Trade union demo against BJP

This essay, on the turmoil in India and its lessons for the rest of th world, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on conservative snowflakes.) It was published on 12 January 2020, under the headline ‘It’s tempting to see India as a place apart. But it offers lessons for us all’.

It’s the ‘largest democracy in the world’. It’s also one of the most fragile, one in which dissent has often been curtailed and communal divisions inflamed. At no time have the vulnerabilities of India’s democracy seemed more exposed than they are now.

The return to power last year of the Hindu nationalist BJP, under the leadership of prime minister, Narendra Modi, has polarised politics. Modi clearly now feels empowered to pursue unyieldingly reactionary policies. The revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the military lockdown of the state, the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which openly discriminates against Muslims, and the unleashing of thugs on to streets and campuses to intimidate dissenters all bear witness to this agenda. At the same time, opponents of the BJP have discovered a new voice in recent weeks, millions taking to the streets in protest, defying the violence, official and unofficial.

It’s easy to see this turmoil as the product primarily of local politics. Some root causes are unique to India, but many have wider resonance. The electoral success of the BJP has been smoothed by trends familiar across the globe: resentment of a liberal elite, the implosion of the old order (represented in India by the Congress party), anger at the impact of globalisation and inequality, the rise of radical nationalism the exploitation of sectarian divides.

In the decades after independence in 1947, the Congress Party, which had led the struggle for liberation from British rule, governed India almost as the family fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Until the 1990s, popular disaffection found no national voice. It was the sectarian BJP, rooted in the philosophy of Hindutva, or Hindu chauvinism, which eventually became the vehicle of anti-Congress rage.

Liberalisation of economic policy from the 1990s led to increased growth. More than 270 million Indians moved out of poverty between 2005 and 2015. But the fruits of growth have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. In the 1980s, India’s richest 1% took 6% of national income; today, it purloins 22%. That 1% now owns more than half the country’s wealth; the poorer half of India scrambles for a mere 4.1% of national wealth.

The BJP has seized upon anger at such disparities, presenting itself as the champion of the ordinary citizen against the cosmopolitan elites while swaddling that anger in chauvinist hatred.

Long before the BJP came to power, the Congress Party had shown itself willing to exploit sectarian politics for electoral gain. A turning point, as the historian Dilip Simeon observes, was 1984, the year that prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards, angered by the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Gandhi’s assassination led to pogroms against Sikhs, many fomented by Congress politicians. At least 3,000 Sikhs were killed. The violence, Simeon notes, ‘set a new standard for the normalisation of brutality and lawlessness in the Indian polity’ and acted as a ‘force multiplier’ for the BJP.

Three decades on, many Congress politicians continue to pursue what one MP, Shashi Tharoor, denounces as ‘Hindutva-lite’ policies. Far from shoring up Congress’s support, it has only helped strengthen the BJP. Who needs Hindutva-lite when you can have Hindutva-strong?

If the turmoil in India raises questions about democracy at home, it also holds lessons for political battles elsewhere. The key question today, it reminds us, is about who gives shape to popular disaffection.

Alienation from the old political order is a global phenomenon, whether that order is expressed in corrupted liberation movements, as in India and South Africa, or through faltering conservative and social democratic parties, as in Europe. Opposition movements giving voice to disaffection are often sectarian in form – a sectarianism that may be rooted in religious or ethnic identity, as in India or Turkey, or expressed in hostility to migrants and Muslims, as in much of the West. Everywhere, there is a hole where a national progressive movement should be. Which is why the nationwide popular opposition in India to the CAA, and to the violence meted out by BJP thugs, is so heartening.

The turmoil in India should also be a warning against any attempt to win back support from reactionary populists by stealing their illiberal clothes. What has really challenged the BJP is not the appeasement of sectarian sentiment but nationwide protests against bigoted laws and chauvinist violence. It’s a lesson for those in the West tempted to stem the growth of rightwing populists through harsher rhetoric about migrants or Muslims. If we really want to challenge divisive politics, it’s a temptation to resist.



The photo, of trade unionists chanting anti-BJP slogans on a march in Bengaluru, is by Jagadeesh Nv/EPA


  1. the fire goes out when you stop adding to the flames, it’s the reason why peace filled nationhood should be encouraged and aided, the same way art should be widely aided, so that emotional issues that breed inside don’t turn into something, worse.

  2. damon

    “Everywhere, there is a hole where a national progressive movement should be.”

    Isn’t that what Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was supposed to be about?
    And we have the Guardian opinion writers:

    “Britain’s racism pantomime: now starring Meghan and Harry”
    Nesrine Malik

    Some outspoken people of colour have really been arguing hard about that this week.
    Just see the Guardian’s own Afua Hirsch having a row about it with Piers Morgan on the morning TV show.

