Michael Hudson, an unconventional economist, wrote a book named “Killing the Host” in 2015 where he describes how finance capital, after entering the national economies as debt, eventually sucks up the very lifeblood of nations (asset stripping and job cutting) rendering them bankrupt due to the increasing debt burden. In his view, finance capital is like a parasite which enters the body of the nation and hollows it out completely of economic dynamism. I refer to this book here not to discuss economics or financialisation of economies but how communal and identity politics can hollow out Indian democracy resulting in democracy devouring itself.
My aim here is to transpose the idea to Indian politics, especially referring to communal and communitarian politics of political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party of Asaduddin Owaisi acting as parasites within secular democratic politics and finally rendering them majoritarian fascist states. For my analysis of how democracies carry within them the parasitical elements that could devour them completely and kill them, I use the examples of these two communal and communitarian based political parties. This holds good to other identity-based parties too.
This is a relevant discussion today especially after the Bihar Assembly elections where how BJP managed to delimit the chances of Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] of Nitish Kumar while enabling itself to be the bigger partner in the coalition. The same could be noted how AIMIM managed to delimit the chances of the Mahagathbandhan (MGB)¾the grand alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress party, the parliamentary left parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation [CPI(M-L) Liberation]¾from coming to power in Bihar.
In this regard, the BJP’s history is rather long, and it exemplifies a success story for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose effort to enter Indian politics directly through its political face, the BJP, by piggybacking (as a parasite) on ‘secular’ coalitions and then eating away their vote banks to stand on its ideological strength, paid a rich dividend when the Party managed to achieve a full majority in the parliament in 2014. Even their Hindutva partners such as Shiv Sena after experiencing this usurpation of their vote bank found it reasonable to ditch BJP in Maharashtra and ally with its ideological rivals such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress. Others will realise it soon.
Hindutva communal parasite
With its formation as Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951, with the baggage of the murder of MK Gandhi on its head, the Hindutva parliamentary league found itself shunned for several decades. However, Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule offered it an opportunity to ally with other non-Congress secular parties to share power for a short while between 1977-1980.
In April 1980, this Hindutva-incensed parliamentary wing of the RSS metamorphosed into the BJP and fought elections to win just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. Gradually, with the fillip that it received in consolidating Hindu votes through Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the demolition of Babri Masjid, it emerged as the largest single party in the 1996 parliament elections though could not form a stable government.
But in 1998 it allied (National Democratic Alliance – NDA) with other communal and secular parties that opposed the Congress and formed the government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee which lasted until 2004. During this evolution to power by using communal and religiously loaded discourse, fanning majoritarian anxiety and masterminding periodic communal riots, it progressively ate into other parties’ votes in a significant way. That process reached its apex under Narendra Modi’s ascendance to the throne of New Delhi after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
BJP’s communalism is like a virus that has made its home in Indian democracy constantly consolidating itself through democratic elections and appropriating democratic institutions. In its today’s avatar, with Modi at the helm, we have a majoritarian state ruled by a right-wing authoritarian populist continually hollowing out the secular democracy. Shawn Rosenberg has identified this phenomenon as democracy devouring itself (Rosenberg, 2019). When they achieve absolute power through the hollowing out of democratic institutions the majoritarian political formations will turn fascist just as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler. That is the end of any form of democracy.
India appears to be on its way towards such a polarisation of politics: majority Hindu vs minority Muslims. This exclusionary politics of Hindutva has its minoritarian face in Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM which dreams of building a pan-Indian Muslim presence by appealing to Muslim insecurities and offering them a false sense of security, which is nothing but a bluff in a majoritarian, militarised Hindutva ruled nation.
Enter Owaisi and Muslim communalism
AIMIM of Owaisi is a coalition partner with the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) in Telangana. However, his ambition is not limited just to Telangana or Hyderabad but he has been trying to field candidates in Muslim majority areas of various states alone or allying with other smaller identitarian parties. His foray into Maharashtra assembly elections of 2019 partnering with Prakash Ambedkar’s party Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) cost the Congress-NCP alliance nine seats.
In the recent Bihar Assembly elections, the AIMIM had fielded 20 candidates in largely Muslim areas of Seemanchal and won five seats, which had been won by the MGB in 2015 when the JD(U) was its part. In the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, the AIMIM is bracing itself to contest many seats in Muslim-majority areas of West Bengal, a state with 27% Muslim population. He also plans to contest in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 2022 where the Muslim population comprises of 18.5%.
He could carry on doing it in other states such as Assam (with 30% Muslims), Kerala (25% Muslims) and other Muslim dominated areas of other states. This will upset the secular coalitions in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and other states in a very big way as it did in Maharashtra and Bihar. Trinamool Congress and the Indian National Congress parties could lose their Muslim vote which could help the BJP win both the states comfortably. This could happen all over India.
What option do these communal and identitarian political formations leave open for the so-called secular parties state and nationwide? If the history of communal politics of the BJP is any guide Owaisi’s party will progress communalising voting behaviour among Muslims all over the country. If left out of the coalition by the major secular parties simply by branding the AIMIM as a Muslim communal party, which it is, then their future victories will certainly be jeopardised. More importantly, if they fail to make a deal with the AIMIM as the Congress did with Shiv Sena (a Hindu communal party) in Maharashtra it is the BJP that is going to sweep the polls against the secular parties everywhere.
Can AIMIM destroy the host coalition?
Given the communal appeal of Owaisi using the tactics of Hindutva and creating a separate Islamic nation that cannot get justice and equal treatment with Hindus in a secular country the discourse goes back to pre-independence politics similar to that of Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League. These two communal formations were two sides of the same coin that demanded separate nations for Hindus and Muslims; the subcontinent has been suffering due to such thinking and the resultant partition since independence.
The contribution of certain elements within the Congress towards achieving the partition of the country should also be remembered here (Jalal, 1985). Only because of the freedom movement led by Congress under the deft leadership of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, BR Ambedkar and other such able leaders, India managed to have a secular and inclusive constitution and institutions that prevented the pernicious communal ideologies of Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League thriving in India for decades.
However, the undercurrents of communalism were always present in the country thanks to communal and caste politics that dominated Indian politics all along. While the Congress party was dominating as a major political party and communal politics had less chance of ruling the nation, the Muslims had embraced the secular formations and tried to find political representation. All of it changed with LK Advani’s Rath Yatra (chariot procession) and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The relentless hammering of Muslims and isolating them politically by identifying the community with terrorism and Pakistan, the BJP has succeeded in consolidating the Hindu vote on communal lines.
However, the secular parties have failed consistently both to protect the Muslims against the Hindutva violence and their exclusionary discourse, and to articulate an inclusive secular vision for the nation as Gandhi, Nehru and others did during the freedom movement. Under Modi since 2014, the Muslim insecurity has only increased, and secular politics has failed to come to their rescue. Owaisi enters this scene with his Muslim communal appeal and the frightened Muslims are all but ready to embrace this false hope of communitarian agenda which could neither protect nor project Muslim interests adequately in a secular democracy.
The way forward
If things go on as today with the AIMIM fielding Muslim candidates in Muslim majority areas throughout the country what it will achieve is the decimation of secular parties throughout India. This would give tremendous advantage for BJP. Thus will emerge the two-nation theory of pre-independence days all over again. This would be a dream come true for the RSS-BJP project of establishing Hindu Rashtra which would love to have Muslims isolated as a communal and untouchable group with second class citizen status.
This would alter the secular democratic character of the nation permanently. This aspect of AIMIM ambition and its complementary role for the furtherance of Hindutva power in India is well articulated by veteran journalist Suvojit Bagchi in the India Today:
“Owaisi sees himself as a pan-Indian leader. Naturally, he is putting up candidates everywhere. Rise of such a pan-India Muslim leader will surely give some advantage to the BJP. There cannot be a Hindu Mahasabha without a Muslim league. If you don’t have a modern Jinnah in Owaisi, then how can the RSS/BJP move ahead. They need Owaisi more than he needs himself!”
Bagchi’s above quote does not hesitate to hint that Owaisi, through his Muslim communal politics, is directly assisting the communal Hindutva politics of the RSS/BJP. Certainly, to achieve their goal they need an Owaisi more than the Muslims of India. At this point, one should ask: “Could it be that this Owaisi is created by the Hindutva deep state (RSS)? To further their Hindu Rashtra project if it were not Owaisi, would they not create another someone to play this role of destroying the secular parties by depriving them of Muslim votes?”
What could be more beneficial for the Hindutva project than an Owaisi doing what he does? Given the onslaught on other opposition political parties (through tax raids, incarcerations, and other machinations by Modi) it makes one wonder why Owaisi enjoys such a long rope under this dispensation.
Calling the bluff
The secular parties should test Owaisi’s intent and commitment towards Indian secularism and Muslim welfare by inviting him to join their coalition. They should accept the AIMIM as a part of their fight against Hindutva’s majority communalism by consolidating Muslim votes under its orbit. As it is in a democracy minority communalism, though not an ideal within liberal democracies, is not as dangerous as majoritarian communalism. This could give BJP a discursive edge of branding all those parties that associate with AIMIM as Muslim appeasement parties helping it consolidate further the Hindu votes using a Muslim bogeyman.
However, the secular parties also face existential anxiety of losing Muslim votes permanently to AIMIM, which could join with other Dalit and caste-based identitarian parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), VBA, Janata Dal (Secular) of HD Deve Gowda in Karnataka, etc, if they don’t ally with it. Hence, the rise of AIMIM as an all-India spectre is proving to be a double-edged sword for the larger secular parties.
Wither communal politics?
Such a situation will only produce further group think and consolidate communal and caste identities which are a bane to the secular parties and secular democracies in general. This is because binary messaging based on communal identity based on religion or caste is easy to communicate and simple for people to grasp. That process is not easy for secular parties who must struggle to balance their political communication and symbolism therein to include different identity groups.
It is in this sphere that the BJP and the AIMIM as communal parties, and BSP and VBA type caste-based identity parties have it easy. The ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ are clear-cut here whereas those parties that try to build an inclusive communication and symbolic presentation find it difficult. At a time when majoritarianism as populism is spreading, the appeal of Hindutva to Hindus, Islamic group appeal of the AIMIM to Muslims are likely to feed each other’s discourse and benefit each other.
Secular and inclusive parties will have an uphill task. This is a situation where all secular parties that count on Muslim support to add to their majority community base will see their fortunes dwindle benefitting greatly the BJP and the AIMIM. A kind of pre-independence communal divide will emerge ghettoising Muslims further physically, economically, culturally, and socially. Such isolation and ghettoisation of Muslims will easily pave the way for the RSS dream of Hindu Rashtra where Muslims and, of course, other minorities can be forced easily to second-class citizenship.
By weakening and destroying eventually of secular political parties Owaisi’s present Muslim communal politics and his alliance with caste identity parties will contribute greatly towards the enablement of Hindu Rashtra that will replace Ambedkar’s constitution sooner than later. In the present context to arrest such a fallout, the secular parties should welcome AIMIM into their fold and strengthen themselves with minority support which can determine who comes to power in most states of India.
However, whether Owaisi is interested in such a proposal is a moot point. His willingness and unwillingness to cooperate will also expose his alleged ties with the BJP as a secular vote divider. Secular parties have an opportunity here either to benefit from the inclusion of the AIMIM or to call its bluff as the saviour of Muslims in India.
“The sole spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan“, Jalal, A. (1985), Cambridge University Press.
“Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism”, Rosenberg, S. (2019).