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Centrism holds in India

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By Sajjan Kumar

Centrism, as an essential characteristic of Indian politics, signifies the institutional incentive that political parties have to adopt a set of policies aimed at harmonising societal and cultural contradictions rather than accentuating them. Some of its essential elements are: centrality of an accommodative approach, appeal to minorities, welfarism and a broader space for dissent from the Left and the Right. No wonder, given the richness of Indian society and its multiple fault lines, centrism has been the hegemonic framework ensuring electoral success since Independence. Barring a few exceptions, this also accounts for the relative marginalisation of a leftward and rightward agenda in India until 2014. Can the setbacks to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Hindi heartland States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh be seen in this context?

The spectacular success of the BJP in the 2014 general election marked a rightward shift wherein Narendra Modi, a fulcrum of “subaltern agency”, developmental aspiration and fierce Hindutva, claimed to speak for 125 crore Indians. He privileged the developmental aspirations of the electorate in his speeches, thereby arguing that ‘politics of development’ is ‘politics of inclusion’, wherein everyone, including the minorities by implication, has a rightful place.

 

The whopping success of the Modi-led BJP in abstract terms signified the ability of right-wing frames to contain all the constitutive elements of centrism and thereby make a persuasive claim of not being exclusive of any section of Indian society. It appeared that in the era of developmental aspiration, the Right had emerged as a better claimant to carry forward the mantle of centrism than the centrist parties.

The idea of ‘India First’ and ‘Achhe Din’ implied the heralding of welfare-laden Indian citizenry across the board, claiming their rightful place in the comity of nations. The votaries of the economic right affirmed and celebrated the easy fit between centrism and the Right under Mr. Modi. Rural India shared the enthusiasm.

However, the political trajectory of the BJP since 2014 has two big takeaways. The promised material plurality never came and the unsaid cultural singularity emanating from the Hindutva discourse acquired prominence. The former is visible in the initiation of a series of welfare policies, especially for poorer sections, like cheap housing (Pradhan MantriAwasYojana), toilets for all, disbursal of LPG cylinders (UjjwalaYojana), the health insurance scheme (Ayushman Bharat), besides schemes such as BetiBachaoBetiPadhao, SukanyaSamriddhiYojana, Atal Pension Yojana, Pradhan MantriFasalBimaYojana, and Pradhan Mantri Jan-DhanYojana.

The ground narratives reveal that none of these welfare schemes has been successful in capturing the imagination of the people, amid general price rise and joblessness. Moreover, the debilitating impact of demonetisation on pre-existing rural distress and agrarian crisis is getting strong credence with a corresponding resonance among rural voters. It seems the government’s material policies/schemes resemble a scenario of people being served with starters upon starters without a main course.

Simultaneously, parallel to the material plurality, India has witnessed the emergence of a series of cultural policies/issues focussed around the themes of cow, Mandir, changing names of places and questions of citizenship, all emanating from Hindutva’s framework of cultural singularity.

This attempt to not only infuse the cultural singularity of Hindutva with material plurality of welfare schemes but also see the former superseding the latter problematises the claim that centrism could have an easy fit with a rightward polity. Centrism, by definition, desires a parity between the material and the cultural in their pluralities. As a corollary, a singularity in any realm is the antithesis of centrism. Thus, the emerging crisis of the material realm and attempts to overshadow it with cultural politics reveal that while the Right could negotiate with the framework of centrism in a material realm by speaking for all, in the cultural realm it remains diametrically opposed to this pitch, excluding the minorities in subtle ways. Hence, the argument that both the centre and centrism witnessed a rightward shift seems shaky.

To contextualise the interplay of ‘cultural singularity and material plurality’ in the electoral verdicts in the just-concluded Assembly elections, especially in three Hindi-speaking States where the BJP and the Congress were pitted directly against each other, one needs to go back a bit back and take the Uttar Pradesh election as the starting point where Mr. Modi used the binary of ‘kabristan-shamshan’ and ‘Diwali-Ramzan’ while exhorting voters to choose the BJP to end the “exile of development” in the State.