    And in the previous couple of days, he had similar arguments with Ayesha Hazarika and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. They all say the same thing. And they get quite annoyed with him because being a white man, he’s just not going to understand what they’re saying. It looks like a cultural (sectarian) division.

    “It’s a lesson for those in the West tempted to stem the growth of rightwing populists through harsher rhetoric about migrants or Muslims.”

    It’s a lesson that only goes so far in my opinion. India and Europe are just too different.
    What’s going on in India and the political situation in Hungary for example, are entirely different.
    India is a diverse society already and is having these sectarian problems ….. and in Hungary it’s having a divided society that they are trying to avoid in the first place.
    They have this idea that if they open up their society to large scale immigration like has happened in most west European countries, that they will face strife and difficulties of various kinds. It’s very different to India.
    I would avoid making generalisations as much as possible. It’s fine to spot some trends maybe, but all the different countries are so different that you may well be ignoring much of the nuance and local detail.
    The left in Britain is pretty useless right now and would need to go a bit more “Blue Labour” for it to become relevant again (I think). But at the moment, the left that we have, has basically “captured the moral high ground” and it’s going to be pretty impossible to get them off it.
    Maybe some decades just need to pass and we might enter a different political climate.
    But for now, we’re going nowhere – or around in circles.
    People on the left can’t even describe the diverse society we actually have in Britain accurately.
    That’s why I can kind of sympathise with Hungary (a bit) for not wanting to blindly follow our examples.
    They fear the kinds of really difficult cultural diversity issues we are often failing to address properly in Western Europe.

  3. In the West, the anti-populists (notably liberals and the Left) cannot “give shape to popular disaffection” – since they themselves are the worst enemies of the general population !

    And also the main CAUSE of popular disaffection.

  4. damon

    “It’s a lesson for those in the West tempted to stem the growth of rightwing populists through harsher rhetoric about migrants or Muslims.”

    I see that Jeremy Corbyn spoke out to support those people claiming the Harry and Meghan story had racist undertones to it. So maybe that’s him showing leadership and solidarity.
    I just completely disagree though and this kind of talk is now just like the sectarian battling that we have seen in the Stormont Parliament in Northern Ireland.

    Afua Hirsch again today in the Guardian:
    “The ‘playing the race card’ accusation is just a way to silence us.
    Many British people are ignorant about how racism works. Yet when black people try to explain, our experience is denied.”

    There was an interesting piece I thought by Peter Oborne.
    “Anti-Muslim bigotry tarnishes the legacy of Sir Roger Scruton.
    British Muslims are entitled to feel alarmed by the unqualified praise being doled out to Scruton since his death.”

    Do we have to be respectful towards Islam? As a non-religious person, I don’t feel these big world religions are very good for the human race at all. And maybe some are worse than others.
    I roll my eyes every time I see another Mormon church, or their cult-like members out trying to convert people all over the world. I most recently saw one in Malta. “Why can’t they just leave people alone?” is what comes to mind when I see them. Is that bigotry on my part? I also think “my own” religion of Catholicism is pretty backward too.
    Is it bigotry not to welcome a country like Britain having growing minorities of staunch religious believers?
    I recently shared a hostel room with a Muslim guy who would pray in the room of an evening. He was OK as a person, but I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit nuts. Just the same as I would of seeing Christians like Tony Blair or Theresa May praying in public. Surely it’s OK to be a religion skeptic and not to want to have to think about it constantly.
    Having said that, I do like hearing the early morning call to prayer in Muslim countries. But I’m not overly keen on it as a religion. Even someone as articulate as Mehdi Hasan seems less worthy of respect in my view, because he believes some rather unbelievable things. And supports the idea that a woman should (or can) wear a hijab.
    I always think in that case, then men should wear them too. For the same reason women do.
    How religion scathing or skeptical can people be, before they get accused of bigotry?

  5. damon

    I flew to Budapest yesterday – and one thing that may be a great benefit of having a falling population, is that from just walking around the centre of the city for a few hours, I see buildings that would have been converted into luxury apartments and high-end retail space in London, looking scruffy and battered and pretty unchanged to how they were thirty years ago. There aren’t cranes on every corner throwing up horrible looking boxy flats and apartments like you see in cities with very hot property markets. I heard Nigel Farage mention Britain’s extra six million people since 2001 (I think) on the radio just yesterday. What “do we” get out of that?
    I feel forced out of London and just don’t like the pressure on space and buildings. In Eastern European cities, there is still space for poorer people to live in the city centres. And for there to be low rent cultural spaces.

