Amartya Sen’s post-election analysis published in The New York Times and in The Indian Express is both puzzling and absurd. To say that the BJP used state power and machinery, including Doordarshan, to its advantage, is a very blinkered view of both history and electoral processes. During the Congress years, all we saw was Indira, Rajiv and Sonia on Doordarshan, so much so that it felt like Doordarshan belonged to the Congress party (read the Nehru-Gandhi family). I know people who are devoted to Doordarshan, who are not Narendra Modi fans, and would not have voted for Modi. On the contrary, many non-Doordarshan watchers, have, in fact, voted for Modi.
Sen also wants us to consider that it is not the election results that matter but how the victors are perceived. He says: “Turning now to the BJP, the winner, it has excellent grounds to be happy with the election results on May 23. And yet, the BJP leadership, and especially its highly talented and exceptionally ambitious top leader, Narendra Modi, have reasons to be disappointed by global reactions to the BJP victory. There has been widespread criticism in the news media across the world (from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Observer, Le Monde, Die Zeit and Haaretz to the BBC and CNN) of the ways and means of securing BJP’s victory, including instigation of hatred and intolerance of groups of Indian citizens, particularly Muslims, who have every right to be treated with respect (as under the Gandhi-Tagore understanding).” I have no idea what kind of colonial logic prompted him to say this. But, if people like him whose voices matter (or not now?) expect that foreign media perceptions should determine how people should think and vote in India, and, how political parties should act or not, then they are part of a problematic ecosystem. Decolonising the minds of public intellectuals and scholars must become a serious project.
Are there no lessons learnt and is there no introspection or sense of humility on part of such critics? The Opposition had neither concrete programmes or alternative politics, nor any charismatic leadership to offer. It was the same old caste and alliance formulas and empty slogans of secularism that they themselves do not practice anymore. The vitriol, masculinity, bigotry and Hindutva did not just come from the BJP. A sufficient dose came from all the Opposition factions. The arrogance of the Opposition parties and their supporters was palpable as they mirrored the very forces that they were contesting against. Selective outrage from liberal intellectuals never helped their cause.
Sen and others should write obituaries of liberal, progressive thoughts in India, or even a prognosis of what went wrong and what can be fixed. After all, it is not a good idea to leave these obituaries and the rethinking of alternative visions to the right wing think tanks. However, an emotional outburst cannot be a substitute for thoughtful election analysis.
A renowned left historian, very arrogantly, not only dismissed and disciplined some of us at a conference on populism, in Delhi last year, but also declared publicly that they had “no respect for K M Munshi or M M Malaviya”. When asked whether any introspection was undertaken by the Left, they condescendingly declared, “we have done enough and are broken”. Another Indian academic advised their cohorts on twitter, “We need to explain to people why it was important to free this country from the British. Bhakts see the freedom struggle as irrelevant — their struggle, they claim, began when the Muslims came. We can take nothing for granted any more”. There was no reflection on who constitutes the “we” and who “the people” are! “The people” have stopped listening to pontificating public figures and intellectuals a long time ago. On the contrary, they want them (public figures) to listen for a change. In that sense, we are all responsible for the growing anti-intellectualism. Privilege does not inspire reverence and awe anymore. It is no longer just aspirational.
Voting patterns and voter aspirations have become more complex and they reflect the anxieties of these times. Members of my family voted for the local Congress leader in Jharkhand, only because they wished for a government that could protect public sector enterprises. But Rahul Gandhi was busy sloganeering “chowkidar chor hai” instead of talking about policies that would matter on the ground. Another voted for AAP in Delhi only because the candidate was better, but they hoped for a Modi win. Several underprivileged people voted for the BJP, not because their “Hindu minds were hijacked” by BJP propaganda, but because the gas cylinder allowed them to work in one extra house as a domestic help and earn more money.
Muslims in the village in Bihar where my family lives, also celebrated a Modi win, as did many Adivasis in Jharkhand. We cannot understand the Modi phenomenon without a deeper dialogue with the people whose lives are directly affected by those that govern them. Our first conversations must begin in our families and with our friends, many of whom are Modi voters. It is not right to dismiss them as uncouth, intolerant and communal, just because we disagree with their views.
So, Professor Sen, if this were to ever reach you: The voters in my family or in my home states of Bihar/Jharkhand, or all over India, do not worry about what the BBC, Haaretz or NYT think about the political contenders in Indian elections. They have voted based on their own perceptions and worldviews, accepted the verdict and are moving on with their lives. With trepidation, as well as new hopes and promises.
The writer is associate professor in peace and development research, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden