To defeat Hindu nationalism, liberals must stop obsessing over Rahul Gandhi

Having a credible alternative to Narendra Modi is essential, but that can only be a part of the strategy.

ByAbhimanyu Chandra
To defeat Hindu nationalism, liberals must stop obsessing over Rahul Gandhi
Shambhavi Thakur
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Narendra Modi has overseen decline in India’s economy, democratic ratings, levels of freedom, independence of institutions, health and nutrition, and, above all, its social fabric. Yet, he and his party remain electoral juggernauts. In the face of this dissonance between objective, dismal reality and people’s continued support for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, commentators have sought to identify reasons behind liberals’ electoral failure. They have frequently zeroed in on Rahul Gandhi and his Congress party. Recently, for instance, Kapil Komireddi, writing in the Indian Express, noted that were Modi to win another term, a big share of the blame would rest with Gandhi.

Gandhi and the Congress are full of problems, no doubt. But to win liberals can and must see more broadly. A necessary step is to determine how they can bring back some Modi supporters, including Hindu nationalists, to the liberal camp. If this goal is taken as a given, then the perspectives of people from the Hindu nationalist ecosystem who have grown critical of it regarding when, why and how those enmeshed in rightwing ideologies leave them are especially valuable.

I interviewed several such people as also academics well placed to comment on such transitions out of rightwing ecosystems. I gathered that to win over some of the Modi voters, especially those who may be on the fence, liberals must embrace a multi-pronged approach involving the psychological, the tactical and the political, depending on which will work with which set of people and when. This approach will stand in contrast with liberals’ current over-focus on the Congress in general and Gandhi in particular.

A key insight from the interviews is that liberals cannot simply fact-check Modi and the BJP and expect to win; they cannot simply show the BJP promised a roaring economy but never delivered, that Modi pledged he would create 10 million jobs a year but it was a lie. They must, as the University of Chicago anthropologist William Mazzarella told me, locate the “anxiety” that is making people vote for Modi and the BJP, despite abundant, objective reasons for not doing so. If “another powerful form of organizing those same anxieties comes along, then that can take over from the previous one,” Mazzarella said.

Liberals should engage those anxieties – the deeper, sometimes unstated reasons behind people’s support for Modi. Is it pride in Hinduism, is it desire for a muscular India, is it hunger for order? Once they are able to locate the key reasons, they can speak to those reasons through effective, liberal politics – through Gandhi or someone else. Their politics would then speak not only to the brain but also the gut of the Indian voter.

A second insight is that liberals must exploit fissures within Hindu nationalism. Bhanwar Meghwanshi, as a young man in the 1980s, was willing to die to turn India into a Hindu state. He soon realised however that the Hindu state he was ready to destroy mosques for had no place for him: he was a Dalit. On one occasion, he offered fellow Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members food from his home and they threw it away. Since he was an outcaste, in their eyes food from his home was “impure”. He left the organisation and began writing against it. The world of Hindu nationalism is full of internal contradictions and betrayals of the kind that Meghwanshi experienced. In addition to caste, there is region: Hindu nationalism has a patronising approach towards South India. There is also gender: Adityanath, for instance, argues that “a home gets destroyed when women become as effective as men”, that a woman who becomes like a man is equivalent to a demon. With such chinks in Hindu nationalism’s armoury of bigotry ripe for the needling, liberals should expose to Hindu nationalists how their ideology discriminates against them.

A third insight from my interviews is that liberals must create viable political alternatives to the BJP at the national level. This is obvious enough, except that such alternatives can absorb many in the BJP who, apparently, are eager to exit. Shivam Shankar Singh, while a college student in the United States, was a volunteer for Modi’s 2013-14 prime ministerial campaign. He went on to work as a social media and data analyst for the BJP. In 2018, he resigned, dismayed by the party’s politics of misinformation, religious polarization, and much else. He told me it was easy for him to leave as he was young, and not dependent on politics for a living. Many others who want to leave, alarmed for instance by the collapsing economy, he said, are not as young and are more dependent on politics. These people would leave the BJP if given viable alternatives – alternatives that are currently missing. In the absence of alternatives, leaving the BJP will mean essentially leaving politics.

The Congress would be an obvious alternative. But if it doesn’t rise to the occasion, the Aam Aadmi Party or the Trinamool Congress, depending on the Bengal election outcome, could seek to fill the opposition vacuum.

These interviews – including with people previously in the Hindu nationalist ecosystem such as the Assam politician Prodyut Bora and the Ashoka University historian Aparna Vaidik, as well as academics such as Mujibur Rehman and Upneet Lalli – yielded several other insights. These include the need to respectfully rather than patronisingly engage the Hindu nationalist who one seeks to persuade, something liberals often don’t do; to continue to broadcast facts because even if they do not influence all the people all the time, they can influence some people some of the time; to enhance educational access and quality across the country.

Respect and facts undoubtedly should be instruments in the Indian liberal’s arsenal, if she wants to win. Improving India’s educational landscape, on the other hand, can only be a long-term enterprise.

The meat of the liberal’s approach, right away, should comprise the mix of approaches that Mazzarella, Meghwanshi, and Singh identified. The liberal must harness a psychological approach towards grasping, and then addressing, voters’ anxieties that are making them continue to vote for the BJP; use the tactical arrow of cracking apart crevices within the Hindu nationalist base; and create credible political alternatives.

Instead of adopting this multi-pronged approach, Indian liberals are focused overwhelmingly on the third of these prongs. It must undoubtedly be integral to the liberal strategy, for no other prong will be of use if the voters have no meaningful alternative to the BJP. Yet, the excessive focus on whether Rahul Gandhi should quit politics or not runs the risk of overlooking the other prongs. If, instead, liberals adopted a more holistic approach, they would make the BJP and Modi pay the electoral price for bringing the country to what, today, is a bleak juncture.

Abhimanyu Chandra is a PhD candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

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