Friday, 23 May 2014

Passions and the election 2014 verdict in India

The massive majority to the BJP in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls in India have indeed ‘Modi fied’ India. If anyone is the winner, it is Narendra Modi, who despite relentless criticism, personal abuse and intense media scrutiny, entire government and opposition machinery against him, pariah in many ways, has won a landslide victory making his party the single largest non-Congress party in the history of Independent India. He and his party now have a mandate with which they can make or break India. Having been a persistent user of social media I have exhausted my analysis of what this will mean for India and the political situation that has reduced the Congress Party to its worst electoral performance ever. Instead, I want to reflect on the passions that this verdict has evoked especially in the social media. It is important because the social media has been a significant participant in these elections, hardly a non-partisan observer.

These have been the most polarised elections; families have been torn apart, friendships have suffered and emotions have run high. People have found themselves caught in the ideology of ‘us vs. them’. If not with Modi, must be against him and people in general; if not against Modi, must not be ‘secular’ or ‘progressive’ enough. These have been the dominant narratives throughout the campaign period. There has been no graciousness in the aftermath of the results as well. People on all sides are abusive and angry. The politicians only reflect the ‘aam janta’. Lalu Prasad even refusing to congratulate the Narendra Modi team and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi not even addressing the PM elect. The lack of graciousness is not just between the opposition and government elect but also within the BJP itself. L. K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi have been sulking at Modi’s anointment. There are also unconfirmed reports about the rough edges being smoothed between the BJP and the RSS.

The liberal space is fast shrinking and tolerance eroded not only because of a resurgent right wing, but because the left critics (organised and informal) are equally arrogant and unreasonable. The dooms day predictions all around, the relentless lampooning of people (especially from the ‘cow belt’) who are supposed to have unleashed this ‘catastrophe’ on the country is not doing much good in terms of self-reflection. The lack of any understanding of voter aspirations and any sense of ‘privilege’ people embody when they make fun of ‘loony right wingers’ who were concerned about nothing but unadulterated Hindutva, is a matter of concern. It was depressing to watch an uncritical and unsophisticated Left/UPA/AAP campaign against Modi; their arrogance allowing them to dictate to the voters who and what they (voters) should be voting for to save what they themselves haven’t been able to in all these years: a sacred ‘secularism’ that imagines that the responsibility of keeping India secular lies only with its ‘minorities’.
I have engaged in conversations with all sides and have friends in all major political camps who hero worship their ‘own’ and ridicule the ‘other’. I have never understood how India’s educated see the Indian elections as two sided where traditional voters of any one party stick with them. Time and again, voters have punished those who failed to deliver and the BJP has been rejected several times. There is also a kind of naivety with which people are expected to be partisan: ‘with us or against us’. The space to be a liberal, an invested observer who is able to see the grey areas and is more interested in the complexity of narratives than a simplistic picture of winners and losers, is hard to find. Love and hatred for politicians is deeply embedded in the idiom of everyday life. Amartya Sen believes we are an argumentative lot; we are more the passionate lot. What we forget in our own passionate existence is that our outbursts can really silence people instead of opening up spaces for conversation and debate. Anger is a wonderful emotion especially during times of elections but we are wasting its potential.

I have had many conversations with Modi supporters whom I know personally, asking them to tone down their derogatory, violent and sexist slogans (and to learn from their own restrained leader) and also with friends on the left who have been extremely negative and violent with their words. The point is that one doesn’t really give up and shut down every avenue of engagement. I am aware that people have ‘unfriended’ each other (albeit only on facebook!) when their political views have differed. Gone are the days when communists and RSS followers shared cordial relations in social circles and were able to forge friendships beyond their ideological divide. It is easy to convince the like-minded, tough to argue with a detractor and that is where the challenge is.

People have spoken through the ballot and it is unfortunate if some of us think they have chosen badly only because they didn’t choose who we may have wanted, but instead pressed the button on who they thought would meet their aspirations (assuming that’s what democracy is all about). Several people I know as perfectly secular, sane, generous and just citizens yearning for a better life have voted for the BJP this time. Let us stop telling them, they are idiots. When things go awry and time comes to resist, they won’t be drawing comfort from you or me pontificating ‘I told you so’. Instead, they will be rethinking strategies of resistance and developing new vocabularies of struggle on the ground. Not all intellectual elites (with secure jobs in universities/think tanks/media, invitations to foreign lands and privileged life styles) have always sided with the ‘people’ whom they seem to be speaking for.  

Most importantly, let us not assign communal, secular categories without giving any real thought to the complexity of everyday life in India. It isn’t about Bismillah Khan and A.P.J Abdul Kalam praying to Hindu deities, Mohammad Rafi crooning Hindu Bhajans with devotion and Pandit Jasraj invoking the meherban Allah that alone makes Indian secularism thrive. It is the belief among the common people that in recognising and acknowledging the diversity, one realises one’s true faith. A Muslim friend once remarked that growing up in a Hindu locality, bowing everytime he crossed the temple came naturally to him; most importantly he does not feel like the ‘victim’ he is made out to be by his secular saviours.

 An elderly family member who has witnessed all the elections since 1952 (often delighting us with second world war stories about Japaniya Rachhas [Japanese demons]!) and is a devout Hindu who reads the Ramcharitmanas everyday had a remarkably humbling insight. She was no admirer of Modi when we met last, but her views may have changed now. Upon hearing the Muslim azan (call for prayer) 5 times a day and on loudspeakers, I was curious what she, a devout Hindu thought of it (expecting perhaps a negative reaction). She said it was wonderful because the morning call, woke her up for her morning arti (invocation) and the evening azan reminded her that it was time for her diya bati (evening lamp lighting) for her gods. Religion is all about discipline she said, and it didn’t matter whether one was disciplined through the azan or the temple bells.

Time will tell if the public was completely loony but it is important to respect the verdict in a democratic system where elections were by and large free and fair and in which many of us participated. When you play by the rules, you don’t deride the outcome. Let the election results not be a conversation stopper but an opportunity to engage one another. We all have a stake in a better, just and equal India. Once we understand the essence of India beyond our ideological prejudices, perhaps we will be ready for a truly mature democracy where more will be at stake than a phoney political secularism that infantilises people instead of empowering them.

Shiv Vishwanathan sums it up rather well, “Secularism cannot be empty space. It has to create a pluralism of encounters and allow for levels of reality and interpretation.” For now, the best part of being an Indian is that no ‘god’ is sacrosanct and no ‘devil’ completely damned. Isn’t that what these elections have been all about?

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