Can BJP afford an India divided?
Ullekh NP and Siddharth Singh | 11 Dec, 2015
The vacuous expressions on the faces of right-wing students who have filed a case against Delhi-based Philosophy Professor Ashok Vohra are proof that some of India’s agenda-motivated activists can’t see reason. His supposed crime: delivering a lecture at an Udaipur college where he countered “interpretations” of Hinduism by Western Indologists. Vohra, in fact, was backing their cause, yet he landed in a soup, ironically, for ‘hurting Hindu religious sentiments’. That he chose to speak out against Western scholars who, he claims, portray Hindu gods in bad light didn’t help. Professor Vohra, who says he is not a Leftist by a long shot and that he was only trying to expose the theories of foreign researchers who use Freudian psychoanalysis, has called the whole incident a “perfect case of religious intolerance”. Political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy, who is no great admirer of the Indian version of secularism, describes the “misguided and farcical” protests against Vohra as a distasteful outcome of decades of “Semiticisation of Hinduism” that he has been warning against since the late 1980s in his works. In the past year, he avers, “the heightened sense of intolerance” that threatens the diversity of Hinduism has gathered momentum, seeping into middle-class minds the way it had never done before. “It is very unfortunate,” notes Nandy, who believes that invoking false pride in Hinduism being “some kind of a monolithic entity” is otiose and contemptible.
Nandy’s and Vohra’s assertions are a far cry from those of the country’s so-called secular organisations that could be accused of being ‘twisted minds’ by either pro-Hindu groups and right-wing intellectuals and sympathisers pandering to the basic instincts of the leaders of the Hindu loony fringe or some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who have lately exhibited an astounding knack for bad humour in public. The judiciary may have dismissed a criminal complaint seeking an FIR lodged against Union minister VK Singh for his ‘dog’ comment about two Dalit children being burned to death in Haryana, but the scars of the preposterous suggestion that the underprivileged are an excrescence in India’s body politic are fresh in memory. Singh had said, “If somebody throws a stone at a dog, then the government is responsible… It is not like that.”
Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s pronouncements on culture have been similar. Some months ago, he proudly declared in an interview that Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road would be renamed after “someone” who was a humanitarian and a nationalist “despite being a Muslim”—it didn’t matter to him that this ‘someone’ was the late President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, a BJP nominee to the post. More such outbursts and statements by other self-confessed custodians of the Hindu faith such as Yogi Adityanath, a BJP MP, VHP stalwart Pravin Togadia—most of which are either abusive or border on the ridiculous—would suggest that 2015 has witnessed massive polarisation in India along political, cultural, social and religious lines.
Is that really so? Is 2015 the year that partitioned Indian minds like never before?
A probe into the ‘heightened level’ of intolerance that Nandy refers to doesn’t begin or end at the doormat of the ruling BJP-led coalition and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has incurred sharp criticism for promoting a culture of intolerance in the country. It extends to the main opposition Congress party that, in the words of London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose, is frustrated by its “lack of a winning spree” and the former heads and members of institutions who may be classified as ‘previously entitled classes’. Certainly, the level of indifference of a government cannot be measured in isolation, and has to be subject to a study in comparison.
We did see in the weeks and months before the elections to the legislative assembly of Bihar—considered crucial for the BJP—a large number of writers (in excess of 200) returning key literary and other government awards, protesting the rise of ‘intolerance’ in the country. The context of these protests was well-known: the killing of four persons— activists, writers and an innocent person unconnected with any political activity—since 2013, some of them when the UPA was in power. All of a sudden, India seemed to be a country whose primordial past had caught up with it. The desire for higher economic growth, modern aspirations and a politician who echoed these dreams was suddenly forgotten. Editorials and stories in the global press echoed these protests and sentiments accurately. Suddenly, it seemed that India was at war with itself.
THE MEMORY OF INSTITUTIONS
Without doubt, the current ruling dispensation went about effecting changes in key institutions that were once the preserve of the Congress and the Left. The mistake it made was to anoint also-rans to top positions of bodies such as Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). At Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Modi Government refused to ratify its director Dr Sandip Trivedi’s appointment by the previous Government. This has never happened under any Prime Minister before. Famous writer Sethumadhavan was asked to step down as head of the National Book Trust and an RSS ideologue (former Panchajanya editor Baldev Sharma) was appointed in his place. The Indian Council for Cultural Research (ICCR) has at its helm Modi admirer Dr Lokesh Chandra. The appointments of Y Sudershan Rao as chairman of ICHR and Gajendra Chauhan as director of FTII kicked up a row for all the right reasons. While Rao had not done any historical research and had claimed that the caste system was good for India, Chauhan’s record as a film personality is poor, to the extent that it undermines the authority of the institution he heads.
But then, once again, the story is long even if the path it has followed has been linear and can be traced back to 2004 when intellectuals and activists from NGOs were appointed to an influential advisory body—the National Advisory Council (NAC). This panel was instrumental in effecting ‘progressive’ legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education (RTE) Act and the National Food Security Act (NFSA). In reality, these laws were designed to cater to the UPA’s rural (and poor) constituents. Many of these laws—especially RTE and NFSA—proved utopian or even ruinous in the years to follow. Yet, in terms of ideas and institutions, they gave activists and intellectuals their first real taste of power in India. The importance of these intellectuals and the ideas they generate cannot be underestimated. From the educational system to the media, they create an atmosphere in which policymaking can be debated and carried out. The trouble for the UPA was that this was a cosy club that became more of an echo chamber as the years progressed. On the one hand, the economic ideas pushed by these activists and intellectuals were out of sync with what Indians at large wanted. On the other, implementing these ideas—new laws and an entitlements (or rights)- based approach to governing the country—landed India in trouble. As long as the Indian economy continued to grow at a healthy clip, the expenditures needed to fund these programmes could be found with little difficulty. From 2007—when some of these plans began to be implemented— government expenditures rose by almost historic proportions. But once growth slowed down, their negative aspects became obvious. When in late 2013 and early 2014, the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram began a course correction, these ideas—and the intellectuals behind them—stood exposed.
A different wing of these activists and intellectuals— accustomed to government patronage—was deprived of privileges when the BJP Government came to power. NGOs and activists could no longer dictate environmental policy, for example, which had veered in a dangerously anti-growth direction. Similarly, historians and writers, used to governments of a particular political hue, found themselves bereft of support. From ICHR to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) to the FTII, these people found themselves out in the cold. BJP leaders claim that it is protests by such individuals— which they insist is nothing more than the revenge of the formerly empowered—that have led to perceptions of India being a divided country. They argue that we need to distinguish what’s real from what’s fake. According to them, it was an economic polarisation—if that is the correct expression—among India’s urban and semi-urban residents that led to the BJP’s landslide win of 2014.
According to pundits who dismiss intolerance in the country, the big divide is between the large mass of India’s citizens who want a better future for their children—educationally and economically—and a section of the country’s intellectuals who continue to cling to old ideas of socialism, artificial egalitarianism and a mischievous interpretation of events to argue that India is becoming intolerant. For many of them, the cries for freedom of expression that we see around now is itself a testament to the tolerance of the state, which in the past had muzzled the media and disbanded constitutional liberties at whim.
“The fact that there is an unprecedented conflict, silly or serious, in the public domain between two ideas, one where Hindutva is the main theme and the other, where secularism or anti-BJPism is the political mainstay, be it in Parliament, on the internet or elsewhere, points to lack of respect for each other. That is where the problem lies,” says a senior bureaucrat who has worked closely with several prime ministers. He argues that as a coalition leader, the BJP and some of its allies are trying to create a perception among Hindus—who make up nearly 80 per cent of India’s population—that they have long been excluded from the rewards of the country’s civilisation and its glorious past ever since the medieval era of Islamic invasions. “This is meant to retain a political advantage. But that plan suffered a huge setback in the elections held in Bihar,” he contends. The Congress, the Left and like-minded regional parties such as Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal- United (JD-U) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) lose no opportunity for “Modi-baiting”, he says. “There is far more rivalry and nasty behaviour between political parties than ever before due to a variety of factors, and both the ruling coalition and the opposition are at fault in pursuing politics of enmity. The year 2015 did see the partitioning of minds who either practise politics or watch and comment on politics,” says a former IAS officer of the Bihar cadre who asks not to be named.
