The victory of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a victory of the ideology that impedes the establishment of a true social democracy. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the author of India’s constitution, wrote, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life.” For those of us who want India to become a modern society based on humanitarian, ecological, and secular values, the challenge is to regain people’s trust in the values that establish a social democracy.
The faltering dream of Swaraj
The important impact of India’s Parliamentary election is that it creates an atmosphere for the RSS to pursue its goal of turning India into a Hindu Rashtra. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of the RSS, has systematically and aggressively promoted the idea of Hindu Nationalism during this election campaign, which undermines the immense potential of India’s diversity.
In seeking freedom from the British, India rejected slavery to establish its own vision of participatory democracy (self-rule) as elaborated in Gandhi’s book Hind Swaraj. Mahatma Gandhi believed that “Swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification, and growing self-reliance.”
Though India achieved political independence in 1947, Swaraj is not achieved for all sections of society. Feudalism, economic disparities, and social inequalities continue to get in the way of creating equal opportunity for social mobility and prosperity for all. Hindu Nationalism puts the underprivileged sections at a disadvantage and undermines the dream of Swaraj.
The top-down authoritarian culture of the RSS and other organizations in its ideological fraternity fundamentally impedes the creation of participatory democracy. Each time Indian masses have opted for a strong and autocratic leader, it has derailed the cause of establishing a participatory democracy. The declaration of Emergency is a testament that the concentration of power in a single individual or a coterie leads to the suppression of dissent and the alienation of the masses from the power structure. Power in the hands of an authoritarian leader inevitably leads to nepotism, violation of human rights, and corruption.
The progressive forces need to reenergize, and reaffirm our belief in a secular and participatory democracy. The electoral battle is lost, but the real war is ahead of us — we must continue to uphold and advance the dream of an inclusive society in the imagination of the masses. Hindu Nationalism is not a sustainable platform for achieving social justice, economic progress, or peace with neighboring countries.
A legacy dismantled
An average Indian is religious (and superstitious) at heart and fiercely patriotic. The patriotism of the older generation was shaped by the sacrifices they made fighting for liberty and freedom from the British. The post-independence generations were fortunate to enjoy the fruits of the struggles and sacrifices of their parents; their notion of patriotism was shaped by the India- Pakistan conflict and the fight against cross-border terrorism.
The Congress party, which was in power for the longest period after India became independent from the British, exploited the patriotic sentiment of the nation and the party’s role in the freedom struggle to its advantage for several decades. Meanwhile, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) focused on promoting “Hindu Nationalism.” The Ram Janmabhumi movement initiated by Shri L.K. Advani leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque was a systematic social engineering exercise to neutralize the impact of the social justice movement. The Sangh Parivar understtood that they could unite Hindu voters only by creating fear of a common enemy- the Muslims of India. As a result, the supporters of Hindu Rashtra have managed to convince the majority Hindu population to support Hindu Nationalism as an assertion of Indian identity.
The goal of the RSS is clearly articulated in the following extracts from its mission statement:
- Expressed in the simplest terms, the ideal of the Sangh is to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory, through organising the entire society and ensuring protection of Hindu Dharma.
- The aim of the Sangh is to organise the entire Hindu society, and not just to have a Hindu organisation within the ambit of this society.
- From its inception, the goal before the Sangh was to attain the “Param Vaibhav” (the pinnacle of glory) of the Hindu Rashtra, the freedom from the alien rule being just a step in that direction.
To meet this goal, the RSS began organizing a devout cadre of activists that is trained in “righteous militancy” to reassert the honor and self-respect of Hindu Society. The following extract from the RSS mission statement serves an alert:
- There was also need to bring all sadhus sannyasins and orthodox mathadhipatis on a common platform, so that their combined influence could be channelized for the common good of the entire Hindu society. The VHP was founded in 1964, to fill this need. The VHP is committed to undo the historical insult to the last nuts and bolts and it is this determination of the VHP that has instilled a spirit of righteous militancy in the Hindu society.
- The aim is to activise the dormant Hindu society, to make it come out of its self-oblivion and realize its past mistakes, to instill in it a firm determination to set them right, and finally to make it bestir itself to reassert its honor and self-respect so that no power on earth dares challenge it in the days to come.
The following extract from the mission statement makes it clear that notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s frequent proclamations of “सब का साथ, सब का विकास।” (Prosperity for all) his alma mater is hell bent on homogenizing the multicultural Indian society under the umbrella of Hindutva.
- The world is looking for a viable and universally acceptable life-vision. It is Hinduism alone which is in a position to provide such a vision.
- A lasting solution to the economic crisis can come only from cultural rejuvenation and re-assertion of Hindu values.
(All the bullet points referenced above are extracts from the RSS website. http://rss.org/Encyc/2012/10/22/rss-vision-and-mission.html updated on June 12, 2019)
The election campaign of the BJP was managed by the rank and file of the RSS. Narendra Modi,in his early days in politics championed the mission of the RSS in the role of a sambhag pracharak (regional organiser) in 1978, overseeing RSS activities in the areas of Surat and Vadodara.
Today India has stepped away from the legacy of the freedom struggle. The proponents of a modern India driven either by the Gandhian philosophy of inclusive, grassroots-level democracy, or by the Western ideals of liberal, secular and socialist democracy were defeated by the same forces that ridiculed and assassinated Gandhi, and derided secularism and liberal thinking. The acrimony in social media of the past several months has left no doubt that in the prevailing conditions, a significant section of India has bought into the idea of asserting its Hindu identity. A poisonous cocktail created from the mixing of religion and politics is leading India to dismantle the legacy of the freedom struggle.
