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Disaster for Democracy
In the west, we have labels,” commented journalist François Gautier on WION TV, during a panel about the results of India’s 2019 general election. “Right, left. Far-right, far-left. We keep applying them to India, where they’re not applicable. We cannot apply to India labels we use in the West. To say that the BJP is far-right is completely wrong.”
The election was over. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won a resounding victory, seizing power once again, with a seat-count in India’s Lok Sabha that surpassed even its decisive showing in the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, Gautier—described by India’s National Herald as a French-born “BJP cheerleader”—was speaking truth. The BJP is not far-right. But it is authoritarian and fascist.
Moments after Gautier spoke, WION’s political editor Kartikeya Sharma shed some light on how the BJP may have defeated the opposition: it has infrastructural strength. It is backed by hordes of apparatchiks.
Indeed, fuelled by such fanaticism, the organisational power of the Modi wave (a term coined to describe the tsunami of support for BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi) has floated a second BJP victory. India is now on the brink of another five years of subjugation to an authoritarian regime. By 2024, the country will have endured a full decade of BJP rule.
I joined Sharma, Gautier and others on WION to offer my take on the election. “This is a disaster for democracy,” I began. “We have to remember that democracy doesn’t just mean taking two seconds to push a button once every five years and pick somebody to rule the country. Democracy’s actually about the society. It’s more than the act of voting. It’s about democratic rights, and those democratic rights are in short supply in India today. We can see that India is fast becoming what it has already progressed far along the path towards becoming, which is an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy—which is fascism.”
That’s when WION cut my mike and severed the interview. “This is not even acceptable that India is becoming an authoritarian state,” responded Sharma. “India is one postcolonial nation which has very successfully demonstrated its ability to transition from one regime to another regime through peaceful elections. I think this comment is unacceptable.”
The irony that fascism involves restricting free speech only to “acceptable” answers was lost on him. However, Sharma’s choice of the word regime — which is generally defined as an authoritarian government — was deeply appropriate.
“India’s claim to democracy, rather as the world’s largest functional democracy, solely rests on its record of regularly held elections,” notes jailed Dalit activist Anand Teltumbde. “Although they are more of a ritual observed with massive money and muscle power than the expression of the will of the people, they have sustained the illusion of democracy.” Teltumbde argues that “the de jure democracy has always been de facto plutocracy, the rule of the money bags.”
The emergence of India as a fascist nation ruled by the BJP with Modi as its figurehead is no surprise considering the origins of the BJP. Nor is it a surprise considering the identity of those unmarried, fanatically devoted party workers and their army of youngsters who provide the BJP’s infrastructural base. Nor is it a surprise considering the history of Modi himself.
RSS Pracharak to PM
Milestones marking the route to the May 23, 2019 results were laid both a century and a half-century ago.
In 1925, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was formed. A paramilitary force, uniformed and armed, it was dedicated to the idea that all Indians collectively constitute a Hindu race; committed to basing the entirety of Indian society, culture and politics on religion; devoted to the notion that only a race traitor would vote for anyone but a Hindu nationalist; and convinced that it was treason against the mother nation for an Indian to be anything but a Hindu.
The second milestone happened in 1971, when Narendra Modi joined the RSS as a pracharak—a full-time worker sworn to celibacy.
Modi joined in Ahmedabad, the largest city (and then capital) of Gujarat. Modi’s home state, Gujarat, lies just north of Maharashtra, the state in which the RSS was founded and in which it maintains its headquarters. At the time, M. S. Golwalkar was nearing the end of his tenure as the RSS’s longest-serving and most influential leader. Golwalkar had just excited controversy with a keynote speech at a 1968 RSS rally in Ahmedabad, in which he demanded that India be declared a Hindu rashtra (nation). The following year, his petition was sealed in blood when the RSS led riots that left over 400 Muslims dead.
In the early 1990s, Modi began to validate the party’s religious nationalist credentials and emerged as a key organizer of its Ram janmabhoomi (Ram’s birthplace) campaign.
In 1990, the then BJP president LK Advani began a Ram rath yatra (Ram chariot procession), crisscrossing India in a minibus decked out as a chariot. He was trailed by thousands of kar sevaks (volunteers) from the RSS, VHP and other affiliated groups.
Violence, unsurprisingly, plagued the procession. When India’s central government briefly banned both the VHP and the RSS, Modi joined Murli Manohar Joshi on a trip to the US. They were greeted on arrival by Suresh Jani of New Jersey, who had in 1991—on Advani’s orders—co-founded the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP).
Back in India, Modi swiftly advanced up the BJP hierarchy. By 1995, he was working out of the national party headquarters in New Delhi. He did not, however, forget his friends in the OFBJP, returning to the US for another tour in 1997.
