Modi’s triumph lays bare the electoral irrelevancy of his liberal opponents
Purely as a dispassionate observer of politics, it is amusing to watch the liberal implosion in Indian politics. Initially, the liberal hopes rested in L. K Advani. Yes, the same Advani who spawned a thousand riots with his leadership of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and can genuinely claim credit for making ‘Hindutva’ a mainstream political doctrine. If BJP is considered one pole of India’s polity—the credit must go to Advani who challenged and in manifest ways defeated the prevailing wisdom of Indian politics. Well, that didn’t really work out as Modi brushed aside Advani’s feeble challenge and has established himself not only as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate but as the predominant and unchallenged leader of his party. Then the hopes were vested in Arvind Kejriwal who has mounted a quixotic bid to defeat the electoral logic by sheer showmanship and magnetic energy. However, politics is a brutal sport: Despite Kejriwal’s best efforts, he is unlikely to provide much of a challenge to Modi and is destined to amount to little more than a footnote in the 2014 elections. Now, the desperation is to the extent where even someone like Murli Manohar Joshi—the man who attempted with some success to ruin higher education in India—is seen as a sympathetic figure merely because it offers an opportunity to slight Modi. This desperate clutching at the straws is an indirect acknowledgment that all that stands between Modi and the Delhi throne is BJP’s internal politics.
Amusing as this sport is, it is deeply worrying to those who genuinely believe that Modi’s rise represents a threat to India’s pluralistic traditions. Well, that is not exactly true. The Sikhs are happily in Modi’s camp and the Christians are too few to matter electorally and in some instances have made their peace with BJP. So what it really amounts to saying is that Modi is deeply antagonistic towards India’s Muslims—a vast majority of whom are utterly fearful of a Modifi-ed polity. Indeed, it would be fair to say that more than Modi, they are scared of his merry band of followers who often appear to harbor deeply held prejudices against India’s largest minority. Some of this stems from the memories of the Gujarat riots and perhaps even more importantly, Modi’s singular failure to acknowledge the enormity of 2002.
Well, here’s the hard truth: 2002 is passé and much to the annoyance of Modi opponents, it appears to have no significant impact on the electoral landscape. The Indian voter—with the exception of her Muslims—has moved on and is no longer interested in re-litigating the Gujarat riots. If Modi is at all defeated in 2014, it would be due to the cold logic of politics—-caste coalitions; unsavory alliances, and BJP’s geographical limitations—-and not because of a vote against Modi’s stewardship during the Gujarat riots. In summary, Modi has destroyed the liberal argument and if he triumphs, it would represent a victory enacted on his terms and conditions. Plain and simple.
So where does that leave the liberal argument? Two points.
First, Modi has disarmed his liberal critics because he has refused to fight on their terms. As Ashutosh Varshney has argued, the Modi campaign has been remarkably free of anti-Muslim rhetoric and has instead emphasized the core issues of governance and development. And even in instances where Modi has stumbled—the puppy remarks for instance—he has been wise not repeat the same mistakes. At this point, we are faced with a remarkable reversal of roles.
Many of his flummoxed liberal opponents would rather prefer that Modi who openly spews anti-Muslim rhetoric. They would rather juxtapose their political arguments against the Modi who cynically exploits alleged Jihadi terrorists to position himself as the defender of Hindu faith. Faced with his latest iteration—-the one who refuses to play the game according to their terms—his critics are faced with a peculiar choice. Do they acknowledge that they have triumphed by forcing Modi to moderate his views or they finely parse his speeches to find the arguments they had hoped to hear? Much of the liberal confusion can be explained right here.
Second, Advani’s singular contribution to the lexicon of Indian politics was ‘pseudo-secularism’. Shorn of verbose, it basically argued this: Secularism thrived in India not because of its innate virtues but because it cynically exploited Muslim fears to advance the liberal argument. Strangely enough, Modi’s triumph represents the actualization of Advani’s argument. What is this liberal argument where parties are communal as long as they remain aligned with BJP but with a magisterial switch of a button are suddenly transformed into secular formations as soon as they leave the NDA? How can someone like Nitish Kumar who happily winked at Gujarat riots be suddenly labeled secular merely because he belatedly discovers the vices of aligning with Modi’s BJP? Why are supposedly liberal parties reluctant to take up secular projects like the Uniform Civil Code because they would rather be in the good books of Muslim fundamentalists?
The liberal project has faltered because it has never convincingly made the case for liberalism. The one which argues in favor of science against superstition. The one which places liberal values at a higher pedestal than ephemeral electoral triumphs. The one which opposes Muslim fundamentalism as much it rages against the likes of RSS and associated groups. The one whose electoral triumphs reflect the virtues of its beliefs and not merely the fear of the opposition.
Indeed, the liberal project in India has almost made no attempts at electoral solvency and has become a hostage to its political godfathers. It is completely reliant on the appeal of certain political parties who often confuse liberalism with short-term religious appeasement. Or confuse pluralism with secularism. Or the desire to accommodate religious demands with the ability to navigate the complex minefields of India’s multiple identities. It had a good run so far disproportionate to its political influence but Modi is likely to be its nemesis.
However, it also represents an opportunity to re-evaluate the goals and the future of Indian liberal project.
Narendra Modi is likely to be the next leader of India. This is by no means guaranteed—the Indian voter can often prove the most sophisticated analyst wrong. Nevertheless, it must lead to deep introspection among India’s liberals. A good starting point would be an acknowledgment of their minuscule electoral influence and the causes therein. A deep introspection is in order here and perhaps it can only arise from the ruins of utter and shattering defeat.