Narendra Modi is seeking a parliamentary supermajority to enact authoritarian constitutional change. India’s political opposition could derail his plan by channeling the spirit of social resistance to Modi’s Hindutva chauvinism.

Narendra Modi during an election campaign in Kolkata, India, on May 28, 2024. (Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It is widely acknowledged that a third electoral mandate for Narendra Modi would precipitate India’s practical transition toward a neoliberal, authoritarian, illiberal, populist, ethno-religious, and Islamophobic regime where minorities and opponents are terrorized by state agencies and vigilante groups. More and more, Indian scholars and activists agree to describe this regime and its Hindutva ideology as the Indian variant of fascism.

With the over-confident slogan of “400 par” — which would mean claiming victory in 400 seats on a total of 543 in the lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha — Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has clearly advertised its aim to achieve full hegemony within the parliamentary system.

According to the Indian opposition, as well as some declarations by BJP leaders themselves, this would represent a first step toward groundbreaking constitutional reforms that will allow the passage from a secular republic toward a Hindu state. To remain within the bounds of legality, such a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority votes in both houses of the parliament.

If it achieves this goal through electoral means, this transitory regime will not hesitate to continue calling itself a “democracy” for the sake of international legitimacy. Formally maintaining India’s democratic status will comfort foreign policymakers in the United States and Europe who are interested in the promotion of India’s leadership on the Asian stage to the detriment of China.

Social Resistance

However, will the Indian people go along with this sinister scenario? In order to understand the opposition’s increased ability to counter Modi in the present election, in comparison with the two previous ones, one needs to recall the powerful forms of social resistance that the neoliberal and Islamophobic measures of the Modi government have provoked.

After the impressive, unprecedented BJP victory in 2019, which led to Modi’s second term, he nominated Amit Shah, a trusted lieutenant and a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) hard-liner, as home minister. This paved the way for the robust implementation of the RSS’s ideological agenda.

One needs to recall the powerful forms of social resistance that the neoliberal and Islamophobic measures of the Modi government have provoked.

As early as August 2019, the government’s abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted autonomy to Kashmir, enacted a historical demand of the RSS. In November of the same year, this was followed by a Supreme Court judgement authorizing the building of a Hindu temple on the disputed ground of a former mosque at Ayodhya.

This signaled the final victory of the Ayodhya movement, a massive wave of religious populism that culminated in December 1992 with the destruction of a sixteenth-century mosque by an organized crowd. The judgment also marked the positive enrollment of the Supreme Court as a strategic institutional partner of the BJP.

Modi’s increased arrogance after these electoral victories rapidly translated into a new set of brutal decisions whose disastrous consequences were mostly felt by the migrant laborers abandoned to their plight in the brutal pandemic lockdown. Suddenly deprived of work and any means of public transportation, these unorganized workers had to walk hundreds of kilometers or more to reach their villages to survive, without being able to engage in any attempts at protest.

In contrast, when the better-resourced communities of Muslims and farmers were on the receiving end of Islamophobic and neoliberal reforms, respectively, their response was impressive. Muslims from all over the country deployed all their strength to fight back, as did farmers from the Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh (the Jat belt), as well as in some other regions where their movement was replicated on a smaller scale.

These movements helped forge new solidarities across caste and communal boundaries. This popular unity could, if sustained and pushed further, represent the biggest long-term and molecular obstacle standing in the way of Hindutva’s divisive strategy.

Rahul Gandhi’s Alliance

Compared to the previous elections, in 2024, the opposition alliance led by Rahul Gandhi has become more aggressive and effective. Formerly portrayed by the pro-BJP mainstream media as the privileged, mediocre inheritor of a decadent dynastic rule, Gandhi has successfully rebuilt his image as a potent opponent thanks to his scathing attacks on Modi’s crony capitalism.

Compared to the previous elections, in 2024, the opposition alliance led by Rahul Gandhi has become more aggressive and effective.

He reinvigorated his weak leadership with the help of his first Bharat Jodo Yatra, which started in September 2022. The Congress leader walked thousands of kilometers from the south to the north of the country, listening to the local people’s grievances and aspirations.

Formed in 2023, the INDIA coalition (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) has managed to unite thirty-seven mostly regional parties (including the communist parties) under Congress leadership. The coalition’s electoral campaign has focused on the left-populist theme of Modi’s crony capitalism versus the deprived masses. It has backed up this theme with the promise of redistributive measures based on ideas of social justice, in comparison to which Modi’s handouts of free gas cylinders and bags of grain to the poor carrying his effigy appeared clientelist and tokenistic.