India watchers such as Martha Nussbaum, a Chicago University professor, places the blame on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for being a deeply polarising figure. “I have followed all the developments very closely, and I think that the criticism of Modi [being responsible for growing intolerance in India] is utterly fair, and that his RSS roots are showing, as I always expected. I think any government that fosters religious animosity should be blamed, and the prosecution of several Congress leaders for their roles in the anti-Sikh riots was right and just. There is, however, a difference: Modi’s version of the BJP derives its strength from the RSS, a paramilitary organisation dedicated to making India a Hindu state. There is no parallel on the side of Congress. The Babri mosque was destroyed by people radicalised by the RSS (as for example Lalit Vachani’s The Boy in the Branch convincingly shows), and so one cannot blame it on the Congress.” Vachani’s documentary film dwells at length on the indoctrination of Hindu boys by the RSS.
Nussbaum, like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, with whom she has co-authored academic papers, has long held that Modi’s election campaigns are divisive. In an interview, she had said, “I’m afraid that Modi has always appealed to fear: his campaigns, which I studied in The Clash Within, play on fears of the Muslim minority. There is also an appeal to shame, since the sense was conveyed, at least in pamphlets circulated prior to the 2002 riots [whether with Modi’s direct participation or not] that Hindu men have been weak and passive, and are therefore in a shamefully dominated position.” Nussbaum’s statements on Modi and the RSS have made her an object of ridicule by half-baked pro-Hindutva hacks and internet trolls.
Professor Amartya Sen, too, has come under attack for his comments on the current regime. “Unlike Nussbaum, Professor Sen has an axe to grind because he was ‘relieved’ from the post of chancellor of Nalanda University by the current Government,” says a BJP functionary. Sen, who had withdrawn his candidacy as chancellor of Nalanda University, had accused the Modi-led Government of conspiring to seize direct control of academic institutions. He also wrote a lengthy article about his exit in The New York Review of Books. To be fair to Sen, he had been a long- time critic of Modi and had said before he became Prime Minister that he didn’t endorse a man with divisive credentials like the former Gujarat Chief Minister to lead the world’s largest democracy. The Nobel laureate also expressed his worries about cuts in Budget outlays for health and education. “I have never been anti-industry but no country can become an industrial giant with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force,” Sen had said in an interview.
Following his remarks on Modi, Sen had faced an onslaught of criticism within the media and from fellow economists, besides trolls, who have accused him of siphoning off funds from the university. Taking criticism of Modi opponents to a new low, some even demanded an inquiry into what they called a scam of which Sen was alleged to be guilty. In July this year, Sen had said that Modi had failed to fulfill the promises he had made in the run- up to the 2014 General Election. In response, Union minister Giriraj Singh tweeted: ‘Bihar was the scariest victim of [Sen’s] intellect.’ The persons chosen for heading institutions of national importance have been exceptionally dedicated to promoting Hindutva priorities, Sen had said, expressing concern about the future of secularism in India.
HOW DADRI PLAYED OUT
It was the campaign for the Bihar polls held last month that brought wrangling and slanging matches between political opponents to the fore. In the process, it led to a widespread polarisation in debates, speeches and writings.
Then Dadri happened. What ensued was chaos. Bishada, a nondescript village in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, captured national headlines following the death of Mohammed Akhlaq, a middle-aged trader, in a murder that non-BJP parties claim was the result of the age-old politics of hatred resurfacing with a vengeance across the country after the BJP’s return to power. The 50-year-old Akhlaq was killed over rumours that he had slaughtered a cow, eaten its meat and stored some of it in his fridge—assertions that were found to be false. “That Narendra Modi, a darling of Hindutva forces, has become Prime Minister has emboldened the loony fringe to go about spreading the poison of communal hatred. The BJP leadership of Amit Shah and Modi seems to be encouraging them rather than asking them to exercise restraint,” Imran Kidwai, former chief of the Congress party’s minority cell, told Open.
The lynching in Dadri in early October caused the ruling party much embarrassment. While CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and several non-BJP parties alleged that it was a conspiracy to make gains from an electorate polarised along religious lines in poll-bound Bihar, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to admit that the country needed to rise above “these kinds of incidents because they certainly don’t give a good name as far as the country is concerned”. Modi continued to face the wrath for his so-called ‘silence’ on a raft of incidents related to the politics of bigotry. Even the RSS sought to distance itself from statements made in its name by BJP leaders like Sangeet Som and Mahesh Sharma who had visited the village. Despite the Sangh’s gag order of sorts on irresponsible comments, BJP lawmaker Sakshi Maharaj, who is known to shoot his mouth off, repeated a recurring statement— that Hindus consider the cow their mother, suggesting again that Akhlaq was to blame for his death.
