Post-Bhaad Samaj: The Rise and Rise of Illiberal Democracy in India

In India, we have this phrase known as bhaad mein ja. A rough translation is: go and get burned in the furnace. Metaphorically, go and rot in hell. One usually says it in anger or frustration. Over the course of the past decade -  with the worsening effects of climate change and growing global inequality - I felt as if the world was going through its bhaad stage. 

Around the world, the last decade witnessed the rise of megalomaniac dictators and far-right parties in Turkey, Germany, France, UK, and Hungary. But for me, the election of Donald Trump signified a change in the overall paradigm in democracies around the world. Trump’s election brought the fringe into mainstream politics, effectively legitimising hatred and bigotry. Furthermore, his election has inspired other leaders to openly make racist, sexist and xenophobic statements, endorse their views with policies and actions - and in turn win elections. Following Trump, the world has witnessed the rise of Duterte in the Phillipines (who has conducted extra-judicial killings) and Bolsanoro in Brazil, who won the Brazilian elections despite deeply misogynist and homophobic comments. This rise of illiberalism around the world is what I call the post-bhaad samaj. (Samaj means society in the Hindi language.) 

In a post-bhaad samaj, the fallacies of democracy are exposed. This is a samaj where hatred and bigotry not only run loose, but are legitimised by the very forces designed to punish or condemn them. It is a samaj where dissent is seen as sedition, where ideas become intellectual terrorism, where new histories are manufactured and written to solidify a parochial notion of society, where the killers of minorities are honored with garlands, and where misinformation spreads like wildfire. 

Now, that moment of post-bhaad has entered India. Back in 2014, Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP party, campaigned and won on the slogan of sabka saath sabka vikas (everyone together to bring development for all). Already a star amongst conservatives in India, he was also seen as a hopeful figure by many liberal intellectuals. But over the past five years of (mis)governance in India – which has seen the rise of intolerance, mob lynchings of minorities, dissent smothered by the government, and a gradual economic decline – it became clear that Modi’s promise was a sleight of hand to drive a more divisive agenda, destroying secular-liberal India.

A Brief History of Indian Politics

The trajectory of modern Indian politics arguably begins in 1947, when India gained independence after a hard-fought struggle against the British. The national movement, mainly anchored by the Indian National Congress (which became the de-facto political party both in power and opposition, as opposing voices also came from within the party), was driven by certain key ideals of liberal democracy, secularism and multiculturalism. Even though many popular leaders had emerged during the national movement, it was Mahatma Gandhi's idea of secular fraternity and Jawaharlal Nehru's liberal vision of a modern India that shaped the country after independence. 

The influence of Gandhi, Nehru, and the national movement can be seen in India’s Constitution, which enshrines the principles of liberty, equality, and religious freedom in the form of enforceable fundamental rights. Over the course of decades, the judiciary, along with progressive legislations, have made these rights even more substantive. (For example, the Indian Supreme Court has recently ruled that privacy is intrinsic to life and liberty.)

However, the Nehruvian idea of a liberal, secular India started to rupture in the late 1980s, as certain controversial legislation led to the rise of a political-communal movement hitherto insignificant in terms of parliamentary prowess. The BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) was officially born in 1981, and focused on blatant communal messaging to win votes. (In Indian politics, communalism implies the politicisation of religion to create and deepen social cleavages, and to reap electoral benefits.) But to understand the BJP and its rise, we have to go back and examine another key organisation: Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or RSS. 

RSS – The Powerful Minds Behind BJP’s Rise

In 1948, Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for reasons that have been well discussed. But to summarise, Godse was disillusioned by Gandhi's stand on assisting the newly created nation of Pakistan. Godse believed that Gandhi was betraying the Hindu community by trying to help Pakistan and ease the extreme, and often violent, communal environment. Godse, a former member of RSS, took it upon himself to assassinate Gandhi as punishment for his betrayal. RSS's idea of a homogenous India, mainly a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) is largely influenced by late European forms of nationalism that emerged with the formation of Germany and Italy in the late 19th century. 

After Gandhi's assassination, key leaders of RSS and Hindu Mahasabha (another wing of the RSS) were also put on trial, and RSS as an organisation was temporarily banned. But during the trial, no evidence was found that RSS had direct links with Gandhi's assassination. During this time the Constitution was also being drafted, and on 26 January 1950 a provision came into effect banning the creation of political parties formed on the basis of religion. (This was a result of the communal riots that occurred over the course of partition.)

This provision meant that RSS, which follows a certain idea of Hinduism called Hindutva, could not contest elections. So, it fielded a party on its behalf called Bhartiya Jan Sangh. But the political climate of India was such that no party could match the Indian National Congress. The BJS slowly withered from the Indian political scene.

