Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special
Consumption and Protection: Understanding BJP’s Victory
Friday 15 August 2014
by Sri Ram Pandeya
The recent outcry in responsible scholarly discussions about the secular setting of our society getting affected due to a leader becoming the Prime Minister of India, even as he vows to homogenise society, has led to a renewal of interest in some of our democratic values. While the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been attributed to the more secular development agenda, it is a victory for the majority community as well (at least) for two reasons: first, development as a concept in the popular public imagination is not necessarily seen in a clash with the identity of the majority, and second, which follows from the first, the BJP was not bereft of its ideology of Hindutva in its political campaign due to the staunchest representative of its ideology very strategically projected as the prime ministerial candidate.
Moreover, the Shiv Sena also won a sizeable number of seats and the more moderate leaders were rejected as playing a secondary role both by the party (like L.K. Advani) and the people (like Arun Jaitley). Further, the debacle of two parties that have an anti-Brahmanical ideology—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—goes to show the support in favour of Hindutva.
Where caste symbolised hierarchy from a social and ritual perspective, when joined with democracy, caste identity can be an instrument of equalisation and dignity, as it is an easily mobilised social category. Due to the numerical majority of the marginalised castes against the Savarnas, voting on caste basis leads to a government with a worldview (at least theoretically) from the perspective of the marginalised castes. On the other hand, asking for votes on the basis of the majority religion leads to a communal worldview as it brings up a situation where uniform treatment is sought along all religious lines, as also along all caste groups within a religion, which is for the status quo, so that the majority remains as it is.
The latter, the ideology of the ruling party in India, is in perfect tandem with what I call here as ‘neo-liberal modernity’ (not liberalism or liberty) at least in three ways: first, ascriptive identities (of religion and caste) are posed to have no potential for emancipation (though they remain a very important part of even the public life in India, paradoxically); second, unilinearity along majoritarian lines is sought even by violence (generally structural); and third, both Hindutva (at least in the way it was used in the recent election campaign) and neo-liberal modernity fall in line to the market’s claim of bringing in emancipation.
It is to the above that the overwhelming victory of the BJP should be attributed. The Dalits and even the Muslims (to a small extent) seem to have voted for the party in many parts, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, as the party claimed to bring in the benefits of neo-liberal modernity. However, development and good governance can also be understood to be the tools of neo-liberalism to maintain the status quo so that the market flourishes. That is how, Narendra Modi emerged as a youth icon of the ‘Honey Singh’ and ‘selfie’ generation, where consumption is seen as the ultimate social good—of the female body, even of the self (most exhibited in the form of selfie) and indeed Modi turned out to be the perfect object to be consumed, the one which is like us, at least in the sense of how he marketed himself unapologetically, like the present generation market themselves on the Facebook.
Therefore Islam, since it does not view consumption as a virtue, is seen as essentially orthodox; and Hinduism, which is tolerant of almost everything (on its own terms though), is seen as modern. Hinduism does not see violence and marketing as any vice, rather it endorses spectacle, as, for instance, the killing of Mahishasur by Durga has been consumed by Hindus for ages. This is how victory was achieved for the BJP—so that Ram would be able to protect Sita from Ravan.
This can bring us to a view from below, from the perspective of women: for instance, consumption as a popular social good leaves them with a pressure (structural and not voluntary) to construct their identity according to the market so that they need protectors. It was recently opined by the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, that rapes happen more in India (meaning cities) than in Bharat (meaning villages) which was attributed to women in cities not behaving themselves.
Since women are being consumed, they need to be protected—these two projects should not be understood as radically different from each other: both are based on an understanding of women as objects. As I have pointed out before, thus, women become an issue for contention—means to the end for both—neo-liberal modernity feels triumphant by consuming (women, for instance) and such a project enhances the value of protecting the tradition (by Hindutva) again by claiming to protect women.
