ACHIN VANAIK | 22 SEPTEMBER, 2017
NEW DELHI: In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is consolidating its power through vigilante violence, censorship, and state repression.
This March, the BJP won regional elections in four out of five states, including Uttar Pradesh (UP). This huge prize represents a qualitative advance for the party and the Sangh Parivar it represents, giving greater legitimacy to their long-term goal of establishing a Hindu state in all but name.
Less than six months later, on the evening of September 5, the Bangalore-based journalist and civil rights activist Gauri Lankesh was shot to death outside her home. She had been a fierce critic of Hindutva organizations and their leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This deadly assault dramatizes India’s dangerous trajectory.
This article will trace what has happened since March, measuring Hindutva’s forward march. Though the forces have not advanced as fast or as far as the Sangh and BJP wished, their leaders should have more reason to feel satisfied with their progress. I’m basing this assessment on three parameters: developments on the electoral-political front since March, inroads in the “long march through the institutions,” (where I look at the Election Commission of India, the Supreme Court, the public education sector) and Hindutva’s hegemonizing thrust in civil society, which increasingly focuses on generating fear among dissenters.
The March elections represented an important victory for the BJP, and its prospects have only improved since then.
In July, it converted Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar. Though his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]) served as the junior partner in government with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) after the 2015 state assembly elections, Kumar was nevertheless retained as chief minister from the previous term of office. That coalition represented a serious blow to Modi, but, in July of this year, Kumar suddenly dropped the RJD to forge a new alliance with the BJP. He said he wanted to distance himself from the corruption charges against RJD deputy chief minister, Tejashwi Yadav, the son of the RJD leader, Lallu Yadav.
In reality, Kumar switched sides because he wants to be on the winning side of the 2019 general elections. He believes that the BJP and allies will triumph and that he and his party will therefore get a better deal in both Bihar and the capital. After all, the JD(U) had a seventeen-year alliance with the BJP that only ended in 2013. So much for Kumar’s recent claims that the Sangh’s anti-secular and communal character repulsed him.
As a result, the BJP now sits in government in Bihar, and the opposition parties’ efforts to establish a Grand Alliance or Mahagathbandhan for the next general elections lies in tatters. They believed uniting regional parties in the key northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh would attract other non-BJP parties elsewhere and help prevent another BJP victory, but their opponent now controls both states.
In a sign of possible things to come, the BJP performed much better — though still well behind the Trinamul Congress (TMC) — in the West Bengal municipal elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha race, both the BJP and the Left Front got two seats each, tallying 17 percent and 22 percent respectively. This year in these local elections, the BJP overcame the Left to finish second.
Also, PM Modi’s party is close to bringing the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) that governs the state of Tamil Nadu, into its National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which formally rules at the center. Currently holding this back is a factional fight for leadership within the AIADMK. But even if this goes unresolved and the AIADMK splits, the larger group will join the NDA.
The BJP and NDA dominate the two houses of parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and control more than half of India’s state governments. As a result, this summer, the Sangh relied on loyal MPs and Members of the Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) to elect the right president and vice president from among the competing candidates.
And, indeed, Ram Nath Kovind, a UP Dalit who once belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a principal Sangh organization, became president. Venkaiah Naidu, another former RSS member, relinquished his cabinet post to become vice president. For the first time in the history of independent India, ex-RSS men and Hindutva devotees hold the top three constitutional posts.
The BJP believes Kovind’s appointment will reinforce its Dalit base in UP, influence Dalit preferences elsewhere, and also help mitigate the negative press around upper-caste Hindus who assault Dalits involved in the cattle trade. The vice-presidential appointment it is hoped will win over southern voters.
In November and December, assembly elections will take place in Gujarat, where BJP already controls the government, and Congress-held Himachal Pradesh. BJP is expected to return in Gujarat and could well take Himachal Pradesh.
Polling surveys for the 2019 general elections already favor Modi’s return. Indeed, the BJP expects to win well over three hundred seats on its own, and the NDA would then exceed its current count of 312. Of course, the Sangh hopes that the NDA will secure a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, allowing the next BJP-led government to make major constitutional amendments.
But the election is still a long way off, and, if the history of Indian politics has taught us anything, it’s that we must always make room for surprises.
