May 15, 2019

India: Reclaim the concept of secularism | Yamini Aiyar

Hindustan Times, May 13, 2019

Reclaim the concept of secularism
The Congress, once the custodian of secularism, has pushed it to the margins of political discourse

Yamini Aiyar

The coarsening of debate in the campaign is an extension of what has become the new normal in public debate in India. Aided in no small measure by the new modes of communication that social media allows, the space for careful argumentation and reasoning has shrunk giving way to an increasingly partisan endorsement of ideas(PARWAZ KHAN/HINDUSTAN TIMES )

India has reached the final phase of what has been a long, treacherous and toxic election campaign. All eyes are now on May 23 and what the election outcome portends for India’s future. For many, a resounding electoral majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to embolden the party and its affiliates to pursue unencumbered its majoritarian project. A coalition (with or without the BJP) may serve to slow down or even put brakes on this project. Either way, May 23 is likely to be a definitive moment in India’s democratic trajectory.

But beyond electoral outcomes and the short-term changes this may bring, the political discourse emerging from these elections points to a much deeper and more fundamental shift unfolding in our public sphere. And it is this columnist’s contention that, regardless of the election outcome, India’s future as a secular democracy will depend significantly on how these shifts are mediated and whether we can rebuild a new political consensus that upholds core democratic values and serves as an effective ideological counterpoint to the current majoritarian turn.

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar has argued that since 2014, India is witness to the emergence of a new party system with a new set of dominant ideas and sensibilities that are beginning to shape our political culture and public life. For Palshikar, electoral defeat could puncture the BJP’s march toward crafting this new ideological hegemony. But I would argue that the electoral discourse in the 2019 campaign is a clear indicator that this new party system, more specifically the ideological hegemony it has sought to achieve, is slowly taking root, and this will require more than an electoral defeat to resist.

There are two specific ways in which this new ideological dominance has articulated itself that are worth highlighting.

First, the coarseness of electoral debate. From “Chowkidar chor hai (Gatekeeper is a thief)” to “Bhrastachari #1 (Corrupt No 1)”, this election has seen politicians of all colours indulging in coarse name-calling. But it is the BJP, perhaps on account of nervousness, that has led the charge in eschewing all norms of civility in this election. Led by no less than the prime minister himself, BJP leaders have taken to using blatantly communal and divisive language to appeal to voters. Given the party’s ideological convictions and the rhetorical strategies it has adopted to craft its political hegemony, this coarsening of debate was perhaps only to be expected. But the Election Commission’s failure to act on complaints and the relentless, repeated and increasingly blatant violations of the Model Code of Conduct in political rallies and election speeches, risk normalising the coarseness of political debate in our public culture.

Importantly, it erodes the possibility of the electoral sphere functioning as a space for realising the somewhat precarious democratic promise of political accountability for performance.

This coarsening of debate in the campaign is an extension of what has become the new normal in public debate in India. Aided in no small measure by the new modes of communication that social media allows, the space for careful argumentation and reasoning has shrunk, giving way to an increasingly partisan endorsement of ideas. In its quest for ideological dominance, the BJP and its affiliates have successfully leveraged this shrinking space to appropriate and ascribe new meaning to the core values — secularism, nationalism — that have shaped India’s post-Independence democratic project.

The second issue is secularism. The greatest casualty of the shrinking space for public reasoning is secularism. In an election campaign that has been so blatantly communal and where most opposition parties have sought to define their political positions in contrast to the BJP’s majoritarian project, the absence of a robust defence and even the mere mention of secularism in election debates are ominous. The Congress, through its manifesto, has sought to position itself as an alternative to the “pernicious ideology” that “tramples on the essence of a multicultural country”. But it has carefully avoided the language of secularism, pushing the concept to the margins of its discourse.

But a majoritarian political agenda cannot be credibly resisted without a robust reclamation of secularism. Arguably, the crisis in secularism predates the present political regime, which is why it has been vulnerable to appropriation and abuse, leaving its defenders bereft of a vocabulary to debate its cause.

In an important essay titled “Secularism under Siege”, political scientist Neera Chandhoke argues that this crisis is a consequence of conflating the social process of secularisation with political norms of secularism. Chandhoke argues for the need to reinscribe secularism as an integral component of democracy. In pursuance of its ideological agenda, the BJP has sought to equate secularism with some notion of anti-Hindu and anti-national. But by choosing silence over debate and actively seeking to reaffirm its Hindu credentials, the Congress has in fact legitimised the BJP’s ideological project. India’s democratic future lies in our ability to wrest, reclaim and reinvent the concept of secularism. And this election is unlikely to create the conditions to do just this.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research