As early as February, while on a tour of India, in a parting shot, US President Barack Obama had said that religious intolerance in India would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in India as guests at the country’s Republic Day celebrations in January. By October, especially with elections due in Bihar, the anti-intolerance rhetoric had reached its peak. Of course, the incident in Dadri was not the Centre’s fault alone. The Uttar Pradesh government of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is notorious for its failure to control crime, which has spiralled in recent years. According to numbers of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), UP is India’s ‘worst state’ in terms of law and order. The Centre blamed the state for the lynching. The highly partisan debate also saw the BJP accused of following a dual strategy of expanding its organisation through communal polarisation while Modi went about drumming up support for his development agenda. Soon, as if on cue, many pro-freedom groups and writers were up in arms against the NDA Government. Renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal, who had lashed out at the Indira Gandhi-led Congress Government for imposing the Emergency in the mid-1970s, decided to return a Sahitya Akademi award given to her in 1986 in protest against what she described as the “rising intolerance” in India, marked by the killings of the likes of intellectuals Professor MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare this year. The lynching of Akhlaq, she said, was the last straw. She also accused Prime Minister Modi of staying silent amid a reign of terror unleashed on the vulnerable. ‘We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology,’ she said in a written statement.
President Pranab Mukherjee also called upon the country to duly uphold the pluralistic core values of the Constitution.
Alongside what came to be known as the ‘award wapsi’ campaign, there was also a hysterical call for cow protection and against consumption of beef. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, from Modi’s BJP party, trended on Twitter after saying Muslims living in India should give up eating beef. Various other BJP leaders said those who eat beef and oppose Modi should go to Pakistan.
It soon became an ‘us versus them’ debate though Modi sought to make what was construed as a perfunctory statement: “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha, we are not an intolerant society.” The Government also earned criticism for suggesting that there was no link between the murders of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and Professor Kalburgi. Dabholkar was shot dead by two unidentified persons while he was on a morning walk in Pune on 20 August 2013. Pansare was also shot dead while on a morning walk with wife Uma in Kolhapur on 16 February 2015. Kalburgi was shot dead in Dharwad in the early hours of 30 August 2015. Documents seized from Samir Gaikwad—an accused in the case of Pansare’s murder— indicate a link to the murders of Dabholkar and Kalburgi, all of whom were vocal critics of Hindutva politics. According to various reports, the agencies probing these cases have found several mobile numbers of assassins in the diaries seized from Gaikwad, confirming the suspicion. Gaikwad was a member of an extreme right- wing organisation, Sanatan Sanstha, based in a Goan village, Ramnathi.
In early October, author Salman Rushdie, who had tweeted in support of Sahgal and others, was barraged with hate messages. He responded, saying he was against ‘thuggish violence’. One of his tweets said, ‘Here come the Modi Toadies. FYI (for your information), Toadies: I support no Indian political party and oppose all attacks on free speech. Liberty is my only party’. Other writers who were at the receiving end of hateful barbs from online ninjas included Amitav Ghosh and Pankaj Mishra.
Interestingly, though it was no reflection on the Modi Government, data collated by the Union Home Ministry showed that 287 communal incidents were reported from across the country this year until 31 May compared with 232 over the same period in 2014. Deaths due to communal clashes during January-May 2015 rose to 43 from 26 and the number of injured too were higher at 961 from 701 in the first five months of last year. The states that accounted for a major portion of the increase in communal clashes were Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and West Bengal.
RESPECT NO MORE
The election campaign for Bihar saw political propriety thrown to the wind, with political opponents employing below-the-belt comments to spite one another. “The partitioning was almost complete,” says a Patna-based official. The Bihar polls almost became a rich versus poor election because the BJP was portrayed as a rich man’s party. The right-wing Hindu party was also perceived as anti- quota following a statement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who hit out against reservations along caste lines. “In that sense, with some kind of hindsight hypocrisy, I would say the Bihar polls were an ‘upper caste versus backward caste’ fight,” he maintains. Notably, lower castes, especially those non-Yadav, non-Kurmi ones who nurse a grudge that they were excluded from the social engineering exercise that began in the late 1980s, didn’t want a government that put the reservation system in peril.
