There are interesting parallels between the forthcoming regional elections in the Indian state of Punjab and the recent EU referendum in the UK. The key similarity is that, increasingly, the traditional established parities are being rejected by people, especially young people. They are viewed as corrupt, self serving and wholly neoliberal. There is definitely a tilt towards those parties that are offering more radical anti-establishment, pro-grassroots, pro-green and pro-equality agenda. There is also a reaction against refugees and migrants, but this is mostly related to a belief that the increasing flow of people across the world, be it due to economic needs, environmental degradation or war, is principally the responsibility of the established political class who have uncritically embraced globalization and neoliberal economics.
Most notable amongst the recently formed parties in India is the Aam Aadmi Party or AAP, who in a matter of a few years has grown from a social movement to a party of governance. At the last general election, led by civil servant turned champion of the ordinary people, Arvind Kejariwal, AAP secured a number of parliamentary seats in Punjab, Delhi and other, mostly northern states. The AAP cemented its credentials as a party of governance through a historical landslide victory in the Delhi State assembly election in 2015 winning 67 of the 70 seats. In the process they wiped out both the BJP and Congress, both of whom have seen Delhi as a historical power base. When the vast majority of the people in the nations capital city reject the rulers you know change is happening.
And, it does seem like these winds of change are likely to blow across the plains of the Punjab and, just like the Brexit vote, a victory for AAP is likely to shake the foundations of the whole Indian Union of States. There is however a fear that the establishment will try every trick, legal or illegal to halt the charge. In recent months, we have seen further censorship of both the established news and electronic media but also on the increasingly influential social media; this is rapidly becoming the election of the ‘WhatsApp’, ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ age.
Along with emasculation of the media we are also seeing the deployment of the state security and judicial apparatus to intimidate politicians and supporters of the AAP, or indeed for that mater any group that choses to challenge the power of the elites. The most absurd example of this is the recent case brought by Akali MLA Bikram Majithiya against AAP leader and Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejariwal for defamation by suggesting he was a major drug baron. Equally daft and utterly contemptible were the accusations made by the Senior Akali leaders and also Avtar Makar, President of the SGPC, that AAP leaders disrespected the gurus because they used pictures of the Harimandar Sahib on their publicity posters. The orchestrated and in some sense hilarious threats to Kejariwal from a group of Nighangs, baba’s from the ‘Sant Smajh’ comparing Kejariwal and his AAP to the Afghan Tyrant Abdali, probably did more damage to the image of Sikhism than any poster or misjudged statement from a politician could ever do.
Like the EU (particularly so in the light the Brexit vote), India too is at a crossroads. After decades of relative docility, ordinary people are now raising their voices across the continents, from Europe in the West and India in the East. What connects the peoples of the EU and India is that they are saying no to neoliberalism, no to corruption and no to the establishment parties. They want change and the way the vote in the Punjab Assembly elections in Jan 2017 goes, like the Brexit vote in the UK, could too be a touchstone for the unraveling of the whole Indian Union.
If by hook or crook the establishment party, the Akali Dal and their coalition partner, the BJP, remain in power, or if in the face of an AAP victory the centre intervenes and dismisses the assembly and imposes direct rule, we could see a crisis exploding into a disaster along the lines of Syria and Libya. The Indian national identity based on a common historical memory linked to freedom struggles against the Mogul and more recently British empires is rapidly diminishing amongst outlying states. The Hindi belt (Haryana, Gujarat, UP, AP) where BJP/RSS is strong is trying to establish a Hindu Nationalist narrative. However, this is unacceptable to many intellectuals and professionals, Sikhs (30 million) Muslims (250 million) Christians (25 million) other religious minorities (50 million) and 300 million.
So, unless India can evolve a truly secular democracy where civil, economic and human rights are respected, it has no hope. The establishment parties rapidly deploy the rhetoric of ‘external threats’ and ‘anti-national elements’, but the truth today is that the biggest threat to the unity and Integrity of India comes from the establishment parties. It comes from the neo-fascist BJP/RSS organization and the poison of Hindutva ideology.
Dr Gurnam Singh
Coventry University, UK