Wednesday, January 25, 2023
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Sack of the Hindu caravan, and future of Indian secularism

For too long was the burden of protecting India’s secularism outsourced to its 14% Muslims. Why it's time it shifted to the Hindus.

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While we can keep arguing whether it’s a good or a bad thing, there is no doubt that Modi’s BJP has built our most Hindu establishment yet. This is mostly to the exclusion of minorities, especially the Muslims, as we showed with data in last week’s National Interest.

If the BJP’s voters, about twice as many as the next largest party’s (Congress), are happy with this, who is to complain? In a democracy, numbers win. If you don’t like this, reverse the numbers. To even initiate that secular, centrist fightback, you have to accept how you got here.

Which takes us back to a storied Lok Sabha debate in 1955. Jawaharlal Nehru was facing one of his many challenging moments in the house and it seems some of the trouble was of his own government’s making.

Education Minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad leaned over and whispered something to him.

He was quoting to Nehru an Urdu couplet by a budding new shayar (poet), Shahab Jafri: Tu idhar udhar ki na baat kar ye bata ki qafila kyun luta/Mujhe rahzanon se gila nahin teri rahbari ka sawaal hai.

Best effort translation is: Stop beating around the bush. Just tell me how did our caravan get sacked? I can have no complaint with the bandits, I only question your leadership.

Subsequently, this became a most flogged line in the heartland’s political discourse.

If you are deeply frustrated with the current arrangement under the Modi-Shah BJP, this is the question you should be asking the Congress and all other ‘secular’ parties. Akhilesh Yadav’s SP, Lalu’s RJD, even Mayawati’s BSP, although her ‘secularism’ has been fully fungible with short-term power. How did the caravan of your secular parties get sacked, and lose its most valuable cargo, the Hindu vote? We can’t blame the BJP for stealing your vote, but were you asleep at the wheel?

Also read: ‘Othered’ Muslim in Modi-BJP era: 3 essentials before mounting a political challenge to correct it

From where does Narendra Modi’s BJP draw its majority? The Hindi heartland, which extends to the Himalayas in the north (Himachal and Uttarakhand), Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in the east and south-east. Add to these the two big western states, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the BJP is already in the 250-seat ballpark.

The BJP has decisively won the post-1989 tussle for the Hindu vote in these states. As we’ve maintained, the real post-1989 question (when the last Lok Sabha with a Congress majority ended) in the heartland has been, can you divide with caste what religion united, or re-stitch with religion what caste divided.

For two decades, until 2009, caste was winning. From 2014 on, it’s the epoch of religion. Examine the facts.

In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Hindu vote was balkanised by those claiming the Dalits, Yadavs, and the bulk of the other OBCs. The ‘upper’ castes, or savarnas, were left with the BJP and powerless.

So powerless and victimised were they by the wave of implicitly state protected (if not sanctioned) lawlessness — kidnappings for ransom, murder, extortion — under Mulayam Singh Yadav that they voted Mayawati for protection. The BJP wasn’t ready yet. A vote for it was wasted. It brought you no power.

In Maharashtra and Gujarat, the two other decisive states (accounting for 74 seats in Lok Sabha), a somewhat similar game was played for decades. It was Maratha and Dalit versus the Brahminical Hindutva in one, a more sharply-defined KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) combination in the other. In each of these, for much of the period between 1989 and 2014, these combinations worked.

Until Narendra Modi reversed it, first in Gujarat. For two decades since his first election win in 2002, the KHAM formula has been buried. In Maharashtra, the opposition might have seen a sliver of hope that Shiv Sena will bring back the Hindu vote. At this point, however, the Thackeray dynasty needs to bring the Sena back first.

Deeper south, the BJP has grown roots only in one state yet. Karnataka was a Congress bastion so impregnable that in the past both Indira and Sonia found safe Lok Sabha havens there (Chikmagalur and Bellary, respectively).

It was the same all-conquering lower-middle-caste formula. First the rise of the Gowdas created a powerful Vokkaliga caste group. Then one public humiliation by Rajiv Gandhi of his party’s most consequential Lingayat leader, then chief minister Veerendra Patil, drove the angry Lingayats to the BJP. They’ve remained there since.

Also read: Moral, political & ideological questions on Maharashtra: 1st is simplest to answer, 3rd trickiest

Truth to tell, we’ve come too far in this discussion without mentioning the elephant in the room: The Muslim vote. In each of these states, the winning caste combination against the BJP included the Muslims.

These parties did little for the Muslim barring throwing some lollipops. They were smug the Muslims would vote for them out of their fear of the BJP. Over time, “secular vote” became a code for the Muslims. It was the electoral equivalent of protection money.

Transition in the BJP from the Vajpayee-Advani era to Modi and Shah took away the secular niceties and Muslim-friendly pretence of the past. The founders of the BJP would happily host iftars, but Modi won’t even wear the skull cap for a photo-op. That’s as apt a metaphor as you can find.

The Hindu constituency saw this as a clear signal that the BJP was their party first. It fired the imagination of the party cadre. The new BJP had no hesitation in being rude to Muslims in public discourse, hard-selling the allegation of appeasement of minorities and victimhood of Hindus.

As the political pitch changed, say from a dry dust-bowl to a bouncy green top, the secular parties were still trying the same variants of their spin. Modi’s BJP was thundering down with deadly pace, seam up, the Hindu majority cheering them along.

The opposition understood this. Rahul Gandhi made his temple visits and his most trusted factotum bared his janeu and Brahmin gotra to us. Akhilesh, Lalu/Tejashwi, Mayawati have all been cautious on the endless incarceration of Muslim activists in the anti-CAA agitation. But these are defensive, apologetic, panicky responses. They amuse the BJP and its Hindu voters.

Indian secularism is choking with the electoral cynicism of its leaders who reduced it to an instrument to build about a 30-35 per cent vote bank with a couple of lower castes and a core of Muslims. Translated, it means the burden of protecting India’s secularism was outsourced to its 14 per cent Muslims. It was too good to last. It’s time that burden shifted to the Hindus.

Unless you have a critical mass of Hindu voters on your side, you don’t have a hope in hell. BJP won’t be fazed by your rants, outrage, the ‘republic is dead’, the ‘idea of India’ is over kind of stuff. They’ll only laugh.

As Ambedkar so presciently said in his intervention to reject the demand to add “secular and socialist” to the preamble in the Constituent Assembly debate, who are we (the founders’ generation) to ordain what social system will a republic follow in the future? The majority Indians today have voted to remould India in their own idea.

Unless you have something more convincing to offer the Hindus, you have zero chance of changing it. It is easier to just keep tweeting in anger and count the retweets and likes. That might be one way of achieving victory, such as it would be.

(National Interest next week: Can a new politics reunite what religion divided?)

Also read: With Agnipath, Modi govt’s shock & awe doctrine may have misfired a vital reform, yet again


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