Public memory of how (the) fascists “use[d] and abuse[d] democratic freedoms in order to abolish them” (Hannah Arendt) was strong when, more than 60 years ago, India’s Constituent Assembly rejected the option of a presidential type of executive. But now, the coming general elections are being framed as a presidential-style contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) “strongman” Narendra Modi and the Congress Party’s “weakling” Rahul Gandhi, presuming, of course, that the latter will be named by his party as its prime ministerial candidate. In a recent Economic Times/Nielsen opinion poll of 100 CEOs, it was reported, 74 wanted Narendra Modi as prime minister compared to only 7 who backed Rahul Gandhi. The Washington-headquartered lobbyist Apco Worldwide, which had been hired by the Gujarat state government to promote the biennial “Vibrant Gujarat” Summit, seems to have transformed the image of Modi from that of an infamous communalist bigot into one which big business regards as most suitable to be India’s next prime minister.
The founding fathers (and mothers) of the Indian Constitution, apprehensive of the emergence of tyranny in the future, opted for parliamentary democracy. But religious-communal hate politics, already given an ideological content with the founding of the Hindu Mahasabha (a rightwing Hindu political assembly, founded in 1914) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, a rightwing paramilitary, volunteer Hindu nationalist organisation, founded in 1925), grew steadily after Partition. The Jan Sangh, the previous incarnation of the BJP, joining the JP movement only after the Emergency, opportunistically entered the power structure via the Janata Party, and over time, as the BJP, in a series of fascist manoeuvres within the parliamentary framework, established itself as the main contender of the Congress Party for power at the Centre.
To hell with secularism as defined in the Supreme Court judgment in S R Bommai v. Union of India (AIR 1994 SC 1918)! Gujarat, with Narendra Modi as chief minister, became the RSS’s, and, in turn, the BJP’s laboratory of Hindu Rashtra (nation). Following the Godhra tragedy, as the late eminent civil rights lawyer K G Kannabiran, who was a member of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal that inquired into the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, put it, “genocide was unleashed on the Muslim population of Gujarat . . . . The mobs . . . converted Ram into a psychopathic, bloodthirsty god” (The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2004, pp. 179 & 181). And, one must add, Modi was like the Führer who made the anti-Muslim pogrom possible. The direct perpetrators were the BJP state and Sangh Parivar leadership, and, of course, sections of the state police, intelligence, and the bureaucracy who turned into a Hindutva brigade. And, not to forget — even though this brings forth, even today, feelings (in me) of deep anguish, torment and despair — there was the mostly, silently complicit majority Gujarati-Hindu population, Gujarat’s mitläufer, receptive to the Sangh Parivar’s “storm-troopers” committing mass murder. To be fair, nonetheless, many a concerned citizen in Gujarat and elsewhere was simply immobilised from a sense of sheer powerlessness. (In my use of German title Führerand the controversial German term mitläufer, I am not positing out-and-out congruity; it is just that I am at loss at finding more appropriate labels.)
Naturally, the first information reports (FIRs) of the alleged crimes were flawed, for the state police were “associates in the crime”. Indeed, there was a shameless subversion of justice so much so that the Supreme Court intervened to transfer some of the cases out of Gujarat. Even its “special investigation team” seemed to have been subverted. In all of this, one needs to emphasise the power of sustained anti-Muslim propaganda and mass communal mobilisation, and the influence of the ideology of Hindutva within the state police, intelligence, bureaucracy, judiciary, and media. And this is why we need to express our deep admiration for Teesta Setalvad and her associates in Citizens for Justice and Peace, their doggedness, their tenacity, their sheer perseverance in the fight for justice for the victims of the state-sponsored pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
Now, just two days after the BJP’s parliamentary board announced that Modi would be the party’s candidate for prime minister, on the 15th of September, Modi, addressing a rally of retired military personnel, and sharing the dais with the former army chief V K Singh, used the occasion to deride the “soft” stance of the government towards Islamabad and Beijing. It may be recalled that on 14 March 2011, at a “Know Your Army” exhibition in Ahmedabad, a major-general of the Indian Army, I S Singha, commended Modi’s “vision of development”, going on to say: “He (Modi) works like we in the army do. He sets a deadline . . . and then ensures that the targets are achieved. . . . These are the qualities of a successful army commander.”
Of course, at the last “Vibrant Gujarat” Summit, held in January this year, the “captains of industry” were not far behind. This is what Mukesh Ambani, CEO of Reliance Industries Ltd and India’s richest billionaire, proclaimed: “In Narendra Bhai [brother], we have a leader with a grand vision”. His brother Anil, CEO of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani business group, went several notches ahead, hailing Modi as “king among kings”! And, he went on: “Narendra Bhai has the Arjuna-like clarity of vision and purpose.” Ratan Tata, CEO of the Tata business group from 1991 to 2012, was all praise for Gujarat’s “investment climate”, attributing it to Modi’s leadership: “Today when investors look for locations to make investments, they would be looking for locations which are investor-friendly. Gujarat stands out distinctly in the country and the credit for it goes to Modi.” All this admiration seems to have gone far beyond what the Italian bourgeoisie once said of Benito Mussolini, whose fascist regime promoted an elaborate cult of personality centred on Il Duce — it was he who got the trains to run on time.
Big media is also doing its bit, even offering unsolicited advice, for instance, a Times of India (16 September 2013) headline: “Modi campaign should be premised on growth, so every tea vendor can be upwardly mobile”. Amusing, for Modi’s yarn can very well be titled “from tea vendor to chief minister”. Make no bones about the fact that Modi is solidly backed by big business, including the media. But remember, it is the RSS that has appointed Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate; the BJP has only simply announced that decision. So it will be the RSS that will set the policy agenda. Big business is not so foolish to not know this, and yet it fully backs Modi. But don’t underestimate the power of big business — if, indeed, to be a serious contender for a parliamentary seat in elections to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) the average amount required to be spent is Rs 80 million. It’s going to be a presidential-style race wherein money and wealth will hijack the electoral process. Rotten as it is, the integrity of India’s liberal-political democratic system is surely at stake.
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. A shorter version entitled “Will BJP’s Money Beat Congress’ Money?” has appeared as an EPW editorial in its September 28, 2013 issue.