Having failed to cash on the inauguration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya a few weeks before the elections began, Modi had to fall back on an Islamophobic repertoire in a desperate attempt to polarize voters on religious lines. But the opposition was able to impose its socioeconomic themes on the debate, thus exposing the irrelevance of Modi’s Hindu chauvinism to people’s daily concerns.

Despite the relative success of Gandhi’s campaign, Modi can still count on a subservient electoral commission, a biased mainstream media, and the effective monitoring of digital social networks by the BJP’s IT cell. He can also rely on the undeniable purchase of his hypertrophied leadership among a large section of Indian voters.

Modi can still count on a subservient electoral commission, a biased mainstream media, and the effective monitoring of digital social networks by the BJP’s IT cell.

However, the Modi narrative itself seems to be on the decline, while Gandhi’s posture of proximity with the ordinary people effectively introduced an alternative humanist leadership. He astutely exposed the BJP’s politics of hatred by using a language of love, thus projecting a more tolerant and human idea of the Indian people.

Gandhi’s ability to do so does not simply reflect his personal idealism. Neither does it owe everything to his Bharat Jodo Yatra, which was a monitored event, tailored for the media and constrained by tight security controls. The idea of a struggling, tolerant, and progressive people that Gandhi advertised in his Yatra by meeting individuals on his way had already become manifest during the recent popular movements, in which values of solidarity and humanism were celebrated on stage through testimonies, poetry, and songs.

Democratic Advances

We must go back to these protests to understand the extent to which this electoral campaign reflects the democratic advances that came up from the streets during the anti–Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and the farmers’ movement.

The abrogation of Article 370, rapidly followed by the Supreme Court judgement on Ayodhya, left the Muslim community reeling. The government then moved quickly to introduce the CAA in November 2019.

The CAA officially defined a regime of political asylum for religious minorities from neighboring Muslim countries. The exclusion of Muslims from a law redefining access to citizenship was perceived as an indirect step toward the eventual exclusion of Indian-born Muslims from citizenship rights. The home minister, Amit Shah, implicitly acknowledged this ploy when he introduced the National Register of Citizens, which, in tandem with the CAA, would help exclude numbers of poor, Indian-born Muslims without birth certificates in their possession.

In Uttar Pradesh, nineteen people were killed in December during spontaneous Muslim protests. Within weeks, hundreds of protest sites sprang up in different parts of the country. The impressive movement, led tactically by Muslim women to avoid repression, lasted one hundred days. It was suddenly called off due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The abrogation of Article 370 on Kashmir, rapidly followed by the Supreme Court judgement on Ayodhya, left the Muslim community reeling.

The police could not afford to engage in direct repression of the women on the protest sites. However, there were planned attacks by Hindutva extremists who called for revenge on social media during Donald Trump’s official visit in February 2020, which led to anti-Muslim pogroms in northeast Delhi in which fifty-four people (thirty-eight of whom were Muslim) lost their lives.

Six months later, the government came up with a series of laws whose aim was to end the state regulation of wholesale markets that ensured farmers a minimum price for their crops. In spite of the lockdown, farmers’ unions called for a march on Delhi, which was blocked at the state borders of the capital by the police. In response, the farmers organized permanent camp sites at several major entry points of Delhi.

Protesters blocked traffic and organized dormitories and collective kitchens on the model of Sikh langars on a large scale, feeding tens of thousands of protesters. According to figures compiled by the protesters, more than seven hundred participants died in the course of the protests, including forty protest-suicides. However, a huge majority of the victims died on protest sites from “natural deaths” that were precipitated by winter cold and exhaustion.

Although the Supreme Court temporarily suspended the contested farm laws, the protests continued with the demand for a guarantee of minimum support prices, until Modi himself announced the abrogation of the laws on December 1, 2021, after a year of protests. This acknowledged defeat contrasted with the mere temporary suspension of the CAA, which continued to exist on paper as a law.

In March 2024, the government issued the rules for the CAA’s implementation. This suggested that Muslims did not deserve the same consideration as farmers, both for electoral and ideological reasons.

Dalit Participation

These two movements were exceptional in their form, size, and duration. They displayed a capacity to capture public space and to mobilize resources and forms of solidarity, thus revealing popular strength. In both movements, women were strongly involved, thereby disturbing the traditional patterns of gender, at least temporarily.

