One generation will have to bear the cost of what Modi has done: Ashis Nandy analyses the election verdict

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20 June, 2019

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive victory in the 2019 general election was its second consecutive win in the Lok Sabha, with an absolute majority. This is a remarkable achievement for a party that was pushed to the margins of Indian politics in 1984, when it won just two seats in that year’s general election. In the following years, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement enabled the BJP to gradually acquire political dominance over a span of three decades. It won 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 303 seats in 2019.

The BJP’s exponential growth testifies to the growing appeal of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, propagated by its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ever since it was formed in September 1925. Yet, for much of India’s post-Independence history, Hindutva did not yield as rich a harvest of votes for the BJP or its earlier incarnate, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The BJP’s current dominance suggests that the Indian collective consciousness has dramatically altered to embrace Hindutva—an exclusivist and homogenising ideology.

Following the electoral verdict, Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, spoke to Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist and an honorary fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, to analyse why the Indian psyche has embraced Hindutva. “I think people are nervous about violence,” Nandy said. “Their anxieties have people think that a centralised state will restore order.”

Ajaz Ashraf: What meaning does the BJP’s stunning victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have for you as a political psychologist?
Ashis Nandy: Given their performance over the last five years, I did not expect such a big victory, which had a lot to do with their brilliantly orchestrated campaign. Everything they did over the last five years was oriented towards electoral victory. That is why they did not have the time to do anything else. The projection of [Narendra] Modi as the saviour of India was a vital aspect of the BJP’s campaign.

AA: Do we need to look at the victory in the larger frame of a changing India?
AN: I am embarrassed to say that the BJP’s campaign and victory is based on the political theory of state that they borrowed from [the Hindutva ideologue] Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. This theory has dominated the thinking of the RSS for a long time.

AA: What was Savarkar’s idea of state?
AN: His idea was to have a highly masculine state. Everything—including nationalism—is supposed to be subverted to the masculine state. It is what you can call statism, which implies that the state plays a central or defining role in your life and mine.

AA: What are the symptoms or behaviour of a masculine state?
AN: It implies masculinising valour, masculinising assertion and masculinising affirmation of national identity. In the BJP’s case, it has also involved, occasionally, disowning such behaviour. For instance, [when he was the] Gujarat chief minister, Modi would say that he did not exclude anybody.

From the 2019 election results, it seems that the idea of a masculine state has become the dominant mode of thinking of a large section of Indians, who do not distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, between Hindu nationalism and nationalism.

AA: You have written extensively on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Can you explain this distinction?
AN: Patriotism is a sense of territoriality that human sapiens are naturally endowed with. This sense of territoriality cuts across species. Even cats and dogs are territorial. In other words, patriotism is natural to human beings. But this form of patriotism is not sufficient for statism.

AA: Does this have to do with the evolution of the nation-state?
AN: The nation-state emerged after the collapse of monarchy in Europe. The monarch had a sacred sanction even though the elite did not believe in it [themselves]. They, however, did believe that the monarch was the symbol that held together diverse communities under one state. The elite were very worried that Europe’s hoi polloi will not have allegiance to the state in the absence of the monarch. It was to hold together diverse communities that a centrally organised propaganda for nationalism was launched in European societies.

The elite in Europe, though, were never nationalists. Those who belonged to the royalty could not marry outside it. So, they married into the royalty of other nations. Those who married into the royalty of another nation had to take its nationality.

For the ordinary people, however, the state became the new god. This meant that the triad of nation, nationalism and nation-state had to always go together. This is exactly the propaganda that has been launched in India.

AA: Why is the propaganda of nationalism gaining ground in India now?
AN: This is because they have blurred the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Every Indian, by birth, is a patriot. Nationalism, on the other hand, is a cultivated allegiance to the state. Most people do not distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. The two words are used interchangeably in India. The BJP’s constant talk of sedition, for instance, is aimed at blurring the line between patriotism and nationalism.

AA: What do you think is the BJP’s motive?
AN: The motive is to brand any opposition to the regime as anti-national in nature.

AA: Why have people responded to the BJP’s blurring of this distinction?
AN: Indians do value their freedom, the idea of India, the nation-state, but their ideas about all these are of a very different kind. But they have been flooded with one-sided messages [of patriotism and nationalism being the same]. That is why they are unable to realise what is changing in Indian politics. They have a certain built-in trust in television, as was true of the United States of America 50 years earlier. A robust critical insight has not grown or, rather, has not been allowed to grow in India.

AA: Do you think people respond to the BJP’s messaging because of the anxieties caused by militant movements in, say, Punjab and Kashmir?
AN: More than militancy, I think people are nervous about [all types of] violence as such.

