⇩ Use your ears. Click below to hear this post.
India is literally at the crossroads with the very future of its secular democracy at stake. With five important State Assembly elections in various stages of completion and the general election around the corner, the political temperature is at boiling point. Competitive Hindutva has become the name of the game, with the ostensibly secular Congress party trying desperately to demonstrate its Hindu credentials to cut into the base of the Hindu-nationalist BJP.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi is busy visiting Hindu temples and publicising his caste genealogy for electoral gains. This is the first time since Independence that the religion and caste of a candidate for the job of Prime Minister is overtly portrayed as the defining basis for his/her claim to lead the country.
The Congress party’s passive Hindutva will in all probability lead to its crushing defeat in the forthcoming general elections because, as a pale imitation of the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva, it cannot compete with the genuine article. Mr. Gandhi and his advisers are confusing contrived demonstrations of personal religiosity with Hindu nationalism. The last is a clearly defined political ideology that, in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of the Constitution, is based on the notion that Hindus have exclusive claim to the country and Muslims and Christians are interlopers who can be treated as second-class citizens at best. It has nothing to do with personal piety and the religious tenets of Hinduism.
The Congress’s passive Hindutva is ceding the ideological ground to the BJP by heavily diluting the tenets of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The well-established secular norm of not overtly using religion for electoral gains is now a thing of the past. A very dangerous aspect of this unfolding drama is the escalation in the politics of intimidation, which is undermining the rule of law and threatening the democratic fabric of India. The recent mobilisation of thousands of devotees in Ayodhya by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Shiv Sena and related Hindu nationalist organisations is a prime example of this.
This mobilisation was a part of the strategy to put pressure on a government seen as friendly to the cause to build the Ram temple immediately on the site of the Babri mosque demolished in 1992. However, even more important, it was a direct challenge to the power of the Supreme Court where the matter is under adjudication, thus drastically undermining the judicial system itself. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made it clear in a speech during the rally in Ayodhya that “society does not move only by the words of law, but also by its own wishes”. Other speakers indulged in even more intemperate language. What started as a property dispute has thus been turned into a matter of faith beyond the purview of the courts.
Simultaneously, there is an anti-democratic wave sweeping through the country. Populism rather than liberal democracy is increasingly coming to define the nature of the Indian polity.
The opposite of patriotism
A jingoistic form of ultra-nationalism has become very popular. Politicians regularly engage in such rhetoric with discussants on TV channels, some of them retired military officers, also contributing in great measure to its legitimisation. This is the polar opposite of patriotism combined with liberal values that was enshrined in the Constitution and was held dear by the first generation of independent India’s leadership.
A further indication of the erosion of democratic values is the tendency of highly placed serving military officers to comment publicly on sensitive issues of domestic and foreign policy. They intervene in debates such as those regarding illegal immigration and India-Pakistan relations, which should be the exclusive preserve of civilian leaders in government and in the opposition. This would not have been tolerated in an earlier era because the founding fathers of the republic were emphatic that civilian supremacy over the military brass must be safeguarded at all costs and the military isolated from the political arena.
The current trajectory of Indian politics reminds one eerily of the first decade of the existence of neighbouring Pakistan. Mounting majoritarianism fuelled by religious intolerance, hyper-nationalism born out of insecurity, deliberate erosion of political and judicial institutions, and creeping military intervention in the political arena finally led to the first military coup in Pakistan in 1958. This paved the way for a succession of military takeovers. One of these resulted in the division of Pakistan in 1971 and another in the creation of terrorist outfits in the 1980s that continue not only to threaten India and Afghanistan but also to tear apart Pakistan’s social fabric. Pakistan has never recovered from the tragic errors committed in its early years and is paying a very high price for it today. One hopes that India will not go down the same path because otherwise, the largest democracy in the world could face an equally bleak future.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC