By Salman Bashir
In the coming weeks, India will go to the polls in an election that will have consequences not only for India’s 1.3 billion people but for the region as a whole. The opposition Congress Party has clamored to put together a solid alliance with regional parties and as things stand, it is expected that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) will win the elections, even if with a reduced majority, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will serve for another five years.
In the last five years, India’s polity has been transformed from an aspiring secular democracy to a narrow-minded hyper-nationalist state. Bent on implementing the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu State, aggressively espoused by its ideological Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wing, the BJP has to a large extent recast India’s ethos along ideological lines.
Pogroms against minorities, incitement to communal violence, Islamophobia, institutionalized discrimination based on race, caste and creed and propaganda against neighboring Pakistan are all at the core of the RSS/BJP politico-religious ideology. In today’s India, Hindu nationalism has become a sure-shot rallying cry and a proven vote catcher.
Scholar Christophe Jaffrelot recently described India of the past five years as an “ethnic democracy” with majoritarian nationalism (Hindutva). In fact, it seems that India is moving toward codifying Hindutva in its very constitution. History books are being revised to omit or distort a thousand years of Muslim rule and eulogize Hindu mythology as providing the real basis and heritage for Indian nationalism and statehood. Liberal academics, journalists and NGOs are being targeted. Social media is rife with fake news. Media houses are being funded to churn out the most vicious propaganda against Muslims and Pakistan.
Indeed, as Hindu
nationalism needs an enemy to perpetuate and flourish, it finds convenient
expression in a campaign of hate against Muslims and Pakistan. This is also
meant to distract attention from the failure of the BJP government to fulfill
its promises of socio-economic development. Without using Hindu nationalism in
the way in which the BJP has, rising unemployment and increasing disparity in
income would have demolished the party’s electoral standing.
The February 14 Pulwama attack on a convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir was in some ways helpful for the BJP to divert the nation’s attention from the average everyday problems of the common Indian. There is no doubt that drumming up war hysteria against Pakistan was a political gimmick with an eye to the elections. The much-touted airstrike on Balakot went wrong and resulted not only in India losing two aircrafts but also in the humiliation of Pakistan capturing an Indian soldier. Throughout this period, the BJP propaganda machine was in overdrive to sell fictions about the Indian military’s misadventure against Pakistan. Though tensions have deescalated since last month, Pakistani ground, air and naval forces are still fully alert when it comes to the continuing Indian threat.
It is unfortunate that the international community has remained mostly silent through this crisis and thus indirectly has given India a free pass to wreck peace in South Asia. It has also turned a blind eye to the grave human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir and against Indian Muslims in general. It seems that the international community’s economic interests and political and strategic expediencies have assured an acquiescence of sorts to the emergence of a Hindu India. Meanwhile, an ugly wave of Islamophobia sweeps the world.
The 2019 elections may sound the death knell of the India of founding father Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister following independence from Britain in 1947. Indeed, India’s tryst with destiny is not quite what Nehru had envisaged. Intense polarization within India is not good for the unity of a state with the kind of immense diversity that India has. A BJP victory would also testify to the inadequacy of a democratic political system in preventing the emergence of fascist and extremist regimes. Certainly, India will be tested for its maturity in these elections. The people of Pakistan only wish India well.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)