Leading up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had stockpiled the most donations of all parties. Corporate funding has become an indirect form of bribery that every party accepts, and transparency around who makes these large donations would be a small democratic advance — though public funding would be even better.
Corporate funding has become an indirect form of bribery that every party accepts.
PM Modi projected himself as an anticorruption crusader, an appeal that cuts across caste and class lines. In Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s February 2017 budget speech, he announced that the maximum limit for political donations in cash would be reduced from twenty thousand rupees to two thousand. Individuals or groups wishing to give more would have to write a check or make a digital transfer, both of which would be bank monitored.
But here’s the rub: the government is also planning on introducing electoral bonds, which donors can purchase from designated public-sector banks for the purpose of political funding. The bond-holders will remain anonymous, and no one will know who has given how much to which party. The Electoral Commission of India (ECI) will have no names or addresses to put up on its website.
Former ECI Chief Commissioner Nasim Zaidi immediately criticized these bonds upon his retirement this July, pointing out that they represented an official sanction for the lack of transparency.
His successor for the ECI, handpicked from high levels of government, is the bureaucrat A. K. Jyoti, who served as chief secretary of Gujarat when PM Modi was that state’s chief minister. Will anyone be surprised if the ECI acquiesces to this proposal?
An Occasionally Independent Court
Over the last fifty years the Supreme Court (SC) has all too often suborned itself to government dictates and pressures. It reached its pinnacle of obedience during the 1975–77 emergency rule, then tried to recover its independent reputation in the 1980s. However, since the 1990s, it has regularly conformed to the perspectives of whatever regime happened to rule at the center. This is especially true in cases concerning communal crimes and corruption.
Official investigative agencies, like the state-level Criminal Investigation Departments (CIDs) as well as the federal Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Investigative Agency (NIA) set up specifically to deal with terror-related cases. These agencies, meant to help the Judiciary through their impartiality of functioning, have trodden the same conformist path, and the Modi government has pressured them to encourage this behavior.
In 2016, the NIA dropped terror-related charges against the Sangh’s fiery female preacher Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. In 2006, she and a militant Hindu group conspired to set off a bomb in the Muslim-majority town of Malegaon, killing eight and injuring eighty. Given her non-terror-related charges, Thakur will still face the courts, but despite the evidence against her which should have put her in jail for eight years, the Bombay High Court let her out on bail.
In August of this year, the Liutenant Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit, a co-conspirator in the Malegaon case, was also given bail and let out after nine years in jail. His release came after the SC overturned the Bombay High Court’s earlier rejection of his bail plea.
Under the Modi regime, major figures accused in terror cases have had reprieves of one sort or another even as their cases have dragged on for years. This judicial behavior reminds us that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
The Modi government does pursue corruption charges against leading politicians in the Congress, RJD, and West Bengal’s TMC, but investigation into major cases involving BJP politicians lies dormant.
For example, the Vyapam scandal revealed that BJP politicians and bureaucrats in Madhya Pradesh took bribes and then manipulated the examination-based selection process for government jobs and educational institutes. The scam came to light in 2013, and, in July 2015, the SC transferred the investigation to the CBI. More than thirty people associated with the scam have died in suspicious circumstances, raising serious concerns about a government-led cover up. This June, a journalist investigating the scandal was found dead, again under mysterious circumstances.
Further, this January 2017, the SC dismissed the plea for an investigation into the Sahara-Birla case, despite documents indicating that the Sahara and Birla corporate groups paid off Modi while he was chief minister of Gujarat and other politicians.
Finally, in 2010, the Allahabad High Court gave a shameful majority decision by dividing the land once occupied by the Babri Masjid, or Mosque of Babur, into three parts. One-third goes to the rightful owners, the Sunni Central Wakf Board, and two-thirds to Hindu claimants.
The SC promised to fast track the hearing of this case, but in the meantime, the Shia Wakf Board has now filed its claim for the land (even though this was completely rejected long ago in 1946) and declared that a mosque can be rebuilt at a separate site, effectively becoming a Muslim puppet for the Sangh. If this was not bad enough, the new chief justice, Khehar Singh, who started in January and left in August, actually offered in April to mediate the dispute and help secure an amicable settlement.
