That Narendra Modi’s party would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata, or Indian Peoples’ Party), would emerge merely as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, and thus be forced to seek coalition partners, or whether it would repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. In the end it did better than that. The BJP-dominated alliance now has 351 seats, the Congress alternative 95. The size and scale of the victory is breathtaking. In West Bengal, a state run by the Communist Party for forty years (and subsequently by a maverick Congress split-off), the BJP won 18 seats out of 42. The left and other ‘secular forces’ were wiped out without trace. In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, the BJP won again, and the Congress lost Amethi, a pocket borough of the Nehru family that had voted blindly for the dynasty for almost half a century. Were it not for India’s quaint electoral laws permitting the same candidate to contest seats in a number of constituencies, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, would not even be in the new parliament. As the results started coming in, a veteran Congress leader in Bhopal, Ratan Singh, had a heart attack and dropped dead. A tragedy overlaid with symbolism. There was some resistance to the BJP, especially in the south: in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the BJP didn’t win a single seat. But overall the results showed that, contrary to the predictions of the commentariat, there was no anti-incumbency vote. If anything, the opposite. This has never happened before in Indian politics.
The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit bourgeois (who can’t speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi. Another landslide victory for the orchestrator of pogroms against Muslims. The post-independence consensus which some yearn for is dead and cremated. The BJP and its parent organisation, the Hindu nationalist RSS, are now pacemakers, embedded in the heart of a modernising Indian state and using all its facilities and resources to impose their ideological views and punish those who don’t conform. History is a crucial battleground and is being systematically rewritten to chime with the Hindutva ideology. We can only hope they don’t go so far as to burn the books of Romila Thapar (a bête noire of the BJP because of her knowledge of ancient Indian history) and Irfan Habib’, or treat Arundhati Roy as Joan of Arc. What’s not in doubt is that most mainstream publishers will be scared away from publishing critical, scholarly works on the origins and development of Hinduism, the RSS etc. This is already happening and will get much worse. Self-censorship, the result of fear, cowardice and declining profits, eats the soul.
Modi’s triumph is, naturally, unpalatable to the metropolitan liberal elite and many on the left. But they need to ask themselves some tough questions. Let’s start with the Congress. It pioneered neoliberalism under a caretaker prime minister, Manmohan Singh (who waited sweetly for the Nehru-Gandhi kids to grow up and claim their inheritance), often competing with the BJP in fanning anti-minority prejudice in Gujarat and elsewhere. India’s liberals and some leftists find it difficult to differentiate themselves from Modi on Kashmir, class inequalities and the institutionalised discrimination against Muslims which began after Partition and has now reached a peak. Perry Anderson’s coruscating LRB essays debunking notions of ‘Indian exceptionalism’ (published in 2012) have been vindicated. Some have said that Modi’s attack on Pakistan, after a terrorist assault in Kashmir that killed forty Indian soldiers, made a decisive contribution to his victory. But India’s military response was a disaster – they lost a plane and targeted an empty camp – and that surely didn’t help. The fact is that a majority of Indian voters preferred the BJP to the national opposition. Despite economic problems, mass youth unemployment and currency blunders, they preferred Modi to the remnants of a crumbling dynasty. Rahul Gandhi was never a convincing heir apparent. He couldn’t decide what identity to assume and ended up competing with the BJP on its own turf, visiting as many temples as he could and stressing his Hinduism. The BJP responded by challenging his religious credentials. His paternal grandfather was a Parsi, his mother an Italian Catholic, so how dare he masquerade as a Hindu? (The Congress replied that Gandhi was an upper-caste ‘janeudhari’, who was entitled to and did wear the sacred thread of a Hindu Brahmin.) Best now if he leaves the stage and concentrates on something else. Three prime ministers from the same family (two of whom were assassinated by Sikh and Tamil terrorists respectively) is surely enough.
What of secularism? As many Indian writers have argued over the years, secularism as an idea never extended beyond defending and tolerating all religions equally and without discrimination. Not a variant of French or Turkish republicanism, then, but an expression of intent. It was never implemented. India’s Muslims have suffered on many levels, but secularism in this sense was also something the Muslim clergy and elite invoked to block reform on divorce and other gender-related issues. Ironically, Pakistan has modernised its divorce laws and virtually prohibited polygamy and concubinage (the first wife has to agree on paper). Nothing has changed in India. Unsurprisingly the BJP leaders exploit this, conveniently forgetting Hindu restrictions on women entering temples and much else.
The maharajas of Indian capitalism have had no problems working with Modi. In private they speak of fewer bribes being demanded of them than during the Congress era but they have given a great deal of money to the BJP of their own accord. If Congress isn’t to be a busted flush it needs at the very least to get rid of its dynasty. The magic has gone. But are modernisers like Shashi Tharoor and others capable of formulating a different vision for India? At the moment it looks unlikely. Elsewhere regional parties continue to rule the roost. In three Indian states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad – parties built by popular movie stars (non-Hindi and pre-Reagan) dominate the scene, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Bollywood is now trying to mimic this success with appalling movies that effectively embody the new ‘national culture’. Chauvinism and glorification of the military are common tropes, as are artistically unjustified appearances by Hindu deities and worship of money, marking a break with the culture of previous decades. It’s a mood that has infected the nation as a whole. Take the country’s real religion: cricket. Soon after the military strikes on Pakistan an Indian team went onto the field wearing military caps in defiance of the rules. It emerged that the much-loved cricketer M.S. Dhoni is a colonel in the reserves.
There are exceptions. I just watched Newton for the second time. Made in 2017, it’s a wonderful, satirical indie movie directed by Amit Masurkar. Its eponymous hero is Newton Kumar, a rookie clerk sent to monitor and supervise voting in Chhattisgarh in Central India, where there is an ongoing Maoist insurgency. Newton endures a ‘democracy’ workshop during which he is informed that a national election costs five billion rupees and that there are nine million polling booths, 840 million people vote and ‘we break our own records every time.’ The movie opens with an election in progress and a BJP-type politician entering a small town. ‘I am not here to seek your votes,’ he shouts. ‘Don’t vote for me. My dream is to see every child with a laptop in their right hand and a cellphone in their left. The commies quote parables. I perform miracles.’ A power cut soon follows. Because the roads are unsafe, Newton is flown to the polling booth by helicopter. The village has been largely destroyed by the security forces and finally people are forced to vote by the police. A visiting journalist from the United States is impressed. Whatever else, she thinks, this is the world’s largest democracy.