This interview with Mohkam Bai, a socialist feminist visiting Manchester from India was conducted in June 2019 by Ian Parker
Could you begin by saying a bit about yourself and where you are coming from?
I am born and raised in India when secularism was still an ideal, the Congress was a dominant and domineering actor on the political stage, and universities were liberal spaces or even openly Leftist. I have noticed over the last twenty years a dramatic shift in politics from inadequate welfarism to open neoliberalism. I have witnessed the rise of the Hindu Right on the double platform of conservative religious nationalism on one hand, and global capitalism on the other. As a feminist, socialist, and environmentalist, the alarming bells are ringing disturbingly loud!
So that brings us to the present context, the elections last month. Can you sketch out the specific background for that, an election in which Modi triumphed for the second time?
Let me give a little bit of context to orient the discussion here. The 2019 General Elections was meant to elect 543 MPs into the lower house of Parliament and thus constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. The 543 MPs are elected from single member constituencies through the first past the post method every five years. A party or coalition requires to win 272 seats to form a government, and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 seats on its own. This is 21 more seats in the Lok Sabha from its electoral performance in 2014 (an increase of 6 % in vote share). Together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it has placed 353 MPs in the Lok Sabha.
Narendra Modi has been thus re-elected as the Leader of House and Prime Minister of India. In 2014 he himself stood in the elections from 2 constituencies: Vadodara in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, and won both. He chose to vacate the Vadodara seat to comply with election rules barring a MP from representing two constituencies and instead retained his seat in Varanasi. In 2019 he stood for elections in Varanasi and won again.
And what of Congress?
The Indian National Congress (INC) formed alliances with regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand, and Kerala, but it did not form an alliance in states where it is in direct contest with the BJP. These states include Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, and it fared extremely poorly in these states without forging alliances. Overall, the INC has won 52 seats, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 91. The UPA seat tally is an increase of 26 seats from 2014. UPA gains are attributed mostly to Tamil Nadu where they took 33 seats, Punjab where they increased by 5 seats, Kerala where they were up 7 and Jammu and Kashmir where they took 3 seats. However since the INC failed to secure the conventional 10% of seats, the Lok Sabha remains without a definitive opposition in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi was the leader of the largest alliances in the UPA in both 2014 and 2019. He himself stood for elections in 2014 in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, an INC stronghold, and won. In 2019 he contested from two constituencies, Amethi and for the first time, Wayanad, Kerala, also an INC bastion. While he won the Wayanad seat, he lost his existing seat in Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. Modi and Gandhi’s personal electoral performances say much about how their parties performed generally in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. Gandhi standing for election in Kerala is meant to reserve a spot for him in the Lok Sabha… Uttar Pradesh is clearly lost to the INC while Kerala is still voting for socialism and communism. Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad is a signal of how sweeping the ‘Modi wave’ actually is!
Perhaps one more thing to note here is the importance of Uttar Pradesh in the Indian elections. It consists of 80 constituencies, and thus has a huge influence on the composition of the Lok Sabha. It is why the leader of both the ruling party and the opposition contest the elections from constituencies of Uttar Pradesh. Both BJP and INC have fared for the worse in Uttar Pradesh this time: BJP is down by 9 seats totalling to 62 seats in 2019, and INC is down by 1 seat to only 1 seat in Uttar Pradesh. The only opposition to BJP in Uttar Pradesh was the alliance called Mahagathbandhan between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). To put it simplistically, SP’s core voters are ‘backward’ Yadavs, and BSP’s are Dalit Jatavs. While the Muslim vote went mostly to the INC, there has been a “consolidation of the upper castes [Brahmin, Rajput, Vaishya, Jat, Other], the Kurmis and Koeris, and the lower Other Backward Classes (OBCs) behind the BJP was far stronger than the consolidation of Jatavs, Muslims and Yadavs” (The Hindu, May 26). Uttar Pradesh elections demonstrate quite clearly how caste politics translates into numbers on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Muslims have traditionally supported the INC because of their secular and pro-welfare stance, so no big surprises there. However, there is a consolidation of the Hindu vote behind the BJP now. This is the change we are seeing in the Indian election results today.
And what of the mainstream left, the Communist Party?
There isn’t one communist party in India, but several, such as the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(ML), the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). In most elections they come together in the Left Front. Their heyday was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and in 2004 General Elections, the Left Front had won 59 seats! However today it has been restrained to three states in the country in the state assembly of Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura. However in the general election, the situation is far more stark: CPI(M) has one seat with Alappuzha, Kerala, the RSP won the Kollam seat, also in Kerala which is part of the ruling INC-led United Democratic Front of Kerala, none in West Bengal or Tripura.
In 2019, Kerala has gone to the Congress-led UDF again with 19 out of 20 seats. Both of Tripura’s seats have gone to the BJP. However it is in West Bengal that the washout of the Indian Left is particularly alarming for socialism, since it is BJP that has won all the constituencies that used to traditionally vote for the Left Front. The Hindu Right in West Bengal under the BJP-led NDA went up from 2 out of 42 seats in 2014 to 18 in 2019. There are at least two factors that have contributed to this steep rise of popularity of the BJP: one, an anti-incumbency factor against the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front, and two, the BJP has mobilised the threat of the outsider in West Bengal, the Muslim migrant and refugee from Bangladesh and Burma.
Who particularly is under threat here?
You have to understand that the ‘Modi 2.0’ election campaign was organised around the question of national security, playing on the threat posed by the Muslim, both within the country as well as outside. The Muslim is the largest minority in India at 14% or 172 million people. However on both sides of the country lie Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that the Hindu Right self-righteously claim as their own land that has been snatched by Muslim interlopers. In February 2019, after a suicide bombing in Pulwama in Kashmir, the border skirmish between India and Pakistan saw the much-feted surgical strike in Balakot, Pakistan. Sweets were distributed in India on the declaration of this apparent glorious victory of the Indian army, and it clearly contributed to the image of BJP being both decisive and triumphant in the months leading up to the general elections in April. However the India-Pakistan skirmish is an old political game played by both sides. On the other hand, the fear of the Bangladeshi migrant and Burmese refugee has been carefully played through the promise of the national implementation of the National Register of Citizens of India by the BJP in its 2019 manifesto. Currently this National Register is only implemented in Assam that differentiates the real Indian citizens from “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” who were calculated to be almost 4 million people in Assam. So this is the Muslim threat: a perception of an alarming rise in population of Muslims in India such that all Muslims are coloured green in envy at their perceived ability to spread or reproduce.
Hindu nationalism is directed particularly against Muslims?
Well, yes and no.
There has been significant and sustained violence against the Muslim citizens of India. According to a database maintained by the portal IndiaSpend, 287 hate crimes incidents have been reported since 2009. Of these, 30% of mob lynching attacks are in the name of cow-protection, 14% are to protest inter-religious relationships, and 9% are spurred by allegations of religious conversions. In cases of religious violence, Muslims, who comprise 14.2% of India’s population, were the victims in 62% of cases. In contrast, Hindus who comprise more than 80% of India’s population, were victims in only 10% of these cases. There has also been an increase of violence against Christians with 15% of hate crimes committed against Indian Christians, who only comprise 2.3% of the population.
Additionally, with respect to cow-related hate attacks, victims were usually Muslims and Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’, or both. More than 90% of cow related crimes have occurred after 2014 when the BJP first came into power. It is interesting to note that cow-related attacks have been carried out against not only Muslims but also Dalits who have been historically consumed beef as part of their diet. This is symptomatic!
If we look at one of the flagship programmes launched by the BJP government immediately after coming to power last time in 2014: the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission was aimed at cleaning up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns, and rural areas by eliminating open defecation through the construction of private and public toilets. According to a survey conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), 44% of rural people over two years old in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh defecated in the open in 2018, compared to the 70% of rural people in the 2014 survey. However, almost a quarter of people in households with latrines nevertheless defecate in the open, which has remained unchanged since 2014. This means building more toilets has not changed the percentage of people who participate in open defecation. Why? Because cleaning toilets is not considered the work of most savarna communities. The Clean India Mission is really an ingenious scheme to depict open defecation as a hygiene issue, when the truth is that the caste system has traditionally collared a group of people into cleaning up the shit of the country. The lack of accountability towards keeping India clean does not stem from the lack of toilets, but from an ingrained refusal to take care of our own dirt sustained by notions of ritual purity in the caste system. A more effective route of cleaning India up would be investing in social reform schemes that work to demolish the caste system that makes a community of people responsible for cleaning the shit and dirt of the rest of the country. These Dalit communities are expected to clean the toilets and drains of savarnas, and yet consider themselves fortunate to be assimilated in the consolidated Hindu identity being forged by the Hindu Right? This is a con-job!
