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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

Republic at Crossroads: Who is at the Wheel?

Saturday 27 December 2014, by Badri Raina

I cannot recall if political India has ever before had a more momentously contentious ending to a calendar year.

I say “political India” advisedly, because much that seems to be now culturally fraught is at bottom purely political in intent. And, with a vengeance it would seem.

In an earlier article (“Troubled Times for the Constitutiional Republic,” Mainstream, August 30, 2014) I had speculated that consequent upon the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections, a dyarchy seemed to have been put in place—that while the government would, when compelled to do so, profess allegiance to the Constitution which legitimises its coming into being and its operations, the many voices among the larger Sangh Parivar would press for an altered definition of the state and of citizenship. All of that in consonance with the long-held perspective of the RSS that India is a Hindu nation and must also be a Hindu state. Also that non-Hindu Indians must acknowledge their Hindu ancestory and accept “the Hindu way of life” as their culture.

A rather wishful thesis, that has been current among social forces—and the media that speaks for them—who strained no end to bring about a Rigthtwing government to power, would have us believe that Modi owes his victory exclusively to a “development” agenda, and that his many party and ideological sartraps who make polarising propositions day in and day out are doing great harm to Modi’s singularly clear intent to pursue merely Rightwing economics rather than Rightwing culture. The most recent and ringing expression of this sort of plaint has come from Tavleen Singh writing for the ‘Fifth Column’ in The Indian Express, December 14, 2014—“Stop Hindutva Now”. More than once in the article she asserts with “certainty” her conviction born of extensive coverage, allegedly, of the Modi campaign during which all sorts of people everywhere told her that only “Vikas” was the issue, not “Hindutva”. She does not omit the opportunity to berate the poor Left for their abysmal ignorance of what Indians think, even as she gives voice to a corporate impatience with Modi for not doing what he was expected to do, and for letting his mandate to be stolen from under him, as it were.

That sort of tack on behalf of Modi’s secular supporters among the Rightwing intelligentsia, therefore, leads them now, however politely, to ask the question as to why Modi does not come down on these hate-filled, polarising voices with a no-nonsense admonition, ideally by ensuring that at least such voices, if they come from the Cabinet or Members of Parliament or from high echelons within the party structure, are meted out some credible disciplinary action.

That this view of the goings-on is a flawed one should by now be quite apparent. At the least, Modi’s support base is unambiguous in its articu-lation that Modi was not given a mandate merely for “development” but for furthering the Hindutva agenda. Nothing is a greater clue to this than the fact that Sushma Swaraj, the Minsiter of External Affairs, although groomed within socialist thought, rather than from hard-core Sangh institutions, has felt called upon to demand that the Bhagvad Gita be declared India’s “national scripture”. This occurrence seems to this writer far more momen-tous even than the celebration of Nathu Ram Godse’s birth anniversary, or characterising Gandhi’s assassin as a “patriot”.

The latter is clearly from well-known stables, and voiced by a committed Hindutva satrap. But the call to install the Gita—a central Hindu text, replete with Krishna, the Avatar of Vishnu, if there is one—as the national scripture emanating from a senior Cabinet Minister who is thought to be among the more progressive members of the clan, must be regarded as highly suggestive. It is idle to imagine that someone as bright as Sushma Swaraj does not understand the implications of such a demand for the “basic feature” of the Constitution which stipulates beyond the scope of amendment that the state shall not espouse any particular religion, even as it allows all religions to practice and propagate their tenets of belief without impinging on the constitutional regime within which the secular state and citizenship are defined. Nor would it be anything but a form of chutzpa to think that the Gita may be successfully installed as some sort of universalist text to which other religions and their texts need have no objection.

Indeed, if there is a scripture which has over the centuries been so installed worldwide, like it or not, with great success among more than a billion people as a know-it-all and do-it-all sort of is the Qu’ran. So how might the Hindutva power structure intend to persuade Indian Muslims—reportedly the second largest Muslim population in any country—to yield primacy to the Gita as a scripture that might represent them as well and as happily as it might the Indian Hindus? Not to say that the Indian Hindus themselves include sects—and not small ones at that—who do not offer the same sort of allegiance and obeisance to the Gita as they do to other Hindu scriptural texts. This is most resonantly so in the case of Shaivite Hindus who have been in years gone by at the receiving end of Vaishnavite aggression involving the destruction of many Shaivite temples.

And how might Indian Sikhs react to a relegation of the Guru Granth Sahib to some sort of subsidiary status within the nation-state, given what we have known and seen of how Sikhs draw upon that scripture not just for spiritual guidance but an idea of a state as well? Just as do the Muslims?

The insistence here on my behalf may seem puerile, but it is not: I simply ask myself if someone as intelligent and as democratic as Sushma Swaraj would have simply glossed over all this in her own mind as being a matter of small consequence. If not, then the conclusion must seem inevitable that forces far stronger than her own best persuasions are at work, sufficiently puissant to cause her, as opposed to some Hindutva rabble-rouser, to give tongue to a proposition which is fraught with potentially incendiary implications for the nature of the Indian Constitution and the state thereof.

