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A Faustian bargain


June 1, 2019

Faust is the protagonist of arguably the most famous legend in Western literature. The legend tells the story of a scholar who sells his soul to Satan in his quest for boundless knowledge and power. After the deal with the devil is sealed, Faust begins to realize that he has been led down the garden path. The prince of hell is neither incapable of nor does he intend to be as good as his word. But Faust's proclivity to trust the devil is so overpowering as to bring all his suspicions to rest.

An entire community or society too can make a Faustian bargain by trusting its destiny to the wrong hands. The Germans did so when after the First World War they voted to power Hitler and his Nazi Party, who exploited the nationalistic sentiments trampled by a rancorous Treaty of Versailles. Very recently, Indians – swept by communalism – struck a Faustian bargain when they overwhelmingly re-elected Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India is officially a secular state, and logically so. The Indian National Congress (INC) had raged against the creation of Pakistan on the ground that the partition of a multi-ethnic India on the basis of religion would be dreadful. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who spearheaded the movement for the establishment of Pakistan, earned the excoriation of the advocates of a united India for what they called injecting religion into politics.

The Congress Party has remained committed to secularism. In the first three decades of independence, there was little credible opposition to the Congress – and by implication there was little danger to secularism as a matter of state policy. The situation took a turn for the worse with the rise of the BJP. As Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the BJP's roots can be traced to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the National Volunteers Corps, and its political arm the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) or Indian People's Association. The BJS was wedded to rebuilding India into a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values or Hindutva. Formally set up in 1980, the BJP inherited the BJS's mission.

For the BJP, the defining moment came in 1989 when its president LK Advani spearheaded a nationwide march to pull down the historic Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, in India's largest and politically most important state of Uttar Pradesh and build a temple in its place. For secular India, the event turned out to be the thin end of the wedge. The campaign galvanized the religious sentiments of the majority Hindu community and culminated in the demolition of the mosque in December 1992.

That fateful event has had a three-fold significance for Indian politics and society. One, it provided a perfect platform for the rise of the BJP. In the ensuing 1996 parliamentary elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party and formed its first government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Two, it set the stage for Hindutva to replace secularism as the dominant ethos of the Indian polity. To date the building of a temple in Ayodhya, and all that it signifies, remains the kernel of the BJP's politics. The party's 2019 election manifesto reiterated that promise. Three, it would usher in the reversal of the fortunes of the hitherto dominant Congress Party, which championed secularism. In 2014, those trends combined to bring about the resounding electoral victory of the BJP under the stewardship of Naraendra Modi, the man widely seen to be behind the 2002 carnage of Muslims in the Gujarat communal riots, and the worst ever defeat of the Congress. Five years later, as Hindutva went from strength to strength, the electorate has handed an even heavier mandate to the BJP.

National elections are an index of the popular will and a pointer to the direction in which a polity is moving. By overwhelmingly reposing their trust in the BJP, the Indian electorate has sent out the message that it's prepared to consign secularism to the dustbin and embrace Hindu nationalism.

An alternative narrative has set down the outcome of the 2019 elections to the Congress being a prisoner of dynastic politics. The essential argument is that industrialization and economic growth has brought in its train an enormous urban middle class for which upward social mobility and meritocracy are prime virtues. Modi and Rahul Gandhi represent the two ends of the social spectrum. The former has risen 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. It goes without saying that Modi, and not Rahul Gandhi, is the logical choice of a changing India.

Such an argument is a red herring. Despite all its demerits, dynastic politics is not the difference between the Congress and the BJP. It would have been had the BJP thrown up a progressive leadership, which eschewed communal politics and sought to preserve the essential secular credentials of a remarkably multiethnic India. Instead, the BJP is riding the crest of popularity on the back of a leader who is a picture perfect personification of its Hindutva narrative.

On the economic policy, there is not much to choose between the Congress and the BJP. Both parties are wedded to a liberal economy. 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. During the BJP's tenure (2009-14), the economy grew on average 7.5 percent, while the average growth rate recorded during the Congress' last term (2009-13) was 7.4 percent. In fact, the economy sputtered in the last two years of the BJP government, which cast its pall on job generation. Thus the BJP's marvellous victory is not undergirded by economic performance either.

What's happening in India is by no means exclusive to it; it reflects a bigger phenomenon obtaining in different parts of the globe. The contemporary world is characterized by two conflicting phenomena. On the one hand is globalization, which in a nutshell seeks to create a global culture based on North American-West European values, such as liberal democracy, free market economy and multilateral economic integration regardless of creed or ethnicity. The other phenomenon, which in part is a reaction against globalization, entails assertion of particular identities, such as religion, sect, race and language.

Referred to as identity politics, this phenomenon embodies a claim to power based on a particular creed or ethnicity. A case in point is the rise of Far-Right parties in Europe. In its softer forms, identity politics stands for safeguarding the rights of a community, usually a minority or a marginalized one, by a peaceful and constitutional struggle. At times, however, identity politics goes berserk and fanatically seeks power for a community by means fair or foul, peaceful or sanguinary. And if that community, as in case of Hindus in India, already happens to be in a pre-eminent position, it may seek total domination, even if it means annihilating the weaker identity. That said, few other societies match the religious diversity of India. So being swept by Hindutva can prove to be a kiss of death for the world's largest democracy.

English playwright Christopher Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus' and German poet Goethe's 'Faust' represent easily the two most eloquent dramatization of the Faustian legend. With all their literary brilliance and philosophic depth, the two works differ in one key respect: Whereas Marlowe's protagonist heads inexorably for eternal damnation and at the end of the play is consigned to hell, Goethe's Faust in the end breaks with the devil and his soul is thus saved. Only the future will tell us whether the majority community in India remains under the diabolical spell of Hindutva or casts it aside.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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