Not to be left behind, both BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav competed to emerge as champions of ‘Muslim interests’ and, by extension, of secularism. Ms. Mayawati claimed in almost all her rallies that she gave 100 seats to Muslims — a rhetoric the BJP exploited to the hilt.

Demonetisation and people’s suffering — the material issues — took a back seat in political calculations. The unprecedented victory of the BJP and the selection of firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath as U.P. Chief Minister signified the ascendency of cultural singularity being a condition to developmental politics.

The glimmers of this were visible in the Gujarat election though the equations had changed by then. The BJP suffered serious setbacks in rural seats. The historic win in Tripura gave the BJP the mistaken confidence about the invincibility of cultural issues qualifying the material promises. It rejected the subsequent setbacks in by-elections as aberrations until it suffered defeat in the recent Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections in varying degrees.

The factors that revived the Congress from dormancy were the material crisis after demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. The combination of rural distress, joblessness and rural inflation are the issues that significantly account for the BJP’s electoral loss. There is no reason to believe that these issues will not be relevant in 2019, as is argued in the oft-repeated electoral cliché that the dynamics for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections are qualitatively different. Also, it would be wrong to read too much in the Congress’s recent flirtation with soft Hindutva. The Congress did not get votes due to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. The cultural posturing of the Congress was just a symbolic labelling beneath which lay its position of being a default alternative and spelling promise for farmers and the youth.

All attempts to whip up issues of a Ram temple and name-changing did not prevent the BJP from losing a substantial portion of votes to the Congress. The success of cultural politics presupposes the delivery of a basic minimum denominator of material interest. The BSP, too, did not resonate with Dalit voters in the three States despite controversy and anger around the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, as the party did not have any material narrative.

Similarly, Muslims voted more enthusiastically for the Telangana RashtraSamithi (TRS) in Telangana rather than the Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-IttehadulMuslimeen on account of the TRS’s populist welfare policies.

This marked material crisis informing the Indian polity indicates the shrinking space of cultural politics. Hence, the road to 2019 lies in the framework of centrism that guarantees electoral success in resurrecting material politics without any polarising attempt to privilege the cultural singularity of Hindutva or its rhetorical counterpart from the Left’s attempt to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance.


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Opinion

A prayer for our times

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By Rajeev Bhargava

As all of us ordinary citizens recovered from the carnage in Pulwama, and wondered how the government would respond to this latest instance of cross-border terrorism, one television channel showed us poignant images of grieving relatives of the fallen soldiers. While a few, driven by moral hatred for the perpetrators, were understandably crying for revenge, others, even at this moment of utmost suffering, spoke of the futility of retaliation. “It would only bring similar suffering to fellow humans,” said one widow from the rural hinterland. Hers was a cry for peace, not for vengeful violence. “War can only be the last resort, after everything else has failed,” she wisely counselled.

Yes, war is sometimes necessary, especially in self-defence. But one doesn’t have to be an unconditional pacifist to acknowledge the misfortunes it begets or to decry war mongering. Nor is readiness to go to war the only indicator of patriotism. True, patriots must be prepared to die in defence of their ‘patria’, their mother or fatherland. But one is not any less a patriot if one strives for everyone in his country living peacefully, happily, flourishing, leading life to its fullness. Fighting the daily challenges faced by their countrymen, seeking to improve their lot, always loving them and their habitat, and expressing this love in word or deed as the occasion demands is the everyday vocation of a patriot.

 

 A country at war is different. War is disruptive, and because it is lethal and involves human sacrifice, a patriot must eschew any bravado about it. This is particularly expected from contemporary leaders, patriots who never themselves go to war; quite unlike the past where the ruler who declared war was expected to always lead from the front on the battlefield. After all, it is our Army officers and jawans who die, not the ones who call for and support war. Our rulers move about with elaborate security to protect their own lives. If they don’t allow others to play with their lives, they must ensure that no one plays with the life of their countrymen, most of all our soldiers. Decisions on war must then be taken responsibly, without haste, not for spectacular effect or as tactical ploys in a game.

