May 23, in a small trade town in India’s northeastern state of Assam, a Muslim family had gathered all of its 40 members to provide evidence for the nationality of one of their aunts. Her name was missing from a national registry of citizens. Cautious with their words, they felt harassed by a government that was questioning their place in India, based on their religion.
Suddenly, firecrackers burst across the street. The voice of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi boomed: traders were playing his victory speech from 2014 on loudspeakers.
Now, Modi has been re-elected, and India has been irreparably divided. Faces painted in saffron cheered for their hero and his brashness, which they welcome as the marker of a strong leader. One could also hear the powerlessness on social media of those shocked that the country had also voted, among others, a candidate who is on trial for terror charges but is on her way to becoming a lawmaker.
Between April and May, 900 million Indians voted to choose a new government—with 8,048 candidates vying for 543 seats of the Indian Parliament (545 seats in total, two of those nominated by the president).
In 2014, Modi had offered the template of a transformed Gujarat for the rest of India, based on his term as its head. His role in initiating and condoning the 2002 Godhra pogrom, which had killed more than 1,000 people, was overlooked. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 282 seats at the time, more than the 272 needed out of 543 to form a government, and Modi was anointed prime minister.
Five years later, his popularity grew, along with disillusionment.
Modi—who calls himself a fakir [ascetic]—welcomed the world to set up manufacturing units in India; he offered loans to small businessmen. But the knee-jerk demonetisation—towards “eradicating corruption”—hurt the economy. Further, unemployment, at 6.1 per cent is at its highest since the 1970s.
The country faces a severe agrarian crisis as a result of failed farm economics, mismanaged water resources and erratic climate; human development indicators show an equally worrisome picture. India’s secular fabric has been torn to shreds—at least 44 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in three years by Hindu fundamentalist cow vigilante groups.
Would this have been enough to deter India from bringing the BJP back to power for another five years? Evidently not—the BJP won 303 seats in the Parliament, much more than in 2014.
Did India miss the writing on the wall?
As the opposition party, the century-old Indian National Congress was disconnected from grassroots society and lost in the face of the BJP’s WhatsApp armies and their messages.
Winning only 52 seats, Congress struggled to listen to people’s basic needs, even as its leader Rahul Gandhi—the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead the party—tried to correct the communal wrongs of the BJP with words of love.
In a viral video from last year, Gandhi hugs Modi in the Parliament, much to Modi’s shock. But Gandhi’s message of communal harmony meant little: he has been perceived as a weak leader even within his party.
But more than Gandhi’s persona is the failure of the party itself, as well as other parties that did not join hands against the BJP. On the streets of Assam, a peppy folksy song played on loop: Aaru eibaar, Modi Sarkaar. [One more time, Modi’s regime]. It was a translation of the BJP’s campaign song in Hindi.
Congress’ party song? Barely audible through the noise.
In the last five years, stand-up comedy has done a better job of critiquing the government than most of the liberal news media. After Thursday’s election result, one of the most vocal comedians put it best: “History will remember you as a cheerleader for the fascists and will remember us as the unorganised voices fighting it.”
But I should have known better.
Walking across rural north India last year, I saw how people felt that the BJP had touched their lives. Toilets were missing plumbing, but the BJP had built them. There was no more free supply of liquid petroleum gas, but the BJP had delivered the free gas cylinders. The infrastructure in major cities is collapsing, but the construction for the metro system is visible.
Modi only speaks in the present continuous tense about his programs. “Give him time,” was the rhetoric heard everywhere. But the stories of people lynched were drowned in his bombastic speeches.
Modi’s win is a gun pointed at anyone who questions the idea of an India meant only for Hindus. It’s a gun pointed at Muslims for being themselves. It’s a gun pointed at secularist thinkers (four had been killed already). It’s a gun pointed at anyone anxious about the drying rivers and naked forests, as they question companies close to Modi embarking on their projects without environmental clearances.
Not far from where I met the Muslim family that had gathered together to prove their Indian identity—in a process instituted by India’s Supreme Court but exploited by the BJP—is a cluster of villages where 2,000 Muslims were hacked to death, on a single day, in 1983.
The 600 police complaints were not investigated; the perpetrators of the Nellie massacre continue to live among the survivors. On one side of Nellie’s street are houses soaked with loss and injustice; on the other side are houses cemented with chauvinism. This template of roaming ghosts in India’s forgotten corner is now being replicated across the country.
The morning after, newspapers are awash with photos of smiling faces painted saffron, denoting Hindu fundamentalism.
At the press conference where Rahul Gandhi conceded defeat, one journalist asked him, “So your love [over hate and communalism] lost in the end?” Gandhi replied, “Love never loses.”
In his victory speech, Modi said, “The jamaat [gathering, among Muslims] of secularists have been silenced…. The niqaab [face covering, among Muslim women] of secularism couldn’t hoodwink the country.”
But the smokescreen is now clear: hatred, lies and propaganda have won. The idea of an India that embraces all, even through their differences, has been lost—at least for the foreseeable future.
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