The Saffron Surge

Everywhere I look I see orange. Buses full of orange-clad men proudly proclaim their arrival, surrounded by motorcyclists similarly dressed. On the path beside them, younger groups march too, a plastic bottle full of holy Ganges water on a stick over their shoulder. It’s the summer of 2017 and for a few days in Allahabad and then Varanasi this is my overwhelming experience. It is the annual Shiva festival and, as is tradition thousands of exclusively male pilgrims have made long journeys to the Ganges for a small portion of the holy water, which they will then take to particular Shiva temples to be blessed.

Beneath the surface, though, is the tide of Hindu nationalism, which has reached its zenith under the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The two cities, Varanasi and Allahabad, are deep in the Hindu heartland state of Uttar Pradesh. In the 2014 elections the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), Modi’s party, won 71 out of the 80 available seats there. Modi chose, as you can do in Indian politics, to take his own seat in Varanasi, rather than in Vadodara (formerly Baroda), to further cement his party’s dominance in the area. That dominance went a step further in March 2017, when the BJP emerged from the State Assembly elections with a majority and, thus their candidate, Yogi Adityanath, became only the second Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh from the BJP. He has since set about cleansing the state of any cultural remnants of Islam, changing the city of Allahabad’s name to Prayagraj and the famous Mughalsarai junction to the much less catchy Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, named after a leading Hindu nationalist thinker. He has even threatened to change the name of the Taj Mahal to the Ram Mahal.

Image courtesy of Captugs via Wikimedia, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Both Varanasi and Allahabad (Prayagraj) are central in the celebration of the festival, the former as the most important city on the Ganges, where hundreds of people are cremated every day and the latter, marking the hallowed spot where the Ganges, the Yamuna and the spiritual, mythical Saraswati meet. The festival, celebrating the Hindu God’s most violent reincarnation (Shiva the destroyer), embodies the spirit which Modi has brought to India since his landslide election victory in 2014. It’s masculine, loud and ever so proud. And it’s not orange, I should add, it’s saffron.

Since my trip two summers ago, I’ve made a concerted effort to understand the complex political situation in India. Although my views are neither fully formed, nor fully informed, from a position of relative ignorance two years ago I now feel I have a decent, albeit theoretical, grasp of the state of Indian politics. 2019 is election year and what promises to be the biggest democratic election the world has ever seen has already begun. Staged over almost two months for reasons of security and practicality, the results won’t become apparent until May 23rd. Beyond the perplexing plethora of abbreviations, what emerges are two national parties and several powerful and very important regional ones, depending on the state they are in. The two national parties are the incumbent BJP and the Congress party, the party of Gandhi and Nehru, which has held power for 55 of the 72 years since Indian independence. Both options present significant problems in terms of democracy and ramifications for the future of the country.

Of those 55 years the lion’s-share of the Congress Prime Ministers have come from one family, the Nehrus (who became the Gandhis when Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira married Feroze Gandhi). That sort of political hegemony is certainly not healthy for what is still a fledgling democratic country. Rahul Gandhi is the latest family member to lead the party, having assumed the presidency of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 2017. The 48-year-old, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, has long been written off, with critics from both sides of the political spectrum claiming he lacks the natural qualities of a statesman and that his position owed little to any political acumen or skill on his part. He is yet to convincingly disprove these claims. However, his reputation has been enhanced tremendously in the past few months, starting with the State assembly elections in December of last year. Five states were up for grabs but there was little doubt Telangana would remain under the control of the TRS (Telangana Rashtra Samithi), while the Eastern state of Mizoram garnered little media attention. That leaves three; Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatissgarh. All were in the hands of the BJP but by the turn of the year Congress was back in power in each one. That sparked life into an election that many commentators had presumed would be a formality for Modi and the BJP, given the huge margin of victory in the 2014 election and the perceived weakness of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party.

Further energy has been injected into the party by the introduction of Rahul’s sister, Priyanka, in January when she was appointed General Secretary of the Congress Committee for Uttar Pradesh East. Reminiscent to many of her controversial, yet revered Grandmother, Indira, she had resisted getting formally involved in politics, despite the view that she was more suited to the profession than her brother becoming increasingly prevalent. Something has clearly changed, and the Congress party is reaping the benefits. Some are of the view, however, that the election results owed less to Congress’ resurgence and more to the electorate’s enthusiasm for Modi having subsided after five years in power. In that light, the ongoing elections look set to be a referendum on Modi’s time in power thus far.

Narendra Modi has certainly changed the shape of Indian politics. His charismatic rhetoric has invigorated Hindus around the country, while his supposedly humble origins, as a chaiwalla (tea seller), allowed to set himself in opposition to the entitled, aristocratic and westernised establishment, which he, quite justifiably, would have you believe the Nehru/Gandhi’s represent. The BJP may currently be India’s largest political party, but it is so heavily focused on its leader that all else fades into the background. For all intents and purposes, it is Narendra Modi against the rest.

Modi’s first term in office has neither been a booming success nor a calamitous failure. Modi has made significant progress on various issues- more roads have been constructed, village toilets have spread at a rate of knots and an extensive new health insurance scheme could change the lives of millions of families for the better. He has enhanced India’s global reputation, filling packed venues of Indian expats in London and New York and building closer diplomatic ties with many nations in the West.

This year Modi’s military leadership faced its most significant challenge to date. 40 Indian paramilitary troops were killed by the Pakistan- based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad. Modi responded immediately with the first targeted cross-border airstrikes in almost 50 years. Blows were traded daily, and the situation looked destined to escalate. To Modi’s credit he handled the situation prudently, averting the very real danger, which had the entire world on high alert. As an added bonus, the situation allowed Modi to project the exact image of himself that he wanted at the exact right moment, election season. His twitter handle now reads Narendra Modi Chowdikar (security guard) as he embodied a strong leader in the face of terror.

