What Is at Stake: India’s Elections

The parliamentary elections in India have thrown up sharp divisions among the intellectual class. Writers, scholars, editors and media journalists have been closely scrutinized for their views and positions. Some have pretended to play Swiss, but it is evident that neutrality is merely a game, as biases seep through articles and programs. There are subtle ways of maneuvering truth, and projecting our political version of that truth. No one can escape the marks of allegiances, even if they are sometimes strategic and aimed at safeguarding petty, personal interests. It is risky to be on the bad books of the future government. Playing a see-saw game of neutrality becomes the best way to ensure minimum damage in the future. Such considerations have shrunk the ethical and political horizon of the intellectual class and the media. A lot of people seem to be shifting according to the vagaries of opinion and exit polls as much as the spectacles on television. As if there are no political ideas at stake beyond these fishy estimates of numbers and the circuses political parties indulge in to gain infantile attention. It is incredible how elections stir people’s appetite for cheap theatre.

It is always time to ask what is at stake. If a certain government comes to power, will refugees from Bangladesh have to run for their lives? Will the drive to embellish cities be at the cost of further impoverishing the ghettos? Will the language of war take over the stifling, post-partition language of diplomacy? Will corporations plunder land in the name of a “development” that creates more displaced people? Will the idea of India become Hindu? Will the idea of Hindu become bigoted? Will a desirable weakening of dynastic politics give way to a fascist polity? Will the people of India get further away from that redeeming but elusive middle-path of Buddha and Ambedkar, or Indian politics find a non-violent and progressive third-choice? Will lovers be able to hold hands in parks and do late nights in discos? Will queer identities no longer be able to parade with pride? Will genuine aspirations as well as problems of identity-politics be decimated in the name of an upper-caste Hindu vision of society? Will water and electricity to the poor be counted as achievement instead of shamefully late compensation? Will workers in factories have more rights against their exploitative bosses or will all protest be viewed as left-wing propaganda and squashed violently? Will the police and the state be answerable to the people or vice-versa? Will dissenting voices prosper? Will Kashmiris be regarded for being Kashmiris rather than a forced appendage of some identity? Will Muslims enjoy their own idea of India? Will Dalits be welcomed for making infinite demands in the face of infinite violence by Hindus? Will the life of a farmer matter to the nation as much as the life of a soldier and the death of a worker be as worthy of grief for the nation as a soldier’s death? Will the idea of the “enemy” be extended from terrorists to the rich exploiters who harass and kill protestors and activists fighting for justice? Will justice be saved from what Gandhi called, “Shylock’s justice?” Will these questions haunt the political sensibilities of a new government? Will these questions haunt the people?

It is an interregnum that swings between hope and dread, where hope is no hope, but dread is dread. It gives us the true estimation of our vacuous political condition.

The media claims there is a Modi wave, and many are seen riding in the excitement of that wave. Others are apprehensive and feel the culmination of that wave into power at the centre will threaten to topple the boat of certain values the nation has been desperately clinging to. These values have given rise to debates within the intellectual class. There is both expectation and fear that certain ideas will no longer remain the same if Modi comes to power. These include concepts like secularism, modernity and the idea of India itself. Certain sociologists have always questioned the meaning and purpose of these concepts which they hold were forced into our vocabulary and constitution, even as certain political theorists have defended them. The sociologists have been accused of being cultural essentialists while the political theorists, of being westernised liberals. Since these are issues that go beyond a class discourse, left-wing intellectuals adjusted themselves critically between these two positions. This debate has also largely veered around Nehru’s conception of the nation, its modernity and its secular ethos. Many are proclaiming the twilight of the Nehruvian imagination of India. What is at stake is how the political outcome of this debate will serve the least privileged people in the country.

The Hindu right’s idea of the nation is avowedly majoritarian. Its attempt to fuse culture and modernity is fraught by glorification of the “self”‘ and criticism of the “other,” a fierce sense of inside and outside, of pure and impure. It is a classic example of how one’s own religion, like one’s own family, is seen as loveable (private) property, while everything else is despicable enemy property. It is a radically conservative and divisive idea of cultural modernity where the history of India and Hinduism has been violently sanitized both of its own social and religious ills as well as of the aesthetic and philosophical contributions of non-Hindus (including untouchables). If Nehruvian liberals erred in keeping much of India’s cultural heritage away from its vocabulary of politics, the Hindu right’s political vocabulary is suffocated with exclusively Hindu phrases and symbols. The sociologists and others who have been challenging the Nehruvian idea need to clarify their differences with the Hindu right-wing. The idea of “folk Hinduism” for instance, offered by some of these scholars, as a recessive world of beliefs and practices, has been evoked only as a cultural – and never political – concept meant to counter the dominant discourse of (aggressive) Hindu nationalism. Hence, using it as a critique, apart from being a culturally dubious exercise, becomes politically useless. And if it is evoked politically, there is an even worse danger of the idea getting close to the racist German idea of the “volk” quite successfully manipulated by the Nazis. So no political discourse of a diverse Hindu culture – surreptitiously playing a unifying role – will guarantee a defense against threats of majoritarian takeover. Akbar’s Dīn-i Ilāhī and Dara Shikoh’s Sirr-e-Akbar are finer historical examples of a search for a common Indian ethos than what these sociologists have been propagating.

So in the light of these elections and its awaited verdict, the problem facing the intellectuals as much as the people in this country is one of facing the truth: both about their history as well as their lives. There are people lasciviously waiting for the Hindu right-wing to yield power at the centre. It is evident the word development for them is a masked word, hiding the true face of a catastrophically repressed psyche of masculine nationalism. These people harbor hyper-patriotic fantasies, without having the capacity to realize the perils of such a fantasy. They don’t mind the contradiction in claiming to be tolerant, yet itching for violence. They want to get rid of corruption, price-rises, terrorism and everything else by believing in anyone who masquerades as a messiah. It is difficult for them to be with an accessible leader like Arvind Kejriwal who believes in getting people out of their drawing rooms and asserting their wants in the street, where real politics takes place. Only those who voice their discontent and dissent in the streets are heard by the deafeningly deaf representatives in Parliament.

The precious minority groups of people in the country have the right to live – and protest about – their beliefs and aspirations without being told it does not suit the majority’s idea of development, culture, morality, sexuality and nation. No amount of political coercion or moral policing can establish any idea of India. No amount of corporate money and designs can rob that idea from us. No paid news, majoritarian hooliganism and manufactured consensus can do that either. It will be an even more difficult test for those who are pretending to play Swiss now, to play Swiss then.