Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power with two key promises and it is now time to assess its performance on both. One promise was presented as “achhe din”, while the other was summed up as “Congress-mukt Bharat”. We do not know, of course, if for Modi and his diehard supporters, these two were one and the same. We shall treat them as two distinct but interrelated promises.
The feeling of achhe din is subjective and comparative. Yet, there would be at least two clear tests of better times — the GDP growth rate and job growth. (Decline in incidence of poverty could be a better indicator but it is mired in controversies.) While there are expectations of improvement pertaining to growth rate, there is no sign at all of app-reciable improvement in employment, as shown by Christophe Jaffrelot in these columns (‘Nowhere to go’, The Indian Express, April 29). In its absence, the BJP would be pushed into a politics away from the “development” agenda. While the country awaits the magic of development, what is the status of the other politically evocative promise of freeing India from the affliction called the Congress?
What does freedom from the Congress mean? If it means making the Congress party irrelevant to competitive politics, the post-1989 scenario has steadily moved in that direction. Two years after its worst defeat so far, there are no signs of Congress revival. Of course, the shrill exercise of power by the BJP might actually impede the further deterioration of the Congress party. The rise of Nitish Kumar and his candid advocacy of a broad-based coalition against the BJP could place the Congress in a position to leverage its ephemeral all-India status. But for now, the Congress moves from one defeat to another; so the BJP and Modi can certainly take credit for fulfilling their promise on this count.
But the slogan “Congress-mukt Bharat” has always had a more potent meaning. Besides defeating the Congress in the arena of competitive politics, it implied that a different public discourse and different national political identity would emerge as dominant. It is perhaps in this respect that the BJP’s greater success during the past two years might be worth noting. In a democratic set-up, there is always an implicit danger of turning the majoritarian logic into a socio-ethnic consciousness and making it the basis of the national political community. This is more so in the case of societies with complex diversities. India’s democratic politics, too, has been fraught with this possibility for the past one century — this year marks 100 years of the “Lucknow Pact” recognising the possibility that Hindus and Muslims can co-exist but they might as well be distinct political communities.
It was in that backdrop of Hindu-Muslim conflict and cooperation that the project of Hindu nationalism was shaped in the pre-Independence period. The sway of Gandhian ideas of the co-existence of diverse communities and the Nehruvian push for a modern secular nation kept postponing the political rise of majoritarianism as the basis for India’s national political community. The real meaning of “Congress-mukt Bharat” can be grasped only if we comprehend it in this century-long historical context. But today’s Congress party is oblivious of this implication of the term Congress-mukt and indeed, it is no more a votary of the values it cherished in the past. Gandhi and Nehru are as distant to its own contemporary sensibility as they are for BJP.
Only when we consider this aspect of “freedom from Congress”, can we make sense of what has been happening during the past couple of years. Putting minorities on the defensive seems to be one strategy adopted by supporters of Hindu nationalism during these two years.
The issue of conversions was used initially to put the Christians in place and subsequently the cow continues to legitimise the lawlessness of the self-appointed gau-rakshaks. But majoritarian logic does not succeed only with the intimidation of minority groups; it requires a certain popular acceptance of the majoritarian way of life. So, the other — and main — strategy for freedom from the Congress has been to popularise majoritarian ideas. This is done sometimes by referring to Hindutva explicitly, but often it is done indirectly.
Unless a sizeable section of the majority community is made to believe in the greatness of the majority culture, majoritarian democracy does not take root. So, the government pushes an apparently non-communal agenda arguing that Yoga or Sanskrit (or Ayush) are matters of national pride (for the Hindu-Indian nation) while those outside the government use the same symbols and programmes to assert the cultural superiority of norms and practices that are often confused with the nation, culture and religion. Officially, it would be argued that
these are symbols of “our” great tradition, but in practice, official patronage is accord-ed to organisations and offshoots of Hindu-tva for implementing programmes related to these initiatives. Moreover, hordes of Hindu vigilante groups have suddenly emerged to enforce a new ethic related to nation and culture.
As I have argued recently in a paper published in an academic journal (“The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, December, 2015), the shift the BJP is effecting is more in the realm of ideas, norms and popular imagination. It is certainly not a new initiative; it however has received a fresh shot in the arm since this government came to power. It is this slow but sure shift that constitutes the agenda of making India free of the “Congress” and the ideas and approaches originally practiced by it.
Supporters of this government, particularly those enamoured or obsessed with “economic reforms” might argue that this government has not explicitly done much with respect to bringing about a majoritarian Hindutva logic. But states do not necessarily have to do anything for a majoritarian logic to take shape — it is for forestalling that logic that states have to exert their power and democratic legitimacy.
As the Modi government moves into the second half of its term, this majoritarian logic would become more and more explicit in order to address the lopsidedness of its promise of “achhe din” and to accommodate the disappointments generated by the mismatch between heightened expectations and more than moderate delivery. Majoritarian politics would have the potential to turn the disgruntled sections of the population into vigilantes of culture and nation. The mirage of better times can become sustainable only by engaging in the rhetoric of a Congress-mukt Bharat.