Monday, May 5, 2014

Ultimately, was this election our version of the clash of civilisations?

This year's April-May heat reached record highs, but not high enough to beat the election heat. Nature will soon bring some rain to make life liveable for us. Will politics provide any such relief? Unlikely. This election was fought on a single issue -- whether Narendra Modi should or should not become Prime Minister. That he succeeded, entirely on his own, in dividing the world's largest electorate into those who admired him and those who despised him with no space in the middle was a tribute to the power of Modi's personality. A lot follows from this.

No election in Indian history was fought so passionately. The fever quickly slipped into danger zone. As aspiring law-makers went reckless in their hate speeches, public discourse started revolving round the religious-cultural differences between Indians and Indians. Such raw, unrefined passions tend to linger even after politicians make post-election adjustments in their usual opportunistic style. The multiculturalism that was always India's strength now faces the danger of becoming its weakness.

Are we witnessing, in the wake of the polarising Modi-centric election campaign, our own variation on the clash-of-civilisations theme? Despite its critics, that phrase became a currency of our times because of the simplicity of its logic. As Samuel Huntington put it, the characteristics of any civilisation are too basic to change, defined as they are by history, language, tradition and, most importantly, by religion. In a world turned into a global village, every person longs for identity and religion is the surest and easiest basis of identity. If clashes become inevitable in this process, the general attitude is: So be it.

Huntington was not the originator of the idea that an element of confrontationism was inherent in civilisations shaped by religions. According to researchers, the phrase was first used way back in 1926 in a book titled: Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilisations. It appeared again in 1990 in a magazine article titled The Roots of Muslim Rage. Huntington popularised the term in a lecture in 1992, later developing it into a book-length study. The important point to note here is that in 1926 and 1990 and 1992 and ever after "clash" referred to the clash of religions; civilisation and religion were used as synonymous terms. Note, too, that the religions that figured in the discourse were Islam and Christianity.

This was natural because the debate developed in the West where the principal players were a visible Christianity and a largely invisible Judaism, both challenged by an unbending Islam. The West paid scant attention to "the mysterious Orient" and its mysterious civilisations such as Hindu and Han. It might be surprised to see that the clash of civilisations is seeping unmysteriously into these regions as well. This election saw Hindu zealots and Muslim zealots trying to outdo one another. Walls of suspicion and distrust have been erected in a game that will only have losers.

To some extent at least we can emerge winners if we learn a few lessons from the heat and dust of this divisive campaign. First, projecting optimism is different from projecting overconfidence bordering on arrogance which is what Modi and the BJP have been doing. A touch of humility would have enhanced Modi's image. Secondly, Modi could have established his supremacy in the party without necessarily humiliating senior leaders. A demonstration of grace would have added value to his leadership. Thirdly, what did he hope to gain by antagonising vote-rich state leaders such as Mamta Bannerji? Someone should have read Churchill to him: "In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill".

The shame of this election is that, despite all the talk about development, the emphasis has consistently been on the communal card. Nothing underlined this more prominently than Amit Shah's conduct of strategy in UP. Unknowingly, men like Shah and Azam Khan proved yet again the Huntington thesis: That the fundamental source of conflict in the world is not primarily ideological (rightwing conservatism vs leftwing liberalism) or primarily economic (capitalism vs communism), but primarily cultural (meaning, religion vs religion).

We can yet disprove this.