(First of an occasional series on the Indian Elections of 2019 and its outcome)
In the mid-1920s, a few years after he had published his early masterpiece, The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem which is apt for our times. He called it “The Hollow Men”. Eliot had witnessed a generation lost to what, until that time, had unquestionably been the most brutal war of modern history. World War I took millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of misery, destruction, and deep depression. The wise men of the times, and those with a sunny disposition, called it the “war to end all wars”; and, yet, it paved the way, though scarcely anyone could have imagined it at that time, for a still more destructive war.
Narendra Modi has achieved in India a victory of such calamitous proportions that its consequences will reverberate for decades to come. He has amassed power on a scale unwitnessed in the experience of the vast majority of Indians. The BJP and its supporters are describing it as a magnificent achievement, a stupendous outcome—and stupendous it is, not merely on account of the evisceration of what one even hesitates to call “the opposition”, but because the victory has been delivered by a massive and largely unsuspecting electorate rather than having been achieved at the barrel of the gun or even by coercion. It is pointless at this juncture to argue whether some EVMs were tampered with, or whether the outcome was foretold by the extraordinary resources that the BJP brought to this election, including vast sums of unaccounted money contributed by the crony capitalists who must be exulting yet again at the victory of their champion, a self-proclaimed ordinary chai-wallah. The indisputable fact established by the electoral results is that the BJP, even if the playing field had been somewhat more level, would easily still have been triumphant.
Most analyses of the election have focused on Narendra Modi’s spectacular success in projecting himself as indispensable to the nation and as the only person at all capable of catapulting India on to the global stage as a supposed world power. One study after another has shown, or has attempted to establish, that many electors cast their vote for Modi, and Modi alone. If Donald Trump is now the Republican Party, Modi is the BJP. Doubtless, the BJP has a massive following, and many among the ranks of the party’s acolytes have an ideological commitment to political positions advocated by the party, just as Amit Shah has displayed, as he has since his rehabilitation within the BJP before the 2014 election, a mastery of organizational details and a ravenous appetite for propaganda. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognize that Modi stands, singularly so, at the summit of Indian politics.
The consequences of this election, however, cannot be reduced to questions about the future of the Congress, the personality of Modi or his style of governance, and whether the BJP will have the grace to rule with something that might be described as civility, and even whether the battle lines are likely to harden between the Hindu extremists who have been emboldened by the victory and all those who are rightly alarmed if not terrified at the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP’s warriors may already be starting to prepare for the next battle, but the rot has unfortunately, indeed I should say tragically, already set in. The BJP spent the previous five years in decimating the institutions that are the bulwark of any democracy. The country’s leading public universities, among them Delhi University and JNU, have been gutted; the Election Commission has not merely seen better days, but is shorn of much of its credibility; and the army, which was long been distinguished from the army of neighboring Pakistan as an institution that stayed outside the fray of politics, has increasingly been drawn into political scandals.
It would be difficult to identify institutions of the state that have not been hollowed out. That is what hollow men do. The BJP is utterly devoid of any imagination, and for intellectuals the party hacks and their devoted followers have nothing but absolute contempt. The Prime Minister has made the customary noises, following the election, about carrying everyone along with him and the need for “inclusive growth”. There are the usual slogans about sabka saath, sabka vikas, and the call to the party to strive for sabka vishwas: all mindless chatter, the most predictable ploys to shore up the idea of the magnanimous victor. Among the vanquished, there will be much talk about weathering the storm for the next five years.
I have described the electorate that delivered a victory to Modi and the BJP as “unsuspecting”, and I do so with the full awareness that, as will doubtless be pointed out to me, among those who voted for the incumbent many did so with the expectation that he will stand up for the Hindu, fill (as it is imagined) the much maligned Hindus with pride, make India Congress-free, and—to speak of hope against hope—vindicate “the common man”. But the electorate is unsuspecting because there is, in my view, little realization that with this victory an entire generation of Indians is now lost to values of civility, decency, and moral probity. It is, for the moment, immaterial whether the BJP implodes five years from now, or, miraculously, the Congress or some other force emerges to offer viable opposition. An entire generation will now have to pay the price for the obliteration of social goods that we hold in common and the values that are enshrined in the Constitution of India. The BJP has already, in effect, described this victory as total, as, so to speak, the war that ends all wars. It will take a generation, I suspect, to recover our humanity even partially from what has been wrought by “the hollow men” of our times.