Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Talking development, walking Hindutva

It’s so much easier when they’re the same thing.

(Published on March 25, 2017 in Business Standard)

What’s interesting about Yogi Adityanath’s ascension in Uttar Pradesh is how so many of Prime Minister Modi’s supporters are shocked and disappointed. It reveals either a) how stubbornly they cling to the fiction that Mr Modi’s politics are all about the economy or b) that they are aware of the PM’s devoted service as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, but aren’t affected by Hindu chauvinism, or actively approve of it.

For them, the 2002 Gujarat riots didn’t cloud Mr Modi’s reputation. They didn’t mind his communal statements, or his silence over cow vigilantism. They didn’t care that he picked RSS-linked ministers and institutional heads who have swerved hard to the right, from Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar who blames women for rapes, to CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani, nanny to the nation and huge Modi suck-up. It didn’t matter that Doordarshan airs RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speeches; or that the BJP submitted a first year ‘report card’ to the RSS, like a schoolchild. It didn’t bother them that the PM didn’t speak up for intellectual freedom in universities, or that he changed demonetisation goalposts daily. Mr Modi’s supporters drowned these things out with loud hosannas about economic development, thus far a damp squib.

But now that he has put the country’s largest state in the hands of a violent, misogynistic, god-bothering rabble-rouser, the ugliest face of radical Hindutva—well, now some are worrying about what that says about the PM. (Only some. Others want to ‘give Mr Adityanath a chance’. Given Mr Adityanath’s long public track record, that view is amoral, or terminally self-interested, or outright stupid.)

Powerpoint presentations and business-y acronyms make Mr Modi seem like the most modern face of the RSS. But he remains a face of the RSS, and the RSS cannot abide the liberal, western-inspired Constitution of India, which it sees as an alien imposition on an ancient and supreme Hindu society. A quick reminder, here, that the organisation’s single heart’s desire is to achieve a Hindu rashtra, an India for Hindu supremacists.

Under Mr Modi’s nicely cut clothes and emphasis on digital, hi-tech India, lie ideological roots as autocratic and puritan as they come. While he thinks up catchy acronyms and hugs world leaders, his Rottweiler, Amit Shah, warns against ‘love jihad’, and bays for ‘revenge’ against Muslims at Muzaffarnagar. While Mr Modi salutes the Constitution, his government is busy subverting freedoms and rights, most recently in the obnoxious Finance Bill that, among other things, removes the cap on political funding and accountability (so much for ending corruption), and makes it mandatory to link Aadhaar cards to income tax returns (so much for the Supreme Court’s instructions).

Beef wars, hyper-nationalism, social moralism, cultural puritanism, regressive gender constructs, vigilantism, mass control, violent Hindu revivalism—none of this is unpredictable or surprising. If there’s one thing for which the RSS deserves credit, it is that it has never hidden nor deviated from its proudly public agenda. It spent its long years in the wilderness working its tail off, building its networks, harassing writers and artists and academics, beating up students, and whipping up religious hate. It has stayed true to its cause, and today that dedication is paying rich dividends. It’s a work ethic that the Opposition should learn from. 

This is what India let in the door, in 2014. Now, with the country firmly in its hands, recognising an unexpected opportunity that may never come again, the RSS-BJP is going for broke. Choosing Mr Adityanath—who wants to dig up dead Muslim women and rape them, kill 10 Muslims for every dead Hindu, and control women for national security; who says that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together; who as CM has sanctioned moral policing in the name of women’s safety—choosing Mr Adityanath is raising a giant middle finger to the democratic, pluralistic, rights-based Constitution of India. The RSS-BJP was talking development, walking Hindutva; the only development is that it is now both talking and walking Hindutva. It is free at last, its goals looking tantalisingly possible. Politically rampant, it can now focus on subverting academia. Mr Bhagwat will be ‘guiding’ vice-chancellors and academics this weekend at a Gyan Sangam in Delhi.