Both the Allahabad ruling and this offer demonstrate the Sangh’s growing power. Anything other than the severest punishment for those who violently destroyed the mosque and the full restoration of land to its original and rightful owners, the Sunni Central Wakf board, would represent a miscarriage of justice. But it is difficult in the current political climate to be optimistic about what the future legal outcome will be.
If we were unhappy about Khehar Singh’s performance, the appointment of his replacement Dipak Mishra to a fourteen-month term offers little relief. On November 30, 2016, Mishra made it compulsory to stand while the national anthem plays in movie theaters, though he did subsequently exempt disabled people. Then, immediately after his appointment began, he and another judge overturned a Gujarat High Court ruling that called on the state government to fully compensate the owner-trustees of the mosques, dargahs, and other religious sites damaged during the 2002 pogrom. They claimed their decision was in keeping with maintaining the “secularity of the state.”
All that said, two recent rulings have partially restored the SC’s reputation as a relatively independent body. First, a five-judge bench by a majority outlawed instant triple talaq, a welcome decision in its own right that also sets an important precedent for intervening in the constitutionally protected sanctity of religious personal law.
The BJP and Hindutva supporters endorsed the ruling because it rejects what they consider “Muslim privilege,” allowing Modi and his cabinet to dishonestly present themselves as champions for Muslim women. But progressive feminist organizations, while welcoming the verdict, have correctly pointed out that the justices based their decision on the divorce procedure’s arbitrariness, not on grounds of promoting gender justice.
The second ruling (a unanimous one by a nine-judge bench) declared privacy a fundamental right. This decision constitutes a serious blow to Modi’s attempts to establish the strongest possible surveillance state.
Modi is trying to mandate the Unique Identity Card (UID), which would require every citizen to reveal personal details to the government. The prime minister has proposed linking this card to a host of welfare provisions and everyday services like having a mobile phone or opening a bank account. If passed, the UID scheme would create a massive database, making many citizens’ personal data available to government misuse.
While arguing the case, the Modi government made three shocking arguments. It claimed that privacy cannot be a fundamental right because the constitution does not say it is, objected that “privacy” has no proper definition and is therefore too vague a legal standard, and, finally, argued that, in the Indian context, privacy represents an “elitist” notion.
The ruling did allow for restrictions on privacy in the name of “national security” and “public interest,” allowing the government some leeway for pushing the UID project. Future cases will indicate how extensive and meaningful the right to privacy will remain, but this verdict opens the door for other democratic advances, including the decriminalization of private sexual behavior.
The Sangh has long worked to influence educational institutions and practices. Their strategy has two elements — hiring politically loyal personnel and enacting politically motivated curricular revisions — that have had varying levels of success.
Even at the tertiary level, public-sector teachers come from diverse political and social backgrounds. They have years of experience, are spread across the country, and enjoy permanent tenure. Trying to secure ideological loyalty among this disparate community is a challenging and long-term project, but imposing uniformity in what is taught is a much easier task. As a result, the Sangh has emphasized textbook revisions or changing syllabi at the higher levels.
Recently, the RSS affiliate the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas (Education Culture Regeneration Trust, or SSUN) recommended to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) a number of changes to the books public or private institutions use to prepare students for the secondary-level exam system certified by the Central Board of Secondary Education. There are other school boards but the CBSE is by far the most popular in the country.
During the second UPA government (2009–2014) SSUN pressured the weak Delhi University administration to remove Three Hundred Ramayanas from its undergraduate history syllabus. This scholarly work testified to the diversity of Indian religious thought.
The SSUN has also recommended to the NCERT removing from existing texts the thought of Nobel Prize–recipient Rabindranath Tagore because he criticized nationalism in the name of a broader humanity, deleting former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s apology to the Sikhs for the 1984 pogrom, scrubbing the curriculum of any mention of violence against minorities, and omitting a sentence that reads “nearly two thousand Muslims were killed in Gujarat in 2002.”
The SSUN has also recommended scrubbing the curriculum of any mention of violence against minorities and omitting a sentence that reads ‘nearly two thousand Muslims were killed in Gujarat in 2002.’
Part two: here
(Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of numerous books, including The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India. This article first appeared in Jacobin)