Nevertheless, this is a con that has been partially successful in the general elections of 2019. The vote share of the BJP has increased from their victory in 2014 to their undisputable victory in 2019. The NDA has secured a vote share of 45%, compared to 38% in 2014. In contrast, the vote share of the INC remained the same at 19.5%. With the help of its regional allies, INC has increased its seat tally but without influencing the elections in any significant way. According to reportage in the Times of India, minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians have not shifted their vote with any appreciable difference from 2014, and in fact have voted the NDA down in 2019. They have voted for the main opposition to the BJP in their respective states, be it Congress or any other party or alliance (Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Jharkhand, and Telengana). In contrast, a votebank consolidation is visible from the Times of India reportage that upper castes, OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis have voted in greater proportion in favour of the BJP. If in 2014, 36% of this collection of castes and tribes voted for the BJP, but in 2019 it is 44%. It is here in these numbers that you can see the consolidation of a singular Hindu identity being carved out by the BJP. This is where the real problematic of the General Elections of 2019 lies.
Why do people vote for the BJP?
Well, one issue, a potent ideological issue, is that of ‘development’. This was one of the two main platforms that the BJP stood on to come to power in 2014 (the other being nationalism). The BJP made more than a hundred promises in the previous general elections to develop and modernise the entire country based on the claims of what it had achieved in Gujarat under the Chief Ministership of Narendra Modi in the 2000s. Their claims of development in Gujarat were disputed by independent observors even in 2014. However now we have 5 years of BJP rule at the centre, and the question of what the BJP has done is not very clear. Unemployment in this period has fallen to a 45 year low at 7%. Their position in this election was that 5 years were not enough to make the impact they had promised in 2014 given decades of Congress mismanagement and corruption of the country. So the BJP has asked for another 5 years to show impact. It’s an emotional appeal that asks the voter for trust and confidence in their national project.
In the meanwhile there has been extremely expensive advertisement of development schemes and policies they are promoting. So some key and much-touted schemes have been the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (toilet-building) in 2014, PM Awaas Yojana (free or subsidised housing), Jan Dhan Yojana in 2015 (no frills basic savings accounts), Ujjwala Yojana (free gas cylinders for the poor), MUDRA yojana in 2015 (loans upto 10 lakh to non-corporate, non-farm small and micro enterprises), PM Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar/Saubhagya Yojana in 2017 (household electrification), Ayushman Bharat in 2018 (healthcare), Beti Badhao, Beti Bachao Yojana, Make in India, Digital India, and Skill India. And OK, so that looks impressive. However some of these schemes have been put in place by earlier governments that have been renamed or tweaked under the BJP regime.
At any rate there is evidence of some action of the part of the BJP government between 2014-2019. People have either been beneficiaries of one or more of these schemes, or are hopeful that they will be beneficiaries in the future. There is hope that the government will fulfil its promises to bring economic prosperity to India. Nevertheless is it justifiable exchange for the crackdown on civil liberties? I do not think so. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Centre, India ranked 4th in the world in 2015 for the highest social hostilities involving religion.
We would also expect a rollback on ecological measures under these neoliberal conditions.
Yes, of course! Environmental clearance procedures have been systematically weakened, with the fast-tracking of crucial environmental impact assessments, continued short shrift to public hearings, and bypassing of provisions requiring consent of local communities. Air pollution in cities and industrial areas has become worse, such that now 22 of the 30 most polluted cities of the world are in India. Moreover despite over Rs. 20,000 crores being spent on cleaning the Ganga in one of BJP’s flagship programmes, Namami Gange, data shows that pollution levels are worse than before.
