A few days ago, driving back from Berkeley to San Francisco, I got held up for a while in a jam across the Bay Bridge. The cause of the jam was a mobile procession brought out by the Sikh community, bearing messages in support of Indian farmers and critical of Narendra Modi and the Indian government. The protesters were likely drawn from the Sikh diaspora, whose story is intertwined with that of California’s rich agricultural history, and who probably still have family in India whowork as farmers. Similar protests have taken place in the United Kingdom and Canada, countries with sizeable Sikh minority populations.
In India, the protests by farmers against planned reforms in the agricultural sector continue unabated, with talks in gridlock. The protests have drawn predictably ugly responses from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s mouthpieces in the media and from its troll armies. Crackpot theories about the “deep state”, fantastic speculations about Muslim-Sikh conspiracies against a noble Hindu leader, and petty memes about Khalistani terrorists are circulating on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.
The general case for reform in agriculture aside, the pros and cons of the specific reforms have not been debated in any meaningful and sustained way by all the groups in society who stand to be affected by them. The laws were rammed through in September via Modi’s characteristic modus operandi, which is to say, undemocratically, top-down, and without much thought for their consequences.
Serving corporate interests
As with the debacle of demonetisation, the benefits of the deregulation are far from clear, with experts like economist Kaushik Basu warning that they will largely serve corporate interests. There may lie a grain of truth, then, in the instinctively cynical response that this is one more instance of Modi handing over the keys of the house to Ambani.
Modi may well survive this crisis, and his popularity among elites and some subaltern classes will likely continue undimmed. It is also plausible that the government was anticipating these protests, and that Modi will try and spin his response as that of a strong leader who is willing to be unpopular for the good of the nation.
But the response of the farmers shows some faultlines in the project of the Modi era of the BJP. Hegemony, by definition, centres on securing legitimacy through persuasion rather than force, just as hegemony, by definition, is always incomplete. The fact that the rank-and-file of Modi supporters from day one have resorted to brute force, violence, and intimidation – against Dalits, Muslims, Kashmiris, critics, dissenters, students, protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – reveals an acknowledgment, even if unintended, that the project to establish a majoritarian, monolithic identity will never gain deep and permanent legitimacy among all sectors of Indian society.
This may seem like a questionable claim in the absence of any real political opposition worth the name in India and the half-hearted mumblings about secularism that occasionally emanate from non-BJP politicians. Yet, the need for the BJP to resort to a permanent state of violence – structural, physical, and symbolic – against any and all designated enemies, shows that for many groups Modi-era Hindutva remains, in Ranajit Guha’s memorable phrase, “a dominance without hegemony”. The pushback from farmers shows that Modi’s charisma itself is not enough to secure their support – he is no Gandhi, Nehru, or even Indira in this regard.
Modi and the BJP are no doubt aware of the symbolic power of India’s farmers. In a characteristically incisive analysis, historian Shahid Amin has noted that it was India’s peasants who helped Gandhi transform Indian anticolonial nationalism into a mass movement and it was they who made him a mahatma. This is why Modi and the BJP are careful not to attack farmers directly; their response has been to either depict the farmers as being manipulated by secret forces or to conflate the farmers with Sikhs, who in turn are labelled anti-national Khalistani terrorists by the BJP’s footsoldiers on social media.
Thus far, the Modi-Shah combine and the BJP, through wheeling-dealing and the use of violence and fear, have managed to secure enough populist support to attenuate the political significance of Muslims and marginalise the voices of conscience in civil society that may have had more purchase in an earlier India. But ideology has it limits as does the power that flows from it.
After the undoing of Kashmiri autonomy and the enormous protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, Modi’s global sheen has worn off. Even the elites and Arnab-watching classes that happily chanted liberal mantras for decades before turning on a dime for Modi have a significantly transactional relationship with the Hindutva project. When the cow-vigilantes, moral police, and assorted Hindu senas come after them and their children (and they will), these groups will turn again. The challenge for any opposition is to make sure they have someone to turn to.
In the last six years, Modi and the BJP have shown India the limits of secularism as a reason of state. In a prescient essay, Akeel Bilgrami had noted that Nehruvian secularism was a “holding process,” i.e., it lacked widespread cultural legitimacy. Yet, it bears noting that secularism in India, unlike in Turkey, did not need to be enforced with the barrel of a gun and with the force of the army. The fact that Modi’s Hindutva has needed precisely this kind of support should give us hope. Even though Modi-era Hindutva is in its high noon, this is what the farmers remind us of.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University.