BJP workers welcome Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the party headquarters, Thursday | PTI
BJP workers welcome Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the party headquarters, Thursday | PTI
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Every election is an argument about who we are and where we want to go. The massive mandate for the BJP-led NDA coalition of Narendra Modi means many have lost the argument. It isn’t just the Congress that lost, but many of the beliefs that were held as a talisman by Indian liberals, pluralists and progressives have been severely tested this election.

The 300-plus ‘prachanda vijay’ that Amit Shah declared for the BJP and its allies has shaken the three touchstone mantras of Indian progressives.


Also read: 12 reasons why Modi-Shah’s BJP got the better of Congress & everyone else


Pragya Singh Thakur and legal innocence

More than Narendra Modi’s victory, many are grappling with how best to reclaim the ‘idea of India’ from terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur’s massive mandate in Bhopal. Is the ‘idea of India’ irretrievably lost?

They applied that tenet of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ template to seek solidarity when Muslim youth were arrested and locked up after the Hyderabad bomb blasts, when S.A.R. Geelani was arrested in the conspiracy to attack Parliament and when Binayak Sen was charged with conspiring with Maoists. But the progressives could not bring themselves to extend the template to someone like Pragya Singh Thakur. Now that she will sit in the Lok Sabha, something fundamental has shifted. In the ‘Godse se Pragya tak’ narrative arc of India, her ambivalent legal status challenges the liberals’ faith in legal principles and system.


Also read: Modi has turned me into a Devdas. Was I day dreaming for the past 5 years: Shobhaa De


Belief in democracy

How can liberals, pluralists and progressives reclaim India but still condemn Indians for voting the BJP in such large numbers, and especially for Pragya Thakur?

Many of them were heard saying they have now lost all faith in democracy, and that elections are a flawed concept, especially the first-past-the-post system. The system now appears broken to them because it is electing people who are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

They are saying this to put up a brave front, and to add an intellectual spin to their disappointment. They had held this same parliamentary democracy dear for decades, warts and all. It was expected to offer level playing field in a deeply feudal and hierarchical society, even though B.R. Ambedkar himself called it just a “top-dressing” for an essentially undemocratic society.

If the intellectuals begin to decouple themselves from the process of electoral democracy then they just risk making their privileged bubbles iron-strong. And the exit of ideas from elections means democracy loses the opportunity to improve and becomes a race to the bottom.


Also read: Lesson for Rahul Gandhi in 2019: Mocking ‘Hinduness’ won’t work because India is Bharat


Who will speak for the subalterns?

Left scholarship and intellectualism thrived for long on something called “behalfism”, a wonderful coinage by Mukul Kesavan in his seminal book Secular Common Sense. Scholars spoke on behalf of the ‘subalterns’. For them, the term ‘subaltern’ was a formidable centrepiece in Indian postcolonial discourse.

Propounded by renowned scholars like Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak, it referred to all those who are outside the power structure – mostly rural, the underclass, underprivileged, marginalised, and the salt-of-the-earth. It was the responsibility of the intellectual elite to speak for the subalterns – since they could not presumably speak for themselves – and be their guardians.

They looked at India through this prism of multiple marginalisations – identities of castes, tribes, religions and languages as they are reflected on a shattered mirror. They would pose every argument on behalf of the ‘subalterns’, it was their go-to term.

That was until Modi was elected to power in 2014. The subalterns had turned. In fact, Modi was the subaltern. In Gujarat, he was the OBC; in 2014, he was the chaiwala; and then he morphed into the chowkidar in 2019.

The Congress party in its election campaign advertisement showed many Indians saying, “Main hee toh Hindustan hoon” – or the idea of a billion Indias. Against Modi’s One India.

When the progressives and the activists speak of the marginalised and their injustices, BJP president Amit Shah counters them by calling them “tukde tukde gang”. This means the BJP wants to leave no room for conversations about the million mutinies. You can only have conversations about multiple identities in the BJP’s universe if it is done in the cultural pride trope, not in the context of injustices.

Who will speak for the subalterns – is a question that shaped Indian intellectual traditions. Now that the subalterns have spoken for a different idea of India, can they be dismissed as ignorant and bigoted? That is the vexing dilemma cutting through many of their intellectual formulations.


Also read: India matlab Narendra Modi: How the PM learnt branding from Coca-Cola


In his victory speech at the BJP headquarters Thursday, Modi said that just like Hindu god Krishna stood by the side of Hastinapur, Indian voters had sided with India. Modi has stitched together a wide coalition with not just upper caste Hindus but also OBCs, Dalits, Muslims and tribal people.

