India’s Politics Without the Minorities

The penchant and proclivity for making India Hindu is not a new phenomenon in Indian political life; but until the 2014 election, it did not have the power or the heft to pose a serious challenge to the idea of India.

Posted on 09/9/14
By Zoya Hasan | Via The Hindu
Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs puja at the Somnath Mandir. (Photo via Narendra Modi, Creative Commons License)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs puja at the Somnath Mandir. (Photo via Narendra Modi, Creative Commons License)

We have two parallel narratives running simultaneously in the first 100 days of the Narendra Modi government. In the first one, as a heroic Prime Minister in total command of his government and party, Mr. Modi is busy revving up the sputtering economy with his decisive leadership and “good governance” much acclaimed by economists, the middle classes, the media, and the twitterati. After taking charge, Mr. Modi has been quick in framing rules and taking some strong decisions: from the announcement to scrap the Planning Commission to calling off Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan to clearing 49 per cent foreign direct investment in insurance to launching the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana with a promise to end “financial untouchability.”


The second narrative unfolding at the same time focusses on the template of majoritarianism defined by the Sangh Parivar’s principal belief that India is a Hindu nation. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, declared that “India is a Hindu state and citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus.” Endorsing the RSS view, the Union Minister for Minority Affairs, Najma Heptulla, said, “there is nothing wrong in calling all Indians Hindus,” which she later denied. A similar statement was made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Yogi Adityanath while opening the Lok Sabha debate on communal violence — “Hindutva is a symbol of Indian nationalism.” That this speech evoked table thumping from his fellow BJP MPs makes it even more significant.


Subverting social fabric

One of the biggest anxieties about the Modi government was its antipathy towards minorities and religious diversity. There are some who would argue that this apprehension has come true as extremist elements continue to use communal polarization as an instrument of political mobilization — a tendency that Mr. Modi has done little to vanquish. A series of statements by senior BJP leaders designed to aggravate communal passions in different parts of the country, especially in the poll-bound States, constitutes the centerpiece of the second narrative.


Many BJP leaders are having a field day manufacturing myths and non-history to subvert the social fabric. Non-existent “love jihad” is yet another tool for this purpose. Even though this phrase didn’t feature in its official resolution, the BJP nonetheless stated that “Instances of misbehavior with women of one section by men of one particular section, whether just coincidence or by design, is a matter of concern.” Thus, Mr. Laxmikant Bajpai, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh president, said, “Have they got the certificate to rape girls because they belong to a particular religion?” He further added, “Youngsters should be vigilant against love jihad. Why is the government lenient to those who indulge in such practice? Have they got license to convert the girls of majority community?” Mr. Kalraj Mishra, a Union Minister, also spoke about the “love jihad.”


Polarizing public sphere

Mr. Modi has not distanced himself from any of the outlandish statements of his supporters from Hindu hard-core organizations; there are no rumors that he even mildly upbraided them. Till now as “the Prime Minister of the entire nation, not just the 31 per cent who voted for him,” he has allowed space to those who speak of and act in the name of a “Hindu nation.” This has given the Sangh Parivar a free hand to polarize the public sphere. There is an interesting pattern to these controversies. Whenever a storm breaks out in the context of rising communal tensions, senior BJP leaders evade the issue and simply state that Mr. Modi’s agenda is “sabka saath, sabka vikas,” as though repeating this generic statement would heal communal wounds. While on the evening news shows, party spokespersons make the majoritarian case plainly and blame the usual “secular suspects” for perpetrating vote bank politics as opposed to their “India first” approach.


If this is a calculated strategy, which it seems to be, then why would Mr. Modi or the BJP distance itself from Mr. Adityanath’s utterances. Far from doing this, he was asked to open the Lok Sabha debate on the communal violence Bill and later appointed in charge of the by-poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh. The message is loud and clear: the so-called “fringe” elements and “loony outfits” (as the media often describes them) are free to do their work, unchecked, while Mr. Modi will get on with growth and governance. In some respects this is a continuation of the doublespeak witnessed in the election campaign, but, post-election, it assumes a new meaning because now it is party leaders and elected MPs, and not just the religious right-wingers, who are indulging in communal speak.