This piece borrows the neo-liberal phenomenon of consumer protection, where protection of consumers is seen as the greatest responsi-bility (and probably virtue as well) of the government. Modi’s speeches were a testimony to this when he vowed to assume the role of a consumer protector as was evident from his advocacy of the delivery system. He even called the government as a postman to be the model government in one of his campaign speeches. This has consequences as citizens degenerate to consumers, welfare loses to efficiency. The vote for the BJP is a vote for an active and even aggressive government (against the soft and submissive image of Manmohan Singh; and a deliberately constructed image of a baby, who can’t even protect himself, for Rahul Gandhi) so that the consumers are assured that their needs would be met even if they are not active but busy to consume. One government’s claims to be less corrupt than the other is not confined to the realm of arguments, it remains to be seen empirically, and that too via the media.
So a resort is taken to efficiency and a quick decision-making process as is evident by Modi’s decision to dissolve a body like the Group of Ministers (GoMs), for instance. However, fast decision-making and not incurring debts could be virtues for individuals; even after the rational choice theory, governments cannot and do not have to achieve anything for themselves. How-ever, the BJP garnered votes for its rhetoric of achieving something for the rashtra so that citizens continue to consume and presume—even the nation; moreover aggression becomes a spectacle to be consumed. The notion of Pakistan going to be taught a lesson was consumed (among other things) and Modi emerged victorious.
Then men and women across caste lines voted for Modi for two interconnected reasons (to summarise, it certainly is one perspective): first, consumption is seen as a value in the times of neo-liberalism, and second, promises to control the costs incurred in the kitchen was made, another benefit of neo-liberal modernity—capability to consume was promised to be enhanced. The issue of consumption ranges from the kitchen to women themselves seen as not more than objects to be consumed. As soon as parda (veil) is seen as orthodox, the dresses that reveal the human body (to be consumed) are seen as emancipatory and symbols of freedom, so that the latter are constructed as reasons for protecting the female body—one of the slogans of the BJP’s campaign—‘Bahut hua nari par vaar, abki bar Modi sarkaar’ can be loosely translated as ‘to protect the women, let’s bring in Modi’; this can be seen as a response to one of the songs of Honey Singh when he seeks women in revealing dresses.
Similarly, the dry State of Gujarat is only seen as a greater virtue for a people who drink ‘four bottles of vodka everyday’ (‘char bottle vodka, kaam mera roz kaa’). Polemically speaking, it is this tussle between Honey Singh and Narendra Modi which finds the women’s bodies (and bottles of vodka) as the arenas of struggle. Both thus consolidate each other. It has a similarity with one of the post-colonial contentions that the issue of Sati had formed women’s body as the arena of struggle between the reformers and orthodoxy. An argument that banks on culture, effectively erases the agency of those involved in such processes—women become a ground of discourse.1
Rights did not find a place at all in Ram-mohan Roy’s arguments against Sati, but the ancient Indian scriptures did; similarly, the BJP’s campaign also sought to protect the women if they followed the Indian tradition. It should be noted that rights too are not a part of the Indian tradition; so the benefits of moder-nity to be given to women are too restricted and conditional, limited and contradictory. It sugg-ests that protecting the women is the virtue that the BJP claims to bring about which is well within the Brahmanical framework. ‘The good women’ need to confirm to the Hindu elitist framework in order to be protected.
Finally, it needs to be understood that the language of protection leaves the women with no agency and denigrates them to objects, which are being protected from being consumed—also it comes with an eventual but familiar twist in the tail, as explained above; the protectors only provide protection on their own terms. When women’s agency is not seen as important, their consent will be seen as inconsequential. This has dire implications. Cows and women both are going to be protected though.
- Mani, L (1989): “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India” in Sangari and Vaid (ed,) Recasting Women (New Delhi: Kali for Women), 88-126.
The author is an Assistant Professor, Ramjas College, University of Delhi and Doctoral Candidate, Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org