By Dionne Bunsha
Elections are India’s largest spectacle. They are a time for grand rallies and colourful processions on the streets.
With two-thirds of the country’s 900 million eligible voters casting ballots this spring, more people turned up at the polls than the populations of the United States and Europe combined — marking a record for voter turnout in the country’s 68-year democratic history.
But what does this historic election mean for the world’s largest democracy?
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election, continuing their control of parliament, increasing their share of votes, and cementing party leader Narendra Modi as Prime Minister for five more years. The re-election of the BJP with an overwhelming majority threatens the core values that once defined a tolerant and liberal democracy.
In his first five years, Modi and his party took India down a path where basic freedoms and the rule of law are no longer guaranteed, transforming the secular foundations of India’s democracy into a violent, authoritarian regime.
The endgame of the BJP is nothing short of changing India’s constitution and making it a Hindu nation where minorities — mainly Muslims and Christians — are treated as second class citizens.
India’s Hindu Taliban
Since his youth, Modi has been a faithful member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an all-male Hindu nationalist organization. The RSS, mostly comprised of individuals belonging to the upper levels of the caste system, has a myriads of affiliated organizations that are collectively called the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is the political wing.
The RSS has been banned three times, most notably in 1948 when one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Even today, there are several Hindu terrorist groups affiliated with the Sangh. Now, it’s extremist brand of politics is becoming ever-more mainstream.
During this election, the BJP handed a ticket to Pragya Thakur, a Hindu ascetic, despite her being accused of terrorism for plotting a bomb attack on Muslims. The party even managed to get her out of jail on ‘health grounds,’ but she was fit enough to fight a demanding election campaign. And she won.
The founders of the RSS were inspired by Italian and German fascists in the 1920s, and modelled the organization along similar principles. The RSS has an organized grassroots network — it hosts training camps where its volunteer members are indoctrinated with its divisive ideology, and taught the art of engineering a ‘riot,’ rifle shooting and other forms of combat. It is these political workers and vigilante groups who are out on the streets targeting minorities, organizing protests and campaigning for votes.
Due to its terror tactics, the Sangh has often been referred to as the ‘Hindu Taliban.’ Some rogue groups loosely connected with the BJP are also known to terrorize minorities, mainly Muslims, Christians and Dalits, a lower caste in India.
Under the guise of enforcing Modi’s new law banning the slaughter of cows for beef – a sacred animal to Hindus — Muslims and members of lower castes have been lynched by mobs consisting mainly of upper caste Hindus.
Cattle are an essential component of the rural economy, and besides providing a source of protein, they also provide labour, transport, fuel and fertilizer to Indian farmers. The beef ban has affected thousands of cattle farmers, traders and tanners, and mainly the poor lower castes and Muslims whose lives depend on the trade.
Moreover, Sangh activists have spread false fears about Muslims forcibly marrying Hindu women, and have used this as a pretext to kidnap thousands of Hindu women because they married outside the Hindu faith. Such is the Sangh’s twisted interpretation of Hinduism, a religion that embodies tolerance and acceptance.
Modi’s politics of hate rhetoric is funded by powerful billionaires in India who fill his election coffers and give him their private jets to travel during campaigns.
Meanwhile, inequality, unemployment and farmer suicides are at record highs. The nine richest individuals in India now have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of India’s population, equivalent to more than 600 million people, according to an Oxfam report.
Rather than bridging the divide, Modi has only further entrenched crony capitalism in India.
Though Modi boasts he is incorruptible, several questions have been raised about deals he has signed to favour his billionaire friends. During five years of his tenure, the wealth of India’s richest billionaire, Mukesh Ambani, more than doubled from $23 billion to $55 billion. Modi also seemed keen to endorse the billionaire’s ventures by featuring on front-page advertisements to launch Reliance Jio, a telecom company owned by Ambani. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has gone as far as bending rules to put Ambani’s company on track to monopolize the sector.
Like several fascist regimes, the BJP’s tactic is to create fear of a false enemy — in this case, Muslims, Pakistanis, pacifists, intellectuals and dissenters — to distract attention from the real reasons why the majority remain poor.