Modi begins his second term by invoking the dark-skinned son of a cowherd, not Ram, the king. The BJP’s mythological goalpost has just moved to a subaltern god. Except in this reimagination, the subalterns were speaking for Modi, not the other way around.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. 1. I think individuals who feel uncomfortable with PM Narendra Modi’s emphatic win should have been more pragmatic. I also think that they did not get a right message from former President’s speech made in June 2018 at an RSS function. Message is that one may be opposed to RSS ideology or to BJP but one should not consider BJP & RSS as politically untouchable. 2. I will go a step further and say that no great purpose will be served by saying that RSS is anti-democracy but without doing anything to politically counter (so-called anti-democratic) ideology of RSS, by seeking cooperation of all sections of society and not just of Muslims. 3. In a democratic society, individuals have freedom of expression and right to oppose other’s views. I feel that political opposition to RSS has to be mainly directed against BJP as that is political wing of RSS. Hence, if Congress, Leftists, particularly the Communists, and some political parties wish to defeat RSS/BJP, it would be necessary for all these parties to convince our vast country’s citizen-voters that RSS/BJP must be rejected as both wish establish ‘Hindu Rashtra, which is a theocratic, (and obviously anti-democratic) state as once described by Congress Leader Mr. Shashi Tharoor. Point is that citizens have to be convinced that ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is not good for them. Is it not duty of these individuals, who are uncomfortable after PM Narendra Modi’s resounding win, to take part in making people aware of their secular ideas?

  2. Rama and krishna are dark skinned. Krihna is NOT the biological son of a cowherd, though he IS the Go-Pala by adoption.
    Therefore, as you well know, his dark skin has nothing to do with his being a cowherd.
    Finally, advaita philosophy, which is what hindus follow today, says all deities are but manifestations of the ONE Brahman. Even the FEMALE Shakti.

    If you are looking for genuine sub altern deities, try Muniswamy, veerabhadraswamy, mariamma, etc. These are local deities that have sprung from the earth and are revered even today in our villages and kasbas. There are many such manifestations of the divine, each one unique and beautiful.

    But you, with your elite upper caste, urban upbringing, wouldn’t know that, Rama.lakshmi.
    And visit the shrine of such a one, you never would have. Try it some time.

    Please do try not to work so hard at writing nonsense about Krishna Rama etc. They belong to everyone and no one.

    You have a long way to go to even get the basics right.

  3. Better word for ‘behalfism’ would be substitutionism. Instead of articulating what the large number of masses want – this can be more clearly seen since Ayodhya movement – the liberals substitute it with their own dogmatic, convoluted, and often dishonest conclusions, calling it the idea of India.
    This has been a classic communist way to present all Leninist dogmas as ‘peoples demand’. Our liberals have been doing the same all through. It frequently didn’t work as they wished. But they never bother to honest introspection.
    As feeling so inconsolable now they, a la Brecht, seem wishing ‘dissolve the people and elect another’.

  4. Dear writer,

    Referring to your last paragraph where there is some confused claptrap about Krishna and Rama…
    Just FYI.. Krishna is dark skinned as is Rama. *The color is blue for both, as you have no doubt seen in amar chitra katha, ;)*

    Krishna is NOT the biological son of a cowherd, hence his dark skin has NOTHING, NOTHING NOTHING whatsoever to do with his being a Go-pala (cow protector) . As you well know.

    Secondly, as per advaita philosophy of the Adi Sankaracharya, which Hindus follow today, krishna and rama and every other deity we worship are all Brahman. As per the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna is the One, Brahman. So, in plain english.. They are all just One

    • Hi, Initially, I thought so too. However, this article has a sort of a cryptic nature to it. The Author is sending out a message to the liberals et al, that the Indian people have spoken for the Modi govt and not the other way around.
      All the Yadavs in India associate themselves with Krishna the Gowpala or Gopala; not as the King of Dwarka. Likewise, all the Pundits associate Krishna with the Geeta Krishna (the teacher/guru to Arjun). You can technically find that each community in India across all castelines have some form of Krishna identifiable with their own community. Krishna was the highly philosophical form of a Social Man.
      Whereas, Rama is only a Maryada Purusottama; the ideal man.

  5. Crisis of Trust – created deliberately by the leftist materialist fanatics and selfish unscrupulous pusillanimous cleverly scheming supremacists – has been used as political capital to put diverse people as they are naturally, at odds, suspicious with each other’s intentions and public institutions.This Crisis is being taken on by Modiji with courage and determined action and regular mass of people have recognized it in their guts.

    • I felt the same way you did (having grown up in a small town with all the deities and protectors you quote) and you definitely seem more knowledgeable. Would have been nice if you did not make it also personal about the writer.

