Friday June 21, 2024

Gandhi’s ‘mission impossible’

By Hussain H Zaidi
February 18, 2023

Released in 2008, the Bollywood movie ‘Shaurya’ (meaning bravery or gallantry) depicts the court martial of a Muslim officer of the Indian army for having shot his senior during a counter-insurgency operation in Kashmir. The trial eventually turns out to be the self-revelation of the commanding officer – a brigadier – of both the accused and the deceased as well as admission of human rights violations done by the troops at his behest.

Summoned as a witness in the court and provoked by the defence counsel, the brigadier gives vent to his terrible hatred for Muslims, passionately arguing that the swamp must be drained before it tears the country apart. Both the substance and the tone of his long monologue is so appalling that the military court is forced to acquit the accused and order an inquiry against the brigadier for the excesses.

Can a Shaurya-like movie be made in today’s India? Film producers and financers – not to speak of lead actors – would have to go mad before they undertake such a venture now. Not only is such a film most likely to be blocked by the censor board, but the people may also not allow its screening. This is the era of movies like ‘The Kashmir Files’. Under the Narendra Modi-led BJP, India is on the road to becoming a monolithic society, where minorities are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end. Not surprisingly, in at least nine out of the 10 recent comments posted on YouTube (where the movie is available), viewers have hailed the brigadier’s ‘patriotic’ stance in ‘Shaurya’.

The marginalization of minorities is accompanied by that of the lower echelons of society, as India is fast becoming an oligopoly (to many an Ambani-Adani duopoly). It is against such divisive policies of the Modi regime that are creating an India sharply divided on ethnic and economic lines that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi organized his recently concluded Bharat Joro Yatra (Unite India March). But can he succeed?

Since 2014, the Congress, the country’s erstwhile ruling party, has been on the rout. In the 2014 national elections, the BJP, with Modi in the van, won a landslide. It secured 282 seats against Congress’s 44 – the latter’s worst-ever electoral performance – in the 545-member Lok Sabha. Five years later, the BJP bettered its tally by winning 303 seats, while the Congress, again led by Rahul Gandhi, was declared winner in 52 constituencies. In state elections as well, the BJP has trumped the Congress.

Of the 30 states or union territories which have legislature, the BJP and its allies are ruling, 16 including most of the bigger ones. The Congress and its coalition partners are governing only six. In 2014 when the BJP came to power, it ruled only seven states, while the Congress was at the helm in 13.

What accounts for this reversal of fortune of the two parties? One narrative sets it down to the Congress being a prisoner of dynastic politics. The essential argument is that industrialization and economic growth have brought in its train an enormous urban middle class for which upward social mobility and meritocracy are the prime virtues.

Modi and Rahul Gandhi represent two ends of the social spectrum. The former has risen from humble beginnings to the top by the sweat of his brow, while the latter owes his status to being a scion of the nation’s erstwhile ruling family. The one represents a common Indian, hardworking and enterprising; the other reminds of the leisured elite class on the eclipse. It goes without saying that Modi, and not Gandhi, is the logical choice of a changing, rising India.

A related argument puts down the BJP’s victories to the tremendous economic growth, which the party has presided over in recent years. During 2014-19, the Indian economy grew on average 7.5 per cent. After experiencing Covid-19-induced contraction in 2020, the economy bounced back and expanded 8.7 per cent in 2021. The government’s pro-growth policies coupled with the enormous market size has made India a hotspot for foreign investment, ushering in job creation and income generation.

Such reasoning, however, reveals only the tip of the iceberg. Take first the economy. Both the major parties are wedded to a liberal economy though the Congress advocates a more equitable distribution of the economic pie. It was the Congress government that in the early 1990s set in motion the reforms that aimed at transference from a state-controlled to a market economy. In many ways, the economic policies of Modi have been a continuation of those of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Nor did the Indian economy fare much better under Modi, as the average growth rate recorded during the Congress’ last term (2009-13) was 7.4 per cent.

Under Modi, as under Singh, only an increasingly small segment has been the driver – and the major beneficiary – of economic growth, while the rest of society has been largely excluded from both the process and its outcome. Not surprisingly, international organizations frequently point towards India as a textbook example of a highly skewed income distribution. According to the ‘Global Wealth Report, 2022’, a publication of the Switzerland-based Credit Suisse, the top one per cent in India, which make up only 0.07 per cent of the total adult population, accounted for 40.6 per cent of the total national wealth in 2021. India’s Gini Index, a widely used measure of income or wealth inequality, is 82.3 per cent, which is among the highest in the world. At the other end of the scale, 78 per cent of the adult population in India has wealth below $10,000. The report describes economic reforms and rising asset prices as the main contributors to such wide income disparities.

Thus, the economy doesn’t underpin the BJP’s tremendous popularity. Nor does dynastic politics do. Rather, it is the singular narrative that India must be a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values with total domination of the majority community (Hindutva) that undergirds the BJP’s electoral performance. The rise of the BJP and the eclipse of the Congress has set the stage for Hindutva to replace secularism as the dominant ethos of the Indian polity.

In Modi, the party has a leader who is a picture-perfect personification of its Hindutva narrative and all that it signifies. He has made his countrymen believe – the way none before him could do – that for centuries Hindus despite being in a veritable majority have been humiliated in their homeland and that now it is time to turn the tide. He is a most astute practitioner of identity politics stretched to its limits. If there was ever any doubt regarding his role as the Gujarat chief minister in the 2004 communal riots in the state, the same has been washed out by a recent BBC documentary, which is based on the cables sent by the British High Commission in India about the riots.

The Yatra, during which Rahul Gandhi travelled more than 4,000km across the country on foot, was aimed at uniting the nation against the BJP’s divisive politics and growing economic inequality. It also served to bolster Rahul Gandhi’s image, whom his rivals have derisively given the sobriquets of a ‘shahzada’ (a prince) and ‘papu’ (callow), who is no match for an austere and hardy Modi. It has also sent out the message that despite its electoral reversals, India’s grand old party is still politically relevant. The Yatra has given the Congress a new narrative one year before the country goes to polls.

For a political party to succeed, it needs support from three quarters: people, media, and mega businesses. The BJP enjoys huge support from all three stakeholders: the Congress from none. Also, in the era of ethnic politics, the tide of history favours Hindutva, not secularism, in India.

Therefore, it’s doubtful whether the Congress would be able to dethrone the BJP in the future or otherwise turn the tide of Hindutva. Rahul Gandhi seems to be on an impossible mission. However, he will be remembered as one who upheld the lost cause of secularism in one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: