Making Sense of Incoherent Math: The Indian Election and Diasporic Politics

How can an event be at once ordinary and extraordinary, simultaneously decisive and indecisive?  The victory of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian parliamentary elections of 2014 is indeed a watershed moment; for the first time in the history of independent India, it will be ruled exclusively by a Hindu supremacist party. And yet, a careful look at the way the Modi/BJP campaign produced this victory yields a picture that can only be characterized as simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, decisive and indecisive.

First the facts

-The Modi/BJP victory is conclusive and stable. They have as a single party a simple majority in Parliament and as the NDA (National Democratic Alliance, the BJP led coalition) they have close to a 2/3rds majority.

-The BJP secured 32% of the popular vote, about 186 million votes out of a total polling of over 600 million and won 282 seats in a parliament of 543.

-The Congress Party polled about 120 million votes (21%) and won 44 seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) polled over 20 million votes and won zero seats. The Communist Party (CPM) polled about 20 million votes (3%) and won 9 seats and the Shiv Sena polled about 12 million votes (2%) and secured 18 seats.

-The BJP's securing of a simple majority will allow them to pass most legislations except constitutional changes, for which they would have to secure additional support.

-This is the first time since 1990 that any single party has been able to secure a simple majority. However, in every other election where a party has secured a simple majority, it has always secured well in excess of 40% of the national vote.

-And finally, something that is not directly connected to the election results: The last 25 years have seen an almost continuous process of rising income inequality in India, a process some commentators have called “immiserizing growth,” to indicate both the fact that poverty levels have continued to go up, especially in rural India in spite of high growth rates and that while the poorest sections of India have seen some rise in absolute incomes, their relative incomes have declined. 

The math just doesn't add up. It’s in this sense that the election is both ordinary and extraordinary. The votes polled by any one of the parties are not out of their normal range. The BJP has improved by about 3% from its previous best. The Congress fell by about 5% from its 2009 mark. The BSP improved in its performance marginally. It’s all ordinary. There is no great landslide mandate for the BJP. And yet, when you think that they got a simple majority with less than a third of the national vote or that the BSP that polled 20 million (and these 20 million we can safely assume were mostly Dalit and Muslim, the two most marginalized communities in India) got zero then we can see the election as extraordinary - in terms of whom it has shut out and whom it has ushered in.

But, extraordinary or not, there is one thing we can say with certainty. The result is the most fearsome and mind numbingly dangerous thing to have happened to India since its independence in 1947. A fascist party with an ultra fascist Prime Minister with control on Parliament and with the full backing of the Indian bourgeosie. We are in for a brutal five years or even more. While the BJP cannot claim to represent Indians with less than a third of the national vote, they can certainly wreak havoc in five years - the kind of havoc that will take Indians decades to recover from. They will try and implement some frame altering changes using their simple majority (such as an Anti Religious Conversion Bill or a new Immigration Act or procedures that will ravage the judicial system) that is aimed at fundamentally changing the social character of the nation. It’s going to be uphill. 

To fight the uphill battle we need (a) an understanding of how it has come to pass that a supremacist minority has taken control over the institutional framework of governance; (b) based on such an understanding we need to anticipate what may come to pass in the first six months to a year of Modi and finally (c) we must develop an approach that can best challenge the large scale changes that will almost certainly sweep the country. 

The Tyranny of the Communal Majority

Close to 80 years ago Dr. B. R. Ambedkar brought two historically disparate issues together and fought a 15-year battle around the problematic that he identified as the most important one for the future of India.

First, he defined the Indian social order as constituted by a range of communities -- caste Hindus, peasant castes, Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis to name just a few. Of these the caste Hindu communities constitute the single largest block by themselves – the communal majority. Further, given that this group has historically held power for centuries based on caste privilege (which also translates into class privilege) it operates as a super majority – the single largest block numerically (anywhere between 35% to 50% of the population depending on how you count) as well as the most socially and economically powerful. 

Alongside this, Ambedkar looked squarely at the existing notion of liberal democracy that India was about to inherit from the British and argued that liberal democracy, with its one person-one vote system, would not work in India and would only reproduce and strengthen social inequalities. He argued with passion and in anguish that if we were to implement the one person-one vote or First Past the Post (FPTP), “winner takes all,” format of liberal democracy, that we would end up with what he famously called “the tyranny of the communal majority.” He argued for a new corrective to liberal democracy that would check caste Hindu power and prevent the further marginalization of all other communities. For over 15 years between 1930 and 1952 he fought a heroic battle against the full might of the nationalist movement to institute this necessary corrective. The corrective was never to be. What we got at the end of the constitutional process was the FPTP system. A system in which the communal majority with 32% of the popular vote controls parliament. 