  6. The question “How can liberals, pluralists and progressives reclaim India but still condemn Indians for voting the BJP in such large numbers, and especially for Pragya Thakur?” is the key to understand the failure of the liberals. They don’t apply an uniform standard to analyse, support or condemn a party, ideology or event.
    More than anything this annoyed the ordinary educated, even uneducated but thinking Indians who now count dozens of millions.
    Better word for ‘behalfism’ is substitutionism, as liberals do not speak on behalf of the voiceless millions, but substitute them with their own partisan, convoluted and frequently dishonest prescriptions.
    Thus, the liberals seem to want ‘dissolve the people and elect another’ as the current lot of people don’t give a damn to their prescriptions.

  7. Ah – I had no idea the famous Rama Lakshmi of WaPo was at The Print now…good to see “self-proclaimed liberals” indulging in little pre-emptive damage control…but glad for the piece – heavy with “a million references” though it is – which tries to call out the behalfers and also sneak in a critique of the right-wing methods…

    And please, what is the point in overextending the academic examples: “Who will speak for the subalterns – is a question that shaped Indian intellectual traditions.” – which ones, exactly? The Subaltern Studies ones with the likes of RG, GSC and PC…? That was hardly representative of India’s “intellectual traditions!!” It is this elitism, this KhanMarketism that those you write about bristle about…

  8. Thought-provoking. ‘Scholars spoke on behalf of the ‘subalterns’. For them, the term ‘subaltern’ was a formidable centrepiece in Indian postcolonial discourse.’ In this age of cut-throat competition and job insecurities, few people have no time to think about subalterns until injustice is being done to them. One Uber Cab driver gave his justification for voting for Modi – Madam, he brought Jio so we all use net now. When I reminded him of the impending BSNL job losses he said that it is not his problem and anyway BSNL service was too bad. Subalterns are not a group anymore and intelligentsia is too busy saving their backs instead of thinking about the underprivileged. Society has changed so has its value system. Major think tanks are being dismantled so that every man/woman will think only about oneself and his/her immediate family. Religion is fed in an encapsulated form and used as a divider, the loner is too self-absorbed to see the big picture.

    • Not to worry about BSNL, Air India and hundreds of PSUs and their employees. Most of them get paid by tax payer’s funds, whether they work or not. Tax payer’s money which ideally should have been spent on the well being of India’s wretched and poor. In the guise of thinking of and speaking for subalterns, all that India had was socialist hypocrisy and the worst health and educational outcomes on the planet. Not to speak of regular riots and pogroms in this ‘secular’ republic of ours.

  9. Krishna was the son of Vasudev & Devaki. He was not the son of a cowherd though he was reared by one. If & when you get time from reading Spivak, Kesavan, et al, try reading the Puranas. It just might help to take those LeLi blinkers off, & make you less condescending.

  10. To rephrase Dr Singh, would it be fair to say that the subalterns have the first claim over the nation’s resources. So instead of viewing the power shift that is taking place through the prism of liberals vs whatever the converse is, perhaps we should be judging successive governments by how much good they are doing to India’s poor. How many families are being lifted out of poverty, the standards of basic nutrition – the absence of which leads to stunting -, the quality of education they receive in government schools, the state of public hospitals. These are the metrics each government will be judged by, and they are clearly visible to all. It is a myth and an illusion to believe that delivery of a modest improvement in the standard of living to most families each year does not matter, that we are now living in some world of Make believe in which all of us can spend the day visiting temples and singing bhajans. The subalterns do not need the liberals to speak for them. They have a voice and increasingly it is being heard.

  11. What Madam.. self realisation? Coz if your tweets are any measure u r firmly of the self proclaimed liberal ( not real ones) variety… however The process does not even seem to be half way through.. though you don’t seem to be as bitterly retarded as some of your Khan Market type collegues 😬

    Maybe u will do away with condescending attitude next 😊 and yeah get a basket of burnol for your boss and collegues

  12. Anyone who talks like Pragya Thakur, about Godse and Babri Masjid etc, will make a common man say, perhaps she’s really guilty of radical things for which she has been accused, so she shouldn’t be left UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT. Against this, if some men are arrested, Muslims or others, but they don’t thump their chest and holler radical things, then a common man will say, please treat them as innocent UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. I guess that’s why no liberals sympathized with Pragya Thakur. Just as “justice should seem to be done”, an “accused should seem to be innocent”!

  13. India stopped being a democracy when socialist and secular were added to the constitution thereby rendering the conservatives and capitalists voiceless and unwanted. I’ll never forgive the fake Gandhis for this. May the fake Gandhis rot in hell for ruining my motherland.

  14. It is indeed very impressive and scholarly post citing intellectuals Mukul Kesavan, Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak besides using the fashionable term subaltern. Another exercise of self-denial.

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