A mistake of the liberals in these elections is that they have framed the public discourse primarily around secularism. While pertinent given Modi’s antecedents, it is self-limiting: it speaks to Minority interest in a framework where numbers matter and preaches to the converted in the Majority community. In contrast, Modi invokes people’s personal aspirations when he thunders about stalling growth. Ignored in this discourse is the social conservatism agenda of the “cultural” organizations and political parties associated with the BJP. This is significant because their values are antithetical to the freedom aspired by much of India’s population, 65% of which is less than 35 years of age.
Hindu fundamentalists are already emboldened with Modi’s rise. Recently, VHP President, Togadia targeted a Muslim house in Bhavnagar to intimidate Muslims against buying houses in Hindu areas. No action has been taken by the Modi-led Gujarat Government yet. However secularism is not the only casualty of Modi’s ascent. An equal danger is parochial loons being set loose with state sanction to moral police. Modi is campaigning on a plank of economic liberalism and his campaign is dominated by slick marketing and heavy use of technology; personal freedom is an automatic corollary for many of his supporters. However one only needs to look at the political forces behind Modi to see the fallacy of this assumption. Yet these forces will play a decisive role in shaping the national agenda were Modi to come into power.
The RSS – the parent organization of BJP- has played a key role in the elevation of Modi and will exert influence on any BJP government. The RSS does not have a single woman office bearer – unsurprising given the misogynistic views of its head, Mohan Bhagwat. Last year, Bhagwat stated that, “a husband and wife are bound by a contract which says ‘you (woman) look after the household chores and satisfy me, I (man) will take care of your needs and will protect you […] if she fails to honour the contract, he disowns her”. At a time of national fulmination over women’s security, Bhagwat provided sage insight into the cause of rape, elucidating “where Bharat becomes ‘India’ with the influence of western culture, these types of incidents happen”. The statements betray deep discomfort with the increased agency of women in the urban milieu and show callous disregard for rape in rural areas to oppress lower-caste women. Bhagwat is not alone. Sushma Swaraj, BJP’s most powerful woman, in a bout of rhetorical flourish likened a woman raped to a “zinda lash”, reinforcing societal prejudice. Shiv Sena, BJP’s longstanding ally, routinely makes news by terrorizing couples especially on Valentine’s Day. BJP’s comfort level with such behavior was evident when its Karnataka unit recently inducted Pramod Muthalik, Shri Ram Sena chief whose karyakartas charged into a pub to beat up women for going against Hindu values (he was later dropped).
Predictably same sex relationships go against Hindu values too. Yoga guru Ramdev and BJP share a symbiotic relationship in their quest for political power. In an indication of his clout in BJP, its former President Mr Gadkari has been photographed touching his feet. Ramdev is also a key figure in Mr Modi’s campaign and widely believed to have been involved in the distribution of tickets in these elections. Ramdev has called homosexuality a “disease” and likened homosexuality to bestiality saying “tomorrow they will talk of having sex with animals”. The petitioners against the Delhi High Court order which decriminalized homosexuality include late BP Singhal, former Rajya Sabha member from BJP and brother of former VHP chief Ashok Singhal and SK Tizarawala, Ramdev’s spokesperson. BJP President, Rajnath Singh said his party “unambiguously” endorses the re-criminalisation of gay sex.The RSS mouthpiece, Organizer praised the Supreme Court decision which re-criminalized homosexuality calling it a “bold stand” and a “milestone in preserving the values of the country”.
A new inductee into the NDA alliance is Dr Ramadoss led PMK who consolidated intermediate caste groups in Tamil Nadu against Dalits on a platform which includes opposition to inter-caste marriage with Dalits. PMK is also widely believed to be behind the attacks in Dharmapuri in which hundreds of Dalits homes were set afire in the aftermath of marriage between a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl. The girl was forced back into her family; the boy was later found dead near a railway track. The Sangh prefers not to create overt fissures in its consolidated Hindu identity but mobilizes against “Love Jihad”, marriages between Muslim boys and Hindu girls.
Mr Modi has chosen to keep silent on these issues sensing the inherent contradictions between his political affiliates and sections of his support base. He is of course being opportunistic, but it is not clear with whom: his supporters or his compatriots? Some indication of his views can be gleaned on two counts: Gujarat remains the only large state in the country where consumption of alcohol is illegal. Given that the law is openly flouted and serves only as a tool for arbitrary harassment is reason enough to have repealed it. The fact that he hasn’t is indicative either of moral judgment or pressures from the Sangh. Second, after it was revealed that the Gujarat state machinery was used to snoop on a civilian woman, the baffling defense mounted by the BJP – presumably with Modi’s agreement – was that the surveillance was at the behest of the woman’s father – an argument that divests an adult woman of agency and right to privacy.
Modi is running an extremely personalized campaign, wherein the solution to all that ails India is to be found in “Modi ki Sarkaar”. However he will necessarily draw from these groups to populate his government. These groups will use state power to set a restrictive social agenda and provide patronage to the misguided vigilantes who will enforce it. It is time to question Modi on what he will do then. It is unlikely he will be able to stop them since they are instrumental in his ascent. So even while most Hindus brush aside the question of secularism, are they as sanguine about the threat to their personal freedoms as well?