Banner: New Delhi, India, 12 Aug. 2022: foreign tourist dancing with indian Artists during celebrations to commemorate the 75th independence day.
India recently observed its 75th independence anniversary, a bittersweet celebration for progressives and secular-minded people, since its founding ideals of secularism and democracy are being profoundly subverted. However, Indian secularism has always been quite different from the U.S. or the French varieties, which are based on the state separating itself from religion. In India, the model has been founded on the notion of equal respect for all religions – much easier for the current Indian ruling dispensation to undermine.
It has been able to do this because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has captured a lot of Indian minds with a winning formula: Hindu nationalism plus social welfare. My two visits to India over the past year showed me this. When I was there the past winter, there were elections coming up in my family’s home state of Uttar Pradesh, an entity with a population of 230 million people that decides India’s political trajectory. India suffered a Covid cataclysm in the summer of 2021, with millions of individuals dying, according to the World Health Organization. But the inhabitants of Uttar Pradesh didn’t seem to care all that much. The state government (headed by a monk, no less) won them over with multiple welfare schemes, aimed at those who could not be conditioned via Hindu nationalism, and cruised to a repeat victory. So, the Right in India operates quite differently in this aspect from its counterpart in the United States. In fact, this is a key weapon in its arsenal. I call this microsalvaging, which overcomes the macrowreckage that the government has inflicted on the Indian economy through fiascos such as the mishandling of the pandemic and the demonetization of high-currency notes.
The ruling party is using its popularity to busily hollow out India’s institutions. Professor Christophe Jaffrelot’s recent book Modi’s India has a lot of rich detail about how one governmental body after the other has been transformed: the Election Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation, etc. etc. In the United States, by contrast, the “guardrails have held,” to use a cliche. Even Mike Pence is preening in his new book that he disregarded Donald Trump’s plea to annul the 2020 presidential elections. In India, almost no one has the courage to stand up for democracy – and those that have done so have gotten punished.
Particularly troubling in India has been the role of big money and big media. The country’s Election Commission has allowed the creation of electoral bonds, in which anonymous donors can legally donate huge sums to political parties. No prizes for guessing which party has gotten the lion’s share of the funds. And national-level broadcast media is (with the takeover of the last independent network by India’s richest man) pretty much completely controlled by Modi’s acolytes. There are still some dissenting publications (Caravan, Frontline) and web portals (The Wire, Scroll) but with relatively little reach. This is, again, a big difference with the United States, where even with a right-wing media ecosystem present, a large portion of the media is unfriendly to Donald Trump.
Another massive contrast is the all-pervading presence in India of the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism: the RSS (or the National Volunteer Corps in the English translation), founded in 1925 and partly inspired by Mussolini’s fascists. The ruling party is the political arm of the RSS, which has burrowed its way into every level of the Indian governing apparatus – with official approval, of course. Modi joined the RSS (I’m not making this up) when he was 8 years old, at an age when the rest of us are semi-cluelessly trying to figure out elementary school. There aren’t comparable situations in the United States. Groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have just a fraction of the influence of the RSS in India. And Trump was certainly not a member of any organization (except himself) at the age of 8.
So, both countries have popular movements based on identitarian notions but are at different junctures. In fact, the United States may have stepped back from the brink with the results of the recent midterm elections. However, there is a parallel danger of the “new normal” in the two nations. For example, Bush Junior now seems like a regular guy. And the previous BJP prime minister in India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who led a softer Hindu Nationalism project, looks like a humanist in comparison with Modi. The drastic rightward shift of the political terrain in India and the United States was scarcely imaginable some years ago.
The situation in India is definitely more worrisome. Professor Jaffrelot terms it an ethnic democracy, consciouly modeled on Israel. Narendra Modi’s second term has been especially problematic, with laws introduced at the national and state levels to disenfranchise Muslims, ban beef, prohibit religious conversions, take away Kashmir’s autonomy and facilitate the building of grand temples on disputed sites. The United States is at a bit of a different spot, but let’s not forget that the House of Representatives is set to be controlled by a group largely displaying fealty to Donald Trump.
Political observers and activists need to keep a close eye on the Right’s agenda in the two countries. The world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy are both in trouble.
Amitabh Pal is the Communications Director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest organization of freethinkers in the United States. Prior to this, he was for more than a decade the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine and the Editor of the Progressive Media Project, a Progressive affiliate that sends out op-eds to hundreds of publications. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master’s in Journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Master’s in Political Science from N.C. State University.
A version of this analysis was delivered as prepared remarks during the “FORSEA public Event underlining our collective moral obligation to ‘Others’” – designed to sound a clarion call to confront the rise of Far Right movements and regimes around the world 100 years after Mussolini’s march to power in Rome in 1922