July 24, 2017

India: BJP spreads its wings -Translating Hindutva into national creed

 The Tribune, July 22, 2017

by S Nihal Singh

TO no one’s surprise, Mr Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP candidate, won the presidential election. He had the numbers and the main interest was in the volume of cross-voting in the opposition ranks. Judging by the level of the latter, opposition parties have a lot of work to do to prepare themselves for the 2019 general election. The RSS strand of nationalism has now captured three of the highest offices in the land in the personalities of Prime Minister Modi, Mr Kovind and, in days to come, Mr Venkaiah Naidu (vice-presidency). Despite the public pronouncements of the latter two on forswearing party loyalties, a lifetime or near-lifetime imbibing the narrow Hindu nationalism and myths of the RSS cannot but influence their decisions in performing their constitutional duties. That the Opposition is in a bind is no secret, and the chief hurdle before any measure of effectiveness is achieved is the long dominant Congress having come to the end of the road. Mr Rahul Gandhi is the heir apparent and even after he is crowned king, with mother Sonia keeping a close watch on him, his lack of political instinct must remain a tremendous handicap. The Opposition can be divided among the two main Communist parties and others. The Communists’ main task is to act as a ginger group with India’s main Asian rival China the only remaining classical Communist regime. Indian Communists are useful in reminding the country of the ideals of secularism which are being demolished each day by the present ruling dispensation. The Congress, as suggested, is in a terrible bind. The new emperor has no clothes and a party fed on excessive doses of family rule cannot look for leadership outside the restricted circle. Mr Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) does not have a party to speak of and has nimbly placed himself in a position to jump on the BJP bandwagon or claim a leadership role in the Opposition. He gave his support to the BJP presidential candidate even before the Opposition met to decide a joint candidate. Of the remaining regional parties, three stand out, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and the two DMKs in Tamil Nadu. Mr Amit Shah, BJP president, has already prioritised these states. Indeed, he has been most aggressive in Bengal by trying the medicine he administered in Uttar Pradesh, also with a significant Muslim population, by polarising the electorate along communal lines. The BJP is facing a problem in Bengal because it faces a combative chief minister, who has made mistakes over coping with a corruption scandal and in giving fillip to the Gorkha movement in Darjeeling, but will fight each inch before ceding territory.  In Odisha’s case, Mr Patnaik, a chip of the old block, is a wily politician who plays his cards carefully and thought it wise to support the BJP candidate for presidency. Tamil Nadu falls in a separate category because it has distinguished itself by the level of skulduggery the DMK parties practice. The AIADMK had Jayalalithaa reigning as a queen to be followed by the melodrama of her companion Sasikala, who landed herself in jail on money-related matters after usurping the party leadership even as her proxies continue to rule the state. In jail she has made news by allegedly enjoying special privileges for a consideration leading to the transfer of two senior police officers. The BJP must therefore pay a price high enough to attract support. Opposition ranks will be inevitably denuded over the coming weeks and months as the lure of power tempts a number of leaders and followers to join the BJP’s bandwagon. After all, tasting power is the dream of every politician and with the traditional source of power, the Congress, in the doldrums there is nowhere else to go. Opposition disunity is an old problem. There is no coherent policy its constituents share except for broad ideas such as secularism. But secularism comes in many shapes and sizes although now frontally challenged by the present ruling dispensation. The problem is that even with this new threat, many Opposition leaders are more concerned by narrower regional and caste concerns to guard their flanks.  At the intellectual and middle class levels, issues of national policy are clear cut. But these sections do not constitute a majority. Indeed, Mr Modi’s success lies in presenting the problems of the country in crisp terms understood by the proverbial common man even while carrying on the pro-poor rhetoric so successfully used by Indira Gandhi in the past. Therefore, in a sense most in the modern secular Indian society are bystanders even as the ruling party and its leaders seek to build a new Hindu India of their dream. And now they hold three senior positions to frame and influence policy. For persons of integrity more interested in the direction the country is taking, rather than the gains and losses of individuals and parties, from this point of view, the picture looks bleak. Politics, as we have learned by trial and error, is the game of the possible and the phase the country is passing through, much as the US is experiencing under the Trump presidency, is a transient phenomenon. However, unlike in the US, the BJP is set on changing the very basis on which the idea of India is founded. The leaders of the Indian independence movement achieved the rare distinction of shepherding the country into following a modern set of ideas ultimately enshrined in a constitution that promises equality irrespective of caste or religious affiliations. Although the practice of Indian democracy leaves much to be desired, the goal has been clear. The BJP-RSS leadership is now suggesting that the ideal of a secular India is wrong. In essence, it argues that we live in a Hindu India and all minorities must pay obeisance to the Hindutva cause and practices. If only the Opposition leaders kept this central theme in mind, they would render service to the country.