It is another matter, of course, that the Gita has been read by such learned scholars of ancient India as D.P. Chattopadhyay and D.D. Kosambi as a text that camouflages the material interests of the then ruling elites under a miasma of philosophical speculation; and by B.R. Ambedkar as a text most influential in effecting the continued dominance of Brahminism within the Hindu social order.

Whether substantial sections of the neo-middle class who felt drawn to a Hinduisation of the RSS/BJP campaign as an overdue counter to “minorityism” (contrary to what Tavleen Singh and other organic intellectuals on the Modi-side of things assert) and to a cultural consolidation matching economic and political centralisation had quite wished to go as far as to see India’s secular, democratic republic replaced by an honest-to-god theocracy remains to be seen. One imagines that in the coming months, especially if the economy fails to take off, the answer to that question will be decisive in many ways.

That leaves us to cogitate on what might be going on in Modi’s mind. After all, the inaugural euphoria notwithstanding, it cannot be a very comforting thing for the Prime Minister to be riding two horses with heads pointing in opposite directions.

That the present government is an RSS Government rather than an RSS-led government has been honestly clarified by no less than the honourable Minister of Home Affairs. Asked if there was RSS pressure on the government to do this or that, his riposte put paid to the wishful construction that the BJP may be in some sort of strain from RSS insistence. Disarmingly, the Minister countered as to how there could be any such pressure when they themselves are the RSS. What could be more explicit? It would thus be missing the whole point were one to think that Modi carries a view of state and polity in contravention of the staid RSS view. And yet, he owes his legitimacy as the Prime Minister not to those whose views he may represent but to a constitutional scheme. The conundrum being that that the Constitution which legitimises him is anathema to the long-held ideology of the Sangh who groomed him and helped to elect him to that constitutional office. Add to that the fact that his clear majority in the Lok Sabha notwithstanding, India’s frustrating social and political plurality for now disallows, in practical terms, any probability that the Constitution may be so transformed (do recall that the earlier BJP Government led by Vajpayee did actually set up a Constitution Review Committee) through due process such as obtains for now.

Does this fact perhaps explain why Modi, apart from his preferred habit of mind to go alone, leaving even his Cabinet only to pick up the settled pieces, as it were, comes across in his electoral campaigns as a man in terminal urgency to decimate all opposition, to conquer one State Assembly after another, so that sooner than later the political dominance of the RSS/BJP inside and outside Parliament/Assemblies is such as to render the remake of the Constitution a doable?

All those who think that this is not a salutary prospect for India then have their task cut out for them. And the task straddles two dimensions: one to meet and defeat the Hindutva juggernaut at the level of fact and argument, indeed through educational infrastructures that meet those of the RSS at least a quarter of the way—and with relentless application of mind and persistence, because so hydra-headed are the mechanisms ranged against secular and liberal democrats that they may be left little time for anything else; and, two, at the level of social and political mobilisatioin and consolidation, such as translates effectively into electoral successes. Put another way, political formations that are agreed that the nature of the Indian state and the status of its Constitution must be defended and preserved at all costs will need to find ways to ensure that the majority votes cast in opposition to the RSS/BJP cohere to yield electoral majorities in the Houses of the People. Time may truly be here when the anomaly of the first-past-the-post system whereby governments take state power on the basis of a minority of votes cast is obviated, pending electoral reforms that make Indian democracy and its power structures representative rather than merely electoral.

Needless to say, such political coherence can be lasting only if it is rooted in the material interests of a vast majority of those who have been relegated by a state owned and driven by corporate capital, national and international. Never perhaps was so great a need and relevance for a Left-of-Centre coalition in India as now. If the failed American and European models remain ideals for India’s Rightwing, then India’s own socialistic thought shaped to Latin American models of recent times could well show the way to a Left-of-Centre consolidation. Clearly, till such time as the threat of a corporatised and culturally bulldozed autho-ritarianism looms on the horizon, many self-regarding constituencies, however germane, will need to suspend the urgency of their localised ambition to enable a larger politics that may first secure the constitutional regime which has thus far held a continental-sized plurality together and yielded advancements of no mean moment.

Needless to say, such a consolidation of secular and democratic forces—who together still constitute a vast majority—cannot happen merely among think-tanks and party conclaves, necessary as those are. The heartening unity of an otherwise fractious political Opposition in the Houses of Parliament encourages the speculation that issues around which such unity has been in evidence can be taken conjointly to the public over sustained campaigns of substantiated information on matters which have been fudged through the RSS/BJP campaign. Even as the full implications of the Hindutva onslaught are brought home to the vast masses whose lives continue to be captive to ruling class machinations of which Hindutva is an integral component.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.