Browncast Episode 43: Indian Elections, the Aftermath, with Kushal Mehra

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In this episode we discuss the outcome of the Indian elections with Kushal Mehra, host of the Carvaka Podcast (and a BJP supporter, albeit not exactly a traditional one). Kushal thinks Modi’s sweeping victory had more to do with his ability to deliver real benefits to the poorest Indians. Feel free to disagree and post your opinions in the comments. We talk about the failure of the Left’s dream scenario of “dalit-Muslim unity” as a counterweight to Hindutvadi politics (at least in this election), what this means (or does not mean) for Indian democracy, the role of Indian Muslims, and so on.



Triumph of the Gujarati

Election 2019 reflects a victory of the Gujarat model. But not the model you are thinking of. Not even that other, more sinister model. It is something very fundamental, rooted deeply in economic ecologies.

Human beings are shaped fundamentally by the networks they find themselves embedded in. In India, these networks overwhelmingly take the shape of caste groups marked by an occupational role, social status and marital rules.

For the North Indian peasant, with an economy driven by land and service to an imperial power, caste identity emphasizes kinship and honor. Biradari literally means brotherhood, and membership is conditioned on izzat.

For the Gujarati merchant, in a dry region of relatively unproductive land, caste identity emphasizes pooled resources, adherence to fiscal norms and shared interests. Even for the peasant Patels, caste is today fundamentally an economic union, channelized into farming and dairy cooperatives.

2019 might well be the year that the North Indian peasant realizes the futility of imbibing a kinship and honor based caste identity. On the one hand, these networks simply do not provide the resources to grow and thrive in a post-agrarian world. And even if optimally politicized, the sheer number of caste groups makes the gains from achieving political power limited and concentrated.

The North Indian does realize the need for new kinds of networks. And Modi’s opening up of North India to the world, via a liberal visa policy, river transport from the Bay of Bengal all the way upto Noida and big ticket global engagement platforms like the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen would not have escaped the eye of the sharp Yadav and Jat, who realize that they will have to reach out to the world to grow.

After all, previous engagements with foreigners in the recent past have given Indians globally important automobile and IT industries.

India today is more open to the world than ever before. Everybody from Peru to Russia to Ghana to Indonesia can come in after submitting a simple electronic form. Less than 7 million people visited India in 2013, by 2016 that number more than doubled to 15 million. Modi’s Gujarati mind grasps the decisive role of networks in the growth of individual, and he might have well coaxed the North Indian to look beyond his caste tunnel.


An Unfair Comparison: Modi and Liaqat Ali Khan

Someone on Twitter posted a video of Arundhati Roy speaking out against Indian liberals who have “normalized” Narendra Modi by treating him as just another PM or CM.

The tweeter is an Indian Muslim (who, as far as I can tell, now lives in Australia) and I assume that he regards Modi, Yogi and Vajpayee as Hindu Nationalists who are out to make India a “Hindu Pakistan”, where minorities (especially Muslims) will be second class citizens who will fear for their life and live under humiliating and unfair restrictions. Let us assume this is true (that the BJP is a Hindu Nationalist party with exactly such ambitions), then liberals who “normalize” this party and its leaders are indeed guilty of betraying liberal principles. But even if that is true (and to some extent it surely is; we can debate to what extent), there can be several objections to this tweet, especially to the fact that ALL THREE are being compared to Hafiz Saeed. I raised this particular objection in the following tweet:

I will be the first to admit that this was mildly trollish, since I am well aware of the fact that the “done thing” is to make such judgments in terms of “local standards”.. by Pakistani standards, Hafiz Saeed is a religious extremist and a terrorist. So when Brumby wants an unflattering comparison for Modi, he picked Hafiz Saeed. On the other hand, Liaquat Ali Khan (first prime minister of Pakistan) is a Pakistani moderate. But my point was precisely this: the two standards are NOT the same. What Modi (or Yogi, or Vajpayee) may want is what Liaqat Ali Khan and Jinnah demanded and already got (thanks to some timely British help): an Islamic state, with discriminatory rules and laws that privilege one religion over all others. In that sense, Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership are indeed the correct comparison for a Hindu nationalist party.

But people also have other objections in mind. One is that Modi was CM during the Gujrat riots, when around 2500 people (mostly Muslims) died in a well organized pogrom during which the state machinery either stood aside or actively cooperated with the killers. Surely Liaquat Ali Khan cannot be compared to such a person? but even this objection stands on shakier ground than people may imagine. Liaquat Ali Khan was prime minister of Pakistan during a period when there was near-total ethnic cleansing of Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab and Karachi. This was not simply one or two spontaneous riots; there were well organized pogroms and the state machinery mostly stood aside (as in Gujrat, there were exceptions) and there is at least SOME evidence that Liaqat Ali Khan wanted them to stand aside because he did not really object to this cleansing (at a minimum he considered it the natural response to what was happening to Muslims in many parts of India). You can read more about this aspect here, but I will just post a paragraph from that newspaper article:

The prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was angry with Khuhro when he went to see him on January 9 or 10. Liaquat said to Khuhro: “What sort of Muslim are you that you protect Hindus here when Muslims are being killed in India. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself!” In the third week of January 1948, Liaquat Ali Khan said the Sindh government must move out of Karachi and told Khuhro to “go make your capital in Hyderabad or somewhere else”. Liaquat said this during a cabinet meeting while Jinnah quietly listened. The Sindh Assembly passed a resolution on February 10, 1948, against the Centre’s impending move to annex Karachi. The central government had already taken over the power to allotment houses in Karachi. Khuhro was forced to quit and Karachi was handed over to the Centre in April 1948.

The above facts made me write that the violence against Sindhi Hindus and their mass migration to India was a tragic loss scripted, orchestrated and implemented by non-Sindhis in Sindh. I will happily withdraw my claim when furnished with the evidence to the contrary.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2012.

The final objection I heard to my tweet was that Modi is an illiterate rabble rouser while Liaquat was the highly educated Westminster type. While it is true that Liaquat Ali Khan came from a rich feudal family (his grandfather, the nawab of Karnal was boss of 300 villages and had been given many honors because of his support of the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857) and was educated in Oxford, he was never as thoroughly English as Jinnahbhoy, and neither is Modi as illiterate as his opponents make him out to be. That said, this objection has does have a little truth to it. My defense is that I was not saying they are exactly alike, I was only saying that as far as comparing BJP leaders to Pakistani politicians goes, the correct comparison is “any Muslim League leader” and not Hafiz Saeed.

I understand that many readers will find this comparison (BJP to Muslim league) hard to digest, but that is the point; it is hard to digest because it is unfamiliar. TIME magazine would not make this comparison and they have conventional wisdom on their side. But then again, we are not TIME magazine 🙂

PS: Arundhati, who admires Lenin (and Mao) has far to go before she can sit in judgment on liberals who “normalize” violent leaders.. If nothing else, we can all agree on that (see my article on Arundhati and her ilk here)

PPS: For details about partition violence (and later episodes of mass killings in Pakistan), see here..