The inner workings of the human mind are mysterious, however. For it is not these thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw those moving images on television. This reasoning is retrospective; thoughts that have occurred to me now, post-facto. At that time, a strange melange of emotions — feelings of grief, despair, shame, nostalgia — curdled up and then suddenly, from nowhere, the lyrics of an immortal song by Sahir Ludhianvi, set to tune by Jaidev and sung melodiously by Lata Mangeshkar in the 1961 Dev Anand classic Hum Dono, came unbidden to mind: “Maangon ka sindoor na chhutey, maa behenon ki aas naa tootey (may no one be widowed; may no mother or sister lose hope of their loved one returning).”

In the film, these lines are part of a prayer for peace led by the wife and mother of a Major of the Indian Army missing in action — a prayer not only that their own loved one returns home safe but that no wife, mother or sister may lose loved ones in war. Death in war is an interruption, an anomaly. It takes away from us young, active, lively persons who have not yet lived their full life. When a soldier dies in the prime of life, he leaves many tasks unfinished, many relationships incomplete, millions of desires unfulfilled. And according to popular belief, when a person at the height of his powers meets a bloody, violent, untimely end, his prana or atman remains in limbo, trapped in no man’s land; it leaves the body without reaching wherever it is meant to go and keeps hovering around us. May this never happen to anyone, says the poet. “Deh bina bhatke na praan (may the spirit not abruptly detach from the body and wander restlessly).”

But this mellifluous song is more than a comforting prayer for peace. It subtly points fingers at those who injudiciously push us into war, at the economically strong and politically powerful who bring war upon us for their own benefit, to serve their own nefarious purpose. “O saare jag ke rakhawaale, nirbal ko bal dene waale, balwaanon ko de de gyaan (jnana) (you, who watch over the entire universe, you who empower the weak, may you also grant wisdom to the mighty).”

Jnana here refers not simply to knowledge, but to wisdom, moral insight, indeed to conscience. May the rulers rule with a conscience! May they be able to distinguish right conduct from wrong. Really, only such people should guide us when we are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to undertake morally retributive action.

And this is not all. The prayer then becomes a plea that we all be endowed with sanmati — to put our intelligence to good use, to have sound judgments, that all have a conscience. Why? Because unsound judgments, faulty moral reasoning and suspension of good sense are not the lot of leaders alone but also of those who support them and legitimise their actions. It is after all we, ordinary folks, who are swayed by war hysteria. Those without good sense get the leaders they deserve. May the gift of sanmati be bestowed on us. For only people with sanmati can rein in leaders who have lost all sense of good and bad, right and wrong.

But who is this prayer addressed to? “Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam (You, whose name is both Allah and Ishwar). In this, his masterstroke, Sahir invokes not only Gandhi, but an entire, centuries-old religio-philosophical legacy of the subcontinent in which all traditions are believed to share the same semantic universe that enables the god of one religion to be translated into the god of another. This is inclusive monotheism at its best, where god is one but referred to in different traditions by different names. And so, the prayer is addressed to Allah, Ishwar, and implicitly to the god of every religion.

With men spewing venom, not satisfied with fighting a war with their own fellow countrymen, itching to go to war with others, nothing (empathy, reason, dialogue) seems to work. Helpless spectators, no longer in control of their collective life, in sight of a looming disaster on the horizon, often break into a prayer. What else can those stripped of agency do but hope that somehow good sense may prevail, that all of us be delivered from the collective insanity that shows no sign of loosening its grip? Thus, those who believe in one god, invoke him; those who believe in gods and goddesses, invoke them; and those who believe in neither, hope for some good fortune to fall in their lap! This is why this is a prayer for our times: we offer this prayer to you, Allah to some, Ishwar to others, that you miraculously bring an end to needless killings, wisdom and conscience to the rich and powerful, and peace and good sense to everyone.

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

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Opinion

The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ Thesis Stalks the World

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By Ram Puniyani

The horrific massacre in Christchurch on March 15 has shaken the world. The killer, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, is an Australian citizen. Nearly 50 people died in the attack in which Tarrant attacked two mosques. Those killed include nine from India.

Tarrant had fixed a camera on his head so as to live stream the massacre. The Christchurch terrorist was consumed by intense racism and hatred of Muslims. He posted a long statement online, a “manifesto” of “white nationalism” before undertaking the dastardly act.

