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Modi in his first year in office has led our nation into a long, blistering majoritarian summer

By Harsh Mander*
Of all the major political parties seeking votes in the 2014 elections, the BJP, through its prime ministerial candidate, offered the Indian electorate perhaps the most cohesive, if troubling, vision for the country. Modi offered a combination of three fundamentalisms. First, a market orthodoxy which guarantees unprecedented levels of subsidies to big business in the form of long tax holidays, soft loans, cheap land and electricity, at the expense of public expenditure on education, health, social protection and public infrastructure.
Next was communal fundamentalism, constituting barely disguised hostility towards religious minorities, especially Muslims, which was the main rallying agenda on the ground in electorally crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And the third was a militarist fundamentalism, envisioning an aggressive foreign policy, including war with Pakistan.
Modi's offer to the voters was a kind of 'buy one, get two free' political bargain, but one in which you cannot embrace one of the fundamentalisms without also accepting the others. There is no necessary convergence between right-wing economic policies, right-wing chauvinism and right-wing militarism.Right-wing economic policies can coexist with liberal and secular policies relating to minorities and restrained defence plans. But where these do converge — as they do in Indian politics today — I believe they constitute a grave threat to secular democracy.
The result of the elections of 2014 would not have caused such extensive dismay among many people if it was a victory only of an economic right formation. It was the convergence of the economic right with majoritarian and militarist triumphalism, spurred by enormous corporate financing, which caused such disquiet.
Although Modi greatly toned down his trademark divisive rhetoric and communal hectoring in his campaign, he still refused to apologize for the carnage of 2002 which occurred under his watch. Given Modi's own discourse, until he was chosen as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate eight months before the elections, of barely suppressed triumphalism surrounding the carnage of 2002, his transition to secular statesmanship required the erasure of his culpability.
This erasure had been successfully accomplished earlier for the hawkish BJP leader Lai Krishna Advani and the more moderate-faced Atal Behari Vajpayee. A similar exercise was undertaken in India's most expensive political campaign ever, in which the BJP reportedly spent close to what Obama spent in his election campaign, although the US has a per capita income thirty times higher than that of India.
Except for his core Hindu nationalist constituency, Modi was reinvented as the avuncular messiah of market growth. Given Modi's public position on the 2002 massacre, the obliteration of his role in it was even harder to accomplish than the reinvention of the two earlier prime ministerial candidates fielded by the BJP.
But the leaders of industry, as much as large segments of the middle classes impatient to see his installation as the one man who could accelerate economic growth, rejected the idea that his ambitions to attain the highest post in national politics were disqualified by his alleged role in one of the most brutal communal massacres after Independence. They counselled that we should focus on the 'big picture' of growth, as though the violent suppression of minorities is but a minor blemish.
Strident anti-Muslim rhetoric, dominant in his rallies in three successive election campaigns for the Gujarat assembly in and since 2002, was keyed low in his triumphant bid for the country's leadership. But still, many persistent undertones reflected his hostility towards India's minorities.
He referred to the UPA government in the capital as the Delhi Sultanate and to Rahul Gandhi as the 'shehzada' — imagery which harked back to medieval domination by Muslim rulers. He donned every kind of headgear to build rapport with culturally diverse populations in all corners of the country, but refused to wear a skullcap.
The book