The hiatus between the rhetoric of Modi and the reality on the ground is palpable. The plethora of communal statements indicates a concerted attempt to impose a majoritarian concept of nationhood — one that clearly militates against constitutional democracy and common citizenship. That this is not just idle propaganda is further evident from what is happening in the field of education and culture. From Kerala to Karnataka to Maharashtra and Punjab, there have been incidents of BJP and Sangh Parivar activists disrupting cultural events that are critical of Mr. Modi and his government.


The penchant and proclivity for making India Hindu is not a new phenomenon in Indian political life, having been an undercurrent since its emergence before Partition and independence; but until the 2014 election, it did not have the power or the heft to pose a serious challenge to the idea of India. The spectacular success of the Sangh Parivar accomplished by electoral means as well as by stoking simmering violence has radically changed the situation to the advantage of the BJP. Its electoral triumph in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra and its unbroken success in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat highlight the manifest possibilities of communal mobilization in forging political majorities.


During the long campaign in Uttar Pradesh, BJP candidates and campaigners including Mr. Amit Shah actively played on insecurities shored up by the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar last year to try and secure the Hindu vote. If there was one obvious feature of this election, it was the BJP’s successful consolidation of the Hindu vote with religion often deciding voter preference. The party demonstrated that it can win a majority without minority support. One right-wing Hindu leader, who had a front-row seat at Mr. Modi’s swearing-in, said the “tables had turned.” The polls were a “setback to Muslim politics” used by “foreign and divisive forces to destroy our identity,” he said. “It was time for them to learn their lessons. Muslims will be treated as common citizens — nothing more, nothing less. And, they must learn to respect Hindu sentiments. If they keep opposing Hindus, how long can they survive?” What this suggests is that if this political climate continues, minorities will get pushed out of the system through electoral politics. Mr. Modi is creating a new model of running politics without minorities. No one is losing sleep over it or the predictable absence of diversity in the political system it entails if he delivers on economic growth.


Parallel narratives

Combining “development” and “polarization” to construct electoral success represents a new development in the trajectory of majoritarianism. Pointing to the growing presence of the Sangh Parivar in the political sphere, Mr. Seshadri Chari, former editor of the Organizer, says that Hindus have always been a majority in India but the manifestation of majoritarianism has been reflected in the cultural and social field. “Now it is reflected in the politics of the country. A large number of foot soldiers in the RSS-BJP do believe that the political Hindu has arrived,” he observed. (Outlook, August 25, 2014) This marks a dramatic shift — a break from the past for the Sangh Parivar.


In consequence, for the first time in independent India the BJP has won an absolute majority. In 1999, there was one National Democratic Alliance Agenda of Governance and this was different from the BJP program. Back then, the BJP had many allies to take along. This time, there are no coalition impediments. Arguably, a majoritarian agenda may well prevail in the RSS-dominated government. Besides, Mr. Modi and the RSS are on the same page ideologically which was not often the case under Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In his first 100 days in power, Mr. Modi has defied those who expected governance to dictate his agenda which means keeping in check hardliners and their politics of polarization. Instead, two concurrent narratives dominate the functioning of the government, economic growth and communal polarization, and Mr. Modi and his supporters do not see any contradiction between the two tracks.


The contours of the majoritarian project have been laid out by Hindu nationalists; to a certain extent, significant sections of the middle classes have either bought into it or are not bothered about it as long as it does not affect their personal domain and as long as the government succeeds in delivering economic growth. Even as the influence of the majoritarian project is undeniable, its insistence on redefining India’s national identity presents the most formidable challenge to the democratic framework in recent times and is clearly at odds with the multicultural idea of India. The question is whether this project will succeed in the long run and whether it will respect constitutionalism and common citizenship, irrespective of caste or creed.


(Zoya Hasan is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, and former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

This article first appeared in The Hindu. Click here to go to the original.

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