Indian democracy, with the backing of its innumerable adversaries abroad and cynical ‘frenemies’, is being wielded against it and threatens the political unravelling of India.
Indian political life is firmly embedded in the regular rhythm of the electoral cycle. All that matters in India’s political system is the next election and recent experience is highlighting the permanence of electoral politics, continuing immediately after the conclusion of the tumultuous national parliamentary election of 2019. This latter phenomenon is the result of dramatic shifts in the balance of political power in India, in the first instance to regional parties and, second, the rise of the BJP to build a large enough political footprint to dominate national politics, if not the nation’s destiny. It indicates major socio-political changes in the country and the retreat of the GOP and elites associated with it and their intransigent refusal to accept their political repudiation by voters. Another obvious immediate reason for the overriding focus on elections is that for political parties losing them on two successive occasions spells likely doom and certainly the prospect of a change in its political leadership. The threat of the loss of personal political power predisposes parties to opt for a dynastic configuration of leadership. As a result, electioneering and the quest for personal political pre-eminence outweigh issues of governance and even vital national security goals. Simply put, once out of power nothing matters. To paraphrase the renowned economist, John Maynard Keynes in another context, “in the long run we are all dead” and immediate political power alone truly matters to participants in Indian political life.
These principles of political life apply mutatis mutandis elsewhere too. However, the absence of a truly stable inter-generational political class, which endures as a viable feature in Indian political life, creates the kind of destructive competition for power and position that impacts its governance and national security negatively. The competition for political power influences virtually all aspects of social life in India, from the media, certainly, to academic discourses and the very attempt to define the historical identity of the nation. The media in India is often an appendage to political interests, although there are occasional exceptions that, however, do not always enjoy a mass audience. Academic discourses have unashamedly espoused the vocabulary of political competition, defining social reality in terms of its grammar. Ideas like “pluralism”, “diversity” and “human rights” that do not have their genuine authentic meaning in India have become embroiled in the cut and thrust of political debate and point scoring. In fact, so great is the impact of domestic political competition for power that a huge proportion of all academic research globally on India is obsessively preoccupied with caste issues, a critical variable in its electoral dynamics, in the process often fabricating and deepening its malign impact on Indian society.
The decline of a more national-minded politics and retreat of the momentary identification of a nascent all-India elite with the nation after 1947 began during the ascent of Indira Gandhi in 1969. It paradoxically, underlined India’s democratisation and the rise of a popular political consciousness that was unavoidably local and regional. Mrs Indira Gandhi responded to the evident changed circumstances and her personal differences vis-à-vis a pan Indian Congress leadership by trying to go over their heads to voters. She adopted the slogan of “removing poverty”, the one common denominator among the majority of Indians and with particular appeal to the disadvantaged. A predictable corollary was the mobilisation of the minority vote and the unerring attempt since, by all regional caste-based political parties, to forge an alliance with a religious political constituency. The intensification of caste divisions and antagonisms is the inescapable expression of political mobilisation along caste identities, with the incitement of supposed ancient divisions and contrivance of fresh grievances on a prodigious scale.
Regional caste political mobilisation is ineluctably parochial, stoking linguistic allegiances and the poisonous potent theory of race. The notion of an Aryan invasion of the south from the north was implanted by imperial British administrators in the consciousness of many in India. The identity of a shared civilisational ethos, common experiences and imperatives of collective action, in relation to the predatory wider world, have become overlaid with sentiments that prefer a potentially calamitous national setback to joint endeavour with one’s fellow Indians. Once the monstrous genie of identity politics was out of the bottle, political parties engaged in regional rivalries vied with each other to pose more and more extreme versions of the miasma of purported injustices to appeal to local emotional sensibilities and resentments. The resulting spiral of an implosive descent had the strong likelihood of ending in fratricidal conflicts between regions and the Centre, though the latter is but only a symbol of the political identity of the other regions that constitute any national government. These deep fissures have been self-evident in some states and only simmer below the surface elsewhere in many parts of India, with a proposed “southern federation”, no longer unspoken, to end the unity of the Indian Union. Little new needs be said of the politics of India’s Northeast and the only recently quiescent paroxysm of regional militancy. The politics of the Bengal government’s increasing truculent rejection of all manifestations of Constitutional central authority is merely an expression of regionalism as well that earlier masqueraded in the faux garb of radicalism. But its principal expression for many decades has always been bitter antagonism towards the Centre regardless of the extraordinary price paid by the state and its hapless people as a consequence. This forbidding reality has now assumed a distinctive wider guise of communal political mobilisation in West Bengal that could have momentous implications for the future of the Indian Union.
The centrality of Muslim political enlistment in India was recognised early by the British imperial power, which initially patronised a Hindu revival, having just ousted Muslim rule in Bengal in 1757. But the British later facilitated both the rise of the Deobandi movement and the ardently collaborationist Ahmadiyya variant, as an insurance policy, to exercise influence in India after the 1860s. The Viceroy’s imperial office in Delhi subsequently underwrote and celebrated the creation of the Muslim League in 1906 as a game changer to stem the nationalist tide sweeping Bengal. It had been preceded by the failed attempt to partition Bengal in 1905 that presaged the eventual creation of Pakistan in 1947, receiving its strongest support from the Bengal Presidency. Secessionist demands were to become the backdrop to Indian nationalism for much of the first half of the twentieth century and the eventual bloody partition of the country, which few have understood has remained unfinished business after August 1947 from a Pakistani perspective. Indeed, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership viewed their own community as the legitimate successor to British imperial overlordship, once even suggesting to Winston Churchill to “cut out the Hindus” and ruling together.
