Stepping Back/Stepping Forward – Thinking Past the BJP Victory in UP: Biju Mathew

Guest post by BIJU MATHEW

The BJP’s appointment of Adityanath to the post of UP CM once electoral victory was secured has left many angry, sad and frightened. Already the ominous signs of inhuman mass violence are accelerating across UP. A more brazen Sangh will pivot off UP to spread terror and hatred across the country.  And yet, we must guard against an excessive pessimism and guide the anger and the sadness in productive directions.  The 2014 Lok Sabha, 2015 Delhi and Bihar and 2017 UP elections together are indicative of an evolving structural logic in Indian politics and show telltale signs of irresolvable contradictions that the Sangh is faced with. Modi and the BJP are riding a wave that is not entirely of their own making – a wave that will necessarily crest, break and crash in the not too distant future. How soon this wave can be interrupted, and what happens after that, does not depend on them, but on the rest of us.

So here then is the puzzle: Why do so many people support what is both an absurd and an unrealizable ideology? Absurd, because poverty, caste discrimination, corruption and government failures are not due to “enemies” or “enemy communities”- Muslims or Leftists, LoveJihadis or Beef eaters; and unrealizable because with over 400 million minorities and oppressed castes who will not fit into Hindu Rashtra, the saffron brigade can only deliver a horrific civil war. Does UP mean that, despite all this absurdity, this ideology has nevertheless triumphed in the Indian mind?

The Hindutva movement draws on two different main currents of politics. One is its own – the politics of Hindu nationalism inaugurated a century ago by the RSS with its attendant mythologies, hatreds and bigoted worldview. The other is a recent one, reflected in the burgeoning anti-corruption movement that swept through the country in 2011-12, birthed the Lokpal movement and subsequently the Aam Admi Party.  Often referred to as a “populist moment” such moments reflect a deep sense – among a large section of the people – that the State somehow no longer is theirs, that people can no longer reach out to the State for support nor does the State care about their future, and that the State has become an illegitimate tool of some other force over which they have no power. This sentiment is not a fantasy. All across the world, over the last three decades, States have become less democratic, less welfarist and more corrupt.  Such populist moments can be captured by either the left or the right (Trump from the right, Bernie from the left in the US for instance). In India the Hindutva movement was best placed to use this opportunity, and it has done so most effectively.

Often, populist mobilizations deploy a language of struggle against those enemies who have seized our country, our state; of war against some inner coterie that controls the government. This is why Modi keeps emphasising how he is an “outsider” engaged in a “maha yudh.”  Right wing populism turns this war against the least powerful, choosing enemies like immigrants (a la Trump), and, here in India, “cow slaughterers” (Dalits and Muslims) and anti nationals (Muslims and leftists). For Modi and the BJP then the last two and half years have hence been an unending cycle of mobilisation after mobilisation with false enemies and fake solutions. Each one is aimed at reinventing Modi as the clean heroic warrior, and each one invariably fails. But before it fails a new one is always rolled out.

Modi and the BJP rode to a spectacular victory in 2014 one leg on the Love Jihad campaign and the other on the claim of an economic Superman who was the “clean” outsider. The hype didn’t last past the 10 lakh suit and “achhe din” jokes as inflation accelerated. The moment there was another credible contender for the clean and honest image in Kejriwal, Modi/BJP fell apart in Delhi in Feb 2015. Much of 2015 after the Delhi debacle was spent building the new enemy in cow slaughterers and a series of buzz words – Make in India, Smartcity and Digital India. But the sheen didn’t quite come back because in Bihar Modi/BJP was faced by another clean image hero – Nitish, the Vikas Purush of Bihar and a unified opposition. Thus it was only after the Bihar defeat that Modi/BJP took the question of the fading image, especially in the context of the Rohith Vemula and Una resistances. The new enemy of choice was clear – anti-nationals and Kashmir. But the masterstroke was indeed demonetization. Not because demonetization offered anything better than Make in India or Smart city as economic outcomes, but because it reignited the “outsider” battling corruption image of Modi. The ‘sacrifice-to-fight-corruption’ appeal entered every household conversation, Modi’s motives were debated and sides were chosen. Suddenly the same Modi whose image was fading, was back as the general leading his troops for a new battle against the corrupt. This is the basis of the UP victory – the populist leader, his sheen back on, a fragmented opposition and nobody with a clean image within miles. But the appointment of Adityanath is testimony to one fact – the BJP is running out of any ideas on how to engage the economic contradictions. It knows that demonetization will continue to impact communities negatively in the short run and corruption is already ripping through the country again. Adityanath is a sign that the BJP no longer cares what signals it sends to domestic and global business leaders and instead wishes only to alter the ground game to its oldest and most frightening one, the engineering of mass killing.

The modus operandi should be vivid and clear. We are going straight back into cycles of bigger and bigger mobilisations. Already Round 2 of the anti nationals mobilization has produced a new front of active and spirited resistance in Pinjara Tod and a new wave of gender justice fighters. We can also be sure that some new economic buzz word will soon be trotted out too.  But these cycles can go on a few more times, but not forever. History tells us that the endgame can go one of two ways – either they fall apart and start fighting internally as each round of mobilization yields to more incoherence and no material solutions. Alternatively, forces like this are defeated by the united strength of their ever-growing list of opponents. Which endgame happens has a big effect on what follows. The first one – the internecine battles and internal tearing apart invariably is violent and pathological – one over which we have no control. The second endgame is preferable.   Here our task is to intervene in every way possible with the cresting wave and destroy the populist sheen. One aspect of such intervention is a much deeper network of civil rights defense, especially into the heart of the minority communities in UP where violence will escalate. The other aspect of this work is along three clear axes: workers’ rights, natural resource struggles, fights against patriarchy and caste oppression. These are issues that the Sangh literally does not know what to do with. The more that such alternatives exist, the more likely it is that those swept away by the populist wave will be able to see a credible alternative when the house of cards starts to fall. Moreover, a strong alternative also makes it possible that what comes after will not just be the status quo ante but a genuinely new political culture in which freedom and justice are more central.

There is no need to wait for some political party to do any of this. Rather, it’s necessary for each one of us to build innovative and locally responsive actions. There is much that has already emerged amongst us over the last two years – the hundreds of mobilizations that came out of the unfolding crises of justice – from Una to JNU and the Land Acquisition resistance to HCU. Our task is to consolidate and build. Wait an instant and let the mist of their populist victory clear. The future lies with the rest of us.


6 thoughts on “Stepping Back/Stepping Forward – Thinking Past the BJP Victory in UP: Biju Mathew”

  1. While the major elements that helped UP right wing assume power, there are many fringe elements that added to the rise – whether the extended election schedule or the change of electioneering tactics from demonetization to caste and religious appeals , and, even the possible chances of EVM tampering, which many are shy of even debating, let alone questioning the authorities due to innate fear – and capture of power


  2. Great piece by Biju. I would like to add that the Political Party vs Civil/Social Movement divide needs to be less rigid in the current cicumstances. Movements of the latter kind will need to work directly and indirectly with political parties opposed to the Hindutvavadis. In many places in India, today, it is just way too dangerous to have small social/political movements without some kind of linkages with political parties. The scale, the funding and the mass hysteria of the current hindutva kind is unprecedented.


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