On the Significance of Delhi

1. The reason Delhi elections are important to Modi & BJP is that it threatens to destroy the biggest myth Modi trades on: he’s invincible.

— Puram (@puram_politics) February 4, 2015

It has now been eight months since the NDA – or to be honest, Narendra Damodardas Modi as his suits tell us – took power after the general elections in India. It was a most authoritative parliamentary performance, though with the share of the vote they won, it appears that they were mostly successful in campaigning rigourously where the Congress atrophied rapidly – in the Hindu heartland among other former Congress strongholds. In terms of the public debate, Modi won absolutely hands down.

The venal cable and print media made much of Modi’s poor record in protecting Muslims in his state from a pogrom, though mainly through innuendo and without a direct discussion of the facts. At the same time, all we heard was wide-eyed, gushing coverage of the “Modi wave” and how he presents a decisiveness, authority and charisma that no one else really has. The master soap opera director Arnab Goswami played this at once mystifying and clarifying role in his famous interview with Modi before the election. Previously – and subsequently – known by his trademark bombast and an almost heroic inability to allow his interlocutors to get a word in, he was struck dumb in Modi’s presence, and spoke with a respect usually reserved for one’s priest during an important ceremony. Arnab, as we affectionately call him, was writing for us a popular and riveting story: “Here’s this seemingly awful, but powerful and charismatic man. We are at once drawn to him but also repulsed by him. Will we really vote for him? He speaks very well, right? Isn’t he so decisive?” For Arnab and the “bazaaru” Indian media (“for sale”, or “in the market”, a term lovingly given by Modi himself in response to their coverage of the BJP’s defeat in these state elections), Modi was the bad boy that the public craved but didn’t want to introduce to its parents, i.e. the US State Department.

The verdict was clear. We all knew that the BJP, the RSS, and the Hindu Mahasabha have been involved in the darkest episodes in India’s history, from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, to riots in Bombay in the 1990s, and Gujarat in 2004. We knew this very well, but the Congress proved so abysmal in government, we would happily pick anyone else. Even more encouraging, this anyone else promised development, pride, self-sufficiency – all in homespun Hindi rhetoric and the gravitas of a mafioso. Business interests in western and northern India saw which way the wind was blowing, and expected from him what he had offered in Gujarat as Chief Minister – sufficient deregulation and privatisation for the establishment of new oligopolies and monopolies. Riots and pogroms aren’t bad for business, as long as they are limited to lower-caste peripheries of major cities or the rural hinterlands. We were thus promised economic growth and we knew well enough to expect the growth of violence and hatred. We lived with the certainty that the hatred of the RSS hasn’t really affected us until now so why will it in the future? “Yaar unko humse kya lena dena? (“dude, what would they have to do with us?”).

In the eight months that have passed, one of the two promises has been fulfilled. Economic growth and structural reform are nowhere to be seen. Christmas has been christened “Good Governance Day”, while the media has greedily perpetuated the false Hindutva myth of “love jihad” – an imagined phenomenon trumpeted by Hindu political groups describing the seduction and kidnapping of innocent Hindu girls by Muslim men (http://www.epw.in/commentary/myths-and-prejudices-about-love-jihad.html). The VHP, Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Manch, different affiliates of the RSS with a shared political agenda of establishing Hindu supremacy in India once and for all, orchestrated riots in Trilokpuri, East Delhi, to make use of the urgency of hatred and an imagined “Muslim threat” for success in these Delhi state elections. A wonderful footnote is that the BJP has lost in this constituency to the AAP.
It is quickly becoming clear that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has somehow managed to demolish Amit Shah’s murderous political machine and gain the lion’s share of the vote in Delhi. This is an astounding victory. Narendra Modi is well aware of the importance of symbols. His speeches are full of homespun metaphors, and he ensures an active and vibrant presence on Facebook and Twitter to ensure that he is always seen in the right light.

Keenly aware that AAP is the only mass-movement aside from the decrepit and decaying Left in India that is intent on contesting the BJP on the streets as well as in the legislatures, and that the AAP’s star is fast rising due to its dynamic leadership and radically democratic organising principles – he appropriated their famous symbol of the “broom” as part of his first symbolic gesture as Prime Minister, a campaign to clean the streets of India, #SwacchBharat. He tried to appropriate the AAP’s simple and evocative symbol and thus brush under the carpet his movement’s awful animus towards India’s communities.

As Puram said above, this victory will puncture the myth that Modi is invincible and unstoppable. Hopefully it will also puncture the myth that he is always right – lately I have been hearing from BJP and Modi supporters the same excuses explaining his lack of action on important economic and social issues that Congress supporters had given for Manmohan Singh: “it’s legislative gridlock! What can he do? He’s only the Prime Minister, it’s only been 8 months, give it time.” That is precisely what I am afraid of. In only eight months, the already weak foundations of Indian liberalism (which, admittedly, has been terrible for the oppressed castes) and communal peace have come under threat by the newfound shamelessness of the RSS, the VHP and other affiliated groups. For God’s sake, they have even mooted proposals to put up statues of Nathuram Godse, the RSS member who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi!

It might not be up to Modi to micromanage every single militant faction in the Hindu right, though that given his strongman persona and the fear that Amit Shah commands across the country, it would not be impossible. But in Modi, the militants see “their own leader”, and it is likely that as he has until now, he will do little to disown or discourage them.

It is up to us to contest Modi and what his hateful movement wants to achieve. AAP’s victory today proves that this contestation is not only righteous but achievable. We will certainly see a lot of development in the coming years.

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