Written by Rumela Sen.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us…”
The classic Dickensian dilemma is an apt description of our times too, whether in Modi’s India, Trump’s America or in post-Brexit Europe. What links these different geographies is the new trend of anti-establishment politics from within the establishment. Anti-establishment here does not mean, as we would typically expect, a rallying cry against a ruling class, well defined by certain markers of identity or interests. Instead this is an epiphenomenon that accompanies right wing resurgence and targets the “political correctness (PC)” of a metropolitan elite, which vaguely signifies the conventional social, political, and economic principles of a society.
In the context of India, secularism, diversity, gender equality, and the political representation of the lowest castes that were once the bedrock of national identity, now amount to “false consciousness;” conjured up by the powerful liberal elites that have special interests in obfuscating the real state of affairs. Against these longstanding hegemonic ideas that have become identified as the partisan mind-set of the entrenched liberal elites, the right wing has unlocked a brave new world of exclusivism and chauvinistic zealotry against minorities and women, which passes as ground-breaking radicalism.
According to a forecast by CEBR (London), India is set to advance two places to become the fifth largest economy by 2018 and the third largest one by 2050. This is no small feat for a country that, only twenty-five years ago, was a developing country
What makes this new wave of iconoclastic enthusiasm unique is that it comes from within the establishment of the ruling BJP party and the dominant majority that portray themselves as oppressed, sometimes by entrenched metropolitan elites and at other times by the minorities. How does a diverse society like India come to label conciliatory language of inclusion as elite smugness while upholding intolerance and xenophobia as an inconvenient but more authentic truth? What happens in Indian politics in 2018 and beyond will be determined not by the much-publicized trajectory of the Indian economy, but by which side emerges victorious in this tug of war of ideas.
Let’s take the case of secularism in India to further explore this. Introduced in the constitution in 1975 but embraced as a basis of Indian identity from independence, secularism is among the biggest targets in the right-wing assault against political correctness. There is no doubt that secularism in India has been deeply flawed. It neither eliminated religious interventions by the state nor did it promote benign tolerance of minority ways of life. Seven decades of secularism later, the Indian Muslims continue to suffer significant educational and economic disadvantage.
But the netizens that now defiantly mock secularism as “sickularism” do not emphasise any of that. They want to yank secularism out of the national consciousness because they equate it with minority appeasement. An important part of this narrative is warning the majority Hindus of the ominous conspiracy of “love jihad”, which refers to Muslim men allegedly coning Hindu women into marrying them in a disguised religious war with the aim to surreptitiously convert India into a Muslim majority country in a few decades. How such malicious narrative can pry open societal prejudice and sway institutions from courts and colleges to the media became palpable in the Hadiya case, where an adult woman had her marriage annulled because her parents objected that she was brainwashed to convert into Islam and marry a Muslim man as part of an Islamic State recruitment drive in India. It is in this political-intellectual climate that setting up a temple glorifying the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi is not seditious but a bold assertion of an inconvenient truth in defiance of age-old orthodoxies.
Is this tragic victimology of the Hindus in India, championed by the Sangh Parivar and Modi, not very different from the proliferation of “anti-white bias” and “reverse discrimination” in the West?
Another casualty of the new anti-establishment uprising in India is the idea of unity in diversity. In pre-liberalisation India ‘unity in diversity’ dominated the national discourse, much like vikas (development) does these days. Growing up in India, national integration was the one big idea, constantly transmitted through carefully crafted messages on Doordarshan (India’s sole TV broadcaster). The most memorable one was perhaps the Mile Sur Mera Tumhara (which roughly translates into ‘we sing in one tune’) campaign that highlighted the various languages of India featuring celebrities and common people who showcased their own language, music and cultural heritage. But they were bound together by a shared allegiance to the overarching ‘Indian-ness’ that was emphasised through the frequent display of the national flag, the Indian map and important monuments and topographical features of India.
Fast forward to 2016. The Indian audience was treated to front-page advertisement of a private telecom company with a full-page photo of Prime Minister Modi. It was not immediately apparent whether the company was endorsing Modi’s “Make in India” and “Digital India” campaigns or the other way around. We would need concrete survey evidence to know if this was interpreted as an inappropriate use of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) or if the people brushed it off as another fuss caused by the political correctness of a select few. If we believe that these industries are the proverbial horses that pull the country forward, how do we object to putting these horses before the proverbial cart?
