India is engulfed in a political storm over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the validation of the National Population Register (NPR), and compilation of a National Citizens Register (NCR). The country is heading into an ideological civil war and the dismantling of India’s secular foundation is near complete.
The old elites, the Lutyens Delhi, the chattering class also referred to as Macaulay’s children, say India is divided as never before. But then, the oldest democracy, the USA, is divided as never before, so is the United Kingdom, and therefore is India a part of this larger global phenomenon? Perhaps, but Indian singularities give these trends a uniquely Indian twist. Ancient India and modern India and Modi’s Bharat clash and collide leaving in its wake, slipstreams that are uncommonly Indian.
One should pay heed in this context, to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Union Budget 2020 speech. And I refer here neither for its customary sops and invocations to kickstart the economy nor to her ability to be loquacious (the longest budget speech ever, including some unwanted poetry) but to her resort to one overarching theme: aspirational.
India’s founding fathers were aware of these dark and atavistic impulses in the body politics and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was but the most visceral act by these revanchist forces. This was 72 years ago, sadly the same rhetoric is back.
That one word in her speech ‘aspirational’ stands out, for it defines to an extent the extraordinary churn that we see in India today. She indeed echoes the Washington Post’s op-ed ‘The secret behind millennial support for India’s Modi’, and tells us why India’s Teflon Prime Minister despite major gaffes still rides high. ‘Modi and the BJP managed to package and sell their policies to their young voters with ease. Demonetisation was advertised as a bold, courageous move to tackle black money and entrenched corruption, a move only someone as audacious as the prime minister could undertake’.
The rise of Modi
So is demographics (the youth bulge) at the heart of this rise of Modi? Devesh Kapur (Starr Foundation professor of South Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies) says Modi’s ‘India is aspirational, assertive — and anti-elite. The reality is that Indian society has become less deferential … than ever before. Rising social groups are resentful of the social and cultural capital that privileges the elite and are increasingly willing to express this resentment electorally. The massive exposure of India’s youth to social media has upended their cloistered upbringings and … … making them more likely to embrace the BJP’s anti-elite rhetoric’.
To this mix comes the other toxic strain in Modi’s India. One of the pet peeves of the Hindu right is that the Muslims of independent India have not atoned for the wanton desecration of sacred Hindu temples by their forefathers, the Muslim invaders from present day Afghanistan and Central Asia. The sacred Vishwanath temple was destroyed by Qutb-Udin-Aibak in 1194 CE, when he defeated the Raja of Kannauj, as a commander of Mohammad Ghori. The temple was rebuilt by a Gujarati merchant during the reign of Delhi’s Sultan Iltutmish (1211—1266 CE), only to be demolished again during Sikandar Lodhi (1489—1517).
In 1669 CE, Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the temple and built the Gyanvapi Mosque in its place. The destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the triumphalism witnessed when India’s apex court granted recently the right to build the Ram Temple on that site is seen by many as exacting just revenge for these ancient wrongs.
‘Shoot all the traitors...’
India’s founding fathers were aware of these dark and atavistic impulses in the body politics and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was but the most visceral act by these revanchist forces. This was 72 years ago, sadly the same rhetoric is back and we have a junior minister of finance, Anurag Thakur exhorting his followers ‘shoot all the traitors of the country’. And pray who are these quislings? Those who oppose the CAA, demonised as fifth columnists, are the targets of this vitriol. The CAA may indeed be a long overdue reform but surely the right to oppose it cannot be denied. Sadly the prime minister is not above using dog whistles to silence those opposing the CAA. Ominously there have been three near fatal incidents at the peaceful rally being held at Shaheen Bagh, in Delhi’s Okla suburb and it’s only a matter of time before something uglier and sinister happens at that site. Rana Ayyub writing in the Post says ‘The hate that inspired Gandhi’s assassin is rising again’. It would be a tragedy beyond compare if the horrific happenings of 1947 were to be revisited on the nation in 2020: a travesty when Ache Din (great expectations) was promised not so long ago.
Is this the legacy that Modi wishes to leave behind? A new dawn, eclipsed even before it dawned, the shadows lengthen instead, and in its wake, the dark night of the soul is upon us.
— Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.