Meanwhile, the ripple effect of north India’s food politics was felt all over the country, especially in Kerala where consuming beef while eating out is a cultural habit even among Hindus. A raid on a canteen in Delhi’s Kerala House where buffalo meat was served kicked up a row, for example. In Mumbai, there were other forms of vigilante action. Like Professor Vohra, Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was once closely associated with the BJP, was smeared in an ink attack before he was to launch a book authored by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. The attackers were from the BJP ally Shiv Sena, which had earned notoriety over the decades for its anti-South Indian, anti-Muslim and anti- Bihari posturing. The Shiv Sena went to on claim that smearing a person’s face with ink was a moderate form of democratic protest. The BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis hit out at the Shiv Sena, but there was little he could do to rein in a coalition partner whose support was crucial to the front’s survival. The Sena also brought disrepute to the state’s coalition government after it forced the cancellation of a concert in Mumbai by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali.
For their part, some Muslim leaders, especially the likes of Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan, have made outrageous statements that are meant to feed on the insecurities of Muslims in the country. Besides making statements to foment communal unrest after the Dadri killing, recently he said that if the Babri Masjid had not been “martyred”, referring to the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 would not have taken place. Meanwhile, Muslims in the city were seemingly swayed by remarks by some politicians that Yakub Memon, convicted as ‘a driving spirit’ behind those blasts in Mumbai, was hanged in early July because he was a Muslim. Such a statement by former CPM chief Prakash Karat incurred criticism across the country, including in CPM strongholds such as Kerala, which has increasingly witnessed communal polarisation, and Tripura. Pro-ISIS statement by various Muslim clerics also seem to have had a serious effect on disaffected Muslim youths, especially in south India and in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore where ISIS had found recruits. Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar from Bhatkal in south Karnataka has been zealously recruiting jihadists in India to work within the country or go to Syria. “The new recruits are indoctrinated and made to believe that India is an unsafe place for Muslims, especially under Modi,” says an intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS, which has made huge gains this year in Syria and Iraq with its brute military power and strategy, is an inspiration for many Islamist groups in India. When Open interviewed university students in Srinagar, capital of Jammu & Kashmir, where militancy is showing signs of a revival, a few of them said that “though we don’t endorse IS’s treatment of women, etcetera, there are lessons to learn from them. After all, they hold territory”.
It is not just Muslims. Other minorities like Christians, too, feel that their faith is under fire from right-wing groups emboldened by the feeling that they have their man in power at the Centre. “It is no secret that the loony Hindu fringe looks up to Modi for his alpha male image following the Gujarat riots of 2002,” says an intelligence officer who has served in the Northeast for years. “There is also a clear-cut division among the media, columnists, intellectuals and even bureaucrats following Modi’s ascent to power,” he adds. The armed forces, too, feel the political pinch. “Modi’s handling of the one-rank-one-pension issue has created much confusion within the armed forces also. Earlier, soldiers and officers never spoke much of politics. Now there is a lot of unhealthy debate,” says a military officer posted in Leh.
LOSING THE PLOT
The Congress is upset that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is under pressure following the party’s 2014 defeat. Over the recent legal setback in the National Herald case, the Congress has disrupted Parliamentary proceedings in anguish over the alleged ‘political targeting’ of its first family. “I am not scared. I am Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in- law.” That was an angry Sonia Gandhi’s response after being told to appear before a court in the case. Her son and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has called it a “101 per cent” political vendetta though he has an opportunity to prove his innocence in court.
The party also expects to gain from an anti-Modi polarisation. After all, it tied up with Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar over a perceived threat from Modi, and hit pay dirt. The Congress secured 27 out of the 41 seats it contested in Bihar, its best performance in more than a decade and its only major gain since its humiliating defeat in the 2014 polls. But then the aspirations of the regional parties that have captured the Congress’ traditional vote banks could hurt the Grand Old Party. What would upset the Congress further would be the BJP making inroads into states where it had been a weak electoral force. In Kerala, the recent local elections showed that the BJP’s gain would be Congress’ loss as opposed to calculations that the BJP would cannibalise the CPM’s traditional Hindu vote base.