According to the People’s Agenda 2019, since 2014 the central government has repeatedly set in place policies that allow for the grabbing of the lands of tribal people and forest dwellers, and that also tries to protect officials from any consequences for doing so. There has been an acceleration of the speed of forest clearances, with more than 57,000 hectares cleared between 2014 and 2016 alone. The People’s Agenda documents how in 2016 the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA) was passed, giving complete power to forest officials to plant trees on people’s lands, build tourism projects and ‘development’ projects, etc. without even informing forest dwellers – the law does not even mention forest rights. CAMPA promotes monoculture afforestation which destroys the rich variety of flora and fauna, and also adversely affects the livelihoods and food security of Adivasis. Furthermore, the BJP government is currently trying to amend the Indian Forest Act, which will result in giving forest guards the power to shoot people without facing any prosecution. Our forests are the biodiversity hub of the region, and their traditional custodians have been the Adivasis and other forest dwellers. Attacks on the rights of the Adivasis is an attack on ecosocialism.
As a feminist, how do you think the women of India are voting?
The fact of the matter is that more women have voted for the BJP in this election than before. The recorded voter turnout was greater this time at almost 69% of the 900 million eligible voter-base, and more women have voted in this election than ever before. In 9 States and Union Territories women outnumbered men in casting their votes. So the greater electoral victory of the BJP can be attributed to the involvement of female voters. The noteworthy exception is Kerala where more female participation took the election result in the other direction. It was in Kerala that the BJP had opposed the Supreme Court verdict that allowed women to enter and pray in the Sabrimala Temple. The “female voter turnout this time was 78.8%, higher than the 76.47% for men. In 2014, the figures were almost even at 73.84% for women and 73.96% for men” (Economic Times, May 20).
On one hand, it is not surprising that women vote in similar ways to their male counterparts. After all this is how votebanks work; a family, tribe, or community vote together to ensure a certain electoral result is reached. In patriarchal contexts, women would anyway follow the lead of the head of the family or community. On the other hand, it is goes to show that a left feminist formation is not working on the ground to mobilise women to place women’s and feminist issues as the basis for political representation. There is no strong feminist votebank operating in the country.
What forces of resistance are there?
You need to understand that the left is fractured, it has been broken, and we need to rebuild spaces for progressive political imagination. To bank on resistance from the left looks bleak. I would say that one important space for resistance will be the Muslim community, not because it has an progressive programme as such. The Muslim communities of India have not come together in any significant way to bring out a political imagination for the country since Independence, and have fallen behind on nearly all development indices. However they have been successfully othered and alienated. Therefore it could become the still-intact base for political resistance. With memories of the 2002 pogroms not yet forgotten, Indian Muslims can see what Hindu nationalism means. It means the creation of a new society that renders citizens into originals and fakes, into first citizens and second citizens. However the political battle must include shifting the discourse of Hindu-Muslim division as the keystone that holds the religious nationalism of Hindutva upright. Hindutva or Statist Hinduism would like to posit that the Muslim threat needs to be defeated to create an ideal State.
Let’s be clear about this: the Muslim is the political scapegoat of the Hindu Right, the convenient smokescreen to obfuscate the political reality of the so-called largest democracy of the world. What we are seeing here is a particular kind of religious nationalism in Hindutva. It is succeeding at building a consolidated Hindu identity out of thousands of castes hailing from different regional territories and with varying political affiliations. So the Hindutva campaign is not actually against Muslims – Muslims are its collateral damage. This form of religious nationalism is actually an elimination of the genuine on-the-ground struggle of the so-called subalterns, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Dalits and Adivasis. Consolidation of Hindu identity is predicated on the subordination of the subaltern to the ‘savarna’ or high caste identity. This is not some progressive politics of unification, but an erasure of difference, of radical alterity posed by the figure of the Dalit and Adivasi, who are also the ground for a political imagination for ecosocialism in India.
My analysis is that Muslims represent today a formation that is a base for new kinds of political mobilisations. It puts them in a very vulnerable position, but it is necessary not to fall into the discourse of Hindutva and see themselves as the victim of Hindutva. Let’s remember that Indian Muslims are not pure victims. The Muslim communities are often patriarchal and upper caste as well. They have participated in and perpetuated the caste system and class system of India too. In my opinion, they pose no ideological challenge to Hindutva. The real opposition can be posed by those who vote for the Hindu Right against their own best interests, in particular Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women. Indian Muslims must realise that in working for rights and opportunities for these historically disadvantaged groups they can find their own way out of the alienation they face today.
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