If one grasps the meaning of a moment, it is easier to decipher the challenges involved in searching for the alternatives. The 5th of August, 2019 and 2020, constitutes a moment when, rather than shrill rhetoric, a sober realism is necessary to grasp the meaning of the moment. Going by the self-deceptive statements of some Congress leaders, one suspects that even before the construction of the Ram temple begins, the BJP might have achieved its grand project.
As the bhoomi pujan ceremony unfolds at Ayodhya tomorrow, the prime minister may as well announce the commencement of a new “republic”. During the past one year, India has entered a new political arena. It is time to begin identifying the pillars on which this new India stands and ask if the new arrangements qualify to be described as a republic at all. (In the introduction to his new book, Making Sense of Indian Democracy, Yogendra Yadav, too, deploys this analogy of the “second republic”).
Electoral outcomes occasionally introduce ruptures. That 2014 would be such a rupture was almost foretold. Throughout the past six years, the BJP government went on reorganising the polity. During its first term, the government was busy firming its grip on the state apparatus. The task of preparing the ground for the new republic was mostly conducted through orchestrated vigilantism and issues of cow and conversion. Through the face-offs with students, the regime had indicated two things: Its penchant for abrasive use of state power and its ability to posit a binary of nationalism and democracy where the latter was shown as the machination of the anti-national.
The last 15 months have seen a more systematic and ruthless action toward rewriting the constitution and ushering in a new grammar of state power. This began with a comparatively soft target — the issue of triple talaq. It was soft in that only the orthodox among the Muslims could defend it. But in banning the practice, the government inserted the clause of criminalising the act — betraying the intent of punishing rather than reforming.
Then began a more direct assault on India’s first republic. The drastic legal intervention in J&K and the passage of the amendment to the Citizenship Act challenged the foundations of the Constitution. In J&K, the issue was not merely Article 370, but also a bold experiment in asymmetric federalism. The government signalled its contempt for that experiment. The CAA signalled that all religions are not equal any more. In Kashmir, the new republic ushered in closure of open society and in the case of the CAA, it brought state repression and the stigma of being anti-national for those upholding the old order.
Now, in conjunction with celebrating the dismantling of Article 370, India is also dismantling another relic of the first republic — inter-faith accommodation. The SC ruling in the Ayodhya case, ordering that Muslims be given an “alternative” site, formalised the peripheralisation of the Muslims both spatially and politically, while the celebrations openly involving state machinery underscore the officialisation of the status of Hindu religion as the basis of the new republic.
For the BJP, all these have been matters of its political faith. The crucial question is: Could the BJP do this merely because it had the necessary legislative majority? Its majority has indeed been instrumental in formalising these changes, but while necessary, that was not the sufficient condition for bringing about the new polity. Therefore, as the BJP celebrates the new polity, it might be in order to put on record five pillars on which the new republic is being built.
A key pillar in the project of dismantling the old order has been the transformation of the Indian state into a repository of repression. To achieve this, the regime has shaped a politicised and poisonous administration — particularly in the case of the enforcement and investigation machineries. The vindictiveness with which most such agencies now function is chilling and this is seen in the manner in which mainstream politicians from Kashmir are treated as also in the reckless application of the UAPA. Secondly, the ideas of dissent and critique have been delegitimised over the past six years, more so in the last one year. Any dissent is presented as detrimental to national interest or national pride and every act of dissent is criminalised. The space for contrarian ideas and actions has disappeared, establishing a forced consensus.
Third, this political transformation would not have been so easy without the willingness of the judiciary to look the other way, and occasionally join in the project. In the Ayodhya dispute, the Court validated the basic premises propounded by the Ram janmabhoomi agitation. That ruling did not merely give the disputed land to one set of litigants, it facilitated a historic space legally and ideologically to the project behind the agitation. In most other matters, the Court has chosen either to defer cases challenging government actions or to acquiesce with the executive’s wisdom and logic.
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Fourth, is the politics of avoidance displayed by most political parties. The BJP has displaced the original republic, but history must note the mute willingness with which other players contributed to it. On not even one of these issues could any political party wage a full-fledged political opposition. If on Kashmir, many evidenced their eagerness to join the BJP’s chorus, on Ayodhya, most parties chose to ignore the core questions. When parties and politicians hail the building of the Ram temple, they choose to ignore that it is being built on the debris of mutual accommodation and represents an unprecedented homogenisation of Hindu-ness. In this sense, the past one year, and more, has been the period of “no contest” in India’s politics. If the BJP is guilty of dismantling the republic, all other parties are silent approvers.
Finally, the new republic is founded on a militant culture of majoritarianism. This did not happen overnight. As this writer has argued, the past three decades are marked by the shaping of this tendency. India’s democratic project always had the risk of majoritarianism. That risk materialised through the Ayodhya movement and was ably assisted by the failures of the Congress during and after the 1980s. In the past six years, the BJP has given majoritarianism the teeth and legitimacy that signified the coming of the new republic.
These five pillars are also the defining characteristics of the new republic. It would be a republic where the “public” will be constituted on the basis of religion and where democracy will consist only of populist politics. Like in the case of the most ardent opponent of majoritarianism, the epitaph for India’s slowly dying republic could also be “Hey Ram”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 4, 2020 under the title ‘August 5’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics
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