Both movements also sought external support, especially from Dalits. It was the first time that other sections of the population solicited the support of Dalit activists, thus establishing their legitimacy, which had long been denied to them previously. As one of the most marginal and stigmatized sections of Indian society, the shape assumed by their inclusion in the protests requires our attention.

The relationship of the farmers to Dalits is marked by class antagonisms that are coterminous with and overdetermined by caste identities. One needs to recognize that the coordination committee (Samyukt Kisan Morcha) was almost entirely composed of Jat individuals (either Hindus or Sikhs), a dominant agricultural caste known for its oppressive and unkind attitude toward the Dalit laborers.

Economically speaking, Dalits were not in a position to abandon their work and daily wages to participate. However, as noted by some observers, some Dalits felt encouraged or even perhaps pressured to join the protests of their Jat employers, who gave them monetary compensation to meet their family expenses.

Although caste relations became more cordial in the context of a shared opposition to Hindutva, Dalit participants were aware of the fact that this sudden sympathy might not endure.

In contrast with the lower levels of participation by Dalit agricultural laborers themselves, the Dalit union leaders were well represented in the protests. As a matter of fact, many agricultural laborers are also marginal landowners whose vulnerability to the proposed measures is strong. Interviewed in a forthcoming book on the protests, a Punjabi leader of the Dalit laborers also explains his participation as a strategic attempt to win the support of left-oriented organizations for future struggles of the agricultural laborers.

This attempt to build alliances was reflected in the slogan “kisan mazdoor ekta zindabad” (“long live farmer-laborer unity”) that was commonly heard on protest sites. Displaying this unity was important in view of the BJP’s attempts to mobilize Dalits in favor of the laws. Dalit symbolic figures like Sant Ravi Das and B. R. Ambedkar thus received unusual respect from Jat landowners.

Although caste relations became more cordial in the context of a shared opposition to Hindutva, Dalit participants were aware of the fact that this sudden sympathy might not endure after the movement. The Dalit journalist Shivam Mogha, himself from an agricultural laborer background, poignantly narrated these dilemmas in a personal account of his participation.

All the same, the movement was perceived as a historical event that attracted Ambedkarite and leftist students and activists. Their progressive ideas found favorable terrain on the protest sites, as testified by the daily paper of the protest, known as the Trolley Times, as well as the setting up of progressive libraries on protest sites.

Shared Sacrifices

In the anti-CAA protests, the prominence given to the figure of Ambedkar, the Dalit leader of the anti-caste movement and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, served a double purpose. First of all, Ambedkar was celebrated as the embodiment of constitutional values. It was the first time that Muslims could be found identifying with this symbol of Dalit pride.

Secondly, the overwhelming presence of Ambedkar and the constitution in the iconography of the protests reflected a strategic attempt to win over the support of Dalits. As in the farmers’ movement, Dalit participation was mostly restricted to Ambedkarite activists who felt the need to show some solidarity from their community in defense of the constitution and to build future alliances to counter Hindutva. This was best illustrated by the case of Chandra Shekhar Azad, the young, firebrand Dalit leader of the Bhim Army.

Dalit participation mostly came from Ambedkarite activists who felt the need to show some solidarity from their community in defense of the Constitution.

Azad is an activist whose radical street politics against Hindutva has a large following among Dalit youngsters in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The anti-CAA movement gave him an occasion to gain national visibility and earn political capital, as the creation of a political party, the Azad Samaj Party, in March 2020 revealed.

His banned demonstration in support of Muslims at the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi on December 19, 2019, was a spectacular act of defiance. It was specifically directed at Amit Shah and staged with a remarkable sense of Bollywood heroism that attracted considerable attention from the media. Azad’s flamboyant declaration that he was ready to give his blood to protect the right of his Muslim brothers, before he was arrested and jailed, suggested the possibility of creating blood ties through sacrifice for a common cause: the defeat of Hindutva.

This symbolic and deeply political transgression of communal boundaries brought a strong subversive flavor to the event. Taking the movement beyond the mere defense of Muslim rights in the name of secularism, Azad’s gesture of solidarity laid the foundations of a common struggle of all oppressed sections against communalism and caste. His revolutionary call for Dalit–Muslim solidarity challenged Hindutva’s gambit of pitting Dalits against Muslims in the name of Hindu unity, thus hitting Hindutva’s majoritarianism at its core.

