Friday, May 16, 2014

Narendra Modi the leader of the BJP wins Indian Election "This is the result that the corporations in India wanted," says Siddhartha Deb, Indian author and journalist

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It has become commonplace when speaking about the staggering accomplishment of parliamentary elections in India to suggest that it may just be the greatest show of democracy on earth. It certainly appears to be so in terms of the sheer numbers of the electorate and the high percentage of those who tend to vote, especially when one adds to this the incredible poverty of the vast majority, the social and ethnic diversity and the spread of geographical terrain.

But is that all that makes for democratic accomplishment?

Certainly, the obsession of the Indian media with the contending leaders of the main political parties, and the people of the nation as a colourful backdrop, does not look too different from a 21st century version of the imperial Durbar.

There too people took pride in the spectacle of apparently beloved strong leaders united, every now and then, with their colourful subjects.

In postcolonial, democratic India, the exercise of large-scale voting seems to have made no dent in the hardening of dynastic politics.

Almost every party has taken on the practice of treating politics as a family business (the same, of course, is true for media, entertainment and business). The greatest attention is paid these days to the most egregious of the offenders, the Congress party, led in its current campaign by Rahul Gandhi, who can claim a political lineage going back four generations.

But even the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – which touts as a contrast its leader, Narendra Modi, an apparently self-made man of humble origins (so much so that even whether he is married or not is subject, seemingly, to an unofficial secrets act) – has its own dynasts when it comes to other parliamentarians, while Modi's own success lies in pandering to the most hierarchical of instincts in the nation.

Patrick French has written about the fact that nearly 30% of the members of parliament in India are hereditary, connected directly by family to their political posts. Moreover, as French discovered, dynastic politics only increases as one goes down the age ladder, to the degree that all members of parliament under the age of 30 are the children of former politicians. It is the technocratic India of growth and capitalism that is the most traditional and feudal when it comes to its elected representatives.

The concentration of power this involves is anything but democratic, especially when one considers that India's 543-member parliament, as Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out, is the same size as the French National Assembly, but serves a population more than 17 times as large.

It is also a system that has no room for dissent, regardless of the party or group of parties in charge.

This might have been most evident to the international media during the brutal crackdown upon the public protests in Delhi in December 2012 around the gang rape and murder of a young woman, but the long arm of the law has never been hesitant to choke off protests.

Whether under the aegis of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in disputed territories in the north-east and in Kashmir, or in more everyday guise against those protesting against the nuclear plants, dams and factories considered to be crucial to completing the task of modernising India, it has operated with impunity everywhere, assured throughout of the support of a craven domestic media in this stifling of oppositional voices.

None of this is likely to change, unless for the worse, if Congress is displaced by the BJP in the coming elections. Given that the identity of the BJP is built on virulent nationalism and religious sectarianism, it has no tolerance for even individual differences of opinion, let alone mass dissent. This is evident in the runup to the elections in everything from the proliferation of conspiracy websites that seem to find contaminating foreign influences behind every major political party but the BJP, to the recent forced withdrawal and pulping of Wendy Doniger's idiosyncratic but fascinating Hindus: An Alternative History by a pressure group connected to the BJP
It may be that it is the withered nature of India's parliamentary politics that makes the inconsistency of the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) look like radicalism or dissent. The AAP was born out of an anti-corruption movement led by the rather conservative social reformer Anna Hazare, in which the AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was a key figure. In this movement the focus was more on authoritarianism than dissent, especially in the demand to create the Jan Lokpal, a super tribunal that would have the power to investigate everyone. Kejriwal's resignation after serving for only 49 days as chief minister of Delhi and the fact that the current list of AAP candidates include the usual seekers of fortune as well as some thoughtful critics of the current system, indicate that its most characteristic feature might continue to be inconsistency rather than dissent.

This should not be surprising. In an India where more than 20 years of growth have left the vast majority badly off in so many ways, democracy is needed not just once every five years but every day.

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