‘Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy’ review: The collapse of democracy

Christophe Jaffrelot, who has caught every wave in India, says the country has changed, perhaps irreversibly, from a liberal secular polity a decade ago to a majoritarian ‘ethnic democracy’ today

From the early 1990s, French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has written about Indian politics in the present, catching every wave as it crests. Over the past three decades he has produced some 30 books, monographs and edited volumes, in French and English, on all the salient political phenomena in India.

These are: the rise of Hindu nationalism; the explosion of caste politics (including Dalit and OBC mobilisation, a growing interest in B.R. Ambedkar, and post-Mandal reservations policy); the deteriorating state of the minorities, particularly Muslims; the trajectories of the Pakistani state and the entrenchment of Indo-Pak conflict; the expansion of the Indian middle class thanks to economic liberalisation and globalisation; the boom in Indian business after market reforms; and most significantly, the emboldening of the Sangh Parivar and its ideology to the point where Hindutva has metastasized from its home grounds in U.P., Maharashtra and Gujarat to infect the entire country.

From Ayodhya to Ahmedabad and Bombay to Banaras; from Nagpur to Delhi and Lucknow to Bangalore; from Naga highlands to Naxal forests and from Lahore to Karachi — whenever something of note has occurred on the subcontinent, be it in the realm of politics, religion or caste (or a potent mix of these elements), Jaffrelot has been sure to chronicle and analyse it. It was inevitable then, that his new book would take a comprehensive look at the sea change in the Indian polity under the influence of Narendra Modi. Even though Modi’s India brings up its account just short of the pandemic, the message is loud and clear: India has changed, perhaps irreversibly, from a liberal secular democracy less than a decade ago to a majoritarian “ethnic democracy” today.

Blows to ideals

Jaffrelot tracks the continually expanding catalogue of body blows that have assailed the founding ideals of the Indian republic from the time Modi announced his candidature in the fall of 2013. Those of us who have lived through the lynching of Muslims and Dalits, the assassination of rationalist intellectuals, the trolling of scholars, the detention of activists, the harassment of movie stars, the evisceration of the media, universities and courts, the decimation of the opposition, the destruction of the economy, the persecution of the minorities, the erosion of fundamental rights, the gutting of the public sector, the targeting of NGOs, the silencing of civil society, the distortion of history, the usurpation of social media by hate speech, fake news and propaganda, the defiance and denigration of Parliamentary procedure by the ruling party, the demonisation of dissent, the encouragement of vigilantism, the garrisoning of the Kashmir Valley, the battering of the Constitution, and the forsaking of truth — having borne witness, we understand why compiling this gruesome list requires nearly 700 pages.

But the book is not just an act of meticulous, unsparing documentation, though it is that too. It will prove an invaluable record of our time when future generations struggle to explain the swift collapse of Indian democracy. Once the world’s largest, liveliest and most interesting experiment in equal citizenship, universal adult franchise, regular elections, representative government, minority protection, a free press, and popular self-rule, India always had problematic enclaves of exception like Kashmir and the Northeast. But before Modi, its basic commitment to diversity and pluralism seemed genuine.

Jaffrelot doesn’t just remind us of what has been happening to unravel the liberal consensus in the past 7-8 years. He also brings to bear on these data an enormous scholarly literature and theoretical toolkit about ethnic democracy, populist strongmen, rightwing nationalism, charismatic leadership, the deinstitutionalisation of the state, creeping authoritarianism that appears electorally mandated, the relentless reduction of minorities to second-class citizenship, and the mobilisation of identities in new patterns of conflict, domination and exclusion, jettisoning tolerance, equality and inclusion.

Ideological capture

The author is careful to marshal the evidence of majoritarian takeover, riot politics, court packing and crony capitalism from Gujarat, not just the primary theatre for the crafting of Modi’s persona, but also the cultural seedbed of his lieutenant Amit Shah, and of India’s two most powerful business families, the Ambanis and Adanis. In another recent book, Jaffrelot has studied the Emergency of 1975-77, to compare the leadership styles of Indira Gandhi and Modi. He also examines in detail the political mainstreaming of the RSS and its wholesale infiltration and ideological capture of the public imagination, journalism, academia, the police and the bureaucracy, apart from the legislature and the judiciary (and perhaps the armed forces too).

He examines how Yogi Adityanath communalises governance, runs a militia State, and makes Islamophobia an item of official policy. Campaigns of “gauraksha”, “love jihad” and “gharwapsi” make for a deadly cocktail of privileged caste orthopraxy and social conservatism, reinforce patriarchy, and continually bully, shame and terrorise Muslims and Christians. The cow belt and Hindi heartland, including Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh along with Uttar Pradesh, spilling south into Karnataka and east into Assam, are now thoroughly saffronised.

Punjab, Delhi, Bihar, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal have thus far proven somewhat recalcitrant and occasionally rebellious, for a variety of reasons that are regionally specific, and because of local parties, caste alliances and grassroots leaders who challenge the BJP. But even in these States, the presence of an opposition no longer proves that public opinion is against Modi or that the default political common sense is secular. Nor should the south be taken for granted any more. As Jaffrelot shows in his oeuvre, studying Hindutva ideology over the past century, from Savarkar and Golwalkar, to Advani and Vajpayee, before arriving at Modi and Shah, allows us to retrospectively register the early tremors of the political earthquake we are now experiencing. Abroad, countries like Israel, Turkey, Hungary and Brazil provide a global context for the rise of ethnic democracy.

It appears that the Second Republic and the Hindu Rashtra are already upon us, here to stay for the foreseeable future. Modi’s India is at once reminder, record, warning bell and, if we heed the lessons of history, a call to arms.

Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy; Christophe Jaffrelot, Translated by Cynthia Schoch, Princeton University Press & Context/Westland, ₹899.

The reviewer is an intellectual historian and author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India.

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