India – from Secularism to Sectarianism

Kabul Sandhu on the implications of Modi’s re-election for Indians

The 2019 Indian election witnessed a stunning electoral success for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabah (the lower house of the Indian parliament) the BJP and its allies took 349. The once formidable Congress Party leviathan racked up a paltry 93 seats. The remaining 100 went to assorted others.

In a free and fair election 600 million people voted. So three cheers for democracy. Well not quite, perhaps. India seems to be opening up a dark political chapter. 

BJP’s Modi is an accomplished orator. He is a colossus who now bestrides the Indian political stage as former prime ministers Mrs Gandhi and her father Nehru once did. The latter two stood for an inclusive, secular India. Modi and the BJP are populists. Their brand of populism appeals to Hindus, the majority religious group of India. The BJP’s aim is to bring about Hindutva – this means through social and political supremacy establishing the Hindu way of life throughout India. It is a siren call that has now had an electoral response beyond the ‘cowbelt’ (Hindu dominated) Hindi speaking states of northern India. Even Bengali speaking, usually left-leaning West Bengal has fallen for BJP’s charms.

In this majoritarian political landscape minorities are ‘othered’ and vunerable. This is particularly so in the case of Muslims who at 200 million form 14% of India’s population. During the last five years of BJP rule, attacks against Muslims by mobs have increased; Muslims have been projected as potential terrorists, agents of the national enemy, Pakistan. Although Islam has been in India for centuries, to Hindu extremists it’s seen as foreign to Indian soil. When outrages occur little or nothing is heard from Modi and the BJP. In fact one of its successful candidates, a Hindu nun, Pragya Thakur, is accused of a bombing outrage which killed six Muslims and injured many others.

This election and political trend in India can perhaps be seen as being a part of the current global zeitgeist where we see the rise of populist parties and ‘strongmen’ leaders: Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Trump in the USA and Farage in the UK– err….. sorry I write too soon.

The particular populist horse they use to ride to victory varies from country to country – threats from Kurdish separatists, threats to white supremacy, threats to Christianity, threat from migrants etc. Every populist leader finds the sweet spot which rouses his people. In India it’s the ‘need’ to firmly establish India as a Hindu state.

Are there any glimmers of hope in this bleak outlook as India moves away from secularism? The Congress Party does not give us much hope. It is only going to revive when it throws off the shackles of the Nehru/Gandhi family leadership. They and others of their ilk – westernised, anglicised – are dismissed by Modi and other Hindu nationalists as entitled elitists out of touch with the people. Perhaps secularism has always been an alien imposition on the prejudices, hostilities and bigotries of the populace, if the nationalist interpretation of what the people think is accepted.

However the sheer diversity of India offers hope. It might save India from being homogenised. The BJP tsunami was stopped where there was no Hindu majority, as in Punjab and Kashmir. The deep south states of India, such as Kerala, also resisted the BJP. Here the languages are not Hindi and the ethnic makeup of the people is different from that of the north. 

There is also a burgeoning women’s movement for equality and dignity which challenges the BJP’s traditional family and males first values. The media is still vibrant despite pressures. There is a huge constituency of poor, dispossessed, marginalised people that a fleet-footed opposition could give voice to. It needs a progressive, left-leaning, silver-tongued leader of the people to unite them. Hinduism is broad with many schools of thought; perhaps someone from within the religion will challenge the BJP’s interpretation and brand of Hinduism. These are glimmers of light and hope and as long as they do not get snuffed out, India will not succumb totally to the tide of sectarianism and will later emerge stronger and more confident in its diversity. 

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