Whatever happens in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, or the decades thereafter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah have already won the prize for self-belief and swagger. They had announced a blitzkrieg of plans for 2022 when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was not yet midway through its first term. At the party’s National Executive meet on the weekend, Mr. Shah took aplomb to unexplored heights by announcing the BJP’s intention to stay put in office for another 50 years. Of course, with the caveat that the Opposition had a window of opportunity in the 2019 election.
The BJP is genetically configured to exude confidence against the worst odds. But the current belligerence astounds in the face of the following: a less than exceptional record in office, a politics of polarisation that has kept the country in a state of tension and conflict, and new challenges to the party’s own carefully-constructed social constituency.
A microscopic scrutiny of the Modi government’s performance is beyond the scope of this piece. However, from the perspective of the common people, surely the failures stand out, especially those that have devastated the poor and small businesses. Among them: demonetisation; the Goods and Services Tax (GST); and galloping fuel prices pushed up further by a falling rupee. Today there is a near consensus (except in government circles) that demonetisation, while monumentally failing in its primary objective of nullifying black money and counterfeit notes, totted up unintended penalty points — slowing down the economy for several quarters and strangulating the cash-dependent informal sector. The GST, pushed at the midnight hour in an attempted equivalence with the new dawn at India’s Independence, has been turned into a byzantine nightmare by a government botching its implementation. The promised ‘Good and Simple Tax’ has become its ironic opposite.
On rising fuel prices and the falling rupee, it would be hard to beat the reactions from a different time — around 2013 when Mr. Modi and the then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, lacerated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with words that have come back to haunt them. Even the reported uptick in the GDP comes alongside feedback from the ground of severe distress among farmers, industrial labour and unemployed youth, graphically captured by a recent protest march by tens of thousands from these groups.
But by far the most troubling legacy of the government has been in the social sphere, which has been wrecked, possibly beyond restoration, by a pernicious brand of Hindu nationalism that has taken violence to new, grotesque levels. There are many milestones here. In the new order of things, communal violence is no longer episodic but a continuum without end. Its execution is in the manner of a ritual, with the victim held captive and a video crew filming for larger audiences every blow, every beating, especially the final sadistic kick before life ebbs away. The crime is not hidden, as would be the normal instinct, but worn as a badge.
In another first, the violence has been drawing approval not only from social media troll armies that applaud acts of depravity but from sections of the ruling class, including MPs and Ministers. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s occasional and generic condemnation of violence did not stop Union Minister Jayant Sinha from garlanding and posing with men accused of lynching.
The marauders have had their way so easily, openly and so often in these four and a half years that the lynchings, mainly of Muslims and Dalits, do not numb the senses, as happened in 2015 when Mohammed Akhlaq was killed in Uttar Pradesh for the alleged sin of storing beef. At the time a further shock was how unconscionably the debate moved to whether it was beef or mutton that was stored. Since then we have had Pehlu Khan, Junaid and many more. The names have morphed into statistics… 10, 11, 15 and so forth.
Incendiary calls from the right have become the expected thing. Neither Mr. Sinha nor those found to have repeatedly crossed the red lines have been punished with expulsion. Undoubtedly because of the impunity offered to the offenders, the violence has spread and taken different forms, including copycat lynchings of people suspected to be child lifters, and mob vandalism by Kanwariya processionists returning from pilgrimage.
The descent into darkness can be judged from increasingly worried public voices. Industrialist Anand Mahindra took to Twitter to express his disapproval: “If there’s one thing that worries me about the future, it is dictatorship by mobs… Quelling these mobs has to be non-negotiable.” The Supreme Court, which felt constrained to call for a law against lynching, wondered if mobocracy had become the new normal: “Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land.”
The arrests recently of rights activists with a record of support and service to Dalits and Adivasis has added to the liberal perception of a vindictive regime that has already whipped up public opinion against them by publicising unproven charges, some of them ludicrous. The Supreme Court has had to intervene to restrain the police and ease the terms of their detention.
So why is the BJP so confident? Is it because the party has calculated that the lawlessness visible to the naked eye is in fact its achievement, and will be viewed as such by an already Hindutva-ised India? The liberal opinion may be appalled by what it sees as an ‘undeclared emergency’, the apex court in its decision in the 377 case, felt to have wider applicability, may have emphatically upheld minority rights, but there is no evidence that the middle class with a vital role in moulding public opinion feels the same way. The social media has become the place to air and rejoice in collective bigotry. Besides, the BJP continues to find support among the Other Backward Classes, belying the conviction that proponents of social justice are necessarily opposed to Hindutva majoritarianism.
The fear of the ‘Hindu vote’ must then explain the Opposition’s feeble and piecemeal response to the BJP’s aggression. Civil society has been louder in its condemnation of the ‘culture of impunity’ under the NDA government than the Opposition which held its first joint protest on Monday — but only on the runaway fuel prices, not on the threat to democracy from a party and government seen to have laid siege to India’s social landscape.
The Opposition strategy, if there is one, is predicated on forming State-level alliances, not on ideologically challenging the incumbent coalition. The only leader who’s been something of a thorn in the BJP’s flesh is Congress president Rahul Gandhi. There are signs that the BJP is discomfited by his Kailash Mansarovar yatra. But not to worry. Mr. Gandhi’s intention is only to prove he is a better Hindu. This is a game that can spin out of control, and that might already be the case, with the Congress declaring Brahminism to be in its DNA and cow protection as its creed. If there is a threat to the BJP, it is possibly from within, judging by the upper caste anger against the party’s overtures to Dalits, a community itself in ferment over felt discrimination.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam@