There are words and phrases that need to be retired from India’s political lexicon. For example, you don’t hear the BJP use ‘pseudo-secularism’ anymore. It managed to delegitimise secularism long ago. Today, you are just anti-Hindu if you don’t support the project of making Muslims second-class citizens.
There’s an easy way to shed the anti-Hindu charge: be Hindu. In the 2017 Gujarat assembly election, I asked a BJP voter what he thought of Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping. “It’s all fake,” he said expectedly, but added this insight: “The only thing it’s ensuring is that Hindutva is not working.” I saw his point. How do you call a temple-going person anti-Hindu?
Yet, some of our Leftists and liberals don’t understand this. Politicians going to Hindu temples (yes, with cameras) is called “soft Hindutva”. You can find this tired old phrase even in straight news reports, not just social media rants.
‘Soft Hindutva’ means nothing
Hindutva as an ideology is about establishing political supremacy of Hindus over non-Hindus, reducing non-Hindus, especially Muslims and Christians, to second-class citizens. It is an ideology that uses and supports violence, discrimination, discriminatory laws and even seeks to make Indian Muslims stateless.
Praying before Hanumanji or Shiv is not the same as wanting Muslims put in detention camps or declaring India a Hindu Rashtra. The term “soft Hindutva” equates the two. Taking Hindu and Hindutva to mean the same is exactly what the RSS-BJP want. After all, Hindutva literally means Hinduness.
In fact, we need a new word to describe Hindutva, so as to counter this false equation of Hindu and Hindutva. Instead of emphasising the difference between the two, some liberals and Leftists have unfortunately been serving the BJP-RSS cause by using the term “soft Hindutva”.
It is absolutely bizarre that worshipping at a temple or reciting a prayer is considered bigoted. If praying at a temple is soft Hindutva, offering namaz must be soft Islamism? And throwing an Iftar party must be jihad?
The same Arvind Kejriwal who recites the Hanuman Chalisa also throws an iftar party during Ramzan. Religion is part of everyday culture, and everyday culture is bound to reflect in politics. It is an intellectual privilege to object to a politician praying a temple. If you have ever trailed an MLA or MP candidate, you will see them visit all places of worship and pay respect.
If you ask a Muslim what they think of Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal going to temples, she will probably tell you, “It is great that they are following their religion.”
It is only the Leftists who romanticise irreligious politics. Religion in politics is inevitable: Mahatma Gandhi used it. The question is, how do you use it? You can use religion to unite, and you can use it to divide. Secular politicians going to temples are doing so to unite people. To disparage this as “soft Hindutva” is a despicable thing to do.
If it’s Hindutva, it must be hard
When Rajiv Gandhi allowed a religious ceremony to take place at the disputed Babri Masjid site in 1986, it was a case of appeasing Hindutva forces. It came from political strategy, poor as it was. He had to make up for his Shah Bano folly. Nevertheless, giving permission for the shilanyas at the Babri Masjid site was not an act of ‘soft Hindutva’. It was Hindutva, plain and simple.
The role of the next Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, in the Babri Masjid demolition is also well known.
Political actions that fall into the Hindutva category must not be exonerated just because they come from non-BJP parties. But such actions should not be called ‘soft Hindutva’. If it is Hindutva, it is by definition a hard thing.
Silence as strategy
Sometimes secular parties don’t express enough outrage and disapproval over Hindutva actions by the BJP-RSS. This, too, is criticised by Leftist critics as ‘soft Hindutva’.
The truth is that secular parties do not gain any votes by going for ‘soft’ Hindutva. When voters have the 24-carat pure Hindutva option, why would they go for the softer option?
The reason why secular parties sometimes avoid talking about Hindutva is strategic communication. Whatever you talk about, positively or negatively, becomes the dominant trend in voters’ political imagination. Secular parties, therefore, talk about things that they want to see as dominant trends.
For example, the Lalu-Mulayam answer to Mandir in the early 1990s was Mandal. That is how you change the conversation.
To defeat Hindutva, we need to talk about something else. The BJP-RSS are proposing Hindutva as the reason why people must vote for the BJP. Secular parties have to propose something worthier. And merely opposing Hindutva can’t be enough. So, secular parties have to talk about what they are offering, and this should overwhelm what they are opposing.
That is what Arvind Kejriwal was trying to do. The BJP wanted to talk about Shaheen Bagh. Arvind Kejriwal wanted to talk about education, health, electricity, and water. It was a battle over defining what the Delhi assembly election was about.
Power is the master key
Unfortunately, some Leftists and liberals were playing into the BJP’s hands by talking more about Hindutva issues than about electricity and water. Such liberals and Leftists fail to understand the strategic communication way of defeating Hindutva.
They could begin by giving up the use of the phrase ‘soft Hindutva’. By not going to Shaheen Bagh, Arvind Kejriwal was not doing ‘soft Hindutva’. He was trying to defeat the BJP in the election by talking about governance issues.
To be able to prevent India from becoming a Hindu Rashtra, secular parties have to first win elections. Political power is the master key that opens all locks, said B.R. Ambedkar. Power is also the key that will open the lock that has been placed upon secularism. And gaining power needs an appreciation of strategic political communication.
Leftists and liberals who want to save secularism should start by kicking the phrase ‘soft Hindutva’ out of the political lexicon.
Leftist and liberal critics must, of course, continue raising secular issues. They play an important role in shifting the Overton Window leftwards, and thus preventing centre-Left electoral forces from drifting Rightwards. But to constantly undermine secular parties with the ‘soft Hindutva’ charge is a self-goal.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.