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Interview: Tapan Bose

Indian Elections 2019: Challenges Ahead

Saturday 1 June 2019, by Alternatives International

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a second mandate to run the government as the election results announced on May 23, 2019 clearly show. They got more seats than they had won in 2014 and their vote share also increased. From a total of 543 seats in the Parliament, the BJP has won 303 and the Congress has 52 seats. The rest of the seats are divided between dozens of regional parties with 5 seats going to the two communist parties. Also, voter participation hit a record with a rate of 66%, which means a count of more than half a billion votes.

It would seem that Hindutva nationalism is more and more acceptable to the Indian voters. Also, an image of a strong leader who would protect the nation from external Muslim enemy, Pakistan, could have been a determining factor. This looks like a move towards ‘ethnic democracy’ in India. As Christophe Jaffrelot writes, “India has made one more step in the invention of a de facto ethnic democracy. While this formula has been coined by an Israeli political scientist, Sammy Smooha, for defining the regime of his country, a de jure jewish state, India continues to be secular on the paper but in practice minorities are becoming second class citizens – as the underrepresentation of Muslim members of parliament in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament) shows”. (1)

So, what do we expect from the BJP rule in the next 5 years? The reactions from the critics are warning us of bad days ahead. Pankaj Mishra wrote an article for the New York Times titled “How Narendra Modi Seduced India With Envy and Hate” (2). Just before the election results were announced Kapil Komireddi published a piece in The Wire, “Five more years of Narendra Modi will take India to a dark place” (3). The landslide victory of Narendra Modi was viewed in the editorial of the Guardian as “bad for India’s soul” (4).

While all these writers have elaborated on their fears of yet another BJP rule, we should not forget the program of the mother organization of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ( RSS). Modi and several of the senior party leaders are old time members of the RSS. The founding fathers had carved their organization inspired by, and on the lines of the Italian fascism of Mussolini. They wrote in praise of Hitler’s nationalism and his racist treatment and genocide of Jews. (5)

Ironically the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned to congratulate Modi on the day results were announced “Well done my friend.”

Many commentators, especially from the left and liberal, did not expect such a massive victory for the BJP, both in terms of number of seats won in the parliament and the increase in vote percentage as compared to the last elections.

Alternatives International (AI) spoke to Tapan Bose (TB), the founding Director of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, regarding the meaning of the election results and the majority won by Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party.

AI : Some are talking about the hack of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and others are talking about the cover-up of massive corruption, what do you think could explain the electoral results ?

Tapan Bose: Blaming the EVM and running to the courts will not help. The divisive politics of Modi has moved large sections of the dispossessed masses towards him. We have to accept that the left parties had left the field open, withdrawing from workers and peasant movements. The vacuum was filled by the right wing and it successfully fueled public anger against the liberal class for their failure to protect the poor and the hard-working masses from the excesses of capitalism.

AI : The "credibility to govern" of some traditional elites, such as the liberals, has been severely undermined due to their failure to address poverty with their neoliberal recipe, but also due to the populist attacks they received from the RSS, could you tell us more about this phenomenon that occurred ?

T.B.: A few palliatives like, Right to Education and Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (NREGA) did not even scratch the surface of the poverty. In the economic downturn large sections of the petty bourgeoisie were pushed down to join the proletariat. The hypocrisy of the liberals stood completely exposed, as it prostrated itself before finance capital, joined the free market, withdrew from social services, dismantled trade union rights, discontinued farm subsidy and privatised all essential services adding to the hardship of people.

The spiralling cost of living, increasing unemployment and mounting corruption created disdain for the liberals, the left and democratic among the petty bourgeoisie, the working class and the peasants. The "virtues" of liberal democracy became distasteful. The taunts, abuses and threats hurled by the RSS, the Sangha Parivar and BJP at the liberals, the secularists and the left intellectuals attracted the betrayed petty bourgeoisie, the working class, the unemployed and the urban lumpen proletariat. It resonated with the people pushed down to the margins of society. Realizing that the liberal elite has betrayed them, they began to believe in fantastic and bizarre theories of minority appeasement and stories of Muslims planning to take over the country. The RSS was successfully able to guide the rage and the desire for revenge against the minorities.

