Down, but not out

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The BJP is defeated politically, but communalism is alive and active. The electoral victory has gifted secular forces with a golden, and perhaps the last, opportunity to counter it.

THE main reason attributed by the spokesman of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) for the defeat of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the failure of the government to implement fully the Hindutva agenda. The international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also echoed the same opinion. He is of the view that the present leadership of the BJP has ignored the interests of the Hindus by marginalising the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and, therefore, deserves to be voted out of power. He demanded a change in the leadership in favour of a new `Hindu face' like that of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati whose conscience would not be troubled by moderation in the pursuit of Hindu interests. The controlling forces in the Sangh Parivar have evidently realised that the cleverly crafted `statesmanship' of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the charioting abilities of Lal Krishna Advani are not likely to lead them to realise the goals they had set for themselves. It is time to draft a new script, the form of which has already been spelt out, but the words are yet to be filled in. The agenda of the Sangh Parivar during the next five years is likely to focus on a re-articulation, even a redefinition, of Hindu interests in order to expand its social base and political influence. In the process, new sites of agitation and mobilisation are likely to be invented.

The disenchantment of the RSS and the VHP with the performance of the BJP government during the last five years, despite its unmistakably communal character, is not because the latter did not own the Hindutva agenda. Nor is it true that the BJP has not achieved a measure of success in colouring the state institutions saffron and turning them into powerful instruments for the generation and propagation of communal discourse. The impact of this effort is quite evident in the fields of education, science and technology and culture. Simultaneously, secular values and practices have been undermined and the secular character of public institutions has been deformed. The truth is that these efforts did not satisfy the hardcore advocates of Hindutva and their unhappiness is not born out of the frustration of electoral defeat alone. The Sangh Parivar is understandably disappointed that the political opportunity could not be used to satisfy the religious aspirations they had aroused in their followers. Their credibility as the champions of Hindu interests was therefore at stake. Hence the rather frantic attempt to distance themselves from the present leadership which had their support during the last five years.

CHOOSING the representatives of the people is the avowed goal of an election, but it is not its sole objective in a democratic system. The process by which the voter arrives at a decision as to whom to choose has much greater salience for political education. Ideally, the elections are meant to deepen the commitment of the people to democratic values and culture. The election campaigns are, therefore, supposed to be the battlegrounds of ideas and the sites for the clash of contending views about the future of society and polity. It is such debates that help the voter to make informed electoral decisions. Only if the campaigns are undertaken with this perspective can their democratising potential be realised.

To what extent did the election of 2004 contribute to this political process? Among the several issues of policy and governance that agitated the electorate, two were of crucial significance. First, the communalisation of the state and society witnessed during the tenure of the NDA government - a process approved and promoted by it. The consequent communal-secular divide in society reflected a contest between two systems of political and social values. Second, the NDA rule witnessed an unprecedented surrender of the Indian economy to the interests of multinational capital. The BJP sought to fudge these issues, as it feared that in both cases its record could not be defended. Therefore, the nature of the campaign was so designed to bypass these crucial issues and to focus on the unreal and the uncritical. Thus slogans such as `India Shining' and `Feel Good Factor' were invented which, it was hoped, would arouse the patriotic pride of the people and, in turn, induce them to submerge their misery in the pool of common good. But the life of the common man was not shining anywhere, nor did he have anything to feel good about. Like the Fascists in Europe, the BJP believed that people could be duped by propaganda, that too by using the money collected from them. That was not to be. The credibility gap was so wide that even the BJP could realise the futility of this fraud. Hence it shifted the focus of the campaign to issues that could arouse emotion and patriotic fervour, such as the "foreign origin" of Sonia Gandhi.

No electoral campaign had touched such low level of decency and public morality as that of the BJP in this election. As its fortunes ebbed during the protracted electoral process, the quality of its campaign was increasingly drained of parliamentary decorum. Fascism among other things, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, is "crude and vulgar". On that count alone, a clear homology between Fascism and Hindu communalism is in order. Never before was this character of Hindu communalism so clearly expressed than during the run-up to this election. The way the "foreign origin" issue was handled by the BJP leadership not only betrayed the anxiety for survival, but a lack of elementary courtesy and decency.

The language and demeanour of the Modis, the Togadias, the Sushma Swarajs and the Vinay Katiyars can perhaps be dismissed as individual aberrations, but the approval of their behaviour by the national leadership of a party that ruled one of the oldest civilisations of the world can hardly be condoned. And the BJP takes particular pride in the achievements of that civilisation. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, who is hailed as a statesman, chose to keep quiet. He had nothing to say about this uncultured behaviour of his party members. But then did he also not resort to puns, for which he is popular, to demean his opponents?

The rather vulgar and indecent campaign was neither accidental nor the result of individual hallucination. It is the outcome of deliberate planning. Otherwise the Hindi songs, which would unsettle the sensitivity of any cultured person, could not have found such a prominent place in the BJP's campaign. Written by a well-known lyricist of the Hindi film world, who was obviously commissioned to do so, their language is foul, diction offensive and pun revolting. The common man in India values civilised behaviour and disapproves indecency, particularly if it is against women. One of the widely shared strains in Indian tradition is the respect and consideration it accords to women, so much so that several Hindu religious reformers hold that the greatness of a civilisation is marked by the way it treats women. Is the rejection of the BJP in this election a reaction of the common man to the uncivilised behaviour of its leaders?