The Victory of the Communal Majority

In 2014, the nightmare that Ambedkar predicted has come true. The structure of the nightmare has been visible in almost every election since independence, especially in the post Mandal Commission/Babri Masjid era with the re-emergence of the Hindu supremacists. In every election since the re-emergence of the Hindu right under the banner of the BJP in the mid 1980s, the fear of the communal majority coalescing around the BJP was to be only offset by the question of how united the minorities would be. Even as India went to the polls in early April, a close friend who had spent the previous month in UP trying to suture together minority unity told me that “there was no hope.” What he saw was “an RSS wave” – the consolidation of the communal majority and a frightening fragmentation of the minorities. This consolidation on the one hand and fragmentation on the other was accelerated by the Indian capitalist class coming in firmly behind Modi. For the capitalist class, Modi was not a developmentalist but the authoritarian politician they have been dreaming of for years. In the ten years leading up to this election corporations like Reliance and tycoons like the Adanis had built a whole new level of control over the media infrastructure that worked to present Modi as the developmentalist. In reality, the Gujarat massacre of 2002, the encounter killings since then and the brutal suppression of farmers and fisherfolk in Gujarat all pointed in one direction – authoritarianism. They wanted it and gave Modi the infrastructural capacity to reach into the heartland in a way that no other Indian election this far has seen. “The Muslims are confused and afraid; the Dalits are disillusioned. Both have been pushed out of this election by the sheer volume of the Modi campaign” my friend had told me when he returned from UP in March. 

The Way Forward

Writing as I am, just ten days after the results have come in, any effort on looking into the future is bound to be premature. However, there are a few things we can be sure about. The repression will be intense. The only question is “how intense?” Muslims, Dalits and women will be the ones who bear the brunt of this attack. What is bound to unfold in the next year is a mixture of hyper aggressive neoliberalism and a simultaneous intensification of communal polarization. The two are intricately linked. Modi will seek to deliver what he promised to the capitalist class – a more authoritarian neoliberalism – and to manage the backlash against such policies he will seek to build communal polarization and a hyper nationalist hysteria such as the one he has already inaugurated – against so called Bangladeshi migrants. 

As the intensity of the repression inside India grows, the responsibility of the diaspora increases. It is critical we take on three clear responsibilities:

Keeping the Record Open: As it becomes impossible to prosecute Modi within India, it is the responsibility of those outside to keep the record open and ensure that all attempts to airbrush his crimes be challenged consistently. Every institutional channel possible to repeatedly write the record in – again and again if required – is our responsibility. It took over three decades to get Pinochet. Modi is not going to be Prime Minister forever. 

Minority Unity: The Hindutva infrastructure in the U.S. and the U.K. articulates the majoritarian logic sometimes far better than the original organizations in India. This is in large part because the Hindutva organizations in the U.S. and U.K. – such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Hindu American Foundation (HAF) – have the task of holding together a specific definition of Hinduism (a savarna definition) within the context of US multiculturalism. This has already come into full view through the California text book battle and the struggles around questions of religious freedom in India and the position of organizations like the HAF on religious conversion and caste. This allows those of us in the diaspora to build an organic unity among all minority communities of the diaspora. Our success in such a project will have a significant impact in building the critique of majoritarianism and minority unity in India. We are also well positioned to build links of solidarity with minority struggles from other parts of the world. In as much as the liberal democratic form is a hegemonic form across the world, the question of majoritarian tyranny is felt by minorities all over. In the U.S. for instance, the struggle around Islamophobia is a struggle against majoritarianism. So is it true in the U.K., Egypt, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The majoritarian bias in liberal democracy has today emerged as a universal problematic and we are well positioned to build solidarity around this question. 

Battling Neoliberalism: As mentioned above, part of the mandate that Modi has arrived with in Delhi is for a more aggressive neoliberalism. This means that several of the struggles that will emerge and need solidarity will be those involving the nexus between corporate capital and the State. For instance, as the capitalist class seeks to intensify resource extraction and industrialization, displacement will continue to grow as an issue as will the question of landless labor. We cannot afford to look at Modi as only a communal monster. A large part of those who will be disposed will be Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes who have only in the last three decades come into some ownership of land. Building solidarity around anti-capitalist struggles will be part of building broader minority unity. 

Together the above three axes of action can be visualized from within a broader imaginary of a struggle towards a new radical democracy in India – in part picking up the unfinished project of Babasaheb Ambedkar and in some part a way of building a post neoliberal society. Approached this way, we immediately know that this is a long haul project – something that may take us a decade, if not more, to dream into place. 

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