The centrality of progress in the national agenda is not unique to contemporary India. However, what constitutes progress is contentious and subject to change. For example, in 1930s America, Keynesian radical reform of the financial system, including breaking up big banks, strengthening labour rights, improving the minimum wage, and providing mortgage relief were considered progressive and necessary for helping millions of struggling Americans. Modi’s “achhe din aaney wale hai” (the future is bright) campaign or Trump’s “Make America Great Again” also allude to progress. But their appeal is also contingent on the possibility of an exclusivist, nationalist, populist program, which, in Modi’s case, derives largely from Hindutva, which proclaims India primarily as Hindusthan (land of Hindus) where other religions co-exist by virtue of the tolerance and generosity of the majority Hindus. Let’s not forget that the BJP rose to national prominence by virtue of leading a violent rally to demolish a 16th century mosque and build a temple in its place, in fulfilment of a conviction that a Hindu god was born there. Thus whenever macroeconomic policies hurt its support base, as they did with the demonetisation, goods and services tax (GST) and falling growth numbers in 2017, the party falls back on the tried and tested Hindu identity trope.
Unlike the identity-interest dichotomy that is staple to political economy scholarship, the new anti-establishment politics discussed here is rooted in a complex interdependence of both economic aspirations and cultural identity. For example, the poor upper caste voters in India are known to vote right wing against their class interest, allowing a party like BJP to build cross-class support base. On the other hand, poor voters of both upper and lower castes are known to support redistributive policies such as India’s public distribution system (PDS). This brings us to the role of the average Indian, the median voter, in determining where India will be in 2018.
The proverbial common man (aam admi) in India is no longer Mungeri Laal, the central character of a hugely popular social satire in Indian television in the 1980s. He was a lowly clerk who migrated to Delhi from rural North Bihar and escaped his oppressive wretched life in frequent day-dreaming that came at the most inopportune moments. The common man in today’s India also dreams of escaping his circumstances. But he is connected through television, mobile phones and the internet, to a very different world of the monied class who do not struggle with underemployment and malnutrition but worry about sending their kids to Harvard or going on a European vacation. Compared to the United States, where the richest one percent own 37.3 percent of the total wealth, the richest one percent in India own 53 percent of the wealth.
According to a forecast by CEBR (London), despite the 2017 growth slump, India is set to advance two places to become the fifth largest economy by 2018 and the third largest one by 2050. This is no small feat for a country that, only twenty-five years ago, was a typical developing country, with low GDP, dismal infrastructure and with more poor people than any other country in the world. But India is also divided into two economies of winners and losers. Income data, although useful in highlighting this divide, does not entirely capture the difference in lived experience of the two Indias.
On January 17, 2016, a Dalit PhD student in India committed suicide. The circumstances surrounding the suicide led to furious debates on how high growth had failed to remedy the structural violence against the lowest castes in India. Recently an NRI Hindutva patron, in complete denial of the lived experiences of Dalits, tweeted about a post-caste utopia propagated in Hindutva circles that his life was all castes rolled into one: he lived the Brahmin (the highest caste) experience while researching and the Shudra (the lowest caste) life while washing his dishes, all in the same day.
We have snazzy hashtags (#selfieWithDaughter), catchy social campaigns like “beti bachao, beti padhao” (save the girl child, educate her) for educating the girl child. Yet in a 2017 survey on the attitudes, anxieties and aspirations of India’s youth led by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the majority of the respondents (51 percent) agreed with the proposition that wives should always listen to their husbands. Moreover, two-fifths of the youth (41 percent) thought that the “obedient wife” should not continue to work after marriage. India in 2018 will carry all the baggage of uneven development, divisive rhetoric from above, caste and gender inequalities. Add to that the high fatalities in terrorist violence in 2017. But the Indian state has been like a giant sponge. With all the punches and blows it has taken over the last seventy years, it somehow falls back in shape. And 2018 will also bear testimony to the resilience of India.
Rumela Sen is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. She studied Comparative Politics in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Her current research focuses on rebel retirement and reintegration with empirical evidence drawn primarily from South Asia. Image credit: by India Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.