Similar to Trump and several other right-wing populist leaders in places like Brazil, Turkey, and Austria who have gained power in the last few years, Modi’s presence is larger than life. You can’t escape him on billboards, TV, newspapers or social media. His propaganda is loud and at times hateful. He also has a tactical PR machine that uses WhatsApp and social media very effectively.
But when engaging with journalists, he has been rather timid — Modi did not hold a single press conference where the media could ask unscripted questions during his five year stint.
Tainted rise to power
Modi started his career in politics as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. A few months later, he was accused of ‘criminal conspiracy’, in a massacre of Muslims in 2002. More than 1,000 people were killed, and over 100,000 were forced to flee their homes.
For nine years, Modi was denied a visa to visit the US because of “severe violations of religious freedom.” This ban was lifted after he became Prime Minister in 2014, where he campaigned on the promise of prosperity for India. His tainted past did not sway voter perceptions or affect election results and he won that election with an overwhelming majority. The people saw him as a strong leader who would further development in the country.
In order to appeal to his voters, he portrayed himself as a poor ‘tea seller’, part of the working class. In contrast to his privileged Cambridge-educated opponent Rahul Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, part of the Gandhi dynasty. The family has dominated Indian politics for four generations since India gained independence from the British in 1947.
With Modi’s win in 2014, his supporters heralded a new era for India. The stock market soared. But not for long.
Flagging economy and false promises
Several of Modi’s touted reforms resulted in major disruptions in people’s lives and slowing down the economy. The most devastating among them was the demonetization drive. In November 2016, Modi stunned the nation by announcing on live television that 500- and 1000-rupee notes, then the highest denomination in the country, would no longer be legal tender. In order to deal with illegal wealth or “black money” stowed away as cash, people were given several weeks to exchange their currency for new 500 and 2000-rupee notes at banks.
But these were not printed fast enough, and it sparked a long currency shortage. The poor who rely on cash for their daily transactions were adversely affected.
Modi also introduced a Goods and Services Tax that was poorly designed as it added to bureaucracy, and had a huge negative impact on small businesses and jobs.
His initiatives made bold promises to reach neglected parts of the society. He announced a dizzying array of schemes to tackle poverty and improve infrastructure, such as rural electrification, supply of natural gas, housing, skills training and toilet construction. Two months before the 2014 election, the government announced a direct income support scheme that would transfer funds directly into farmers’ bank accounts. Several poor families voted for Modi hoping they would benefit from this support plan. But the actual reach and effectiveness of these policies are yet to be known.
Since coming to power, Modi has leveraged his power to capture key institutions of Indian democracy such as the Supreme Court, Reserve Bank, Election Commission and universities. Several Supreme Court judges and Reserve Bank officials have spoken out against his abuse of power, which undermines the independence of these institutions.
Journalists and activists have been killed or jailed on false charges under Modi’s governance. University and school textbooks – especially in some BJP-ruled states – have been changed to teach the Sangh’s skewed version of history.
In the absence of a strong opposition, the BJP has untrammelled power. In this year’s election, Congress party, the main opposition, were unable to inspire confidence in voters. They could not unite opposition parties into a coalition, leading to the division of votes in favour of the BJP. Rahul Gandhi even lost in his family’s traditional constituency, Amethi – a huge blow to the Congress and a clear signal that it is time to change dynastic rule and bring in new blood.
The new normal
For now, Modi is all-pervasive. It would take another larger-than-life personality, with a grassroots network that is as organized and dedicated, to counter his might.
Until then, the concept of a “Hindu Rashtra” — a nation designed to favour the Hindu majority and suppress its majorities — will get further entrenched over the next five years, spreading hatred and misinformation.
This is the new normal.
An entire generation will grow up with the Sangh’s twisted notions of Indian history, culture and nationalism, unable to discern the truth from false propaganda. Living with fear and hatred, instead of love and generosity – ignorant of what they have lost.
Dionne Bunsha is an award-winning journalist from India. She is the author of the book ‘Scarred: Experiments with Violence in India’ on the aftermath of communal violence in Gujarat, India. Dionne has written extensively on a diverse range of political, human rights and environmental issues. Follow her on Twitter @dionnebunsha.