 

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, who at 38 years of age is among the youngest heads of government in the world, was the first to term the shootings an act of terrorism. Arden declared that the victims, many of whom may be migrants or refugees, “are us”, and the shooter “is not”. The overriding theme of the Prime Minister’s statements was that her country represents “diversity, compassion and refuge”.

The Pope in a touching speech said, “In these days, in addition to the pain of wars and conflicts that do not cease to afflict humanity, there have been the victims of the horrible attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand… I am close to our Muslim brothers and all that community… ”

As in India, the phobia of Islam and Muslims is founded on the narrow version of history. This phobia against Muslims around the world gained momentum after the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in New York.

This phobia has by now constructed its own History, selective and distorted, that centres around Muslim invaders and their alleged crimes in the medieval past. This History generates endless accusations. It singles out and exaggerates, holding a large and diverse group of people collectively responsible for these acts.

It is tragic that Tarrant’s hateful note is being supported by those who believe in this notion of politics and history. Again, taking revenge for the past is one of the dimensions of the agenda governing these ideologues: “To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.”

Again, the radicalisation of the likes of Tarrant is due to the rabid propaganda current in the Western media – and many places besides – where Muslims are constantly presented in a negative light. Many newspapers and media groups – owned by a few – like the Daily Mail in the UK and Fox News in the USA have taken the lead in spreading negative perceptions against Muslims.

Such propaganda, along with many anti-immigrant and xenophobic websites, is spreading hatred against Muslims which in turn is the foundation of the attacks on Muslims. Muslims are also being demonised in terms familiar from anti-Semitism, portraying them as less than trustworthy, lesser citizens and inferior humans or not humans at all.

Many such biases and myths are prevalent in India also. In the Western mode of propaganda Muslims are now being portrayed as people whose wearing of the hijab is sufficient proof that they are against the norms of the West – against the US Constitution, for example. Similarities with prevalent perceptions in India!

One recalls the Norwegian Christian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik at this point of time. In a carefully planned attack in 2011, Brevik killed 69 youth with a machine gun and other assault weapons. He also had issued a manifesto, in which he said his primary goal was to remove Muslims from Europe.

Breivik also called for cooperation between Jewish groups in Israel, Buddhists in China, and Hindu nationalist groups in India to contain Islam. He wrote, “It is essential that the European and Indian resistance movements learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible. Our goals are more or less identical.”

We must note, that there are strong parallels between Tarrant’s and Breivik’s manifestos and the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, on the question of the nature of Islam: Muslims and coexistence with Muslims. Much like rightwing parties in the European mainstream, the BJP in India does condemn the violence for name’s sake, but participates in spreading the underlying ideology which is based on Islam-phobia.

Worldwide, this despicable politics is in a way the outcome of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis propounded by Samuel Huntington. At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of Soviet Russia, Francis Fukuyama stated that now Western liberal democracy would be the final form of political system.

Building on this, Huntington stated that now the primary conflict would be around civilisations and cultures. Nation-states would remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics would occur between nations and groups belonging to different ‘civilisations’.

“The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” As per this manifesto Western civilisation is faced with a challenge from backward Islamic civilisation, providing the basis for the American policy of attack on many Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran among others.

To counter this thesis the United Nations undertook the initiative for an ‘Alliance of Civilisations’ when Kofi Annan was Secretary-General. The high-level committee he appointed gave a report which argues that all the progress in the world has been due to the alliances between different cultures and civilisations.

Today we are facing times where American politics of ‘control over oil wells’ led to the formations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. After the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by men whom the US government formerly supported and armed, the US media popularised the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’. What we are witnessing today is the fallout of this policy, which was pursued simply to control oil wealth.

The Islam-Muslim phobia this generated, in the West and elsewhere, has led in due course to White Nationalism. Like other forms of majoritarianism and violence, this needs to be countered ideologically, by demonstrating the inherent tendency of alliance between diverse cultures found throughout human history in the world.

