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Cow worship and the next Indian election

Published: March 18, 2019
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PHOTO: AFP/FILE

PHOTO: AFP/FILE

PHOTO: AFP/FILE The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

On March 10, the Indian Election Commission announced that it would conduct the next national general elections over a period of more than six weeks beginning on April 11. Polling will be held in seven stages, staggered across the country.

Some 900 million voters are eligible to cast ballots to choose 543 members of Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian parliament. The last round of votes would be cast on May 19 and the counting will begin on May 23 and is expected be completed in one day. Before the day ends, the Indians would have elected a new prime minister.

In all probability, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be back in power. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP picked up more than 280 seats and replaced the government, then headed by Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party. More than 500 million people voted in that election, making it the world’s largest exercise in democracy. The 2019 exercise would be even larger.

What will happen in May 2019? Before the confrontation with Pakistan in the early spring of 2019, Modi was viewed as vulnerable. Economic growth had slowed, thousands of farmers were marching on New Delhi, dumping gallons of milk for which they were getting a poor price, and unemployment had had its worst level in 45 years.

Modi was shaken by the unexpected loss in five state elections a few months ago. But as The New York Times wrote “in the aftermath of the recent military confrontation between India and Pakistan, Mr Modi has tapped into an intense nationalist current running through the country.”

This may pay electoral dividends but it has pitted the large Hindu majority in the country against the minorities. Among those targeted are the country’s Muslim population, the lower caste Hindus and women. Under the rule of the BJP, India has shed its image of a tolerant and inclusive state and has moved decisively towards Hindutva, a Hindu state.

Several western publications have begun to focus on Hindu nationalism. For instance, The Economist magazine ran a four-page briefing in which it traced in some detail what it labeled as the “orange revolution.” Orange is the holy color of Hindu extremism and Modi has begun to use it in the clothes he wears.

It is only during the month-long tension with Pakistan that the Indian narrative began to change. The fact that India’s air strikes on Pakistan missed their targets and a fighter jet was downed by the Pakistani Air Force didn’t seem to matter to most Indians. Their country was hit and Modi hit back.

“Even if they go below seven seas, I will find them, Modi said in an election rally. To settle the score is my habit.” But the conservative Hindu voters seemed to be returning to the BJP fold, comforted by the fact that Modi’s aggressive stance against the neighbouring Muslim state was not pandering for votes but a reflection of his old passion and focus.

The Hindu leadership — in particular the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — has no problem being recognised as promoting the country’s Hinduness. The RSS, whose membership of five million people is entirely male, was founded in 1925 at the time that nationalism had begun to gain ground in Europe. Very deliberately, it embraced some of the organising principles of the Nazis in Germany.

Using tight discipline, it remained cohesive. The RSS is made up of 60,000 or so self-financing cells called shakhas which meet daily for communal exercises and discussion sessions that focus on religious and national issues.

Moving up the hierarchical ladder are 6,000 fulltime apostles known as paracharaks. Modi served as a parcharak before moving into politics. He has never lost contact with the RSS.

The RSS has penetrated all aspects of Indian life. Included in its family is the country’s largest trade union as well as organisations representing farmers, students, teachers, doctors, lawyers and small businesses.

The parent organisation runs India’s two largest private school networks educating some five million children. Their curriculum focuses on the basic tenets of Hinduism and how a Hindu state should be managed. In that respect, they have a lot in common with the madrassas in Pakistan but the religious seminaries in Pakistan don’t come anywhere near the reach of the RSS-managed institutions.

Modi has inserted RSS men into every part of Indian politics and Indian state. As The Economist noted, “the RSS influence also extends to university deans, heads of research institutes, members of the board of state-owned firms and banks (including the central bank) and, say critics, ostensibly politics-proof promotions in police , army and courts.”

If India has the ambition of joining the world’s great economic and political powers, it can’t do so if it pursues the RSS agenda. The United States under President Donald Trump wants India to be the anchor state in what it calls the Indo-Pacific Alliance.

That could only happen if a couple of major changes are brought about in the way the country is managed. It will need to go back to following what the Indian historian, Sunil Khilnani, called the “idea of India”. That meant giving equal rights to its diverse people. The RSS would not allow Modi to do that. For instance, among the BJP’s 1,400 state-level members of assemblies, only four are Muslims.

The other policy adjustment involves India’s relations with its neighbour Pakistan. During the recent crisis, Modi took his distaste for Pakistan to the extreme. That obviously pleases the RSS. For a few days that made the world nail-biting nervous, South Asia stood at the threshold of nuclear war. It pulled back, but the question remains whether Modi and the RSS learnt a lesson.

Great power status would only come to India if it recognises Pakistan as not its equal — it cannot be that — but one that matches it in several ways. Modi should use the United States as an example. India and Modi cannot reduce Pakistan to be its Mexico; it will have to become used to seeing it as its Canada.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2019.

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