However, in other key areas, Modi’s government has been much less successful. In 2014 he roared to victory on the promise of millions of new jobs. Those jobs have not only not materialised, but a report earlier this year, in spite of the government’s best efforts to cover it up, revealed that unemployment was at 6.1%, a 45-year high. The jobs that there tend to be either increasingly insecure of implausibly competitive. Earlier this year applications were opened by India’s national railway authority. In total 63,000 jobs were available. Within a matter of days almost 20 million applications had been received.

Another decisive policy initiative under Modi was demonetisation in 2016. Counterfeiting of India’s currency was out of control and Modi’s government solution was to authorise the replacement of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes (roughly equivalent to £6.50 and £13). Doing so meant that, almost overnight, much of the printed currency became invalid. Understandably, the country flew into panic and the infrastructure, namely the banks, was not prepared.

Irrespective of the economic pros and cons of such a move, there can be little doubt that the scheme was both poorly thought-out and poorly executed. Sources vary in estimates of how many people died from heart attacks in the days that followed, standing gridlocked in queues for banks, that neither had the manpower nor an adequate supply of new banknotes to deal with the crisis. Those who suffered most were, inevitably, the most vulnerable in society and many small businesses are still struggling to recover from the double-blow of demonetisation and the introduction of a new tax (GST) a year later.

As a rule, that has been true for much of Modi’s reign. Hindus have been favoured and all else, particularly Muslims, neglected. Since he became Prime Minister there has been a 28% rise in incidents of communal violence in the country, largely directed at Muslims. Lynching has become tantamount to an accepted punishment for the slaughter of cows. Tactics of terror have been used to drive Muslims away from villages with Hindu self-righteousness reaching an all-time high and tolerance of others an all-time low. That is, of course, not to say that all, or even most, Hindus have come to think this way, but the proportion is nonetheless significant. They are helped by the lack or definitive action by the government and justice system. Most of these cases never reach the courtroom and those that do seldom amount to anything anyway.

It bears remembering that the BJP rose to prominence in the 1980s during a major, and still unresolved, religious dispute, centred on the Babri Masjid (mosque), in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The Hindus laid claim to a plot of land, alleged to be the place of Ram’s birth. It just so happened, however, that a mosque already existed on that exact spot. Calls to tear it down were met by defiance from the Muslim community, triggering massive riots in the area. The tensions bubbled over and eventually, on December 6th, 1992, the mosque was torn down. Still to this day Hindu groups are fighting for the rights to build a Hindu temple in its place. In any case, back then, the BJP, a newly branded party with dwindling membership numbers took up the role of the champion of the Hindu cause, arrested their own slide and has since become the best-funded political party in India.

Ten years later these religious tensions resurfaced on the west coast of India, in the state of Gujarat. Returning from a religious ceremony at the site of the Babri Masjid to Ahmedabad, a train carriage was set on fire, killing a number of Hindu pilgrims inside. Muslims were inevitably blamed for the incident and months of targeted attacks on the Muslim population of the state followed. Since then it has become apparent that the perpetrators of these attacks were aided by officials of the state. Lists were given out, detailing the addresses of Muslims, and a blind eye was turned as thousands of Muslims were persecuted. More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence, while thousands more were displaced, and countless mosques and houses were destroyed. A senior official in Gujarat at the time was none other than the incumbent Prime Minister, Namendra Modi.

Equally worrying has been Modi’s tendency towards autocracy. During Modi’s time in charge the country has seen its courts become less independent, its press less free and its freedom of speech eroded. Just this week a woman accusing the chief senior justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, of sexual harassment has withdrawn her case after she was denied a lawyer and it became apparent that correct legal practice was not being upheld in the matter. The justice in question is a close friend and associate of Arun Jaitley, Modi’s finance minister. Meanwhile, articles criticising the government have become fewer and further between. Even the Indian Express, far from the most pro-Modi publication, featured several full-page BJP adverts in their print edition in the run-up to the election. Those deemed to be overly critical of the state tend to be targeted by thousands of BJP supporters on twitter. The full scale of the operation was revealed in 2016 as one of the party’s volunteers, Sadhavi Khosla, teamed up with journalist, Swati Chaturvedi, who had also received considerable online abuse, to write a book detailing one of Modi’s most twisted methods of exerting control over the country. In comparison to other populists, the likes of Donald Trump and Mateo Salvini, Modi’s own social media remains relatively uncontroversial. That doesn’t mean, however, that social media isn’t every bit as crucial to Modi’s tactics as to theirs. It is no surprise, then, that India has dropped from 32nd to 42nd in a comprehensive independent ranking of democracies around the world. If the Indian electorate grant Modi the opportunity to continue governing, this trend will surely only continue.

India has long been a celebration of diversity, of colour, of culture and of food. With 29 states (as well as 7 Union territories), 22 official languages and a rich history, the second most-populous country in the world is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and religions. In Old Delhi you can find a baptist church, Delhi’s major mosque, a gurduwara (Sikh), a Buddha temple and the Goshwami Bansidhar temple all within a matter of meters. Narendra Modi’s government is a major threat to that diversity, undermining the country’s democratic institutions, while positioning himself as the leader of the 79% Hindu majority, rather than the country as a whole. Rahul Gandhi is far from the perfect alternative. A healthy democracy should not feature one family so prominently in its annals. However, in the last few months, he has shown himself to be a capable leader and ruling a coalition with the numerous regional parties around the country, he could yet prove a successful Prime Minister. It remains to be seen if he’ll get the chance.

Banner Image: Image courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister of India via Wikimedia, © 2014, some rights reserved.