Indian Election

17 April 2024

Indian Election

By Gwynne Dyer

Extreme nationalism always looks foolish or even deranged to those who have not caught the virus, but in India it’s now official.

In January, India’s Ministry of Defence started setting up 822 ‘selfie points’ at war memorials, railway stations and tourist attractions where people can take photos with a cardboard cutout of their hero, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The timing was no coincidence. The national election begins on Friday and runs until 4 June, when the result will be declared. (With almost a billion voters, the country votes one region at a time.) The outcome is known in advance – Modi will win – but the Hindu fanatics who provide his core vote have the bit between their teeth.

In West Bengal, for example, the World Council of Hindus recently petitioned a court to separate two lions in a zoo enclosure. The male lion is called Akbar, after a 16th-century Muslim emperor, while the female is named Sita after a Hindu goddess.

“Sita cannot stay with the Mughal emperor Akbar,” the petitioners demanded. “Such an act amounts to blasphemy and is a direct assault on the religious belief of all Hindus.” The pair have been duly separated and now reside in different cages. Ridiculous, of course, but also deadly serious.

India’s 200 million Muslims, about one-seventh of the population, are now deliberately targeted by Narendra Modi’s militantly Hindu BJP (Indian People’s Party).

Some Hindus nurse an historical grievance because most of India was ruled for five centuries by Muslim conquerors originally from Central Asia, but that ended two centuries ago. Hindus were already in the ascendant under British rule, because they were readier to collaborate with the new conquerors – and even that ended 77 years ago.

‘Hindutva’, the aggressive modern version of Hindu nationalism, is largely a contemporary ideology created for political purposes, but it currently dominates the Indian political scene. It has given Modi licence to transform an imperfect but functional democracy into a ‘soft’ fascist state.

This will be Modi’s third consecutive term in office, and many Indians believe that it will complete his transformation of the country. What will emerge, they fear, is a BJP one-party theocracy, nastier than Orban’s Hungary or Erdoğan’s Turkey although perhaps not as vicious as Khamenei’s Iran.

It may well come to that. Even now opposition politicians are routinely jailed on false charges, almost all the media are cowed into obedience, and Muslims face intimidation or actual violence with almost no hope of protection from the police. Some of the courts are still independent but the rule of law is definitely in retreat.

Yet it’s too soon to give up on India’s democratic traditions. The BJP, for all its bombast and swagger, only got 37% of the popular vote in the last national election five years ago. Its apparent ‘landslide’ victory was only due to the opposition being divided into many smaller parties.

Hindutva is all-powerful in the ‘Hindi belt’ of northern India, but first-language Hindi speakers are only 40% of the population. Southern and eastern India speak other languages and have different preoccupations. And there is one topic that could unite them against the BJP: caste.

The BJP is dominated by upper-caste Hindus who have convinced a great many other Hindus that they are all in the same boat, but they are not. Socially, economically and educationally the lower castes trail far behind. The opposition, or at least the Congress Party part of it, has realised (better late than never) that these are the voters they need.

Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the family that has given India three prime ministers, has begun to demand a ‘caste census’ in every state, because that would reveal how small a share of the national wealth the lower castes actually get.

No such census had been published in India since the 1930s. However Bihar, an opposition-governed state, finally did one, and revealed late last year that more than two-thirds (73%) of its 130 million people belong to ‘backward’ or marginalised castes.

That’s much higher than people thought, and it’s political dynamite. So now Gandhi’s election speeches sound like this: “Are any of you Dalits (‘untouchables’) or other low castes in the judiciary? Are any of you in the media? Do any of you own even one of India’s 200 top companies?”

“Why are you all asleep? You are 73% of the population. What kind of society is this where you don’t make any decisions?”

The idea that all Hindus share the same grievances and goals is just ‘culture-war’ lies, and caste is finally taking its rightful place on India’s political agenda. It may be coming too late to turn back the BJP juggernaut this time, but fascism is not necessarily India’s future.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“In West…serious”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.