AA: But violence has created anxieties.
AN: That is right. Their anxieties have people think that a centralised state will restore order. The first generation of Indians under British rule thought the same. Even [the writer] Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, when he was the deputy magistrate [in Bengal], believed British rule was the answer to the chaos prevailing in the last phase of the Mughal empire. This was the period when the Marathas were powerful. They had a marauding culture. People even organised special pujas in Calcutta for the victory of the British over the sepoys in [the revolt of] 1857.

AA: Can the 2019 verdict be read as a response to the violence and the insecurities it has engendered?
AN: The 2019 verdict is a result of Savarkar’s worldview spreading through the RSS. He wanted to have a proper European-style nation-state [which usually comprises one linguistic community] in a religious society such as India’s. Savarkar explicitly spelt out that Hindutva did not mean Hinduism. But that difference has been eliminated for electoral purposes. Savarkar was an atheist. He refused to give his wife a proper Hindu funeral. Even his funeral did not have anything religious about it.

I found the first danger sign of Savarkar’s idea succeeding, in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ survey conducted some years ago. It showed that in all states of India, the depth of devotion for Hinduism did not co-relate with [the support for] Hindutva. The only exception was Gujarat.

[The economist] Pranab Bardhan put it beautifully once—he said that the Gujarat model of development has not spread outside Gujarat during the [first] five years of Modi’s prime ministership. Nor is there any sign of it happening anytime soon. But the Gujarat model of hate has spread all over India in the last five years.

AA: Can we understand India through the experience of Gujarat?
AN: When I first went to stay in Gujarat in 1961, to train in a psychoanalytic clinic, I found that many Gujaratis did not think of Muslims as a [distinct] community. When they talked about Muslims, they had in mind the Muslims who came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to work in textile mills. When I would say so and so is a Muslim, a Gujarati would correct me saying, “No, no, he is a Memon or a Bohra.” Gujarati Muslims were known by their sect [and not by their religion]. But Muslims there have now become a single community.

For a long time, I thought caste would take care of Hindutva. It hasn’t.

AA: So, there have been fundamental changes in the Indian psyche?
AN: Yes, there have been changes, but I do not think you can label them as fundamental. One is the blurring of the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Second, the growing belief that a strong centralised state should use coercive measures to maintain the social balance in an environment in which violence—even that described as small-time—is on the rise. In this context, a very significant factor is the displacement of people caused by development projects. Did we need, for instance, so many large dams?

AA: Is it that the elite class has opted for a strong state in order to cap the pressure from below?
AN: You can say that the business elite have opted for a strong state for their model of development. This idea is accepted by a large segment of the middle class. There are dangers inherent in this mode of thinking. My book, The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self, has been translated for the third time in China. This time by the People’s Publishing House, which means the translation was state-sponsored. My feeling is that the Chinese [elite] are afraid of the nationalism they have aroused. They do not see nationalism as an asset any longer. It is because they find themselves hamstrung [by nationalistic fervour]. After all, the Chinese [public] would like China to assert its military might and take over the South China Sea.

Once nationalism is unleashed, it is easy to slip into the kind of situation that Europe did in the 1930s. Before the large-scale killings began there, the education system and the judiciary were subverted systematically. There arose the phenomenon of book-burning.

AA: Are you alarmed by India’s current trajectory?
AN: Yes, absolutely. India has become the world capital of lynching. Till the 1950s, the United States of America had that status.

AA: Are you alarmed also because you think the government is complicit in it?
AN: Yes. It is the same thing in Pakistan.

AA: Are we going Pakistan’s way?
AN: We have started resembling Pakistan far more closely than what I had thought. Our army, like theirs, is now talking in the language of the state. I suspect a large segment of the lower judiciary is also doing the same.

Mind you, the subversion in India is because they [the BJP-RSS] have placed their own people in institutions. When you give a person a government job, you are stuck with them. They will be there even if the BJP were to lose the next election or the one in 2029.

One generation of Indians will have to bear the cost of what the Modi government has done. We will become more and more a standard European nation-state with all its associated ills. Ours is a very diverse society, which they [the RSS-BJP] fear.

AA: What does the Sangh’s fear of diversity tell us about it?
AN: Their fear tells us that they are neither Hindus nor Indians. They have taken their model of nation-state lock, stock and barrel from Europe. That is precisely what Savarkar wanted.

AA: The BJP’s 2019 victory has been credited to Modi. What attributes of his personality, do you think appeal to people? Do you think his aggressiveness has an appeal for the changing Indian psyche?
AN: Yes, that is true. [It appeals to people] that he comes from a poor family and has done well. People think, even if he has made some mistakes, if they bear with him, they would gain in the long run. The media have been very crucial in the construction of this narrative. The election was turned into a form of presidential contest.

