When the protests against the CAA gained momentum, many thought the government would have a dilemma: Will it risk suppressing the protests or let them continue? But as the events in the lead up to the Delhi elections have made it clear, the BJP government will now use these protests to exercise the third option: Provoke more communalisation and violence. In India, the use of communal instigation has often been associated with the demands of electoral mobilisation — episodic violence as a means of securing votes. This was always a blot on Indian democracy. But in a strange way, we also used to find it reassuring: It somehow signalled that the use of violent provocation had its spatial and temporal limits. It will be used fleetingly, in local contexts, but will not become a continuous strategy. After 2002, for almost a decade, there was even a significant decline in this form of violence. But the course of events in Delhi politics should be a reminder that just as we were complacent in assuming that India’s traditional political centralism will electorally tame fanaticism, we could also be making the mistake of reading the reassurances on the limits of violence, in the past, into the present. The structure of Indian politics has changed.
The calculus on the relationship between elections and violence has been changing fundamentally since the BJP assumed office, even more so after its second victory. The conventional logic about politics naturally containing violence will not apply to it. First, the ideology and structure of the party is now suffused with violence. The BJP wants to win elections. But it also draws its strength from the fact that its logic is not entirely instrumental. In fact it is important to the BJP to signal to its core base that while other parties engage in the petty politics of mere self-interest, the BJP is ready to take on the mantle of “saving the nation,” willing to do what it takes to defend the nation from assorted traitors. Its appeal requires it to act non-instrumentally. And the only way in which it can signal that is to act out its ideology in a dramatic, militarised language.
The incitements by Anurag Thakur, Amit Shah or Yogi Adityanath are not simply dictated by the demands of a local election. They keep the party and its base united and energised. They give a vicarious sense of masculinity to the party — something that now thousands of youth, without a future or any social basis of self-esteem now find appealing. The ability to cross all moral limits in speech and discourse is also a kind of test of party loyalty. This is what makes a true BJP man. This is what is rewarded. Which is why all BJP leaders, whatever their background, will have to, at some point, publicly participate in a discourse tinged with violence. The logic may be instrumental, but its effects are to create a set of people whose sense of political self cannot help thinking outside of the framework of communalisation and violence. Would you really be a BJP man if you said something as decent as “let us listen to the protestors?” Would you really be a BJP man if you did not say “all disagreement is an act of treason?” Would you really be a BJP man if you even think outside of an explanatory framework that blames everything on a cabal of minorities, liberals and leftists?
Second, the BJP wants to win elections. But it also has an agenda beyond elections and the normal workings of politics: The cultural transformation of India. Elections will come and go. But the BJP will measure its success by a longer-term cultural transformation. The goal of this cultural transformation is twofold. It is to assert Hindu majoritarianism. But it is also to transform Hinduism from a variety of religious practices into a consolidated ethnic identity. This is frankly why the project of “let us teach the BJP the real meaning of our tradition or of Hinduism” so spectacularly misses the point. It assumes that what the BJP is doing is misinterpreting Hinduism to convert it into Hindutva. So, if only we could get the “correct” Hinduism out to people, fill the void that secular deracination produces, all will be good. The BJP is not playing in that corner of the field. It is not engaged in a debate over values or norms or texts of traditions or even cultural identity. It has one raison détre: The consolidation into an ethnic identity. The only thing that glues an ethnic identity together is an enemy, a sense of threat. So, it cannot oscillate between instrumentalism and the normal give and take of politics. To satiate its psychological needs, it has to ensure that the enemy remains a permanent construct. This is what it is using the CAA protests for. But previously, identities were used instrumentally for elections. Now the BJP wants to use elections to consolidate identities, whether it is winning or losing.
We had always assumed that politics is deeply decentralised in India: Caste, community, language, and region, provide natural breaks on any national agendas. These are still important. But they no longer provide the deep social bulwarks against the consolidation of national agendas. So violence can acquire a different logic. In the old framework, the question we would have asked is: Does fomenting violence pay electoral dividends in Delhi? Is votes for violence a good local strategy? This may or may not still be true. But the big payoff is not here. Even if BJP loses Delhi (assuming the plan is not to scuttle the election), it feels that the gains from a longer-term consolidation of identity will come elsewhere — at a national level. It is banking on the fact that polarisation in Delhi, the fact that it can display its agenda with all its might, will help to consolidate support behind it elsewhere. We are focussed on the moral success of the anti-CAA protest, in lifting the pall of fear. But the ominous news is that there might also be a quiet Hindutva consolidation against the protests happening in places like UP and Rajasthan. The gains may not be apparent in immediate electoral dividends. They will be more apparent in how India is transformed: The creation of a country where the political justifications of violence are not merely episodic, but routine and perpetual. That is the long-term prize the BJP is after; not just a short-term logic of electoral dividends.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 1, 2020 under the title “Beyond electoral dividends”. The writer is contributing editor at The Indian Express.
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