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Verdict 2024 | Essay

Religious Amplification versus Fraying Charisma: Decoding Lok Sabha Elections 2024

As India heads towards the home run of its 18th General Election-with just the last of the seven phases to be held on June 1, the slogans, posturing, and promises held out by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) point to a shifting of what was till recently taken as solid electoral ground beneath the party’s feet. At this stage of the election, Arjun Appadurai, Professor Emeritus, Media, Culture and Communication, New York University, connects the dots between popular political discourse, the approach of the ruling party to governance, its furtherance of its ideological agenda in a plural India, and the manner in which it has read the electorate.

Pointing out that “the Indian elections are simply too big and too local for control by any dictator or party”, Prof. Appadurai postulates that religious agendas have a limiting reach in a country like India – rooted in locality and caste – and explains the context behind the constant and steep ratcheting up of the BJP’s calls for an India of its desire. The return of the party, and its leadership, to the pre-development sloganeering, he says, is reflective of its inability to move beyond its foundational ideological moorings.

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Interview

Majoritarianism is a pushback against political mobilisation by the marginalised: Thomas Blom Hansen

Why do parties with ideologies corrosive to basic democratic values - liberty, equality, and fraternity - enjoy democratic endorsements in India and elsewhere? An easy observation is that there is popular attraction for ‘strong’ leaders, free-market policies, and promises of ‘regaining lost glory’. Thomas Blom Hansen, Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, U.S., and a scholar on Hindu nationalism, decodes the electoral success of majoritarianism to the multiple resentments created by deepening of democracies, which empowered marginalised groups but also created pushback from entrenched social hierarchies. These counter-acting forces, he points out, provides electoral space for such parties.

Prof. Hansen also explains how the Bharatiya Janata Party grew on criticisms of democratic expansion, why the Indian National Congress lost the political narrative, and the fallout of the Indian Left’s failure to read caste and communal dynamics. The “old secularism” in India, he asserts, “has run its course”. The way forward is to transcend mere “tolerance” of minorities, and “assertively embrace” India’s diversity “as it is lived and experienced by the majority”. Excerpts from a conversation with Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Senior Coordinator, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, in Chennai on April 03, 2024:

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Verdict 2024 | Commentary

General Election 2024: Quo Vadis India?

India’s General Election to the 18 thLok Sabha (LS, the House of the People) has the makings of a high-stakes contest. The early decades saw the dominance the Indian National Congress (INC), even if its pan-India presence receded after the 4 th LS and State Elections in 1967. The politics of the INC touched its nadir during the Emergency (June 25, 1975 - March 21, 1977). Despite bouncing back in the 7 thLS (1980), after a non-Congress coalition in the 6 thLS (1977) fell apart, and then securing an all-time high majority for any party till date in the 8 thLS (1984), the INC is yet to reclaim the country’s political commanding heights. The era of coalitions/minority governments from the 9 thLS (1989) to the 15 thLS (2009) played two distinctive roles: it checked one-party dominance and ushered in politics of accommodation. This was reversed with the re-emergence of a single-party rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 16 th and 17 th Lok Sabhas (2014 and 2019), under the premiership of Narendra Modi.

During this decade, disparate interests – religions, castes, classes; economic, social, geographical – were all sought to be coalesced under the rallying call: “One Nation, One...” (the second “One” periodically updated to incorporate a state or individual activity that would strike at India’s quasi-federal structure and diversity). The undercurrents that tugged India over the past 10 years are evident: the move towards a state that is majoritarian rather than plural; a government that favours big private capital to wider redistribution; and policies to benefit a few at the cost of the many. The election manifestoes of the prime contenders to power – the BJP and the INC – also delineate their ideological positions. The former promises to take forward its policies, propel India to the status of a developed country, and retains its sharp focus on cultural nationalism; the latter seeks a mandate to reverse divisive trends, with progress, equity, and inclusivity as the touchstones of its politics and policy-making.

Against this backdrop, Diego Maiorano, Senior Assistant Professor of Indian History and Politics at the University of Naples L’Orientale, comments on what the decade that has gone by meant for India’s political journey, its collective mindset, and its democratic institutions of state. He also flags the larger issues that the world’s largest electorate must contend with when it votes in the 18th LS election, scheduled to be held in seven phases from April 19 to June 01, 2024.

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Interview

‘India’s historically shaped pluralism not easy to dislodge; diversity always part of its landscape’: Rajeev Bhargava

India’s plural tradition, safeguarded by a constitutional commitment to a secular democracy, is going through challenging times. The founding ideals of a multi-religious, inclusive Indian nation are fast being reshaped by a majoritarian formulation of the normative relationship between the state and religion.

Rajeev Bhargava, Honorary Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, and Balliol College, Oxford, and Director, Parekh Institute of Indian Thought, CSDS, analyses what went wrong with India’s tryst with a sui generis form of secularism. In conversation with V.S. Sambandan, Chief Administrative Officer, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, he draws out the differences between the European and Indian variants, and the lessons offered by the latter; how ‘modernity’ resulted in ‘religionisation’, which, in turn, displaced India’s plural, free-flowing pathways; and the points of inflexion in the practice of secularism in India. He also flags an important missing element: the omission of caste from the secularisation process. Equating the Indian caste hierarchy with the “meddlesome” church in western societies, he asserts: “A caste system thwarting individual autonomy and one caste dominating another caste within the Hindu order has to be fought.”

As for the trajectory that lies ahead for India’s engagement with secularism, Prof. Bhargava remains optimistic but with a caveat: Although the “downward trajectory will stop”, one cannot expect “a dramatic turnaround”. This assessment arises from his reading that India’s disengagement from the constitutional ideal commenced in the 1980s, and, therefore, “the recovery will also take a longer period. But it will take place.”

Edited excerpts from an interview held in Chennai on August 18, 2023:

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India’s plural tradition, safeguarded by a constitutional commitment to a secular democracy, is going through challenging times. The founding ideals of a multi-religious, inclusive Indian nation are fast being reshaped by a majoritarian formulation of the normative relationship between the state and religion.

Rajeev Bhargava, Honorary Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, and Balliol College, Oxford, and Director, Parekh Institute of Indian Thought, CSDS, analyses what went wrong with India’s tryst with a sui generis form of secularism. In conversation with V.S. Sambandan, Chief Administrative Officer, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, he draws out the differences between the European and Indian variants, and the lessons offered by the latter; how ‘modernity’ resulted in ‘religionisation’, which, in turn, displaced India’s plural, free-flowing pathways; and the points of inflexion in the practice of secularism in India. He also flags an important missing element: the omission of caste from the secularisation process. Equating the Indian caste hierarchy with the “meddlesome” church in western societies, he asserts: “A caste system thwarting individual autonomy and one caste dominating another caste within the Hindu order has to be fought.”

As for the trajectory that lies ahead for India’s engagement with secularism, Prof. Bhargava remains optimistic but with a caveat: Although the “downward trajectory will stop”, one cannot expect “a dramatic turnaround”. This assessment arises from his reading that India’s disengagement from the constitutional ideal commenced in the 1980s, and, therefore, “the recovery will also take a longer period. But it will take place.”

Edited excerpts from an interview held in Chennai on August 18, 2023:

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