Is India on the brink of becoming a totalitarian system?
Over the years, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have become astute in securing head-starts over rivals in electoral battles, at least as far as public assessment goes.
In an era where battles are fought as much in various media and mind spaces, as on the ground, the BJP has again leapt out from the starting blocks. This may not ensure victory but it enables the party to secure a significant lead in the battle of perception.
Take the deliberations during the recently-concluded two-day National Executive meeting of the BJP into account. In a year where there are nine crucial and not-so-important state assembly elections (and a tenth too if the Centre decides to call for polls in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir), Modi chose to look beyond the immediate tasks at hand in his headlines-grabbing concluding remarks.
Conveying the impression of this year’s state elections as mostly being ‘settled’ for the party, although this may not be the case, the prime minister laid out his vision for the way beyond 2023: how to create history in 400 days.
Modi’s goal – to match record set by Nehru, Indira
Significantly, the records to be notched which were listed, are completely personalised: For Modi to match Jawaharlal Nehru’s record of leading his party to three consecutive Lok Sabha polls and also catching up with Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, as the only other premier to take the oath of office on three consecutive occasions.
It is certain that leaving a lasting legacy and a desire to be recorded in the history books remains Modi’s key objectives.
Clearly, Modi is no longer the BJP’s trump card; he has become the party’s only card, not just in national elections but also at the state level, as demonstrated in Gujarat last month. The formula is not always a success as demonstrated in Himachal Pradesh, but the BJP takes defeats in its stride and blows victories out of proportion with a pliant media playing along.
The tone and tenor set for the 2024 contest at the executive meeting demonstrates that the collegiate style of functioning with a quasi-collective form of leadership has been completely abandoned. This makes Modi’s attack on so-called dynastic parties completely duplicitous because he too has completely gutted the party system and thereby undermines democracy and other constitutional principles.
New slogan for 2024 elections
Despite being aware that the persistent use of jumlas or catchphrases that are not followed upon leaves him open to accusation of being a deceptive political leader, Modi stepped beyond the achhe din aane waale hain coinage and introduced a new one for use in the BJP campaign for 2024: Sarvottam kaal aane waale hain (the finest era is on the anvil) – clearly a play on one of the few slogans that secured the mandate in 2014.
This slogan is better than the concept of Amrit Kaal – the period between India’s 75th anniversary of Independence Day and Centenary. The idea, now one of the numerous commonly used populist phrases, was introduced by Modi in August 2021 in public discourse to launch the year-long celebrations for India’s landmark anniversary of independence celebrated last year.
Inexplicable electoral victories
Now the promise is that the finest period in India’s history would be ushered in if the BJP is voted back into office in 2024. The slogan may appear odd when one juxtaposes it with unfulfilled promises – and this list is fairly long. But, the BJP’s electoral victories are inexplicable when put against its failure to deliver on pledges.
Likewise, it has been incomprehensible how the BJP has continued to perform creditably in several states despite its woeful track record on the three most challenging fronts since 2020: Covid-management, economic recovery, and the handling of the conflict with China.
Part of the puzzle can be solved by perusing one of Modi’s claims at the executive meeting. He asserted that “the BJP is no longer merely a political movement but a social movement.”
With this claim, Modi pointed to social engineering that has been undertaken by the party in a big way since 2014. The social base of the BJP has expanded and the party has secured the support of several non-dominant castes among the OBCs and Dalits. This was not the case previously when, despite more than two decades of effort, the party remained an upper-caste-dominated party at its core.
Scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot and others at the Trivedi Data Centre, Ashoka University, contest the claim that the BJP has expanded its social base. They contend that upper caste domination remains a reality among BJP’s lawmakers as well as within its party hierarchy.
Significantly, however, the BJP has conveyed the impression, by moves like the induction of a large number of OBCs in the Union Council of Ministers, that its social base has expanded. Modi, being from the OBCs, has also been used to convey the impression that the prime minister has ‘Mandalised’ the party and government.
Muslims and Christians completely marginalised
While the social expansion of the BJP’s power structures needs to be assessed for some more time before a definitive verdict can be pronounced, there is no doubt that the party has completely marginalized India’s two largest religious minorities: Muslims and Christians.
Last year onwards, the BJP ceased to have a single Muslim parliamentarian in its ranks, a development that underscores that the BJP sees no necessity to accommodate anyone from the community in the country’s power structures and institutions.
This development coincided with Modi asking his party workers and leaders at the previous National Executive meeting to reach out to the Pasmanda or socio-economically backward Muslims. There has been little follow-up to this call mainly because no structural system was put in place by the BJP, and also because the poorer Pasmanda Muslims are in the first line of Muslims who are either attacked or harangued by majoritarian forces.
Moreover, the entire community continues to face social prejudice daily, and their insecurity remains at the same level, if not higher.
Outreach to non-dominant groups
In his address to members of the party Executive at New Delhi, Modi asked them to reach out to other non-dominant groups within the minorities – Bohras, Mazhabi Sikhs, and so on while reiterating the previous call for wooing Pasmandas, besides Muslim professionals and educated Muslims “without expecting votes in return.” He also reportedly asked members to visit universities and churches.
Contradictions remain however. In December 2022, the government opposed in the Supreme Court the granting of reservation benefits to Dalits who accepted Christianity and Islam. It has appointed the Justice K.G. Balakrishnan Commission with a term of two years, effectively putting a freeze on this matter till late 2024 at least.
Even otherwise, Modi making a call for this reach-out, publicized formally by a chosen publicist, is not sufficient: there must be a similar directive to the faithful from others in the BJP’s political fraternity. Modi’s claim of the BJP becoming a social movement has come at almost the same time as Mohan Bhagwat’s interview wherein he made specific demands on Muslims to be able to live in dignity.
That this has gone unchallenged by most of society and the political class proves that Modi’s claim of the BJP evolving into a movement is true; only that the movement, unlike previous progressive campaigns in the past, is not socially inclusive but seeks to exclude significant sections of Indian society.
The BJP’s counter-argument has been that its welfare schemes are ‘non-discriminatory’ in nature; that an applicant’s surname is not factored in before deciding if she or he qualified for a loan or a gas connection.
Slant towards totalitarianism
There is truth in this argument, but when juxtaposed against the rising invisibilization of religious minorities from India’s power structures, it shows the emergence of a benevolent but majoritarian political system. The fact that there is no challenge to this underscores that the system has also moved towards becoming totalitarian in character.
Back in 2014, the BJP let it be known that the campaign’s success was greatly due to the page pramukh, the lowest common denominator of party workers. Modi called for reinforcing the party’s grassroot network besides focussing on the voters between 18 and 25. He contended that they are potential permanent voters of the BJP for having never perceived any other party as a credible party of governance.
Significantly, the prime minister again emphasized on performing duties and not just asking for rights. He stated that the years till independent India’s centenary should be also treated as Kartavya Kaal or Era to fulfil Duties.
Efforts to sugar-coat India’s image
Despite its triumphant approach, there was a word or two calling for both restraint as well as caution. Coming in the wake of the controversy of the rightwing cadre attacking Shahrukh Khan’s film, Pathaan, the Prime Minister’s stern message assumes greater importance in the backdrop of the candid criticism of “fictionalized jingoism” by Amitabh Bachchan, a long-time backer of Modi.
Such calls for prudence and moderation, besides the directive to reach out to the more backward among religious minorities. is aimed at sugar-coating India’s image and preventing international backlash.
Modi’s efforts to balance between majoritarian onslaughts and projecting the image of heading an inclusive political system will be a challenge. Yet, this is necessary given India’s G-20 presidency and the fact that Modi would certainly aim to prevent being isolated on the international stage.
Despite the fact that much has to be worked out beneath the headline points that emerged out of the BJP’s executive meeting, the party is way ahead of the opposition parties. Even as the ruling party is getting its act together, the adversaries remain divided over making common cause. Eventually this may be what will make the difference in 2024 between the victor and the vanquished.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. He has also written ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)