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The Sikh Empire’s Expedition to Balakot

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By Ananth Karthikeyan

A few weeks ago, the Indian Air Force’s Balakot air strike using French-built Mirage-2000s bought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and perhaps changed the regional dynamics forever. Balakot has a history which has been a subject of much interest in the past few days: it was the site of the end of Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s jihad at the hands of the Sikh Empire. Today we look at this history and another curious fact – this was not the first time that French weaponry has been wielded against Islamist fanatics in this region.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-1839) was aware of the superiority of Europeans in technology and modern methods of war. He sought to close this gap by importing talent and building an indigenous capability. Ranjit Singh welcomed experienced scientists, engineers, mercenaries and officers from European nations to ensure that his kingdom could withstand any threat. Besides, the Afghan kingdom, the Pathan tribes and jihadis were threatening his western borders. French know-how became a major element in the defence of his realm. After Napoleon lost in Waterloo (June 1815) thousands of French and allied European soldiers were dismissed: the governments of Europe, including the new government of France, distrusted those who served under Napoleon. A few settled into civilian life, but most could not: fighting was all they knew, and they did not wish to waste the skills they honed fighting in three continents. Many offered their services to Asian kings who wished to modernize their backward militaries.

 

At this juncture, Ranjit Singh accepted talented Napoleonic officers such as Jean-Francois Allard, Jean-Baptiste Ventura, Paolo Avitabile, and Claude Auguste Court into his service. Besides such officers, there were chemists, doctors, engineers and soldiers of American, German, Italian, Polish and Irish extraction also. Many foreigners were given plum roles in the Empire. Claude Auguste Court was a product of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and apparently knew the science of artillery. Paolo Avitabile also had considerable experience as an artillery officer. Court and Avitabile, along with the Sikh leader Lehna Singh Majithia (who possessed great skill in engineering), overhauled the Sikh artillery. They established the training program for the gunners. Court re-organized the artillery command structure and established arsenals and magazines on European lines. The existing weapon foundries and workshops (established by Ranjit Singh and Mian Qadir Baksh in 1807) were rebuilt with French know-how to manufacture a variety of high-quality guns and artillery. Ranjit Singh soon possessed a formidable artillery of about 500 pieces, including mobile horse-drawn artillery. Court was bestowed large cash awards and titles when he introduced his new shells, fuses and commenced full-scale production.

The meteoric rise of the Sikhs and the decline of the Muslim kingdoms of India had agitated many Islamic fundamentalists. The most influential of them was the popular preacher Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who hailed from present-day Rae Bareilly. In 1825, thousands of his followers from the Gangetic Plains took up his call for jihad against infidel powers and followed him to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Barelvi’s Jihad was supported by many Afghan chiefs, who were usually suspicious of all outsiders. Barelvi was able to field nearly 100,000 Mujahideen and launched a five-year guerilla war against the Sikh Empire.

However, Barelvi’s orthodox interpretation of scriptures and stern disregard of Afghan tribal traditions soon led to many Afghans leaving his cause. Barelvi suffered a crushing defeat in a battle with the Sikhs near Nowshera in March 1827. Later some Afghan tribes turned on Barelvi and massacred hundreds of his followers in Peshawar in November 1830. Barelvi and his loyalists now decided to move out and try their luck in Kashmir. However, a Sikh army led by Sher Singh surrounded the Mujahideen at a mountain fort in Balakot and annihilated them in May 1831.

Ranjit Singh’s French guns and artillery were widely used in such battles in the turbulent North West frontier. Artillery and firearms which performed reliably enabled the Sikhs to prevail against great odds. Perhaps even more critical was the discipline instilled in the new infantry battalions by the European officers. Officers such as Ventura and Court also led campaigns into the North West frontier. However, after Ranjit Singh died, neither their weapons nor their courage could save the Sikhs from civil war and treachery. During this chaos, the surviving Europeans returned to their homelands. Soon the British defeated the Sikhs and the Afghans also took back some of their lands.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region is still turbulent, and weapons from many nations are still used here in the name of pacification, anti-terror and innumerable internal conflicts. History is repeating in strange ways and there are irony and dark humour in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. India’s French Mirages are the latest entrants in this theatre — let us hope it is not a destabilising element.

(dnaindia.com)

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