Why Modi’s legacy will not disappear with a hug and a wink

During the no-confidence motion, Rahul Gandhi claimed that the BJP has taught him what it is to be a Hindu. If he could only commit more to constitutionalism and less to Hinduism, we would be better off.
24 July, 2018

What Narendra Modi has done to the country is evident. It has nothing to do with demonetisation, the goods and services tax, the faltering economy, our dithering foreign policy, or the mess in Kashmir. But it is evident in drawing-room conversations, on the streets, in our popular culture, and most visibly, on social media.

Certainly, a great number of people have always been bigoted in this country, but there was always a sense of shame. If you had a pretense to civility, to an education (not just in classrooms but even from religious texts), you concealed your bigotry. The removal of this sense of shame and pretense to civility cannot be welcomed as ushering in a new honesty in society. Modern societies impose a minimum set of common values, as laid down in a constitution, which are maintained through the rule of law. But much of what passes for civility is constrained not by the law, but by what is publicly acceptable.

Modi has made sure the sense of shame at bigotry has disappeared. The worst offenders today come endorsed with a “Followed by Narendra Modi” stamp. This lack of shame routinely leads to acts that violate values set down in the Constitution, but the institutions meant to check such violations have been compromised and are in no position to act. It is only this combination, of the end of shame and the collapse of institutions, which explains the mobs lynching Muslims under the pretext of cow protection. People lynch because they know the law will do nothing to them, they shoot videos of themselves doing so because they feel no shame about their acts of murder.

The RSS is harnessing the returns of this bigotry. It is not an organisation that believes in anarchy, or wishes to do away with the rule of the law. But it is willing to accept tactical departures from such norms as long as it helps the RSS attain its ultimate end—to make India a Hindu Rashtra. This was true of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992, the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, and it is as true now. In their idealised Hindu Rashtra, no mosque would be destroyed, and no Muslims would be killed by a mob. There would be no need to—the Muslims would know their place. They would know they live in India at the forbearance of the Hindus.

Gujarat is the perfect example of how it is possible to effect a Hindu Rashtra without any constitutional or legal change. Today, close to ten percent of its population has little representation in the legislature and almost no say in public life in the state. This Gujarat model has been in the making since 1985, when communal riots broke out in Ahmadabad to counter a Congress government elected on a KHAM platform—appealing to the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim communities in the state—and isolated upper-caste Hindus. This Gujarat model is not Modi’s doing—it is a Hindutva project that began long before Modi and will continue well after him. This Gujarat model is what we have to fear in the rest of the country, not the rise or fall of Modi.

For the RSS, Modi is a convenience, much as Vajpayee was before him. He will eventually lose an election, and then much as how Vajpayee gave way to Advani and Advani to Modi, he, too, will give way to someone else. In the past four years, while Modi has toyed around with demonetisation and selfies, the RSS has worked systematically to achieve its ends. The media and academia have been made subservient to the ruling regime, and a career in either can witness substantial advancement, not through loyalty to Modi, but through loyalty to the same ideology he subscribes to—that of the RSS.  The impact of this, and this is true of everything the RSS does, will be evident in the long run.

The immediate priority must be to arrest the subversion of institutions. The argument that we must first address root causes is a fallacy—a knot is only undone by undoing the last step that led to it. This is where neither the Congress nor any other party in opposition to Modi is willing to step forward. It is true that the lynchings in the name of the cow are likely to stop when the Congress comes to power, but that will be because this suits the party’s politics, not because the law-and-order machinery will work any better. In fact, the problem of this subversion of law and order finds it roots with the Congress.

The Congress could successfully organise the murder of Sikhs in 1984 because the law-and-order machinery was already politicised, and did not do its job. Much the same was true in several cases of anti-Muslim violence during Congress rule in India.  The Congress could begin by addressing the issue by committing to the independence of the law-and-order machinery through legislative change. A single change—ensuring command responsibility by making those in the direct chain of command, such as the station house officer,  the district police chief, the director general of police, the administrative chiefs, the home minister and the chief minister criminally liable for large-scale breakdown of law and order—would put paid to most forms of mob violence. But the Congress has never shown any interest in implementing such a change because it, too, makes instrumental use of mob violence. The lynchings may well be curtailed if the Congress comes to power, but if and when there is the possibility of violence that suits the party, like it did in 1984, it will unfold in the same manner.

The same diagnosis extends to the current state of the media and academia—it is only a culmination of what the Congress set in motion. To further subvert both, Modi has used the same processes as those earlier used by the Congress. In case of the media, this is reflected in the corporate ownership of news organisations in a country where corporate powers depend heavily on the government. In academia, this subversion is ensured by affording patronage to only those academics and institutions reflecting the views of the party in power, and by controlling the grant of resources, such as funding and land.

In June this year Rahul Gandhi was in attendance at a lecture by the journalist P Sainath on the corporatisation of the media. This is a problem that requires legislative fixes, starting with the regulation of ownership. Much the same is the case with academia. It does not require deep thought, it requires political will. But once implemented, it will begin the process of ensuring that institutions are independent and willing to be critical of Modi or the Congress as the times and issues may require. But Congress has shown as little stomach for disagreement as Modi, it is just a little less efficient in acting against it.

There has been enough talk around Rahul Gandhi’s new love for Hinduism, or at least his public proclamation of the fact. He spoke of it again during the no-confidence motion, claiming the BJP has taught him what it is to be a Hindu. If Rahul could only commit more to constitutionalism and less to Hinduism, we would be better off.

When he went and hugged Modi at the end of his speech, he did so to win the day. In some ways he did—for the first time in the politics of gesture and symbolism, which is Modi’s specialty, it was Rahul who dominated the headlines. Critics who now hail the new Rahul are hailing a man whose religiosity is exactly what the RSS is seeking of every Indian, and whose politics are exactly what Modi has bequeathed to us in the political sphere. It is no wonder that what was largely missing from the no-confidence motion was any discussion on the lynchings. A Muslim man was lynched in Alwar the very night that many celebrated Rahul’s symbolic victory.

Today, we are being asked to live at the mercy of the Congress because it may be more merciful than the BJP. But those who ask us to be thankful for small mercies must take responsibility for the fact that by letting the Congress evade the responsibility for rebuilding institutions, they are ensuring that within a term or two, Modi will be succeeded by a man—and it will be a man—of the RSS’s choice. A man who will be as much to the right of Modi, as Modi is to the right of Vajpayee. Unfortunately, when this happens, the satisfaction of having foretold the sins of those who unconditionally endorse the Congress would count for little.