India is the world’s largest democracy, of course, and as a consequence its elections are always something of a logistical challenge. The 815 million voters in this year’s election to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, will cast their votes on 7 different dates spread over a month and a half, before final results will be published on May 15th. The outcome of the entire process is unlikely to be very surprising: the ruling Congress party will be decimated and the NDA coalition led by the Hindu nationalist BJP will form a new government with Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister of India. This seems hardly unreasonable: the INC’s track record of corruption and nepotism is a rather impressive one.
The international community seems to have made its peace with Modi’s imminent coronation. Jim O’Neill, who coined the term BRIC, wrote on his blog that ‘He’s good on economics, and that’s one of the things India desperately needs in a leader’. Stock markets are rallying in joyful anticipation of Modi’s reign of neoliberal reforms and exploding Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). And Modi himself undoubtedly is a rather fascinating figure: born into a decidedly undistinguished caste in semi-rural India, selling tea to train passengers at 8, Chief Minister of a state roughly the size of Britain at 52. He used to make a lot of his being unmarried -a man without a family and as a consequence incorruptible- before recently being forced to admit that at age 17 he had been married off to a girl from the village next-door.
Modi is also an exponent of the scariest type of Hindu nationalism. He came to power in Gujarat in 2002 because the beleaguered state BJP felt it needed someone more closely linked to the ideals of Hindutva, the sense of Hindu identity that serves as ideology to various Hindu nationalist movements, to replace Keshubhai Patel at the head of the Gujarati government in order to rail up the base ahead of a potentially disastrous state election. And railing up the base turned out to be one of Modi’s great talents. His much-touted economic policies are an integral part of his belief in a new Hindu assertiveness, Gaurav.
The Hindu nationalist version of Indian history is a rather simple one: India is an essentially Hindu nation, which for the past 500 years has been subjected to foreign imperial conquest after foreign imperial conquest. The Muslims were followed by the British, who in their turn were followed by the Gandhi-Nehru clan, dependent on minority votes for sustaining their political hegemony. All of these foreign rulers governed India without any real interaction with the local population; their rule was merely a succession of oppression and brutality. The notion of a golden age of cultural exchange and religious tolerance in Moghul India, for example, is nothing but Congress propaganda. The books which spread this type of propaganda are to be kept away from school children, and should preferably be banned, as happened when Penguin retracted the American academic Wendy Doniger’s ‘alternative history’ of the Hindus earlier this year. Post-independence India, then, should present Hindus with an historical opportunity to once again seize control of their own lives.
Such a vision of history instils an apocalyptical sense of life in its adherents. The BJP has thrived on the exploitation of religious and sectarian divides, often to violent effect. In December 1992 a crowd of over 150,000 Hindu activists (kar sevaks) descended on the site of the 15th century Babri mosque near the town of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The mosque, closely associated with the memory of Babur, the Muslim conqueror of Northern India, was said to be located on the birthplace of the great god Rama. The organizers of the rally had promised authorities the mosque would not be accessed, but the situation spiralled out of control and, under the watchful eyes of television cameras, the protesters tore down the mosque with their bare hands. For the next few weeks the subcontinent was ablaze with violence. Thousands died in sectarian riots, the likes of which had not been seen since the Partition era. At the next election, the BJP and its allies delivered the INC its third ever defeat at the polls. The 2014 campaign has seen the resurfacing of allegations that the destruction of the Babri mosque was a premeditated move by leading figures in the Sangh Parivar, the network of loosely interconnected Hindu nationalist organisations which includes the BJP and the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Modi is also a member.
Modi himself is no stranger to the close connection between dangerous rhetoric and electoral success that has marked the rise of Hindu nationalism in the last few decades. In 2002, shortly after Modi took over in Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims on their return from a festival at the Babri Masjid caught fire in the Gujarati town of Godhra. Some 50 hapless pilgrims burned to their deaths, mainly women and children. Modi’s reaction was exemplary in its lack of restraint: he virtually immediately put the blame for the conflagration with the Pakistani ISI and had the charred bodies of the fire’s victims carried through the streets of Ahmedabad. His political allies in the Vishva Hindu Parishad called for a Bandh, a general strike typically accompanied by rioting and street violence. What ensued can hardly be described as anything other than a pogrom. Gangs of Hindu militants hunted down and killed their Muslim neighbours, who sometimes reciprocated in kind. Reading the list of atrocities, one is uncomfortably reminded of the worst excesses of the 20th century; there is murder, of course, and organized rape, but also the burning to death and quartering of rape victims to prevent any traces on their bodies from pointing to the perpetrators. Unborn children were cut from their mothers’ wombs. In the end an estimated 2000 people lost their lives; some 150,000 others were driven from their homes.
International reaction to the violence was fierce and the Indian Supreme Court started a special investigation into Modi’s behaviour, which wound up clearing his name, albeit under serious controversy. The BJP’s political allies in Gujarat refused to continue collaborating with Modi and forced an early election, which was resoundingly won by the BJP. Modi would later reminisce that he felt about as guilty for the violence as he would have felt had his car driven over a ‘son of a dog’. Whatever one can say about a remark like that, it can certainly rival Rajiv Gandhi’s casual comment on the anti-Sikh violence after the assassination of his mother Indira for callousness: ‘When a great tree falls, the earth trembles.’
That this is the man who will most likely emerge victorious from the fray is commentary enough on the state of Indian politics. The INC has ruled for almost 50 years out of the 65, which have passed since Indian independence and in the process, has governed itself to pieces. It is widely, and not unjustifiably, perceived to be corrupt to its very core. The logic behind its functioning is still essentially dynastic. Its leader in this election is Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia, and the grandson of Indira. Outside of the BJP and its NDA allies there is little of a national opposition. The small left-wing parties that form the so-called Third Front will do well in their traditional strongholds, like Kerala (though the BJP rise is a serious threat to them there) and West Bengal, but are hardly likely to challenge the main parties outside of these areas. The fiercely anti-corruption Aam Admi Party (AAP) has attracted a lot of attention, mainly due to its great success in last year’s Delhi elections, and is fielding more candidates than either the INC or the BJP. But a campaign this grandly conceived may in the end only wind up working against the AAP by diluting its resources.
Modi it is, then, and Modi himself has been the main topic of this campaign, much more than corruption or the nation’s infamous issues with sexual violence. Modi’s track record as CM in Gujarat after all did not only include incitement to religious violence, his proponents argue, but he has also overseen an economic miracle transforming the relatively backward state into one of the powerhouses of the Indian economy. This argument does not quite hold water; Gujarat’s economy certainly expanded during Modi’s decade in office, but it did not vastly outpace the rest of India (as it to some extent had done in the 1980s and 1990s). If growth accelerated under Modi, this may well have been because it was going to anyway.
Modi is fond of quoting a remark by Vajpayee, the last BJP Prime Minister, to the effect that ‘Andhera chatega, suraj niklega, kamal khlega’ (‘The sun will rise, the darkness will vanish, the Lotus will bloom’). One shudders at the thought of what this Lotus blooming might look like.