But India is bigger than Uttar Pradesh, and hundreds of millions of people will raise a giant middle finger right back at any attempt to control their culture and freedom and thought. How this tussle plays out is going to make for a riveting stretch of history.

Meanwhile, for those who insist this is all just melodramatic leftist breast-beating, there’s an old story about a man who, finding a frozen snake, warms it against his breast; whereupon the revived snake follows its natural instincts and bites the man to death.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

These polls won’t be over soon enough

Enough, already, the suspense is making us sick

(Published on March 11, 2017 in Business Standard)

I’m writing this on Friday March 10, 2017, jabbing at the keyboard with the bloody stumps of my fingers now that I’ve chewed off the fingernails and kept going all the way to the knuckles. The results of five state elections will be out on Saturday, and, possibly chastened by getting so many previous elections dead wrong, the television talking heads are being unusually circumspect about the huge electoral prize of Uttar Pradesh. Thanks a lot, talking heads. Just when we could have used someone going out on a crazy limb as usual, to give us something to hang on to, you get all responsible and all, ‘Could be a hung house, but who knows.”

Over the last couple of months, I have largely stayed away from reports that purported to tell us how whole states are going to vote. It’s interesting to imagine that these reports serve as a finger held up to the political wind, but too often, especially in such a long drawn out poll schedule, they are too localised and transient to serve that purpose. This time, I told myself, just wait for the results and process what actually happens, rather than get yanked around by constantly evolving reports of a vague direction. 

Now that we’re at the exit poll stage, I’m even more convinced that this is the healthier approach. If one must pay attention to exit polls, I’m most inclined to agree with the Faking News team’s analysis: “Someone will win!” It inspires more confidence than this, from a story in “Today’s Chanakya is forecasting 285 seats for the BJP, with a margin that could even take it almost to 300, in the 404-strong assembly. Meanwhile, on the other end of the range is CVoter, which has predicted 161 seats to the BJP.” That kind of data range is a very strong indicator that nobody has any idea what’s going on.

And that’s when an exit poll isn't suspected of having been fabricated as a campaign strategy. The Wire reports that an exit poll illegally published in Dainik Jagran after the first phase of polling in UP, came to the newspaper courtesy an executive there who is also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, though he has since gone to great lengths to wipe all social media traces of his affiliation to the RSS. The story says that the poll was published to bolster the BJP’s flagging campaign in UP, give voters the sense of a surge, and prevent another Bihar-style disaster; the poll was taken down quickly, but not before being widely circulated on social media, and potentially influencing the outcome of the election. The Wire has what could be a massive story of election fraud. What are the chances that it will be properly investigated if the BJP takes U.P.?

Election fatigue has set in. Ground reports are no longer relevant, exit polls don’t help, and I’m avoiding the hours of studio talk time which will attempt to break down the mind of the Indian voter in leaden detail. But I can’t help but fret about it all, and the suspense is horrible. The combined results in Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh amount to taking the political temperature of India. A raised temperature is, of course, only one partial, inconclusive indicator of health, but when you’re worried about maybe having ebola, you don’t want any funny readings at all.

I’m only saying ebola because that, too, is a very strong force that destroys you from the inside.

Those Indians who don’t care for the formal and informal policies of the RSS-inflected BJP government are regularly accused of being anti-national. Au contraire: Some of us would contend that it is the RSS-inflected BJP government that is anti-national—dividing, infantilising, policing, and intimidating people into obedient adherence to its chauvinistic vision of what India is, and who belongs here.

These election results, especially in U.P., will be something of a referendum not just on the BJP’s official policies like demonetisation, but also on its informal policies relating to social structures and the interpretation of freedom. Those of us who see empowerment, freedom, and individual rights as positives that should accrue to every Indian, will always look for an alternative to the party of Hindutva. It’s not just a shame that the alternatives are so uninspiring—it’s dangerous. Societies are easily poisoned, and do not easily recover. And yet, it’s a large and diverse enough country that you must never write off anything, least of all a surprise.

If U.P. does, in fact, go to the BJP, there is one upside: it will swiftly be followed by Holi, and we can all get legally stoned.