AI: How do you explain that Hindu nationalism reshaped politics in India ?

T.B.: In the 1930, when fascism was rising in Europe, Clara Zetkin wrote, "Masses in their thousands streamed to fascism. It became the asylum for the politically homeless, socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned". In our country, the discredited ideas of secularism and liberal democracy were replaced by ultra-nationalism, obliterating the class divide foisting the false divide between patriotic and unpatriotic people. The liberals, the left intellectuals, the Muslims and Christians became social outcastes. The RSS encouraged the lumpen proletariat to kill and torture the "enemy within" who are destroying the nation.

AI: Could you tell us about the role of new communication technologies in distorting the electoral process, the importance of WhatsApp group? How would you describe the impact of the misinformation and religious hatred circulating in those chats?

T.B: After the loss in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh last year to the Congress, the social media campaign was systematically taken over by the RSS. And they organized the campaign reaching to the grass roots level. They recruited young volunteers. The kind of messages they sent was to basically ridicule the Congress party, focus on nationalism, the virtues of love for the motherland and on being a Hindu, and not really to projectthe BJP. So, it was a very clever campaign to undermine the local government of the Congress by virtually brainwashing the people on the basis of nationalism. This went on for 3 to 4 months before the elections. RSS did it systematically in all the 3 provinces where the BJP had lost power in the provincial elections last year. In addition to this the BJP also launched its own nationwide network by recruiting, according to the information we have, around 112 000 young IT savvy volunteers. Several of them have given interviews saying they were working for as much as 17 hours per day. While there was a central message, the local volunteers were given the autonomy to add local colour to the message. It was carried on in a very well organized manner. Dominant were scathing attacks against Pakistan as our enemy, love for our country. The political abuses and attacks came much later. So, you see the Indian voters mind was subverted. And this has worked mostly in North India. WhatsApp groups had been created at local level (Block Level). There are over 5000 Blocks in India (Blocks are district subdivisions for rural areas consisting of a cluster of villages.). They have targeted mostly young people. The messaging is also a kind of entertainment, that is why they have become so popular. The other country that I can think of where this has been used so tremendously is Myanmar where the army used Facebook and Google to create a huge campaign of hate against the Muslims, the Rohingya with devastating consequences. In India, the false messaging, reinforced by images of Modi going from temple to temple has proved most successful. Religion has now been publicly taken over by political parties.

Independent left groups were also active with the social media including WhatsApp groups and we were able to bring out many truths and counter the lies. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) did try to put together WhatsApp groups but were quite ineffective. Left parties have been reduced to regional parties. They have stopped thinking on national and larger issues.

AI: What is the task of civil society now?

T.B.: We have to shift the venue from court rooms, seminar halls, net-based news portals, WhatsApp and Facebook. We have to go to the streets, market places, universities colleges, factories, construction sites to recapture our lost space. We have to take up the basic existential issues the affect the lives of people. We have to get out of the inertia that has held us back. We have to shun our fear. We have to organise, start fighting for our rights and defend our organisations. We will need to form self-defence groups to stand up against the RSS spawned by bullies, and against the fascist terror. It is going to be a long haul.

It is a very scary situation. I see the situation as likely to worsen. For example, on average nearly 20 Christians killed every month in 2018. In the first quarter of this year the number has gone up to 30 per month. Blatant attacks on Muslims continue. Irrational and unregulated violence will continue.

For us on the left, we have to stop just reacting and being defined by them. We have to decide what we want to do. We have to develop defence squads. This is the crying call of the time. Whenever and wherever the right wing lynch squads attack, we are thrown into a shocked stupor. We have to organize the people to defend ourselves against this sort of violence. We have to build a national network and this is where the left has to take the lead. The official left is not going to do this. The independent left and Marxists will have to start working on this.

Again to quote Clara Zetkin, in 1932 as the only socialist elected representative in the Nazi controlled Reichstag, she said: "Our most urgent task today is to form a united front of all working people in order to turn back fascism. All differences, that divide us and shackles us - whether founded on political, trade union, religious and ideological outlooks - must give way before this imperious historical necessity". Let us pay heed to her call.