BY: Pradeep K. Chhibber and Susan Ostermann
This election is the victory of a socially conservative, small-town ethos — one that most of India lives in.
Narendra Modi’s swearing-in certainly represents a vote for change by an aspirational India, but it is also more than that: his victory signals a turning of the tide in the ongoing struggle over the idea of India. With this election, the well-known notion of an enlightened India led by a Western-oriented urban elite has been overturned as Indians have voted to power politicians closer to their roots, politicians who represent small-town, socially conservative values.
This is not a new struggle. It has been ongoing since Independence, and before. The election of a government led by a cultural Hindu nationalist, Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), combined with the electoral success of regional parties — the leaders of which run their states like strongmen — is a direct challenge to the notion of India that is often associated with an elite that sees India as secular, liberal and discrete in its use of raw political power.
The secular challenge is most widely known. It stems from the history of the BJP, its and Modi’s ties to Hindu nationalist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the riots against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 that occurred when Modi was the chief minister of that state. These facts lend some credence to claims that the rise of a Modi-led BJP will lead to the resurgence of a Hindu right that will marginalise religious minorities — Muslims, in particular — promote social conservatism and, sometimes literally, rewrite history.
The outcome of the 2014 general election in India also challenges the liberal idea of India. The parties that voters have elected into office — the BJP and the many regional parties that now have more seats collectively than the Congress party — represent a different vision of India, one that is socially conservative, business-friendly and unabashed in its use of political power. This social conservatism, coupled with more business-friendly government, has deep historical roots. It was a small but powerful part of the Congress party at Independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, favoured a more liberal, plural, and socialist vision. This was challenged from within the Congress party by the more socially and economically conservative nationalist vision of Sardar Patel who, like continued…
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