5/23 Update: The Election Commission has started counting the votes and Modi seems to be headed for a second term.
This is a brief primer to help you make sense of the main players on the Indian political scene. Ther Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) is currently in power, its main opposition, is the Indian National Congress. Then there is a third mostly left of center grouping which calls itself Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) and advocates for the rights of Bahujans (common people, a short hand term for the alliance of Other Backward Castes and Dalits*).
The key to understanding Indian politics is caste, region and ideology, in that order. Most of the analyses I see in the western media and much of the English language media in India misses that point, by focusing solely on ideology and the two main parties. They also ignore India’s linguistic diversity, and regional politics which vary greatly. Most importantly, they ignore caste which plays roughly the same role that race plays in US politics.
In this post I will focus on the BJP and its leader, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Bharatiya Janata Party: Is the party in power at the center (federal level) right now. It won an outright majority during the last Loksabha elections in 2014. It was the first time a party other than the Congress had managed this feat. The previous BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed a coalition government.
Before 2014, Mr. Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. On the national stage he was credited with the economic growth the state had achieved and the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Ahmedabad, precipitated by the events in Godhra.
Since his election in 2014, Mr. Modi’s government has delivered on the items on hard right agenda. Banning the slaughter of cows had been a long stated goal of the Hindutva hardliners. Twenty states out of twenty nine now have restrictions on the slaughter of cows. It may come as a surprise to many that majority of Hindus are not vegetarian and some even eat beef. These cattle slaughter bans have hit the poor and lower caste Hindus as well as Muslims the hardest. Roving bands of vigilantes who call themselves cow protectors have used these bans to intimidate and sometimes lynch people.
Modi’s record on the economic front has been questionable. The much touted demonetization scheme aimed at removing high denomination currency out of the economy to combat corruption missed all of its stated goals. India’s suffering farmers have seen no respite and the unemployment numbers have been the worst in forty years.
BJP purports to speak on the behalf of all Hindus but their agenda and their saffron roving bands make many Hindus, let alone religious minorities, who don’t share its dogma, nervous. They are not being paranoid because many activists agitating on the behalf of those in tribal areas and lower castes sit in jail under trumped up charges. Journalists have died for speaking out as have academics like M. M Kalburgi.
BJP is the political arm of the all male Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) modeled after Europe’s Fascist movements of the early twentieth century. RSS seeks to unite Hindus separated by caste, language and region into militant nationalism called Hindutva. RSS was formed in British India in 1925 by K. B. Hedgewar, a Brahmin physician from Maharashtra and has its head quarters in Nagpur, Maharashtra. They were largely absent during India’s freedom struggle against the British, spent most of their time attacking Congress and complaining about their tactics. Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse had RSS links.
BJP and its earlier incarnation, the Jan Sangh never achieved much in the way of electoral success until the late 80s. Their electoral fortunes changed when they adopted building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya in place of Mughal emperor Babur’s mosque as their core issue.
The most important project of RSS and other Hindutva idealogues has been to rewrite history to further their own agenda. The last 5 years has seen the mainstreaming of previously fringe RSS propaganda into the political discourse. We have seen the lionization of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, vilification of Jawarhlal Nehru, India’s first Prime minister and to a lesser extent of Mohandas Gandhi. Orwell’s 1984 seems to be their Bible, or should I say Gita?
The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
Ultimately what is stake in this election is the truth, we will see if India lives up to its motto,
सत्यमेव जयते ( Satyameva Jayate)
And if the truth ultimately triumphs.
In part two of this series I will discuss and analyze the results and the other two other major political groupings contesting the elections.
(*Dalit = downtrodden, these are mostly castes considered to be at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and many are considered ritually impure. Many of these taboos still persist in parts of India. Prejudice against these castes by those in power is commonplace).