    It’s one of those aspects of possible “anti-immigration” points of view.
    To which the reply is always that we should just “build more” then and increase the density of cities.
    Personally, I hate new buildings and big construction sites. There are hardly any new developments that I can think of that I actually like. How’ s the Elephant and Castle project coming along? It’s been going for almost six years it seems. I actually despair when I see major new projects about to begin. Malta has been overdeveloped quite badly. You are always within earshot of drilling and hammering. And the dust that comes from construction traffic. But it has a rising population so there is a need to build.

    As for the question about what “do we” get out of it – maybe the answer is “nothing” – but that millions of new arrivals do get a lot out of it. The chance to start a new life in Western countries. So it should be our duty to squeeze up a bit and move over. Or “move out” even.

    This guy Tucker Carlson gets called a “White Supremacist” for his less than welcoming views on America’s new immigrants. The population has risen about a million a year since the 1950s. That has obviously changed the USA greatly – and people like Carlson seem to be part of the problem that Kenan was talking about here.
    He doesn’t agree with Joe Biden’s idea of bringing in millions of extra poor immigrants to offer them new and better lives in the US. Is he bigoted for being against the idea?

    I think a lot of people would say that is bigotry on his part. Because he seems to also object to the immigrants being poorer people who are in need of help and are not doing well where they are now. So for him it’s about more than just numbers but about cultural factors also. There are people in the US who would resent parts of the country becoming bi-lingual with Spanish. Where knowing Spanish might even be required to get some government jobs for example. Cities like El Paso are already 80% Hispanic and “bigots” I presume, are people who don’t want this to just roll out across the country and become the norm in many other places.
    My own view is that these things are not clear cut, but real issues for debate.
    The debate tends to be very poor and polarised though.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Hindutva ideology is an especially virulent form of religious nationalism, and I would have thought that one of the lessons we might generalize from is the myriad dangers posed by the resurgence religious nationalism around the globe, be it evangelical (Judeo-)Christian (U.S.), Buddhist (Myanmar), Sinhalese Buddhist (Sri Lanka), Catholic (Poland), evangelical Christian (Brazil), and so forth (Zionism in Israel, but there it is not new, going back to the founding of the state). I have no animus whatsoever against religious worldviews, but when they become politically fused with nationalist identity they are a recipe for anti-democratic sentiment and politics, to put it mildly. In the U.S. at least, this has become particularly acute (there are some evangelicals on the Left, but they are comparatively small in number), as they are having an inordinate influence on Trump’s administration (including the Attorney General), both on the domestic front and its foreign policy (with regard to Israel, the Palestinians, Iran…).

  7. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    errata: “resurgence of religious nationalism” and, in the last sentence “as Christian evangelicals are having an inordinate…”

  8. damon

    “The turmoil in India should also be a warning against any attempt to win back support from reactionary populists by stealing their illiberal clothes.”

    Yes, but the difficult bit is defining reactionary populists. It’s pretty obvious in India.
    In the U.K. there are a few high profile examples (like Tommy Robinson).
    But what of others like Farage and Douglas Murray?
    Those two certainly have had their “reactionary moments” – but do those define everything they are?
    It’s difficult to really know, as people on the left generally refuse to engage with them or give their views a fair hearing.

    Another such person is (maybe) David Goodhart. He writes some interesting stuff, but a lot of people like to dismiss him as they find some quibble which gives the excuse to dismiss his work entirely.
    A good example is this article he wrote in 2011.

    “A tale of three cities.
    David Goodhart’s report from Bradford reveals a town still scarred by segregation and decline.”

    Things have moved on from 2011 a bit I hope, but this was a pretty depressing picture of three Northern English mill towns which have large Pakistani Muslim minorities.
    A couple of readers in the comments took strong exception to some of the things written in the piece, but overall it still gives some pretty stark analysis of what problems the towns had.

    There are a few very contentious statements made in the article.
    Like this one:
    “What went wrong? Speaking anonymously, one Bradford academic said the mill towns got the wrong immigrants. “Let me be frank, some of the most difficult and declining towns in Britain attracted some of the most difficult to integrate immigrants—the left-behind white working class and inward-looking Muslim minorities now glower at each resentfully across no-man’s-land, it has not been a happy marriage.
    David Cameron talks about ‘bad’ immigration, well this is surely what he means.” ”

    I think it’s because David Goodhart writes like this that many people on the left would rather ignore or discredit him. I’m here in Budapest wondering if this is what makes Hungary so disinclined to open up to cultural diversity themselves. Because you can end up with some really difficult problems. Hungary is bringing in migrant workers I’ve read, but is picking them for the job vacancies they have.