THE POLITICS OF ECONOMICS
Now, a major part of the ‘polarisation’ story, one that is often ignored, has its roots in the UPA’s economic performance in its ten years in power from 2004 to 2014. The story is best told if one slices this decade into two parts: from 2004 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2014. In the first term in power, the UPA had a commendable record of economic growth. In three out of the five years from 2005 to 2009, India clocked economic growth in excess of 9.3 per cent annually (market prices in constant rupee terms based on World Bank data). The outlier was 2008 when the global economy collapsed due to the financial crisis in the West. That year, India registered only 3.9 per cent growth. The next year witnessed a bounce back of 8.5 per cent. The five year ledger closed with a respectable average rate of almost 8.2 per cent per year.
It is in the next five years that the story went awry. The average annual growth in the period from 2010 to 2014 was only marginally lower from the figure for the previous five years, at just under 7.3 per cent. But there were deeper economic (and institutional) pathologies that contributed in no small measure to the polarisation seen in 2014. In 2010, Indian economic growth touched a stratospheric high of 10.3 per cent—the highest in a decade. This was largely due to the Indian economy being administered fiscal steroids in the form of a stimulus package designed to help overcome the shock of the global financial crisis. But no sooner had its effects worn off that growth collapsed. In 2011, growth tapered off to 6.6 per cent, shaving off 3.7 percentage points—the steepest rate of decline in recent memory. From that point, until 2014, growth never really recovered. In the last year of UPA’s rule, a partially recovery of sorts took place when growth clawed back to 7.4 per cent. But by then, the damage had been done.
These years also saw a constant tug of war between the Reserve Bank of India trying to curb high retail inflation and a government that was not even willing to take baby steps—such as increasing fuel prices. By the time Mamata Banerjee walked out of the UPA in September 2012— when diesel prices were raised by a few pennies—the Government was in the midst of its infamous ‘policy paralysis’.
Ordinarily, economic performance is hardly a matter on which national elections are decided in India, unless, of course, high prices begin to hurt poor consumers. But by 2014, something had changed fundamentally in India. In a country where the working age population (15 to 59 years in India) is in majority, slow economic growth is a recipe for political trouble. By 2011, 62.5 per cent of all Indians were in the 15-59 age bracket (up from 57.7 per cent in 1991). Many in this group had tasted the fruits of economic growth—stable incomes, independent lives and the availability of consumer goods as never before. In urban areas, they make up about two-thirds of the population. The political consequences of this young urban demographic concentration are not hard to see: they are double-edged. A party that supports growth is bound to be attractive to this group. Conversely, any party seen to be against economic growth and in favour of the old-style politics of patronage is likely to bear the brunt of this aspirational crowd’s disaffection.
The UPA—especially its lead party, the Congress—has seen the pendulum swing both ways. In 2009, the UPA won 115 of the 200-odd ‘urban’ Parliamentary constituencies. In the major metros—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad—it made a clean sweep. In 2014, the party’s total tally in the Lok Sabha was 44. The story of the so-called political polarisation in 2014—the election year in which the rhetoric of religious polarisation was muted—was actually the result of an economic gap. The BJP’s overwhelming numbers in the Lok Sabha had much to do with the UPA’s performance on the economy in four of its last five years, when growth—in spite of India doing better than other leading economies—was not considered up to scratch by the urban electorate. It was also in this period that the UPA’s rural bent in policymaking was most pronounced: from costly loan-waivers for farmers to a generalised tilt toward decision-making that favoured rural areas at a time when India was urbanising rapidly. Again, this did not go down well with any part of the electorate, urban or rural. What Indians wanted were opportunities in education, jobs and setting up enterprises. What they received was a fiscally toxic mix of sops and political patronage of the kind that was last seen in India in the 1970s. This backfired on the UPA in 2014.
Economically, 2014 (and continuing into 2015) witnessed marked polarisation of the kind that India has not seen since the 1970s, when the country veered in favour of the other political extreme of socialist politics. No section of the country, viewed from any perspective—age, place of living (rural versus urban), caste, region, income— has been immune to this economic phenomenon. In a country that has discovered aspiration, it is hard to be happy with mere crumbs.
It is in the interests of the ruling coalition that it abandons its twin agenda, one for the Government and another for the party, one pro-growth and the other self-righteous and schismatic. The latter is a trend that worries no-nonsense sociologists like Nandy. If insecurity and alarm among minorities and non-conformists under the current dispensation reach hysterical levels amid heightened talk of intolerance, it is the NDA’s opponents who win.