Post-democratic state


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.

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.

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