However, in the 1980s, it returned in the form of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Initially, the party did not fare well, winning a mere two seats in the 1984 election. However, over the 1980s and 1990s, Indian society began to fragment. Two major examples were the destruction of a 16th century mosque by an angry mob, led by RSS-VHP, and a Supreme Court judgment over alimony which caused a political battle over intervention in Muslim personal law.

This fragmentation, in turn, enabled the rise of Hindutva, which many scholars have argued is not a religion but rather a political ideology based on the premise of exclusion of non-Hindu communities. The BJP, consolidating the rise of Hindutva-based politics, became the national alternative to the Indian National Congress party and eventually came to power in 1999 in the form of a coalition government. The BJP has always polarised the electorate by campaigning on issues related to Hindu nationalism. Their rule was marred by the 2002 Gujarat pogrom - after a train was burned, killing more than fifty Hindu pilgrims, Hindu mobs attacked local Muslim communities and killed about 1,000 people. During this time, the Chief Minister of Gujarat was none other than the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Many held Modi accountable for his lack of action during the early days of the genocide, but he was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing by the Supreme Court of India. 

The Indian National Congress party won the next election and formed a coalition government from 2004-2014. However, their tenure was marred by continuous corruption scandals, and the BJP ran on a strong anti-corruption platform during the 2014 election campaign. This paid dividends, as the party won a majority in the parliamentary elections for the first time since 1984. But during the past five years of a BJP government, India has seen the rise of intolerance, suppression of free speech, lynchings based on religion or cow slaughter, and the decline of public institutions. And the core promise of the BJP - delivering economic prosperity and development for all - has failed to materialise, as statistics show that the economy has declined and unemployment is at its highest point in around 45 years. 

Times They Are a Changin’

Despite this, BJP won again in 2019, after a campaign run on blatant communalism and fear-mongering. How did that happen? Various scholars are still trying to map the reasons, and most identify the charismatic power of Narendra Modi as a key factor. (This has been called the 'Modi Effect' or the 'Modi Wave'.) But I'm asking the bigger question: what changes in India have led to this reconfiguration of Indian society?

One major factor is the success of the BJP in associating the party with economic development, and constructing the narrative that they alone can deliver India’s economic salvation. In particular, they position themselves as free of corruption, and working for the betterment of India. The opposition - in this case the Congress party - seem to have failed in that endeavour completely. 

Another factor is the rise of the aspirational Indian middle class, and the redefinition of India’s identity followed its emergence as a powerful world economy. The rising wave of right-wing nationalism and economic protectionism seems to be a catalyst in this redefinition of India. The BJP and its narrow idea of India, which had previously been marginal, finds itself in the mainstream now and gathering followers. The BJP government has been successful in equating itself with the idea of ‘the nation’, and any questioning of the BJP is labelled as anti-national. A prime example of this was the demonetisation decision of 2016, wherein the BJP government abruptly deemed 500 and 1000 rupee notes (which made up 86% of India’s liquid cash in circulation) illegal tender. This presented a major inconvenience to everyday civic life in India, as people stood in lines for hours to exchange the demonetised notes. However, it was portrayed by the government as ‘a sacrifice that each Indian has to make’ to cure the nation of corruption. 

Another factor is the rise of the politics of exclusion - not only through the Indian caste system, but also the systemic political marginalisation of religious minorities and homosexuals. Over the last six years, India may have seen a decline in large-scale riots, but. as various commentators have observed, these have now been replaced by sporadic small-scale killings or mob lynchings. Sukumar Muralidharan has argued that the nature of Indian parliamentary system is such that it actively rewards discrimination, and the emphasis on the politics of exclusion ends up creating an atmosphere of further marginalisation. Those who are convicted of discriminatory violence are often paraded as heroes, as was the case in one recent instance. This is chillingly similar to Trump’s statement, following the Charlottesville protests in which a woman was killed by neo-Nazi protestors, that there were “good people on both sides”.

What Lies Ahead

Throughout the world, the moral decline of politics is evident, as states and their actors actively indulge, reward and legitimise acts of hatred and bigotry. In India, the 2019 election campaign was driven by hatred and blatant communalism. It was a campaign to crush the idea of a secular-liberal India at the altar of ultra-nationalism. It was believed, foolishly by people like me, that India would vote against this hatred. But the landslide victory for BJP and Modi is a clear sign that India is deeply entrenched in the age of post-bhaad. This victory is the death of Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India as a country based on the principles of liberal-secularism. We are witnessing the concretisation of a deeply divided country. What these next five years may bring is yet to be seen. 

All of this sounds ominous for the believers in the Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of a constitutional India. But I believe that there's still hope to overcome hatred and bigotry. We need to fight not only for our own rights, but also for the rights of others. We've got to speak up for the ones who've been told to shut up. The battle for the Indian parliament may have been won by forces of hatred, but the war for the idea and the soul of India still lingers on. 

Anand Badola is a doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India. His work broadly revolves around the intersection of media, culture, and politics.

Photo by Al Jazeera English, shared via Creative Commons