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May 26, 2019

India’s tryst with Hindutva


May 26, 2019

We are so deeply engrossed in our own affairs at this time, with the latest addition of an affair that surrounds the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau.

Already, the unbearably dreadful tale of the rape and murder of a little girl in Islamabad had pulverised the nation. It is a tragedy that has many dimensions, drawing attention to some innate tensions that exist in our society. Then, there is the economy. And, of course, the seething cauldron of politics.

But my sights are mainly set on a historical development that has taken place across our frontiers. We do need to find time to look closely at and understand the astounding triumph of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s Lok Sabha elections. Modi has won his second term with a landslide and this victory is bound to cast its shadow across the entire region, particularly on Pakistan.

In our own national elections last year, Imran Khan’s party had pledged to raise a tsunami. Modi, without raising that slogan, has demonstrated what an electoral tsunami would look like. It is in fact a saffron tsunami, a high tide of Hindu nationalism that has swept away the party that had led the movement for India’s freedom.

You might say that Mohatama Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have lost this election – and this remark was not so valid in 2014 when Modi had won his first term as the prime minister of the largest democracy of the world that was founded on the principle of secularism.

Five years ago, the campaign of the BJP alliance was very different. The focus was on development, and creation of wealth. Perhaps because the Modi government did not perform so well in this sector, the campaign this time was shamelessly hinged on ultra-nationalism, Hindutva, communalism, Islamophobia and fear of Pakistan.

Pakistan did figure prominently in Modi’s campaign. Critics have suggested that everything changed on February 14 when a bus of Indian paramilitary forces was bombed in Pulwama in Indian-occupied Kashmir. It prompted an explosion of jingoism and led to the Balakot affair. Despite the embarrassment of the capture of a senior officer of the Indian Air Force, Modi exploited his decision to send fighter jets into Pakistan’s airspace. Throughout the campaign, Modi raged against Pakistan, and this synchronised well with the numerous acts of violence against Muslims.

Since I am not so well versed in the intricacies of Indian politics, I can only look at it in a larger perspective. It is a measure of the strained relations between our two countries that our media was not able to cover these crucial elections and probe issues that are relevant for us. At another level, we have been very deficient in covering major events in our geographical neighbourhood and have largely to depend on foreign news agencies instead of being able to interpret them for the rest of the world.

In any case, the big question now is to see how relations between India and Pakistan evolve in the coming days. A few weeks ago, Imran Khan had hoped that “perhaps, if the BJP wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached”. He was one of the first leaders to greet his Indian counterpart on his electoral victory, looking forward to working with him for “peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia”. We should expect India to express similar sentiments.

However, the nature of the victory that the BJP has won and the narrative it has advanced raise fears that it could adopt an uncompromising attitude towards Pakistan. On Thursday, our Foreign Office cautioned India against changing the constitutional status of occupied Kashmir and reminded it that oppressive tactics could not suppress the freedom movement of the Kashmiri people.

One message delivered by the Indian elections is bound to reverberate in the minds of Pakistan’s liberal elements. They can identify with a liberal in India. Or with a Muslim. Or a low-caste Hindu. As it is, the space for progressives has also continued to shrink in Pakistan.

But we do not have a mainstream politician who can match the vile credentials of Narendra Modi, who bears the stigma of presiding over the Gujarat massacre in 2002. In these recent elections, the real shame is associated with Pragya Thakur, a Hindu supremacist who contested on a BJP ticket from Bhopal. She is accused of the 2008 Malegaon bombings, and called Gandhi’s killer a ‘patriot’ during her campaign. She too won with a big margin.

That Congress was routed beyond all expectations demands a separate analysis. TV star Smriti Irani stunned Rahul Gandhi in his ancestral stronghold of Amethi. Is this the defeat of the dynastic principle in today’s politics?

It has been argued that the triumph of the far-right in India is part of a global trend, with its seeds in Trump and Brexit. The caption of Gary Younge’s piece in The Guardian on Friday made a statement: ‘Shocked by the rise of the right? Then you weren’t paying attention’. Younge says: “There is no denying that bigotry, once embedded in a political culture, is difficult to excise”.

Still, there has been considerable shock and awe over Modi’s coup. One opinion article in The New York Times by prominent Indian writer Pankaj Mishra explained “how Narendra Modi seduced India with envy and hate”. Mishra has been quite candid: “India has witnessed a savage assault on not just democratic institutions and rational discourse but also ordinary human decency”.

Writing about Modi’s performance, he concluded: “This week, he triumphantly reaped one of the biggest electoral harvests of the post-truth age, giving us more reason to fear the future”.

This fear was present to a number of other observers. Time magazine had a cover story on Modi earlier this month, before the results were announced, with this headline: “Can the world’s largest democracy endure another five years of a Modi government?” Ostensibly to balance this, the issue had another story that treated Modi positively, calling him “India’s best hope” for economic reform.

I find it extremely meaningful that the Time cover story was written by Aatish Taseer, son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated when he was governor of Punjab by his own guard in January 2011. In some ways, that assassination symbolises the spectre of intolerance that has haunted Pakistan’s politics. Our two countries do have some inexplicable, esoteric linkages.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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