swept the young “Aspirational India” electorate. Add another 12-14 million first-time voters in 2019 to the 20-odd million now, and it is a serious block of 35 million voters. A Shining India-part II has been promised to them. How does the BJP reconcile this block with the anachronistic Sangh Parivar vision of Akhand Bharat, Hindutva and Swadeshi? Or, will the BJP break out of the RSS mould and morph into a centrist right-wing party with a pan-India appeal? Will it pay more than lip service and actually construct the temple in Ayodhya? Ban beef and alienate not just the minorities but a large Dalit population? Peddle stree-dharma to promote the ancient Bhartiya Nari ideal and alienate the modern Indian woman? How will it tackle its own internal genetic contradictions? What will be the tensions, pulls and pressures?

This dialectic interests me immensely as a student of history and politics.

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