The year 1984 is being invoked a lot in the wake of the Narendra Modi victory. Even though the circumstances were different then, it was the last time a single party won an absolute majority in an Indian election. That election saw another new prime minister, bearing the stain of majoritarian violence and speaking for the young, come to power offering technocratic solutions that would move India beyond caste and religion. The failure of that project, which was burdened with heightened expectations, should remain a cautionary tale, but that is not the reason I want to invoke 1984.
I had just finished school in June 1984 when Operation Bluestar took place. Over a game of badminton, my neighbourhood friends and I began discussing the army action with an avidity that comes easily at that age. When I expressed the view that while the action was necessary, the way it was planned and executed was wrong, one of my acquaintances, whom I thought I knew well, reacted in anger, “Don’t listen to him, he is a sardar.” I was clean-shaven then, but it was at that moment that I first realised what it means to differ from the majority view, and to be labeled for it.
Today I would have expressed my views more succinctly: the cure was worse than the disease. And it is a sentiment that I believe applies equally well to what is transpiring around us today. The end of the Gandhi dynasty—and I do believe that this is what we are witnessing—was necessary, but I also believe that the same is more or less true in this case: the cure is worse than the disease. Irrespective of the majority verdict—public opinion changes with time—the question here is simply of being honest to the truth as I see it.
In the cacophony of support for Modi, there will be no shortage of those like BJP's national treasurer Piyush Goyal, who on Times Now on the very day of the verdict, faced with a few journalists who disagreed with him, labeled them Congress sympathisers. As a matter of fact, over the course of the past few years, the only public critics of the dynasty were to be found among this limited set of journalists. Having shot from their shoulders, men like Piyush Goyal today, in their moment of triumph, appear fearful at the prospect of being at the receiving end. This intolerance of dissent was one of the fears of a Modi victory. We can wait and see whether the tendencies Goyal so vividly expressed will be heightened over the next few days or whether the party will seek to curb them, but there is no reason to be so uncertain over one of the implications of this verdict: it is emphatically majoritarian.
The case of Punjab provides the perfect illustration. In the facile nature of what has passed for the analysis of inconvenient facts after this victory, Arun Jaitley’s defeat from Amritsar has been attributed to local anti-incumbency against the Akalis. But the BJP won two adjacent constituencies in the same state—Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur. Of the three seats, Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur are Hindu-dominated, while Amritsar is a Sikh-dominated constituency. When a senior leader cannot even win a Sikh-dominated constituency, where is the hope that the BJP can command support among a substantial portion of Muslims in this country? Never before in this country has a prime minister been elected so emphatically while being so unrepresentative of the minorities.
In the face of this fact—and the weight of more than a 170 million people makes this a substantial fact—to claim, as some senior editors have, in television studios or in print, that we are entering a post-ideological, post-caste, post-religion era of the Indian electorate, is absurd, especially when you consider that almost all the people making this claim share a common religious identity. The claim may well be true of the mandate in parliament, which is determined by the first past the post system, but to argue that these rules, which we have all agreed to adopt, actually mirror social reality is to deceive ourselves. The combined vote share of those accused of playing identity and caste politics—the Congress, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, and the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh—far exceeds that of the NDA. If the perception of the mandate overrides this reality, eventually the mandate will be overturned because reality cannot be wished away, as Rajiv Gandhi so quickly found out.
I was hoping for some acknowledgement of this fact in Modi’s speeches on his day of victory. His failure to use the words “Muslim” or “minority” was striking. These are not difficult words to pronounce; their absence and the rhetoric that was in their place suggest a literary parallel with George Orwell’ s 1984. Development for everyone, say Modi and his supporters. Electricity does not discriminate, they add. But of course it does. Development that does not recognise inequality heightens it. In the same way, to fail to recognise Muslims and other minorities as categories is to not be able to cater to their specific problems, whether economic or those stemming from apprehensions about this verdict. It did little to reassure such anxieties that one of Modi’s first public acts as prime minister-designate was to perform a grand puja in Varanasi, accompanied by priests chanting hymns and the din of conch shells.
There is no shortage of cheerleaders for this verdict, but for democracy to function, the sceptics have to find their voice. We will all have to recognise that no mandate is a mandate to silence opposition. Neither is this mandate reason to silence oneself.
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.