March 20, 2017

India: A time to engage - After UP, the BJP is certain that it can get away with anything (Manini chatterjee)

The Telegraph - 20 March 2017

A time to engage

- After UP, the BJP is certain that it can get away with anything
A week is truly a long time in politics. On Saturday, March 11, when the assembly election results of five states were declared, the Bharatiya Janata Party's legions of supporters were awash in euphoria. Journalists and commentators ran out of superlatives to describe the party's victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand: stupendous, stunning, spectacular, magnificent, monumental, and, of course, the much abused "historic".
Narendra Modi, a gushing media declared, was a man with unparalleled charisma - a leader who towered over the pygmies on India's political stage and had the ability to mesmerize the masses with his hypnotic alchemy of hope and hype. It was his promise of "development", his ringing slogan of " sabka saath, sabka vikas", his crusade against corruption exemplified by the demonetization gamble, his indefatigable energy and his abiding popularity that seemingly transcended caste and class that were responsible for the BJP's biggest ever victory in the most populous state of India, they said.
Amit Shah, who did most of the heavy lifting in Uttar Pradesh, even declared that Modi was "the most popular leader since Independence", felling in one stroke not just Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi but also Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jayaprakash Narayan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. No one took it amiss. Hyperbole had become the norm. Forget Shah, even respected and neutral observers declared that in light of the BJP's sweeping victory, all criticisms of Modi no longer have legitimacy.
A week later it was all undone. Make no mistake. Saturday, March 18 will go down in history at par with December 6, 1992 - arguably the darkest day in post-Independence history when the Babri Masjid was demolished by rampaging Hindutva mobs. With the anointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi's cunningly crafted "development" mask has been ripped apart .
No one knows whether Narendra Modi and Amit Shah chose Adityanath or whether the hate-spewing "yogi" forced their hand by threatening to unleash the wrath of his "Hindu Yuva Vahini" supporters if he was denied the top post. Either way, the decision has severely diminished Modi. No matter how many more elections he may win or lofty speeches he may make, Modi can no longer claim to be an inclusive leader, a pro-poor "development" messiah, but stands exposed as a deeply divisive figure who has no qualms any more about making his latent communal agenda much more explicit and speeding up the journey to transform a secular republic into the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's cherished goal of Hindu rashtra.
The appointment of Adityanath, a man who has never couched his anti-Muslim venom in coded language as does Modi, also shows that the RSS-BJP combine under Modi's leadership is now much more confident that it can pursue its agenda without much opposition from weak and dispirited secularists.
Their confidence, sadly, is not misplaced. The euphoria of Modi's supporters after the UP victory was all too understandable but even those who claim to be Modi critics refused to call out the brazenly communal campaign the BJP conducted in Uttar Pradesh. Modi's ' kabristan versus shamshan' remark in course of the campaign was dismissed as poll rhetoric and after the results came in, few were willing to point out that systematic effort at polarization at the grassroots was one key reason for the scale of the BJP's victory.
The post-UP narrative only further boosted the BJP's confidence that it can get away with anything. According to this narrative, since Modi has established himself as the most popular leader in the country, to oppose him and his party is not just futile but also disrespectful of mass sentiment. The media's penchant for instant and sweeping judgments wherein every victory is made bigger and every defeat more abject than it is has also helped the BJP adopt a 'winner takes all' swagger; just as it has driven its opponents to a state of despondency and despair.
For the Muslims - even before Adityanath's appointment - this despondency was laced with cold fear, reports of aggressive mobs pasting threatening posters on the walls or trying to raise BJP flags atop village mosques being a grim indication of things to come.
But it is not minorities alone who fear the 'transformation' of India. Millions belonging to the majority community, too, are deeply worried about the steady ebbing away of pluralism and diversity, dissent and debate under Modi's homogenizing 'me and my 125 crore countrymen' mantra. The post-UP chorus, however, decreed that in light of Modi's 'popularity', opponents have only two options: silence or surrender. And many seem to have internalized this decree.
The main reason the BJP can get away with the Adityanath appointment and hate-mongering groups can get away with destroying movie sets and stopping university debates and attacking village mosques is that their opponents feel too dispirited and defeated, too isolated and outdated to put up even a semblance of a fight. This sense of defeatism and feeling of isolation - deepened that much more by the choice of the UP chief minister - are dangerously misplaced.
For one, the pro-Modi populace - in spite of its vociferous dominance across platforms - is still much smaller than those who are not enchanted by him and his party. Electoral mandates in the first-past-the-post system always exaggerate victories but no ruling party in India has ever got even 50 per cent of total votes polled. Rajiv Gandhi with his 400 plus seats in 1984 came closest with 49.10 per cent.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP managed its best ever performance, winning 312 seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote. That might sound like quibbling but the exact numbers provide a better picture. The Election Commission data shows that a total of 86,657,529 men and women voted in the seven-phase election this year. Of these, 34,403,039 voted for the BJP - which means 52,254,490 voters did not. Their votes may have 'gone waste' in a three-way or four-cornered contest but they are not a mere statistic, but flesh-and-blood human beings, over five crore of them, who chose not to be swayed by Modi's magic or moved by communal feelings.
Second, electoral victories do not make a leader infallible or the ruling party's ideology the unchallenged dogma of the nation. In today's climate, speaking against the prime minister may be regarded as heresy, but there is no better inspiration for the Opposition than Narendra Modi himself. When Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi won big mandates, Modi did not lose faith in his RSS ideology, he did not give up politics, he did not surrender to the Congress's (and Constitution's) ideals of secularism and plurality.
Even when the BJP was down to two seats, Modi and his brethren soldiered on, determined to rebuild their party in keeping with their own ideology, however divisive others might find it to be.
Today, it is the turn of the Congress and all other parties opposed to the BJP to show the same resilience, patience and energy to build a vibrant and creative alternative to the RSS's blueprint that Modi and Adityanath are out to execute.
And third, there is much more to democracy than elections and legislative majorities. Even outside the realm of politics, battles need to be fought every day in every space to safeguard small freedoms, ensure peace, secure justice. Despair is an indulgence engaged citizens cannot afford - especially in light of the decision in UP.