Barriers to Unity

In contrast with these powerful progressive dynamics that emerged from the protest sites, the present electoral campaign has increased the political isolation of Dalits. With the exception of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi party in Tamil Nadu, none of the Ambedkarite parties has agreed to join the INDIA alliance.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has refrained from joining the anti-BJP alliance since 2019. This is allegedly due to party leader Mayawati’s fear of being prosecuted by the central government over corruption cases. Although she does not explicitly speak in favor of the BJP, her decision to have the BSP stand on its own helps Modi’s party indirectly by dividing the opposition. Her own, formerly successful party has lost much of its political relevance due to this effective neutralization.

There are other examples that point to the existence of a hostile environment toward Dalits. Several smaller, more radical Dalit parties refused to join the INDIA coalition because of the insufficient number of seats granted to them, including the Azad Samaj Party (Chandra Shekhar Azad’s new party in Uttar Pradesh), or Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi in Maharashtra. However, the barriers to unity went beyond the question of seat allocation.

In contrast with these powerful progressive dynamics that emerged from the protest sites, the present electoral campaign has increased the political isolation of Dalits.

On the one hand, several major regional parties of the INDIA alliance represent Other Backward Classes, like Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh or Marathas in Maharashtra. The agrarian interests of these groups as middle or rich farmers, along with the weight of casteist rural mindsets, militate against alliances with Dalit radicals such as Azad or Prakash Ambedkar.

In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, the main regional figure of the INDIA Alliance, is in fact seeking to capture the political space left by Mayawati’s BSP, insidiously countering the rise of Azad’s ASP. But for Dalits, the absence of Dalit leadership can only increase their vulnerability in a socially hostile environment.

On the other hand, Gandhi’s campaign has offered little incentive for Dalits to join it. Keeping an eye on upper-caste voters, he avoids mentioning episodes of caste or communal violence and has avoided being too vocal on the question of the caste census, which his party’s program promised as a first step to alleviate caste inequalities.

Gandhi’s humanistic vision of Hinduism also negates the Ambedkarite critique of caste, which no sincerely progressive movement can avoid. Moreover, his references to Hindu symbols also toy with a soft form of Hindutva, which other INDIA partners like Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal enthusiastically endorse.

It is also notable that, while the alliance has been making positive references to the farmers’ protests, it has remained almost silent on Muslim issues like the CAA. This shows that the opposition feels vulnerable to Modi’s accusations of being pro-Muslim and also reveals its inability to take an ideological stand for secularism, as the anti-CAA protests did.

With the vague promise to bring back the fundamentals of the Congress Party to India, Gandhi has failed to engage in a necessary critical examination of his party’s negative record in the past from the perspective of Dalits, Sikhs, and the poor more generally.

On the other hand, although Ambedkarite Dalits remain fundamentally opposed to Hindutva, which they see as a revival of Brahminical caste orthopraxy, the BJP has the ability to give superficial recognition to their symbols, to coopt some of their leaders, and to address caste discrimination of Dalits as an internal religious issue that can be solved through Hindutva’s promises of Hindu reforms.

With the Ambedkarite parties sidelined in the present contest between the BJP and the Congress, the Dalit electorate is left to choose between a purely economic approach to deprivation that leaves the crucial question of caste unaddressed, and Hindutva’s fake promise of recognition as Hindus.

The F-Word

A year ago, during a visit to London, Gandhi reminded his audience of the fascist roots of the RSS, whose trajectory he compared with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His use of such terminology simply reflects a tactical concern to raise the alarm on the international stage.

However, for those in India who make use of the word “fascism,” the term also implies rethinking strategically their opposition to the Modi regime in more progressive and radical terms. When seen in relation to the new solidarities across boundaries of religion and caste that have emerged on the ground, Gandhi’s electoral campaign offers only a faint reflection of the political aspirations that are taking shape.

In spite of its ideological weakness, one can only wish the INDIA coalition success to avoid the worse outcome represented by a BJP victory. In the course of the elections — there are five territorial phases in total — there has been a discernible lack of enthusiasm on the part of traditional BJP supporters (especially supporters of the RSS, who feel they have been made redundant and taken for granted by Modi). This has combined with economic despair and popular rejection of Modi’s hegemonic rule among the poor.

Since the first phase of voting, reports from the polling booths have elicited a mood of optimism among INDIA supporters about the electoral results. They hope that the alliance will be able to create an anti-Modi wave that has an impact on voters during the successive electoral phases. If this dynamic ends up thwarting Modi’s ambitions, it will reveal the ability of India’s opposition to safeguard its constitution, if not to bring about social progress.

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