The recent election campaign generated acrimonious, hateful, and abusive conversations on social media. Ideas that are far removed from the ideal of unity in diversity surfaced in these conversations. An atmosphere of xenophobia blinded people to the long-term consequences of their participation in hateful discourse in social media.
Political scientist Dr. Lawrence Britt wrote an article in which he calls out fourteen identifying characteristics of fascism.
- Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
- Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
- Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
- The supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
- Rampant Sexism
The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.
- Controlled Mass Media
Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in wartime, is very common.
- Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
- Religion and Government are Intertwined
Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.
- Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
- Labor Power is Suppressed
Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely or are severely suppressed.
- Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.
- Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
- Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
- Fraudulent Elections
Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.” (Free Inquiry, Spring 2003, page 20))
These signs and characteristics are already noticeable in the current politics of the Sangh Parivar. “Eternal Vigilance” is required to preserve the liberties which our forefathers fought for.
Absence of an alternative
In the current Indian political atmosphere, humanitarian, ecological, and secular values have disappeared from the political discourse. The progressive parties, which previously represented the hopes and desires of the population, have drifted away from their ideals, and lost the hearts of many of their would-be supporters.
Additionally, the RSS campaign has been successful in introducing into the discourse words and phrases like “Pseudo Secularism,” “Siculars,” and “Libertards,” thereby manipulating people’s minds with memes that create contempt for secular and liberal politics. The RSS campaign also discredited media by introducing terms like “Prestitutes,” and “Fake Media”.
People are dismayed by the general state of politics and have lost hope for an alternative. In their dismay, they have bought into the narrative promoted by the Sangh Parivar that though the BJP is not perfect, the Congress party is not the alternative. The Congress party did not have the credibility to challenge the BJP. On issues that should have been damaging to BJP, Congress was also vulnerable. Unable to defend his complicity in the mass killings of Muslims in Gujarat, BJP countered with the issue of the massacre of Sikhs under the watch of Rajiv Gandhi; The Rafael deal was questionable, but Rahul Gandhi was taunted with the counter-argument that his father was “Bhrashtachari №1”(corrupt №1). The Modi government’s bonhomie with a select group of business houses and its failure to deliver on promises from the 2014 election was eclipsed by the war hysteria provoked before the election.
Reclaiming the dream
To reclaim the dream of Swaraj, the fight against Hindu Nationalism has to continue. We must replace hatred in people’s minds with compassion, and create a new national ethos that is more empathetic and inclusive. We must counter the mission of the RSS with the mission of a modern, secular, liberal, compassionate, and creative India, led by people who deserve respect. We must educate people about why separation of religion and politics is essential in a participatory democracy.
Dan Arel, an award-winning journalist and author, references a study conducted by the University of Chicago which found that children raised in non-religious households are kinder and more altruistic than those raised with religion. They observed 1170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), and inferred that “Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.”
The purpose of citing this study is not to challenge people’s religious beliefs, but to make a point that practicing religion is not necessary for character building nor for cultivating kinder and altruistic traits in our children.
We must inculcate in children the values we cherish. A section of the younger generations seems to have lost interest in secularism. Much of this loss of interest is due to loss of credibility of the leaders who championed the secular cause. The RSS and BJP campaign magnified the contradictions between the rhetoric and lifestyle of the leaders who preached secularism, to turn voters against their politics.
There is a dire need to create contemporary symbols and rituals for a secular society that will inspire the youth. The younger generation worldwide is recognizing that it is possible to be spiritual without being religious, that one does not need religion to be moral and just.
There is hope
The movement for total revolution led by JP and the Lok Pal movement created hope for Social Democrats. These movements inspired by Gandhi’s concept of Swaraj were compromised by power mongering.
My hope for the future stems from the fact that as much as India is fiercely religious and nationalistic, at heart it is also compassionate. I see an opportunity for those who want to experiment with a new future based on inclusive ideologies. We should tap into India’s compassionate soul and rebuild a new politics. The path to building the modern India of our dreams has become harder, but not impossible.
Compassionate and Creative Secularism will save us
The transformation of society can happen when citizens start thinking creatively about building tools and institutions to strengthen democracy.For example, Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company was first developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2008. Since then, thousands have used its crowdsourcing tools to raise their voice. Ushahidi is a social enterprise that provides software and services to civil society to help improve the bottom up flow of information. Ushahidi has empowered marginalized people raise their voice. At the same time it has also provided organizations and people’s representatives a communication channel that helps them listen and respond to their constituents. Ushahidi, has inspired youth in several countries to participate in the democratic process.
Closer to home, “I Paid a Bribe (IPAB) is an online initiative started by Janaagraha is the largest online crowd-sourced anti-corruption platform in the world today. IPAB uses a crowd-sourcing model to collect bribe reports, and to build a repository of corruption-related data across government departments. Most importantly, it empowers citizens, governments, and advocacy organizations to tackle retail corruption. As of June 2017, IPAB has partnered with 30 other countries to create replica IPAB sites and begin an international Crowdsourcing Against Corruption Coalition.” (source:http://www.janaagraha.org/i-paid-a-bribe/).
These examples demonstrate how systemic transformation of the society is possible through innovative tools for participation of citizens in democracy. Co-creating a vision of participatory democracy will initiate the building of institutions that over time can bring alive the dream of Swaraj. This is a cathartic moment in the nation’s psychology. The results of this election sends a message that India has chosen the Swastika over Swaraj. However, there is hope for a turnaround. Let the din on social media not confuse us. Let the outcomes of elections not deter us. Let us make India a social democracy dedicated to the cause of Swaraj.