Even though Muslims form 10 per cent of Gujarat's population, Modi never put up a single Muslim candidate in successive polls in Gujarat. His policy was little different for the national elections, which is why the BJP does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha — although Muslims constitute more than 14 per cent of the total population of India — a dubious first for any ruling government since Independence.
There is indeed no ambiguity in Modi's politics, no recourse to poetry and equivocality, unlike the last prime minister to be elected from the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee himself was not above articulating anti-Muslim or anti-Christian rhetoric from time to time. Yet many still regarded him to be a leader of relative moderation. However, his communal pointers would always be cloaked in a garb of moderation.
Through most of his vigorous and meteoric political career, Modi has worn no fig-leaf of moderation, although during the run up to the national elections, he did cover his majoritarian convictions with his promises that he would ensure miraculous economic growth. One can speculate about how much of the middle class supported him for his promise of growth, his decisive leadership, or his communal hyper-nationalism.
And even if we accept that there were many who backed him for his growth agenda, we must also accept that all these people were not uncomfortable with a leader who was openly hostile to India's constitutional pledge of equal citizenship to all persons regardless of their faith. This reflected at least a passive condoning of aggressive communalism, if not active support for his deeply divisive brand of politics. Many openly communal statements were made, not by Modi's aides during the election campaign.
Modi himself said nothing of the sort but also, at the same time, never publicly reprimanded his aides or distanced himself from their comments. He was happy to reap the political benefits of majoritarian consolidation spurred by these remarks, but freed himself from taking responsibility for them. Amit Shah said, openly, that the vote should be used for revenge in riot-ravaged Muzaffarnagar.
Modi himself allowed his thin mask of moderation to slip whenever he felt the need to personally stoke majoritarian sentiment. In his own unique fashion, he spoke, in the heartland of Bihar, of the 'pink revolution', alluding to the UPA government's alleged support for beef export by subsidizing slaughter houses. In Vadodara, he charged that secular opinion was in fact, divisive, and he declared that he would rather lose the election than fall to these strategies, trying to turn on its head the moral case for secularism.
But even more damagingly, he stormed Assam with exhortations against Bengali Muslims, describing them as illegal immigrant Bangladeshis, ignoring the fact that more than nine out of ten Bengali Muslims in the state are legitimate Indian citizens. He advised them to pack their bags after 16 May!
On May 1 Assam witnessed one of the most brutal massacres since Nellie, targeting mostly Muslim women and children. Yet, a day after this massacre in the Baksa district, Modi thought nothing of reiterating his threats against Bengali Muslims in Bengal, declaring that those who did not worship the goddess Durga were not welcome in the state.
The centrality of fraternity in nurturing and sustaining democracy is one of Ambedkar's many profound insights. The word used in the constitution in Hindi is bandhuta, which evokes vividly ideas of comradeship and mutual belonging. That regardless of our bewildering multitudes of differences - of faith, caste, class, gender, language, of the ways we dress and eat, marry, celebrate and mourn - we are in the end one people, because we belong to one another.
The first energetic year in office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was marked by severe contestations of many constitutional principles, but none more than fraternity. Fraternity, our common sisterhood and brotherhood, would if fully realized result in a seamless oneness, or unity, amidst our limitless diversities. This is an ideal we as a people have never achieved. Instead of complete unity between people of diverse beliefs and cultures, we articulate interim ideals of amity, harmony and peaceful co-living. These in turn require at the minimum two fundamental principles in public life - of public civility, and public fairness.
Both these minimum principles for fraternal co-living have been badly battered in the first year of Modi's stewardship of the central government. Take first public civility. Never in free India has the public discourse been so poisoned by MPs and ministers of the elected ruling alliance. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj labels madrassas as 'hubs of terror' fostering love jihad' and 'education of terrorism'. He exhorts Hindu women to bear four children, declaring that in the Modi yug (era), the alleged Muslim practice of having four wives and 40 kids - a fiction of majoritarian paranoia - should be forcefully halted. He further describes Nathuram Godse, Gandhi's assassin, as a 'patriot' and 'martyr'.
Another BJP MP Yogi Adityanath declares that an India without Ram cannot be imagined, and that those who allegedly torment Hindus with riots will have to pay dearly. Moreover 'for every Hindu converted, 100 Muslim girls will be converted as retaliation.' Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti describes those who do not worship Ram as 'haramzade' or bastards. A Shiv Sena MP force-feeds a Muslim canteen functionary during his roza fast. Another, Sanjay Raut, calls for the disenfranchisement of Muslims.
These are not hate provocations by non-state fringe fanatics. These are displays of unrepentant public bigotry week after week by elected public representatives of the ruling alliance in Parliament. The Prime Minister, who is otherwise not known ever to be at a loss for words, and prides himself on an expanded chest, imposing his iron will on his ministers and his party, is mostly deafening in his silence in response to these criminally culpable hate statements of his colleagues. His occasional statements hardly amount to even a mild knock on their knuckles.
Take now public fairness. Only consider the state of Gujarat. Maya Kodnani, convicted with 28 years for leading the brutal slaughter in Naroda in 2002 of 97 Muslims, including 36 women and 35 children, is released on bail since July 2014. Another infamous organiser of the slaughter Baju Bajrangi, also serving an extended life term, is freed on bail for an eye aliment in April 2015.
Caught in 2006 by Tehelka on secret camera he had bragged, 'we hacked, burned, set on fire ... because these bastards don't want to be cremated ... I have just one last wish ... let me be sentenced to death . . . just give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day... I will finish them off at least 25,000 to 50,000 should die'.
Senior police officer Vanzara, charged with the murder in fake encounters of teenager Ishrat Jehan, Sohrabuddin and others, was released on bail in February 2015 to a hero's welcome. By contrast, courageous and brave whistle-blowing police officers Rahul Sharma and Rajnish Rai face a barrage of literally scores of charges. Sharma finally took voluntary retirement. Police officer Sanjeev Bhatt remains suspended.
Feisty and gutsy Teesta Seetalvad who pursued many battles for legal justice for survivors of the 2002 carnage, facing multiple criminal charges escaped imminent arrest only through the intervention of the Supreme Court. India's Constitution took care to defend not just the right of faith of religious minorities, but also their right to propagate their convictions. Contrary to its spirit, there is influential public advocacy for a national law barring religious conversions.
A rash of high-decibel programmes were organised in which converts to Islam and Christianity were 'welcomed back into Hinduism. These programmes were titled 'home-comings' suggesting that the only legitimate Indian faith is Hinduism, and conversions to Islam and Christianity represented prodigal straying. The same cultural legitimacy only of majoritarian Hinduism underlays Maharashtra government's ban on both selling and eating beef, criminalising dietary traditions of not only many non-Hindu faiths, but even many dalit and tribal peoples.
This has also been a year of widespread communal ferment. Big communal conflagrations are now unlikely, because they attract international condemnation and troublesome domestic activism. But these have been replaced by a massive rash of continuing small but deeply toxic communal attacks and skirmishes. Assaults on churches here, disputes over mosques and cemeteries there, raids on religious processions, throwing of animal carcasses in shrines, raising of communal tempers when young people choose to love or marry outside their religions, and cow slaughter have resulted in an astonishing several hundred communal clashes across the country, peaking in regions which are due to face elections.
The book

Modi in his first year in office has led our nation into a long, blistering majoritarian summer. This has scorched both the fairness of institutions of the state - including sadly the judiciary - and fraternal social relations. None but the most delusional right-wing radicals expect millions of people of minority faith to leave this nation. But what they aspire is that they learn to live in separate ghettoes, economically enfeebled, socially submissive, politically disenfranchised. This is their competing idea of India.
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*Activist and writer. Reproduced from the book "365 Days: Democracy and Secularims Under the Modi Regime". Click HERE to download

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