The Modi government has managed to change business as usual in politics, in the absence of a counter-narrative

The recent visit of Narendra Modi to Israel, the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister, and the blunt display of conviction and boldness in doing so, is a clear indication of how Mr. Modi, and the BJP-led regime in New Delhi, plan to radically alter the ‘ideology’ of the Indian state. ‘Change’ has undoubtedly been the underlying mantra of the Modi government. But have the changes brought about by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government over the past three years been cosmetic or has there been a fundamental ‘paradigm shift’ even if one were to argue that the Modi government’s economic and governance successes are limited?

In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn makes a distinction between cosmetic changes in status quo and paradigm shifts: the latter are revolutionary and fundamental. Has Mr. Modi managed to shift the paradigm of our polity, and how we view and engage with it?

New brand of politics

One thing is becoming clearer by the day: the BJP’s contemporary political articulations and policy formulation cannot be understood if we don’t view them as a paradigm shift driven by powerful ideological forces. It’s not business as usual or a mere extension of old politics, it’s an altogether new brand of politics. As Kuhn would put it, we are witnessing a “proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, (…) and the recourse to debate over fundamentals”. We may end up missing the bigger picture and fail to understand its implications if we continue to view the policies of the current regime using the usual analytical tools of politics.

Some of us are refusing to see this paradigm shift and some others are unwilling to acknowledge what they see. But most of us seem to be interrogating Mr. Modi and his new brand of politics while still deeply embedded in the secular-liberal seductions of the Nehruvian world view. Even the earlier BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee operated broadly from a Nehruvian paradigm: whenever questioned, the defence put up by the then NDA leadership was that it was merely building on the Nehruvian paradigm — and it was for the most part. If during the Vajpayee years it was ‘business as usual’, or what Kuhn calls the ‘normal science’ period, wherein the BJP was still busy aligning its policies within the Nehruvian paradigm, the tendency to ‘fit in’ is now a thing of the past. There is today an unapologetic shift from the Nehruvian paradigm to a Hindutva 2.0 paradigm.

Moreover, it would also be inaccurate to view Mr. Modi’s Hindutva politics as merely subversive of the Nehruvian world view. Subversion is reactionary: Hindutva 2.0 is a fundamentally divergent Weltanschauung. Its policies may be flawed and ineffective, but it nevertheless reflects a new paradigm.

Contours of the new paradigm

The new Hindutva paradigm has major implications for India’s domestic politics, conflict resolution practices, foreign policy, and social dynamics. The liberal, and left-leaning, Nehruvian intelligentsia traditionally enjoyed the pride of place in the pecking order of India’s socio-political hierarchy. Endowed with state patronage, it formed the creme de la creme of modern India’s class structure, controlling political debates, determining the boundaries of public morality and whose commentary on the state of the nation was revered. Not so in the Hindutva paradigm of today. The liberal intelligentsia is on the defensive, and the Hindutva intelligentsia is on the rise, with some from the former group having conveniently jumped ship.

The role of minorities in our national imagination is also undergoing critical changes. When the Hindutva ideologues claim that there will be no more ‘minority appeasement’, what they really seem to be implying is that ‘minorities have to either fall in line or be treated as second-class citizens’. And frankly, there is no difference between the two.

For Hindutva 2.0, domestic conflict resolution is a favourite staging ground to showcase aggressive nation-building practices, devoid of sensitive political rapprochement and accommodation, and with a high dose of aggressive rhetoric and military tactics. This is not only contrary to the broadly accommodative and politically-sensitive Nehruvian style of conflict resolution but also to the Vajpayee-era policies.

The new paradigm is also evident in Mr. Modi’s foreign and security policies. There is an increase in aggression and grandstanding, at the cost of sustained diplomatic outreach, vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, two of India’s most crucial neighbours. The eventual outcome of this aggression is already becoming evident. Display of strength and power is deeply ingrained in Hindutva’s political culture and the new dispensation has only made it starker than ever.

The impact of this paradigm shift on socio-political structures could throw up phenomena we are either uncomfortable with or not used to. Not that the existing paradigm was wholly noble. Consider, for instance, why we are so appalled today by the lynching of Muslims by self-styled protectors of the Hindu religion, and not so much by abject poverty around us or the continued prevalence of the dehumanising caste system. Part of this disgust is because poverty and caste are part of our existing socio-political paradigm and we have come to accept and live with them, and even justify them. The Hindutva brigade’s tirade against India’s Muslims is not something we are used to, and hence the pushback. But once the resistance relents, it would start becoming acceptable, and sadly so.

Take another example: successive Congress governments or even the Vajpayee government almost never tried to put pressure on the higher education system and intellectual edifice of the country, both of which have been dominated by left-liberals. Instead, they were co-opted into the system. The new regime in New Delhi not only does not co-opt them, but is proactively sidelining and silencing them, leading to stiff resistance and resultant turmoil.

Yet another example is the Modi government’s Kashmir policy. In the past, governments were not only desirous of political reconciliation in Kashmir but were also tolerant of the Kashmiri dissidents. Today’s BJP government is doing exactly the opposite even to the extent of sending NIA sleuths after some of those very outfits which New Delhi’s agencies had been courting, appeasing and promoting in the past. The violent response from Kashmir is a natural one. Paradigm shifts are typically followed by periods of turmoil, confusion and unease. And that is exactly what we are witnessing today.

What next?

While intellectual traditions might be able to absorb such structural changes with more receptivity and even learn from them, the impact of paradigm shifts on socio-political structures can be far more severe depending on the nature and direction of such shifts. Given that the organising principle of Hindutva 2.0 is majoritarian communalism, the likely result of the ongoing paradigm shift in Indian politics will be lot more chaos. We are already witnessing attempts at using persuasion of all kinds, including the use of force, to advance the Hindutva agenda.

Given the polarising nature of such a paradigm shift, there are bound to be ideological struggles, street battles, regional divisions, and attempts at revisiting the fundamentals of the Indian Union, among others. Worse still, if the regime and its ideological mentors effect this paradigm shift without caring for pluralistic accommodation, religious sensitivity, regional differences and civil rights, it could lead to civil war-like situations, mounting dissent and violence.

Those resisting this ideological transformation of the Indian state must remember that paradigm shifts are driven by powerful ideational constructs and the only way to resist or moderate such shifts is to generate powerful counter-narratives. In contemporary India, it is precisely such powerful ideational alternatives that are sorely missing: some have lost their way out of the erstwhile paradigm, some have given up resisting, and several others seemed to have jumped ship. Nitish Kumar won’t be the last one to do so.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Disarmament Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University