There is much that lies badly broken in India today. The economy desperately needs to be repaired, as do rural distress, the job crisis and the free-falling rupee. The country’s institutions demand urgently to be rebuilt — the media, police, judiciary, universities, the planning process, the Election Commission of India. But above all, if there is one thing that stands most dangerously damaged, it is our constitutional pledge of a secular democracy. What are the prospects of rebuilding this?
Shrill, divisive campaign
Listen carefully to the speeches in the shrill summer election campaign which has just come to a halt. From their podiums, Opposition leaders spoke of everything else — the agony of farmers, unemployed youth, suspect defence deals, crony capitalism and indeed crony institutions. But rarely did they speak of lynching, of violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, of the fear which has become normalised in their daily lives, of our wrecked social contract of equality and harmony. And never did they speak of secularism.
The imagination of secularism in the Indian Republic was rooted in its singularly pluralist civilisational ethos, in the lives and work of Ashoka and Akbar, in the teachings of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak. It was illuminated by our struggle for freedom, in the humanist and egalitarian convictions of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Nehru. It was the central iridescent idea: that this newly-freed country would belong equally to all its people. People of no religion, no language, no caste, no ethnicity, no gender, no class would be entitled to lay claim to the country more than any other.
Secularism is the soul of India’s Constitution. Today the letter of this Constitution still remains unaltered, but its soul is mangled and choked. Not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); even Opposition parties seem to have accepted that India is no longer the secular country born of the legacy of India’s freedom struggle, but a majoritarian Hindu country. In this new India, people of minority religions, castes and gender are second-class. Their safety and well-being are dependent now on the consent and will of the majority upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu, and the dictates of this Hindu are interpreted and violently mediated by the ideology of Hindutva.
It is a grave mistake to frame the 2019 general election as a battle of Narendra Modi against the rest. This is how Prime Minister Modi, referring to himself repeatedly in the third person, has framed this bitter electoral contest. This is how the Opposition has fought the electoral battle, of Mr. Modi versus the rest. This is how the majority of Indian voters view this combat.
RSS vs. Constitution
However, the electoral battle waged around the country is truly a different one. On one side stands the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and on the other is the secular idea of the Indian Constitution. Mr. Modi is a formidable, pugnacious, tireless and immensely popular mascot of the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS; and his image is powerfully buttressed by a pliant corporate media and dizzying levels of spending on a public relations blitz to manufacture consent. But the central danger to secular India is not the personality of Mr. Modi. It is the penetration of the RSS into every institution of the country, into every political party, the media, the university, the judiciary, the civil services, and most dangerously into mainstream everyday social life of every ordinary Indian.
In the RSS worldview, Muslims and Christians are not authentically Indian, their loyalty to the Indian nation is and will always remain suspect; therefore, they need to be tamed, to be continuously shown their subordinate status in the Indian polity and society. It is for this reason that virulent hate speech was so central to this election campaign, with Mr. Modi mocking his rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for seeking election in a constituency in which he would have to depend in part on Muslim and Christian voters; and other BJP leaders and candidates raging against the threats of the ‘green virus’ and ‘termites’. It is for this reason that BJP president Amit Shah pledges to extend the National Register of Citizens to all parts of India, while ensuring citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists from other parts of the subcontinent; in this way brazenly turning on its head the core constitutional idea that a person’s religion is irrelevant to her rights to equal citizenship. And it is for this reason that lynching of Muslims and attacks on Christian places of worship, openly valorised by ruling party leaders, became the overarching symbols of the newly forged relationship of the majoritarian Hindu state with its now inferior religious minorities.
In a place of fear
If Mr. Modi is returned with an emphatic majority when ballots are counted on May 23, as many exit polls predict, this will herald that India has fallen deep into a cold hard place of hate and fear. It will signal that a significant majority of Hindus endorse the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS. It will indicate the popular abandonment of the secular and humane vision of India’s Constitution, and its replacement by a violent and chauvinist majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is suspicious and hateful in its relations with people who follow minority religious faiths. This outcome would also further imperil all left, liberal and democratic dissenting voices, in civil society, in the media, in universities, and in letters and the arts.
A second scenario, anticipated by a much smaller number of political commentators, is of reduced support for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), its tally falling short of the half-way mark. In such a situation, they anticipate the possibility that many regional parties could be persuaded to support an NDA government only if it is led by a less belligerent leader than Mr. Modi, possibly Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh. Many are relieved by the possibility of such an outcome: anyone other than Mr. Modi would be welcome, they reason. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that such a choice would pull India out of the dark abyss into which it has slipped. Even with a more acceptable face, as with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the RSS would use political power to further penetrate all institutions, and enfeeble what survives of secular practice.
The least expected scenario, of the victory of the United Progressive Alliance or a federal front of regional parties, cannot be ruled out yet. After all, the BJP has lost no exit polls since 2004, but it lost many elections. However, even with such an outcome, the crusade against secular democracy waged with such vigour by the RSS will not be won. The appetite and moral courage to fight majoritarian politics head-on stands perilously weakened among Opposition political parties. Whatever the final outcome, this fight to salvage, defend and fortify secularism will have to be fought by the Indian people. India is today a wasteland of compassion. It will take generations to clean out the toxins of hate from Indian society. It is a battle that must be waged with courage, with perseverance and with love. History in the end is on our side.