Then he got his hands on real political power. In October 2001, Gujarat’s chief minister Keshubhai Patel was in failing health and had lost his party’s political confidence. He resigned. Modi was appointed as his replacement. Three days after the election, carnage engulfed Gujarat. By the end, up to 2,000 (or more) Muslims lay dead. Ten years later, a special investigation team (SIT) submitted a report to the Supreme Court. It concluded that there was “not enough evidence” to prosecute Modi for involvement in the pogrom. There was, however, a mountain of circumstantial evidence.
By 2011, Modi was rumoured to be the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in the 2014 general election. His name was floated at least a year before the Supreme Court’s SIT supposedly cleared him of guilt for the 2002 pogrom.
Modi was elected in May 2014.
His election followed a three-year campaign by OFBJP operatives in America, which began with training camps in 2011, followed by tours of the US by RSS and BJP executives in 2012. In 2013, then BJP president Rajnath Singh toured the US and Modi gave three video conferences. OFBJP sent activists to India to canvass for the BJP in the state elections. Their campaign culminated in 2014, when thousands of volunteers staffed US-based phone banks, while nearly 2,000 activists—including a team of 650 led by Barai in person—traveled to India.
After floating to power on a Modi wave for the first time, the BJP wasted no time implementing its agenda to saffronise the country.
2014 witnessed joint strategy sessions between the BJP and the RSS as they sought to rewrite the history taught in the Indian school curriculum.
2015 saw the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim man, who was dragged from his home at night and beaten to death on the suspicion that he had slaughtered a cow. Local BJP activists were implicated in Akhlaq’s murder. This was one of the earliest and highest profile of what were to be many beef-related mob lynchings.
2016 opened with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, who took his own life after he was suspended for protesting an RSS-affiliated event.
In 2017, Yogi Adityanath was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. While previously serving as a Member of Parliament in 2015, he had promised to install statues of Hindu deities in “every mosque”.
Meanwhile, dissenting voices were being stifled. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist known for her candid criticism of the RSS and BJP, was assassinated in Karnataka. The investigation implicated an RSS-affiliated activist. It also connected her murder to the 2015 killings of rationalists Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi.
2018 began with a rally of hundreds of thousands of Dalits in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra. The gathering devolved into chaos as Hindu nationalist outfits launched an attack. In response, Dalits called a bandh (shutdown), blocking roads and railways.
The unrest, asserted attorneys Arun Ferreira and Colin Gonsalves, was the result of “three and a half years of belligerent Hindutva rule at the Centre and in various states”. They argued that Modi’s regime bore “similarities with Nazi Germany” and “more and more people are coming around to identify it as a form of fascism.”
Then, in Jammu and Kashmir, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was abducted, held for a week, and repeatedly gang-raped before she was murdered. When her killers were arrested, Hindu nationalist outfits staged rallies in their support. Two BJP state ministers joined one of the rallies: they later claimed that their party had instructed them to do so.
Meanwhile, unrest expanded across India as Dalits launched a Bharat bandh (national shutdown) later that year. There were staggered waves of arrests of prominent activists, writers and attorneys in multiple Indian states.
In 2019, Swami Aseemanand, the pracharak who had confessed to a string of terrorist attacks in the mid-2000s, was acquitted. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur was nominated for a seat in Parliament. BJP President Amit Shah sparked outrage when he referred to illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites”, while Adityanath accused the opposition of being “infected” by a “green virus” (a reference to Muslims).
Dictatorship vs democracy
On May 23, 2019, after a month-long election process, in which the OFBJP again played an instrumental role, the BJP emerged victorious with 38.5 per cent of the total vote.
“It’s not a victory of BJP,” comments Dr Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University. “It’s a victory of Modi and Modi’s politics… After Modi came to power in the last five years, this has been turned into a personality cult. BJP is now a one-man party.”
Modi’s rise from obscurity was no accident. He is the result of a 50-year project on the part of the RSS, a man who was groomed to be prime minister. He rode to victory on the backs of gangs of apparatchiks who are unmarried and completely dedicated to the party—pracharaks from the RSS, among whose ranks he got his own start in public life.
Modi’s re-election was a referendum on fascism, lynching, and the unrestrained violence against minorities, dissidents and the marginalized which has been repeatedly perpetrated with impunity by the troops of the RSS and BJP.
The 2019 Indian general election demonstrated that democracy is about more than the simple act of voting or the peaceful transfer of power from one regime to another. It illustrated the truth of the words penned by Ambedkar in 1949: “It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact.”
BR Ambedkar defined social democracy as “a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.” He warned, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.” Quoting John Stuart Mill, he admonished India that maintaining democracy necessitates that the people refuse to “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man.” His words, written the year before Modi was born, were perhaps never more prescient than today. “In politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship,” he declared. Modi epitomises Ambedkar’s prophecy.
(The author a South Asian Affairs Analyst)