India in the early twenty-first century is not 1930s Germany

The Modi camp seems to have studied Chinese success in keeping saturation control over the media. But Indians are split along caste, language, dialect, regional, religion, not to speak of class. India is vastly different from Germany.

N. Jayaram
13 June 2013

Narendra Modi speaking to business leaders in Calcutta. Demotix/Bhaskar Mallick. All rights reserved.

A spectre appears to be haunting India if media coverage following the recent conclave of the main opposition grouping, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is to be believed. It is the spectre of a genocidal Hindu fanatic leader assuming power, Hitler-like, as Prime Minister when general elections are called next year or earlier.

The BJP named Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, as chairman of the party’s election campaign committee. That gives Modi, 62, free rein to name himself the candidate to go head to head against whomsoever the major component in the ruling coalition, the Congress, names as its prime ministerial figure.

In 2002, Modi was either negligent during or, by many accounts, actually stoked up an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, in which more than 2,000 Muslims perished; countless women were raped. Details of that pogrom – the slogans heard in those days were openly genocidal – have been documented by several independent groups. A number of Modi’s associates have been tried, convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from life downwards. But he himself has escaped justice and has gotten re-elected twice in the state (current population 60 million).

Why has the BJP promoted Modi? There is the myth that his state is vibrant and that 2002 notwithstanding, his “dynamic” leadership will do the whole of India good. But Gujarat has always been one of India’s more affluent or less indigent states. Modi inherited a reasonably good state of affairs. He has courted corporate giants and film stars – in a country besotted with films and the game of cricket. Indian media houses, which are increasingly dependent on deals with corporate moneybags, do as they are bid and boost Modi’s profile. In terms of social indicators such as infant mortality or status of women and the minorities, his state lags behind.

But a virtual army of supporters has been working the internet from within India and abroad: there is a sizeable Gujarati and upper caste Indian presence in North America and Europe and a good number backs Modi.

This seems to have emboldened Modi to bid for national leadership. If he succeeds, he will have at his command not only a servile and supine bureaucracy. He can count on influential groups or parties allied to the BJP collectively known as the “Sangh parivar” that share the Hindu fanatic ideals of the cadre that lies behind the BJP, namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Society). The “Parivar”, or family, includes the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and numerous regional – and lethal – groups.

But appearances can be deceptive. India in the second decade of the twenty-first century bears little similarity to the Germany of the first half of the twentieth century. Germans largely bought into an “Ein Volk” idea. It was therefore easy to proceed to “Ein Reich” and “Ein Fuehrer” as well as the Holocaust in which Jews, the Roma and others were butchered. India is generally thought of as a “majority Hindu” country but “Hinduism” is a loose coinage of recent vintage for a disparate set of beliefs. Indians are split along caste, language, dialect, regional, religion, not to speak of class. India is vastly different from Germany.

Caste influences Indian elections greatly. Especially in rural areas, people consider whether there is any advantage for their group in voting for a particular party or candidate. Members of one or more castes need to be appealed to in each parliamentary constituency. Sub-castes and regional variations of caste identities matter. Muslims make up sizeable numbers in dozens of constituencies. Their aspirations and fears cannot be ignored.

Crucially, regional political parties have been growing in strength. Although they enter into loose pre-election agreements with major “national” parties, in general everything is up for negotiation after results come in. Parties demand influential or lucrative ministries – those like mining or telecommunications – that offer scope for enormous rent-seeking. Bribes run into billions of dollars.

Thus, unlike in presidential systems or even in parliamentary ones such as in Britain or Germany where the heads of two main opposing parties are presumed to be contenders for leadership, no leader of any Indian party can be ruled in or ruled out as possible prime minister. In fact, India has already had, since the late 1970s, a number of compromise candidates who have become prime ministers, albeit for short periods (until their shaky coalitions were toppled).

The winding path

All this is a long-winded way of saying that Modi cannot assume that the path to New Delhi is smooth and direct. He has to traverse two dozen other states, in some of which he is bound to draw a blank. Among Dalits (formerly called untouchables) and the indigenous peoples (or tribals as they are known in India), he is an unknown quantity. His party, the BJP, can hope for a maximum of 25 percent vote share nationally. Although that might yield a slightly higher percentage of seats if constituencies are judiciously chosen, no party on its own is likely to win an overall majority in parliament. Modi will have to make deals with several smaller parties, each claiming bigger pounds of flesh than their strength in terms of seats warrants. It is difficult, therefore, for him to emerge as a Fuehrer like figure.

Moreover, India has already been vaccinated, so to speak, against authoritarian governance. In 1975, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency after a court verdict went against her while parts of the country were in the grip of an anti-corruption agitation. During the Emergency, it was claimed that trains ran on time. But that episode was deeply marred by what were euphemistically referred to as “excesses”. Forcible sterilisations in the pursuit of a vigorous birth control campaign, demolitions of entire areas in the older part of the Indian capital and censorship in a country whose people are among the more argumentative in the world put paid to that unfortunate experiment. Indira Gandhi called an election she perhaps wrongly thought she could win. India returned seamlessly to its chaotic self.

It is almost unthinkable today that a majority of Indians will rally round one leader who is inevitably identified with a region, language, religion, caste or class, whatever the noisome urban middle class might say.

That Modi is a deeply divisive politician was adequately proved the very next day after his nomination as election campaign chief. L.K. Advani, who has been a party leader for well over half a century, first resigned from all major posts and after high drama, withdrew his resignation on 11 June. Advani has long nursed prime ministerial ambitions. Ironically he had groomed Modi and defended him in 2002 when there were some misgivings within the BJP about the Gujarat supremo’s actions. Modi recently campaigned in (provincial) assembly elections in southern India’s Karnataka state (population 61 million) and his party suffered defeat in the three places where he spoke.

To be sure, the Congress party’s record in power has been lacklustre to say the least. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes across as a weakling and a ditherer, unable to keep corruption under check or to deliver equitable development. The Congress party’s leaders were implicated in an anti-Sikh pogrom following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 when more than 3,000 people were killed. But the founding ideology of the Congress party is not genocidal, whereas the BJP and its allies take inspiration from V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, who admired Hitler’s Final Solution.

There are certain dangers: the Hindutva forces are trying to recruit adherents from among the Dalits and even indigenous peoples, selling them the idea that Muslims and Christians are their enemies. The Modi camp seems to have studied the Chinese success of the past nearly quarter of a century in keeping another Tiananmen-like revolt at bay through repression and – over the past decade or more – saturation control over the media.

But whoever wins this time round, India’s parliament and the central government will keep lurching from crisis to crisis as coalition partners of the bigger parties run rings around them. And if Modi fails to wrest the prime ministership, he will have an intra-party struggle on his hands while awaiting the next general elections.

India will, for the foreseeable future, totter on while avoiding a major holocaust.

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