The challenge posed by such thinking to India’s durability as a state was to become a permanent external and internal feature, requiring major budgetary commitments to deal with both foreign aggression and internal security. The latter alone reputedly consumes 2% of GDP in addition to the cost of the national defence budget. The issue has continued to haunt India, with separatist aspirations informing segments of regional politics in various parts of the country and posing further challenges to India’s territorial and geographical identity and integrity. The post-Independence hiatus in Muslim League-inspired political pugnacity, in the aftermath of the apocalyptic partition of India in 1947, turned out to be transitory, coinciding with the decline of the all-India reach of the Congress party by the early 1970s. It was rapidly accentuated by India’s domestic political divisions and dynamics of the demographic transformation of various Indian states, not least Assam and West Bengal, subject to a tsunami of illegal migration from neighbouring East Pakistan and later the successor state of Bangladeshi.
In competing for the minority vote, Indian political parties have descended into a destructive competitive whirl, trying to outdo each other with outlandish pledges to such constituents, some of which they themselves concoct, without any prompting from the intended beneficiaries. The rampant incitement of extravagant sectarian ambitions by India’s political parties and intensification of its radicalisation, owing to the unconstrained competition for their political support, is creating fertile ground for the grafting of a nihilistic ISIS ideology. A catalogue of the inflammatory and grotesquely anti-national appeals directed by Indian political parties towards Muslim constituents is deeply alarming and endangers the fundamental security interests of India. An especially troubling outcome of appeasement politics in India is the ability of criminal cliques to exploit caste and regional sentiments to form political parties that get elected by making crude appeals to minority constituents. It has become a recurrent phenomenon in some states like Bihar and UP, though the rampant criminalisation of politics is the norm rather than the exception across India. Concerns of Muslim voters are sought to be narrowly focused, for instance, to prevent the BJP from achieving electoral success. In addition, these voters are being mobilised by the oft-repeated historic pretext that “Islam is in danger”, which could not be further from reality in India.
The extent of appeasement was underlined in recent years by one prominent political leader appealing for Pakistani help to settle domestic political scores, virtually signalling the need for its violent intervention. The supreme leader of the same political party defended SIMI, since banned as a terror front, at an Oxford University lecture and allegedly wept when terrorists were killed in an encounter at Delhi’s Batla House with India’s security services, without condoling the death of one of its officers. Even more shocking is the allegation, by a former home ministry official and two leading London journalists, of the complicity of senior ministers of the national government in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist assault. A top Indian intelligence officer has also confirmed that the terrorists who bombed New Delhi in 2005 enjoyed an escort into the capital from a regional political party. The list goes on and on, with the sitting Prime Minister of the country announcing, in the run up to the 2014 national general elections, that Muslims had first claim to national resources. India also experiences the uninterrupted entry into its territory of millions of illegal migrants from neighbouring countries. They apparently enjoy the open support of political parties who hurriedly ensure their legitimacy by issuing identity documents to them in the expectation of adding to their vote bank.
In recent years, at least three regional states have espoused a mode confrontational political autonomy that verges on quasi-independence from the Indian Union and a fourth barely accepts the legitimacy of its inclusion within it. Indian democracy, with the backing of its innumerable adversaries abroad and cynical “frenemies”, is being wielded against it and threatens the political unravelling of India. A major well-funded political association in Bangladesh is known to be attempting to sponsor a demand at the UN for a plebiscite in the Indian state of West Bengal. Only approximately 11% of registered Hindu voters supported the ruling TMC in the April-May 2021 Assembly elections, which nevertheless won by a handsome margin and is poised to enjoy a majority nearing 80% if rumoured defections occur.
India’s Constitution needs far-reaching reform. Despite all the attendant dissent, this will have to be contemplated if a national party comes to power with the appropriate majority. It needs to be borne in mind that Constitutions are the product of the emergence of an historic consensus in a polity, often after the cessation of domestic conflicts, like civil war, after which the erstwhile protagonists decide on a shared concord for the future. In India’s case, the national Constitution was the product of an imitative intellectual exercise before a societal consensus had occurred. In fact, societal consensus was being grimly contested for preceding decades and ended in bloody partition. And the framing of the Indian Constitution after Independence was a case of hope triumphing over experience, a “constructivist” exercise in essence. In the final analysis, the Indian Constitution put the horse before the cart, so to speak, hoping the Constitution itself would create the consensus it visibly preceded. Frequent amendments to it only highlighted the fragile tentativeness of parts of it. Implacably hostile editorialists abroad should not now be permitted to dictate India’s willingness to use force to survive as a united country, unless they wish for the country to suffer the fate of the once mighty USSR.
Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades.