More than three years ago, when Modi swept into power, the number of critics was few, and those willing to take a clear public stand even fewer. After the shocking murder of the senior journalist Gauri Lankesh this past September, it was clear from the nature and extent of the ensuing protests that this had changed dramatically. During a protest at the Press Club in Delhi, people were practically fighting for the microphone, wanting to be seen to be protesting.
After hearing Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt, I had had enough. When I later expressed my discomfort—given that I had earlier written that “the path away from Modi cannot lead us back to the Congress”—a friend asked me, “Where would this neti, neti lead?” It is a fair question, but journalists are diagnosticians—solutions must come from elsewhere. I had then stated, “The danger of the current liberal consensus is that it seeks to speak against a new establishment without looking within. The compromises and corruption that liberals participated in during the UPA’s rule are what led us to Modi in the first place.” This is even more evident today.
Modi may no longer command the awe that he did in 2014, and we are seeing the beginnings of an opposition forming around the Congress, but in wishing an end to Modi’s regime, it is necessary to begin with some understanding of why he became prime minister in the first place. Of course, he is a man who has built up a mass appeal, backed by a well-organised publicity machine that he controls and oversees. But it would have amounted to little without the work of two organisations—the Congress and the RSS.
By 2014, the Congress had become a mockery of what the name represented before the advent of Indira Gandhi. Unchallenged within, the Nehru-Gandhis left in the party seemed to have neither the ability nor the appetite for electoral politics. They ran the government by proxy, weakening the already timid image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Their sporadic and wilful interventions left the impression that no one was really in charge, and cabinet ministers from the party or its allies ran their ministries as businesses pursuing personal enrichment. From the 1980s onwards, no new prominent party leader with mass support emerged. Instead, the party was staffed by lawyers, technocrats and managers who were comfortable in Delhi and nowhere else. Their rise to prominence was not guided by a sense of ethics or principles, and it was only boosted by a starring role in the massacres of the Sikhs in 1984. The party had become a patronage network.
This corrupt Congress leadership permeated the business and intellectual life of the republic. In the interaction between corporates and the Congress, it was difficult to tell where business ended and politics began. This part has been well-documented, but much the same was true of academics, journalists and civil-society activists. The universities had become places with eminences close to the Congress or the Left (strangely no one seemed uncomfortable with this odd intellectual partnership)—with their best work well in the past. These institutions were busy creating fiefdoms which employed their mediocre students. Espousing ideas that once animated the Congress, the academics were happy conflating these ideas with the husk that now survived; a confusion that was beneficial to them and the party. In much the same way, many journalists had moulded themselves to this patronage network. As long as they had a patron in the party, their ideological bent mattered little.
Perhaps the sin least highlighted is the role of civil-society activists. It is impossible to speak of crony capitalism of that time without also addressing the question of crony civil-activism. The industrialists who worked closely with the United Progressive Alliance were good at what they did, but much of what they achieved, for better or worse, came about because of their proximity to power. Much the same can be said of civil-rights activists who worked with the UPA through mechanisms such as the National Advisory Council. Whether they like it or not, such an association does not just work one way—the change they brought in this fashion, sometimes commendable, has also left them tainted by their association with a corrupt regime.
Through this period the political focus was on the BJP, which, headed by ageing politicians such as LK Advani, seemed to lack the ability to take on the Congress. By 2009, it seemed India was living out a paradox—a 2007 CSDS survey showed that religiosity had increased “considerably” over the preceding five years, but this did not seem to find an echo in greater support for the political Hinduism or Hindutva of the BJP. At the time, it seemed to me that the BJP’s failure to harvest souls was a result of “the free play of the God Market [babas and deras] and a fast expanding economy.”
Shortly after, the global downturn in the economy began to be felt in India, but the free play of the god market continued to gain new adherents. These adherents were more than happy to buy into a new narrative of grievances that were responsible for their economic woes—the same Congress which they had no problem voting for in 2009, when the economy was booming, had now transformed into a corrupt anti-Hindu formation. Though the Congress had given good grounds for shaping such a narrative on corruption, it is unlikely it would have taken hold if the economic downturn had not occurred.
Through the period from 2004 to 2009 the RSS continued its steady growth, working quietly on the ground where it did not have political patronage, and overtly in states such as Madhya Pradesh, where it did. The organisation was ready to repeat the template established in states where it had the patronage in the rest of the country when the opportunity became available, as is the case now. Once the global economic downturn hit and the Congress began to implode, the RSS seized its chance.
Praveen Donthi highlighted this turn of events in his profile of Ajit Doval in The Caravan’s September 2017 issue. While discussing a two-day seminar on “black money,” which was organised in April 2011 by the Vivekananda India Foundation—a think tank affiliated with the RSS—Donthi writes:
The attendees included Doval and Gurumurthy, the god-man Baba Ramdev, the social activist Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, the politician Subramanian Swamy, the retired police officer Kiran Bedi and the RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya. Soon afterwards, Hazare and Ramdev began much-publicised fasts against corruption, accusing the ruling government of having abetted it. These sparked a massive protest movement that proved disastrous for the government, and provided the BJP, the RSS’s electoral offspring, with a crucial platform for its successful 2014 election campaign.
During this election campaign, while the focus was on the corrupt Congress, the RSS clearly enunciated its aims, evident to those used to the language in which the Sangh expresses itself. The changes in the curriculum, the emphasis on the “civilizational consciousness of India,” the omission of Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Maulana Azad from those prominent in the freedom struggle were all apparent in the 2014 BJP manifesto.
Today, those who want Modi’s removal ignore the fact that he is a symptom, not a cause. His removal, without confronting the changes the RSS has wrought, means nothing. If he is to lose power at some point—however unlikely it may still seem—to a Congress that seems to have learnt nothing since 2014, we would only be strengthening the RSS and what it represents. The ever-expanding size of Rahul Gandhi’s tilaks during the Gujarat campaign, his inability to speak of the rights of religious minorities (leave alone voice the term “Muslim”), and his failure to articulate an alternate economic vision or face up to its sins of the past indicate that the Congress is already battling on RSS turf. If the alternative to Modi is to be a Congress even further weakened than it was during 2009–2014, even less emboldened, it will only give us another round of disenchantment with Congress rule harnessed by an ever-stronger RSS. It would be followed by another BJP government, with a leader perhaps as much to the right of Modi, as Modi was to that of Vajpayee.
In such an atmosphere, the self-styled liberals—from columnists and academicians to civil-society activists—backing the current version of the Congress or Rahul Gandhi are really not arguing for an end to the dangers Modi represents. They are largely battling for a return of the privileges they lost in 2014, and doing nothing that the RSS would not relish. It would be tragic for the rest of us if this were to happen, perhaps no less tragic than the return of Modi in 2019.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.