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Opinion Under Narendra Modi, India’s right is finally winning the culture wars

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India at a campaign rally in Bangalore, India, on Feb. 4. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

The small eastern Indian state of Tripura, with a population of just 3.6 million people (roughly the same as Connecticut), rarely gets much media attention. This weekend was different. The tiny, isolated state became a high-profile gladiatorial arena for India’s culture wars, in a direct collision between the right and the left. The right won resoundingly — and not just electorally.

A first-ever election victory in Tripura by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unseated the communists who have ruled the state for 25 years. The BJP will also form the government in the nearby and predominantly Christian state of Nagaland — a major feat for a party once tagged as party of Hindu nationalists confined to the Hindi-speaking plains of northern India.

The gains in the east have reinforced the position of the BJP as the only pan-India party today, with a presence across many regions and ethnicities. The BJP rose from less than 2 percent of the vote share in Tripura to more than 40 percent in this election. The centrist Indian National Congress party drew a blank in two of the three states that went to polls.

But the numbers themselves are marginal to why these wins are so valuable for India’s right. For them, it is about symbolically conquering the social and cultural landscape of India. 48 hours after the win the party’s supporters cheered as an excavator brought down a statue of Lenin from a town square in South Tripura.  A local functionary of the Left said, “the mob played football with Lenin’s head.”  Some of the party’s own followers decried this as a an act of vandalism but  others argued that it was in keeping with the popular rejection of communism, much like the removal of Lenin statues in Ukraine or East Germany.

The BJP and its base have always resented the liberal leanings of India’s intellectual institutions, its disproportionate influence over mainstream media, and its stranglehold over the cliquish, closed drawing rooms of the socially privileged.

The official demolition of the left is a comeuppance for a cultural hegemony that it sees as both elite and imported. “This was indeed an ideological battle for the BJP,” Rajat Sethi, the Harvard- and MIT-educated wunderkind who is a core member of the BJP election team, told me. “One the one hand, we had the Communists who, not too long ago, were celebrating 100 years of the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin’s birthday and the Nepalese Communists’ victory — all this at state expense. On the other side of this alien ideology, we had a home grown set of ideas from the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh].” Mocking Manik Sarkar, the former chief minister of Tripura, for naming the road outside his home after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Sethi presented the left as an ideology borrowed from foreign lands. “In Tripura, the proletariat has revolted against the Marxists,” he said wryly. To the BJP, the left liberals are, in fact, the bourgeoisie; they are now the old establishment that must be overthrown in a new cultural revolution.

The epicenter of this election may be Tripura, but the BJP believes the reverberations of this seismic shift will be felt nationally: The center-right has displaced the center-left as India’s dominant political narrative.

In India, the BJP under Modi has wedded cultural nativism with economic aspiration and the promise of change to create a unique right-wing identity. The elasticity in the party’s ideology has worked in its favor. The ban on beef, for instance, a polarizing pursuit of the party in key northern states found absolutely no mention in the northeastern part of the country where beef-eating is common in Christian majority states.  And to woo Christian voters in Nagaland — hardly the traditional voting base for a party that has spoken of “minorities appeasement” in other elections — the BJP promised free trips to Jerusalem for senior citizens. Sethi questions the old labels. “Left and right never correctly synthesized or captured the essence of our politics. It was always left versus ‘other than left,’ he said. “But India’s so-called right, which we prefer to identify as ‘nationalist,’ has less to do with economics and more to do with social issues. The traditional binaries have fallen.”

Sethi is right; the financial policies of both the BJP and the Indian National Congress are more or less similar. The fault line that separates left from right in India is almost entirely social and cultural. The BJP has even subsumed its Hindu politics under the banner of ‘Nationalism’ to create a far wider acceptable social credo than the overt use of religion. Who would not want to identify as a nationalist?

Moreover, Modi’s electoral successes give him the space to deftly shift gears and challenge the old stereotypes that the left has used to define him. During his victory speech over the weekend, the prime minister abruptly fell quiet. As a mark of respect, he paused to let the evening azaan, or call to prayer, at a neighboring mosque finish. The moment was lost on no one — Modi’s party has still not been able to shrug off being tagged as anti-Muslim.  A few days earlier he shared the stage with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at an Islamic Heritage conference.

Ironically, while Modi woos new voters, the ‘secularist’ Indian National Congress is casting itself as Hindu Lite. It is talking about reclaiming Hinduism from the right wing . Rahul Gandhi is now photographed visiting temples in every election. So the left is borrowing from the right’s playbook, while election victories enable Modi to constantly shift how he defines these cultural thresholds. For years, the right wing mocked the Congress for being ‘pseudo-secularists’ who disavowed the Hindu majority and overcompensated for religious minorities. Now, as it tries to shed the reputation of being Anti-Hindu, the Indian National Congress ends up getting teased for being ‘pseudo-Hindu.’

These culture wars — not just for votes, the but for the mind-space of Indians — will become more intense as India moves towards 2019 and another national election. For now, the BJP, either alone or in alliances, controls 22 of India’s 29 states. It has pushed the 132-year-old Indian National Congress into a state of hapless ideological confusion. Forget right or left; the opposition is paying the price perhaps for choosing “none of the above” in its political exams.