India’s 2014 General Election:
Time to Rediscover Secularism
Ananya Vajpeyi 26 May 2014

31% of the Indian electorate has voted for the BJP. Three distinct reasons may be construed as the rationale for the party’s success. First, to give the BJP the opportunity to deliver on its promise of economic growth, infrastructure development and good governance. Second, to punish the incumbent Congress-led government, in power from 2004 to 2014, for its inefficiency, massive corruption, misrule, ideological confusion, institutional collapse, schizophrenic economic policies, dynastic style of functioning and plutocratic leadership. And third, to remake India according to the tenets of Hindutva, or political Hindu nationalism.

The last factor can account for only some of the BJP’s popularity. Nation-wide, 8-9% of the Muslim voters, 24-27% of Dalits, as well as huge numbers of secular Hindus voted for the BJP. They might have stayed loyal to the Congress had it not been for its colossal failure to rule India properly (especially since 2010), or if it had managed to put on a credible election campaign in 2014. They voted BJP, but certainly not because they wanted a Hindu majoritarian state to replace the familiar collective project expressed by Rabindranath Tagore’s phrase: “unity in diversity”.

I would reckon that most people who voted for the BJP did so because of a combination of the first two aforementioned factors. That being said, having gotten the numbers, and in the absence of a strong opposition, there is nothing really to stop the new government from pursuing an anti-secular ideological agenda, along with its more pragmatic objective of getting India back on the growth track. The Congress, and the Left – another routed camp in this election – had projected secularism for the past 60-70 years largely in terms of a certain rhetoric, combined with the now reviled and abhorred tactics of ‘minority appeasement’ and ‘vote banks’. But today, the defining features of conventional secularism have lost both their political rewards and their moral luster. It may turn out that the Indian voter is willing to let go altogether of secularism as-we-knew-it, in the interest of building a more prosperous, stable and strong state.

Our democracy has now elected a political party that has a history of aligning itself with, and seeking to represent mainly the Hindus, the majority community. This party believes that India ought to be a nation for, of and by the people of one group: a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP, together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has a clear majority in Parliament, and, needing no coalition partners to form the government, it has unequivocally chosen Modi as the country’s next PM. By contrast, all other parties, including the Indian National Congress (Congress) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), are electorally so weakened that none of them may be designated the leader of the opposition. This means that the BJP has the field absolutely clear to set India on a course to become a Hindu majoritarian nation-state, turning more sharply to the right than anyone could have imagined or predicted even a few months ago. The BJP’s ideology of Hindutva could replace what has been the official ideology of the Nehruvian and post-Nehruvian state thus far, that is, secularism. Modi has the necessary democratic mandate to achieve this tectonic shift in the very character of the Indian state.

In fact, the mandate of the world’s largest and most diverse electorate is united by only one thing: its desperate need for change, and the hope that India will get back to a double-digit growth rate. The worry, now, is that the incoming NDA government, under Modi’s leadership, will take the popular vote of confidence and run with it, treating it not so much as a firm ouster for the previous administration, but instead, as a free hand to introduce more clearly majoritarian, authoritarian, communal, and neo-liberal policies than anyone has seen in India’s political culture.

Given the drift towards the right in numerous countries across the democratic world – both in terms of cultural politics and economic policy – as well as the return of authoritarian, neo-nationalist, fascist, and supremacist parties and movements in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, Modi is not unique as a phenomenon. But the foundations of the modern Indian polity were inspired by Tagorean and Gandhian ideals of communal harmony, non-violence, peaceful coexistence and the suspicion of conventional nationalism. These were validated and reinforced in the trajectory of the postcolonial Indian state set by Nehru, a committed secularist.

Thus, both the BJP’s overwhelming electoral victory and Modi’s personal appeal for hundreds of millions of ordinary Indians are surprising developments, to say the least. More frightening is the apparent willingness of the BJP’s new-found supporters to move on from the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, a hideous orgy of sectarian violence against the minority community, which left more than a thousand dead, besides several thousands displaced – with most of the affected being Muslim. Modi had avoided all responsibility for these events, even though he was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time.

Those who believe in secularism as a core normative aspect of the Indian political system, never to be sacrificed at the altar of a high growth rate; those who believe in substantive and not just formal equality, dignity, justice and opportunities for minorities; those who value India’s mind-boggling cultural diversity, and those who stand by the Constitution of India – all such people have to now come together to re-imagine ways and means to preserve and strengthen our endangered pluralist ethos. Repeating tired and discredited slogans left over from decades of Congress rule will no longer suffice.

These elections were not a coup. They were free and just. Regime change is not taking place in a climate of civil war. We must respect the election results. For liberals like us, time has come for introspection. Unfortunately, the concept of secularism has been hijacked, ill-treated by the Congress Party. The very word is now discredited. There is the perception that it is an empty idea, a lie, the means for a postcolonial elite to conserve its privileges. There is an intellectual crisis of secularism in India. We cannot anymore be content in repeating: “Modi is a new Hitler”. We must ask ourselves what does not work anymore and why we have been so disconnected from what is apparently a broad popular consensus. India’s liberals must rethink what they believe in.

We have to understand what it means to be secular, not with the patronage of a loose and careless state with a decadent habit of minority appeasement, but against the grain of the regnant power and its attendant ideology that is unambiguously exclusivist. The time for lazy assumptions about India’s essentially accommodative and mixed nature, its supposed comfort with its own superabundance of conflicting identities, and its fabled ability to manage differences – that time is now over. If we don’t reinvent secularism, we will forfeit it.

The original version of this article was published on the LILA Foundation Inter-actions platform. Link to the original source: http://www.lilainteractions.in/2014-5-21-government-of-by-for-people-sudheendra-kulkarni-ananya-vajpeyi/

Ananya Vajpeyi is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. She is the author of the award-winning book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard University Press, 2012). Vajpeyi was recently appointed a Global Ethics Fellow by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 2014-2017. She is currently writing a life of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.