In the liberal view of things, the ongoing Lok Sabha election will decide India’s future. It will decide whether India will become a Hindu-first state with reduced civil liberties and intolerance of minorities or be dragged back to its old state of sometimes wavering secularism but a general agreement to co-habitation and tolerance.
I want to tell my fellow liberals that it is too late. That decision has already been made.
There are three possibilities when votes are counted on May 23: another term for Narendra Modi, a fractured mandate—both distinct possibilities; or the return of the Congress and ascension of Rahul Gandhi, which in my view is a more remote prospect.
Another strong mandate for Modi would almost certainly mean an official push to declare India a Hindu rashtra, a crackdown on dissenters and independent media, the further rise of—and special favours to—select tycoons, the end of special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the prospect of an open rebellion in the crown of India.
Even if Modi fails, the Hindu view of life will predominate, civil liberties may be further eroded, and minorities will likely find themselves pushed to evolve a new contract with their country. A new government could recover some ground here, if it is determined to, by rolling back the deliberate, institutionalised misuse of the law and technology.
But even a government wedded to tolerance will find it difficult to turn back the widening electoral acceptance of sectarian hate and assaults on liberty. A government can try to ensure the Constitution is protected, but it is bound to eventually fail or succumb if the people endorse its manipulation.
The threat to civil liberties and hostility to minorities indeed accelerated and acquired full voice during Modi’s term in office, but many precedents set before his time had widespread public approval and have been liberally used by non-BJP state governments, including–and especially—those run by the Congress.
As Thomas Blom Hansen writes in a chapter in a new book called Majoritarian State, the Bharatiya Janata Party has not passed any significant new legislation curtailing “liberal freedoms” since it came to power in 2014. It has only rigorously applied existing legislation and established “police protocol” to act against free speech and those deemed “anti-national.”
The BJP has relied on not just legislation with colonial roots but “elements of the extensive security state that successive Congress regimes have built since the 1960s in the name of protecting national unity and sovereignty,” writes Hansen, an anthropology professor at Stanford University.
The Congress, for instance, has only committed to repealing the 159-year-old law on sedition, which it frequently deployed during its years in power. It has no comment on other laws that chill free speech and liberty, including those that supposedly protect national security and those deployed against terrorism but often used against minorities and human rights activists, those that allow abuses by security forces in “disturbed areas” and even those allowing criminal defamation.
The police in India—regardless of which party is in power—have, for some time, felt emboldened enough to wrongly deploy some of these laws. The most obvious example of extra-constitutional behaviour this decade has been the frequent arrest of people who merely share memes online, using a law struck down by the Supreme Court, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act.
Reputations and lives have been ruined by the wrongful use of such laws, and a new government is unlikely to discard the latest precedents set by the Modi administration.
In a democracy, laws can be misused only when there is acquiescence, when a citizenry either does not believe it is worth its while to protest or agrees with such legal and constitutional corruption.
The rising tide of opprobrium against minorities, civil rights activists and anyone not in consonance with the BJP’s majoritarian view of life clearly does not disturb enough Indians or disturb them adequately.
While it is apparent that the BJP gave life to long-nurtured resentments and loathing, to give them public expression, it is clear these hostilities did not emerge overnight. Many have been assiduously nurtured to exploit the fault lines of Indian society.
“This project of weaponising and militarizing society through organisation, vigilance and a capacity for violence has been an objective of the Sangh Parivar through the many decades during which Hindu nationalists were distant from elected office,” write Angana P Chatterji, Christopher Jaffrolet and Hansen in Majoritarian State.
They argue that vigilante violence, or the threat of it, “generally reinforce already existing caste, gender, class and communal-racial attitudes prevalent among upper caste Hindus and aspirational lower caste groups.”
The weaponisation of these attitudes has been made possible by the spread of communications, especially the mobile phone and social media, which the BJP and its affiliates deployed to draw out dormant insecurities and hatreds within Hindu society.
From jobless youth to fund managers, the reach of WhatsApp university-led Hindu radicalisation is now deep and wide, and it will live on and acquire new meaning in the years to come. This genie isn’t going back into the bottle.
For now, Hindutva’s great project to recreate Indian history through fantasy and fake news rolls on. Its effects will outlive its party’s government, festering in the minds of millions even if Modi is ousted.
Last week, an amiable, silver-haired Uttar Pradesh taxi driver in Mumbai was peacefully discussing old Hindi film songs with my wife when I made the mistake of asking him whom he would vote for.
“BJP BJP, BJP!” he began to chant.
When I told him we were from South India, a place with limited BJP influence, his eyes blazed, and he said, “Anyone who is a desh bhakt, a patriot, will vote for the BJP.”
How is lynching and harassment of minorities patriotic, I asked.
He was beyond reason.
“There was no progress for 70 years,” he said, parroting a theme made popular by Modi and quoted as a fact on social media.
“Do you know the condition this country was in when we got independence?” I asked.
He was shouting by now.
“Do you know why that was?” he said. “It was because Mahatma Gandhi gave away Rs1,000 crore to the Muslims, to Pakistan. Everyone knows this.”
India has reached a point where lies are truth, and few are bothered by the fact that a BJP candidate declares Gandhi’s assassin a patriot, as terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur did on May 16, and finds immediate support.
If we still think these people represent the fringe of Indian thought, we may not know our country very well.
Perhaps we never did.