    Another quote:
    “Zaiba Malik, the Bradford-born journalist and author of a memoir of growing up in that town, ‘We are a Muslim, please’, recalls how the local authority helped to establish the council of mosques. “We Muslims became more vocal but more separate in the 1980s. It had all been about rights but it then came to be about Islam,” she says.”

    And another rather ominous quote (that I think will be lost on middle class people) says this:
    “Rafique says that on the streets Asians tend to win skirmishes because their extended family networks mean they can get people out more quickly than white youths.”
    I say that middle class people won’t get this, but rougher working class people from those towns (like Luton too) will only know too well. It was actually one of the EDL people’s earliest complaints.
    It’s certainly nothing you’ll ever hear anti-racist activists ever talking about.

    He then goes on to describe some of the problems and issues both the white working class people have and some for the young Muslim men too. He calls them “pathologies”.

    I read this book review – and I think it shows the gulf of understanding.
    Middle class Guardian writers like Hsiao-Hung Pai are never going to understand the more “backward” part of the white working class.
    “Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face with the British Far Right by Hsiao-Hung Pai, book review”

  9. damon

    This is an important and very clear view from Jonathan Portes in the Guardian today.

    “Roger Scruton’s brand of conservatism became a licence for bigotry
    The thinker eulogised by the Conservative establishment did much to shape today’s anti-immigrant climate”

    You can’t get much plainer and to the point than that.
    He puts his opinion right there in a short and very precise article.
    But I don’t agree with him. And I don’t agree with Roger Scruton either. Both are too ideological in my opinion.
    That’s the way it is these days – everyone is overly ideological and make their points too forcefully and aren’t concerned with nuance. He also talks about Douglas Murray, who I remember Kenan “slapping down” one time on The Moral Maze BBC radio programme. As usual, I’m left in the middle of this debate in a kind of ‘no man’s land’.
    I really do wish people were less ideological, but I will wish that in vain.

    Just google the words “Meghan racism” to see the state we’re in in the U.K. right now.
    And I saw straight away this morning, a hot twitter topic was last night’s Question Time where one of the people on the panel pushed back against this “Meghan has been hounded out by racism” narrative.
    And kicked off a bit of a twitter storm for doing so. See how the sides are lining up. It’s like a bad tempered debate over Irish language rights at Stormont. Black people are lining up on the “it was racism” side, along with the usual left/liberal champions of “anti-racism”. LBC’s James O’Brien for example.
    Owen Jones too I think. All the usual people. And don’t forget Stormzy of course. He slammed Eamon Holmes for negative comments about Meghan – saying he was being racist.

    Which brings me back to Jonathan Portes and Roger Scruton.
    To exaggerate for effect ….. it’s like Portes is saying: “Pakistan is the same as England. What’s your problem with that? Are you a racist?”
    That is really the left’s position. That we can take millions of new immigrants from the Third World/Global South and it should have no adverse effects on our Western societies at all. All we need to do is build to accommodate a higher population ….. and fight racism when it shows itself.
    Which is actually a kind of radical revolutionary position. That is really where modern anti-racism comes from.
    Popular will doesn’t come into it, because “people need to be led from the front”.
    It’s certainly had great success, because as I say, countries like Britain are now divided on issues like this. And it’s not going to change anytime soon. We’re stuck with it. Talking doesn’t help.

    Being in Hungary now, I’m doing a bit of catch-up on what’s going on here. These videos are very informative. Michael Ignatieff ended up as the President of Central European University in Budapest.
    He always came across as such a (middle class) liberal.

    In this one, I was struck by the tone and attitude of the “France 24” journalist interviewing the Hungarian minister.
    It’s like she can’t believe how far the country is going against “European norms”.
    Journalists like her find it very disturbing.

    I’m certainly not going to say I support Hungary’s position, but I can’t get over how different Budapest feels compared to Western European capitals and London in particular. They don’t have a Brixton, a Tottenham, an East Ham or a Whitechapel. And no Brent, Croydon or Tooting. It’s all just ethnic Hungarian people and tourists.
    Plus the Roma community and a small percentage of immigrants. There are Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants if you want them. And Turkish places. Just not loads, like in Berlin.
    There are immigrant communities, just on a much smaller scale.
    Jonathan Portes doesn’t really want to get into any of this though. We’re more likely to hear platitudes like “Diversity is our strength” (like we hear from our London mayor) than thorough analysis about how societies are different from each other and how change, such as large scale immigration, alters them quite radically.
    Hungary probably doesn’t want our experience. From the 1958 Notting Hill riots and the Mangrove Nine in 1970, onwards to today’s issues where we hear talk of race and racism every single day.
    I’m not sure if the Met Police are still deemed to be institutionally racist. But they were quite recently.

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