AA: The language of love does not sell, does it?
AN: Do not forget that we do not have a person of stature who can convincingly talk about the language of love. Jayaprakash Narayan tried and he was successful. There has to be an element of sacrifice in the life a person who wants to convince people about love.

AA: What about the media projection of Modi?
AN: The media plays a vital role not only in India, but in other countries as well, to project leaders. That is why we have a certain type of leaders at the same time—Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in America.

AA: Do you mean that they exploit the media to capture the mind of people?
AN: Yes. I am editing a volume on the idea of India. I know it will have a very limited circulation even if it were to be translated into all languages of India. It will take a very long time for the idea of India to seep into the public consciousness because people are getting another idea from altered textbooks.

AA: Has the idea of India changed?
AN: If you look at the middle class, which is usually responsible for articulating ideas of nation-state, then the idea of India has changed. It is the middle class which is responsible for the masculinisation of politics, statism, and endorsing the idea of permanent progress. Indians have taken to thinking that progress is not only permanent but also linear. This is impossible to achieve in today’s world. We have reached the stage where we will ultimately end up destroying the planet.

AA: What about national identity? The Indian identity was supposed to be more than a sum of his or her caste, religious, regional and linguistic identities. It now seems the pivot of the Indian identity is his or her being a Hindu.
AN: This form of consciousness you are talking about was always there. But it was present in a subdued form. It was subconscious. The majority thought it was majority, but now the majority thinks it is a besieged minority. My friend, [the political scientist] DL Sheth, was once invited by the RSS to speak to its members. Sheth is one of the finest political minds of India. He told them, “First you learn to talk like the majority and I will then come to speak.” The feeling of being besieged has been inculcated in the majority. The majority was earlier confident of themselves.

This has a lot to do with the middle class. Its number has increased, so has its clout, but its confidence has declined. They no longer think for themselves. It is the task of the middle class in any society to think and weigh ideas. The middle class decides which ideas are false. Universities and schools play a role here. But the middle class now has a hotchpotch of ideas, which is largely derived from the media.

AA: Is the change in the middle-class consciousness linked to their life becoming increasingly precarious?
AN: Yes, you are right. The middle class has no clue of many things that have come into play. For instance, look at what has happened to Punjab. It is not an accident that it has become India’s drug capital. Outside Punjab, people still think as if the Green Revolution is still underway. But farmers there are actually selling their land at high price and sending their children to, say, Australia, where they take degrees in the hospitality sector and international cuisine.

AA: What explains the change in their behaviour?
AN: It is because they think farmers are doomed in a modernising society, where there exists an unwritten rule that people dependent on agriculture will and must decline. The earlier idea was that India will modernise but it should not cause dislocation. If in the process of modernisation, the number of those dependent on agriculture declines, then it is alright.

Three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995. No civilised society, perhaps other than Japan, [which has the highest suicide rate among wealthy nations,] would have tolerated it. There is dissonance all around.

AA: How did you look upon the BJP nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh to fight the election from Bhopal?
AN: She is just a symbol of the BJP’s confidence that it does not have to fear any longer what it speaks, that its ideology has convinced voters that she is right.

AA: Her victory suggests the BJP is right in its claims.
AN: Yes, there is no doubt about it. The BJP’s only fear is that the judiciary might convict her.

AA: The Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, after his defeat to her, said that the ideology that killed Mohandas Gandhi has won India. Do you think Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been defeated posthumously?
AN: I would like to believe that Gandhi has not been defeated. I am not sure about Nehru, who rejected Gandhi’s idea [for instance, of self-sufficient village economy] as the romantic illusion of a defeated civilisation. Nehru’s idea of progressivism is widely shared by today’s generation of Indians. His economic programme, excluding the aspect of equity, is essentially not very different from that of the BJP.

AA: But Nehru, unlike the RSS, also appreciated the diversity of Indian culture.
AN: I wonder to what extent he appreciated the diversity. I think he looked upon diversity as a kind of ornament. Gandhi is different. Gandhi cannot be killed. He lives because he was assassinated. He knew it himself. Even after Madanlal Pahwa [one of the conspirators involved in Gandhi’s assassination] threw a bomb at him on 20 January [1948], Gandhi refused to take additional security. Gandhi will remain a latent vector in our society, even though he is marginalised. On the other hand, those who believe in Gandhi have aggressively become more Gandhian. Gandhian values are endorsed, even though unknowingly, by the RSS. Even Pahwa, in his later life, began to espouse humanistic values, which echoed Gandhi.

This interview has been edited and condensed.