Whither Modi, and, at one remove, India?

The Akhlaq murder by a lynch mob, no doubt put to its dastardly deed by political minders of the eminently political and quintessentially pseudo-cultural formation, signifies India poised at a crossroad. Many are looking towards its prime minister for direction. Awaiting the Bihar poll verdict, by way of which he intends consolidating his position, Mr. Modi is studiously maintaining his silence.

Knowing that the development plank can only take the BJP so far and no further in light of Nitish-Yadav’s strong credentials in that department, the mother lode of the BJP, the Hindutvavadis, has sought to make the elections plebiscitary, a ‘with us or against us’ one depending on whether you eat beef or otherwise.

Even as the Bihar electorate contemplates this, some Modi supporters are in a quandary. Those who support his Hindutva agenda are happy to continue to profit from his letting them a loose rope. Those who support both his Hindutva and development agendas now worry that the former may overshadow the latter, leaving them only partially satisfied. Even so, they would be happy if Modi is able to foster Hindutva; with any lack in development being easily blamed on the opposition. Those who support his development plank alone are aghast that the Hindutva plank has potential to truncate development. They want Mr. Modi to rein in the Hindutvavadis so that these do not prove an embarrassment to India on the world stage and keep investments away.

Of the three categories of supporters - Hinduvavadis, development-minded and with both on the mind - two categories of supporters prioritise Hindutva over development. This leaves only Modi supporters mindful of his development plank alone as revolted. Nevertheless, even they would likely ‘wait and see’, giving their leader the benefit of the doubt, hoping that post-Bihar elections, Mr. Modi will  show the  Hindutvavadis the door and concentrate on ‘acche din’.

This analysis suggests, therefore, that nothing has changed. Modi supporters on the basis of development are none too numerous as to count. Mr. Modi, knowing his electoral mathematics, therefore, is unlikely to pull the rug from under his own feet by reining in the Hindutva brigade. Consequently, it can be hazarded that the future can only be ‘more of the same’ in terms of Hindutva excesses, but with an admixture of development once (and if) Bihar is in Mr. Modi’s kitty.

The point for readers of this journal is that things cannot be expected to get any better. The regime is only in its second year. It cannot be expected to change tack so soon. The opposition it is receiving from the usual suspects - the liberals - will unlikely deflect it. In both cases - whether Mr. Modi and his electoral schemer Amit Shah - pull it off in Bihar or otherwise, the outcome will be the same.

In case the Bihar elections set the stage for Mr. Modi’s capture by end next year of the upper house, then ‘acche din’ will be closer at hand. This will embolden the Hindutva lobby, legitimizing their forays.  The two sets of supporters will be ascendant; only the solely development-minded will be slightly put out.

In the second case - in which Amit Shah is shown up like in the Delhi verdict - there will be little difference. In fact, since the tide will be rolling back on the so-called ‘Modi wave’, the Hindutvavadis would be energized to work their potion as much as they can while they can. Mr. Modi, continuing adrift on development, would be even less inclined to stall them.

In summation, the direction of India at the crossroad is easy to discern. It will continue on - or more accurately down - the Hindutva track. This is not only in Mr. Modi’s interest, but also counter-intuitively that of his opposition. They would hope that at the next hustings, Mr. Modi would trip up over the false promise of development; be exposed by Hindutva excesses; and have his development-minded flock look towards them. The opposition, after all, will not want to be seen as afoul of the greater glory of Hindu culture.

If this reading of Hindutva catching momentum hereon is accurate, strategizing for such a future is necessary. The past decade and half has demonstrated that this is nothing new. The UPA interregnum, though ten years long, did not change anything. They too subscribed to soft Hindutva and allowed institutions to be subverted from within. With the incumbents pressing ahead with their Hindutva agenda unapologetically and non-hypocritically, arriving at a sound strategy has acquired urgency. Only a barebones attempt is made here.

Getting the aim right at the outset is a critical first step. Firstly, it cannot be at the cost of any more Muzaffarnagars and Akhlaqs. The sufferers will be Muslims and perpetrators will remain scot free. Secondly, we cannot afford to furnish Hindutvavadis with an excuse for confrontation, including youthful exuberance and, worse, misconceived defence of the faith by some through violence. Thirdly, it cannot be at the cost of our right to self-defence and self-respect either. Finally, it cannot be at the cost of missing the development bus this time round too. If such a bus does manage to run, Muslims must be on it. Neither must we end up as scapegoats in case it does not run.

There appear to be two options. There is the longstanding route of throwing in our lot with secular mainstream parties and lately there is the ‘Owaisi option’, of bandwagoning with a confessional party. Owaisi misses no opportunity to discuss the cons of the former and highlighting the pros of the Owaisi option. However, the underside of the Owaisi option is in political ghettoization and the ballast Hindutva acquires. The danger is also in the Owaisi option ending in a negotiated sell-out to the BJP, once it is in a position to do so with a command over the Muslim vote. To weigh-in on this, the Owaisi option is currently only hype, intended by BJP media backers to polarize voters behind the BJP; leaving us with only the first option in play.

The end state must be in showing the BJP the door end decade in a manner that a makeover normalizes it as a typical conservative party. This will signal the exhaustion of Hindus with their being used as electoral cannon fodder, a vote bank; quite like the lesson Muslims have learned in the last elections. This can be brought about by Muslims staying out of the way and keeping as low as possible while Hindutva excess leads to an internal Hindu debate over their own cultural antecedents and what these portend. It is easy to see that this will not be easy since at least a portion of these excesses will be directed our way, as the Akhlaq murder testifies.

As for the strategy framing part itself, it would require awaiting the Bihar verdict and what it spells for the balance of Mr. Modi’s term. If it indicates that Mr. Modi is an undisputed champion, then a strategy of survival will have to be in place, and if Mr. Modi is shown up finally, then it has to be one of lending ballast to the mainstream opposition in its bounce back. Muslims cannot do this alone. It is not their fight. It is about how Hindus want to see India, as Mr. Modi and his legions would like them to or in the light of pluralism two millennia old.