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The dark side of grand narratives


By Varghese K. George

“The impossible is now possible” is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan for the 2019 elections. His supporters believe his vision and leadership have resulted in a new resolve for the country. They believe we now have a ‘New India’. Two incidents last week provided glimpses of this resolve — the testing of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile on March 27 and the detention by the police of development economist Jean Dreze in Jharkhand the next day. If the first was yet another tentative claim of India’s superpower status, the second was instructive of the indisputable intolerance of the state. Dreze is a voice of India’s weakest, and the police stopped him from campaigning on the right to food in a place where three out of 100 children die before their first birthday. Since September 2017, activists have catalogued 18 deaths linked to the collapse of social security schemes in the BJP-ruled State. The missile test and the arrest are linked; in the drumbeats of hyper-nationalism, the whimpers of the weak are a dissonant note.


One school of strategists has always lamented that India is a ‘soft state’ reluctant to use power to achieve its goals. Hindutva strategists have linked this alleged softness of the Indian state to the timidity of Hindus, as well as ‘appeasement’ of Muslims and Christians by the Congress. Over the last five years under Modi, India has ostensibly shed its timidity. Union Minister Arun Jaitley said after India’s airstrikes in Pakistan: “I remember when the U.S. Navy SEAL had taken Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad… Today it is possible (for India also to conduct such operations).” In a recent speech, Modi said about terrorists, “We will enter their homes and eliminate them.” In his first campaign speech, on March 28, Mr. Modi said “terrorists and their supporters across the border” wanted him to lose. BJP president Amit Shah said on the same day: “Only two countries in the world avenged their soldiers’ deaths earlier: the U.S. and Israel. Now, India is the third.” India, which is synonymous with Mr. Modi in the narrative, is decisive, capable and willing, not merely to achieve its domestic goals, but also to coerce other countries to fall in line.

Hindutva’s geographical core is in north, central and western India, and its social core consists of upper caste Hindus and the emergent middle class. Hindutva tried to reach out to the periphery by entering into alliances under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who became its first Prime Minister. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) during the Vajpayee years roped in ethnic parties in the south and lower caste parties in the north by suspending its three most controversial objectives: abrogation of Article 370 that grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir, the uniform civil code, and construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the spot where a Hindutva mob demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992. With its support in the core consolidated and expanding, Hindutva 2.0 under Mr. Modi went for the jugular in the periphery.

This approach has been demonstrated the starkest in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2014, as Prime Minister, Mr. Modi campaigned relentlessly against the two regional parties in the State, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference. After the elections, the BJP and the PDP formed a coalition government, but far from brightening the prospects of a solution in the State, it has been downhill since then. The Modi government reversed all the gains made in the State towards normalcy. The BJP-PDP partnership did not temper the hyper-nationalism of the former as many hoped; it delegitimised the PDP before its supporters, weakening New Delhi’s link with the Valley further. The BJP is part of the government in seven of the eight north-eastern States now, by forming social coalitions of its own, such as in Tripura, or by forming alliances with regional parties, such as in Manipur. The BJP is soft-pedalling its cow protection agenda in the Northeast, but its goal of full cultural integration of the region with the mainland, or with the Hindi-Hindu nationalism of the Sangh Parivar, is never hidden.

Hindutva has a grand vision for India, and even the entire world, if one were to go by Mr. Modi’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018. Mr. Modi’s pursuit of that grand narrative of India as a leading power is happening even as the perils of several grand strategies that came before are playing out. The U.S. and Israel, the models that Hindutva proponents want to emulate, continue to pay a heavy price. The U.S.’s project to remake the rest of the world as its clones has come a cropper, but not before huge costs were paid in terms of lives and resources. Beijing is pursuing its own grand vision of reshaping the world.

For all such pursuits of grand ambitions, which appeal to the core of any society, aggregation and diversion of national resources from the weakest in the periphery are essential. Trying to trim any society to fit into a straitjacket, unidimensional notion of greatness generates agony and hardship as it requires massive use of force. Authoritarian societies achieve it easier, as in China. When a democracy does this, it drifts away from its ethos and turns authoritarian, as has happened in the U.S. and Israel. “How can we talk about being free in this country when we have to leave each day in fear of gun violence in schools… and even from law enforcement?” African-American Senator Cory Booker, who is running for Democratic presidential nomination, said on the same day that India declared parity with the U.S. in anti-satellite warfare. He will surely be accused of talking the language of America’s enemies by the hyper-nationalists in the country.

Subordination of particular aspirations, and even human rights, to a nationalist grand narrative is not impossible before Mr. Modi. Testing ASAT was also not impossible. The Indian state is not designed to be, and has not behaved, soft by any standards, as Gyan Prakash depicts in his recent book, Emergency Chronicles:

Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. India’s dealings with insurgencies of various kinds have been brutal, and the elimination of Sikh separatism during Congress rule is a case in point. At the same time, the Congress system had a mechanism to deal with the aspirations of the social and geographical peripheries of the nation. There were restraints to global adventurism and peace was sought with insurgents, sometimes successfully.

In Hindutva 2.0’s grand vision, the periphery is only a theatre to demonstrate strength before the core. The weakest amongst us will pay for this — as slain soldiers, petty criminals shot dead by the police, starvation victims and hapless undertrials. Their voices will be muffled. The search for greatness could numb our soul.