JOHN GALBRAITH, the famous economist, once remarked that no generalisation holds good for India as a whole. This observation most certainly applies to the electoral verdict of 2004. No single reason can be ascribed to the way the people exercised their franchise in various parts of the country. Yet, there is no denying the fact that there was a widely shared sentiment against the BJP. It did not manifest itself as an upsurge as in 1977 only because the intensity of this resentment was not widely realised, given the pro-BJP impression created by the media. The BJP, in the reckoning of most scribes, was the front-runner. The main contribution of the psephologists and pollsters to the election of 2004 was the construction of this expert, but false, assessment. Despite this `positive' role of the media, had the secular formations had greater organisational ability, the results would have been quantitatively different and the BJP would have been totally decimated, even if it managed to preserve its earlier support base. The sentiment against the BJP was generated neither by anti-incumbency nor by any particular policy of the government. The administrative measures of the government anchored in the interests of multinational capital were indeed a decisive factor influencing the electoral behaviour. But what persuaded people to exercise their franchise against the BJP was the character of its rule, which was communal, authoritarian and anti-people. The verdict, however, was not against the government and the party alone, but equally against the Sangh Parivar as a whole.

The Sangh Parivar looked upon the government led by the BJP as an instrument and not as an end in itself. The importance of political power and the opportunity it would provide, even as a part of a motley coalition, were fully realised. One of the purposes of the BJP's participation in the government was to enable the Sangh Parivar to pursue the larger agenda of creating the social, cultural and ideological structures as a necessary precursor to the construction of a Hindu Rashtra. Therefore what was expected of the BJP was that it would use the government authority for two purposes. First, to ensure the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and, if possible, to `liberate' the temples at Kashi and Mathura. Second, to take steps to further the influence of the Sangh Parivar in civil society and at the same time to create the necessary conditions for controlling the state institutions.

Regarding the former, despite its commitment to the cause, the BJP could not make much headway owing to the constraints of coalition politics. A semblance of moderation was necessary in the pursuit of communal interests, if the coalition government were to be preserved. In the event, the BJP chose to tread cautiously; supporting the construction of the temple on the one hand, and, on the other, assuring the coalition partners about the government's commitment to them in the matter. Although the government did not involve itself directly in the various agitations launched for constructing the temple, it did lend support to the attempts of the Sangh Parivar to force the issue. The Prime Minister himself played out this dual role to perfection. Whenever attempts were made to disturb the status quo at Ayodhya, he expressed his anguish, but soon gave the impression that such acts were inspired by the legitimate aspirations of Hindus and thus justified what he had earlier disapproved. Even the most militant among the Sangh Parivar would not have expected the BJP-led government to implement fully the Hindutva agenda. The main and immediate aim was to construct the temple at Ayodhya, which in fact was a demand of the VHP. The RSS was not unduly exercised over the temple construction issue. It was more concerned with the fulfilment of long-term interests.

In the case of long-term interests of the Sangh Parivar, the BJP government has very effectively pursued its brief. It has succeeded in putting in place an ideological structure, which would ensure the displacement of secular ideas and practices from state institutions and agencies. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, under the stewardship of RSS stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi, relentlessly pursued this ideal. By using the powers of patronage, it has managed to ensure the collaboration of a section of the intelligentsia in this effort. Several `independent' intellectuals and cultural leaders were more than willing to act as his hatchetmen.

Ensconcing themselves in places of power, the cohorts of Joshi have succeeded in denuding the educational, cultural and research institutions of their academic character and transformed them into communal outfits. In the bargain, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) and several other such institutions became centres for the dissemination of obscurantism and the irrationality of `Joshism'. The prestigious Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have been saved from this disaster by the people. At the same time the communalisation of state institutions such as the police and the bureaucracy had also been effected.

The overthrow of the BJP government, therefore, does not automatically mean the end of communal influence. It would persist in the administration and continue to be felt in institutional practices. Dismantling the ideological structures and institutional arrangements is urgently necessary, if communalism is to be rooted out of the country's public life. This cannot be achieved by administrative changes alone. For instance, in the field of education, the entire curriculum has been given a communal orientation, history has been rewritten and the achievements of indigenous science have been romanticised. To implement these ideas, a large number of schools have been set up, particularly in tribal areas. Even the funds of scientific research institutions have been diverted to `invent' and privilege the "Hindu sciences". The `achievements' of the BJP government in these areas being of a high order, it would require considerable effort to undo the damage to the educational system of the country. But it goes without saying that it is an urgent task.

HINDU communalism is at the threshold of a new phase in its history. By articulating its ideology as `integral humanism', it had sought to expand its political influence through participation in coalition governments from 1977. This policy has resulted in enormous political benefit, as its electoral performance steadily improved; so much so that it gained enough ascendancy to lead the government in 1999. The aim of the experiment at governance, conducted with the help of an unwieldy coalition, was to expand its social support in order to gain a majority in Parliament on its own. During the campaign, the BJP president had repeatedly stated that the aim was to win 300 seats for itself, so that the party could be free from the stranglehold of the alliance partners in the implementation of the Hindutva agenda. After all, have not the BJP leaders repeatedly stated that they would take up the contentious issues only when the party gets a majority on its own?

The general elections have pushed the BJP to the backseat. Although the coalition strategy had yielded considerable political leeway, its limitations were exposed by the electoral verdict. Without the active support and collaboration of its allies, the BJP would not have succeeded in keeping its nose above water during the last five years. Yet, they could not be taken for granted. M. Karunanidhi and Ram Vilas Paswan changed sides and N. Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalithaa proved unpopular. The ability of the `statesman' Prime Minister to manage the contradictions within the coalition slowly but steadily vanished. The pre-election euphoria thus turned into a nightmare. If the success of the BJP in the election of 1999 was a result of the support extended by the allies, the defeat in the present elections indicated how fragile and undependable the coalition was. The BJP has, therefore, been forced to look for an alternative route to power. Would it usher in a new phase in the history of Hindu communalism?

During the last 10 years of its leap forward, the Sangh Parivar adopted different strategies to advance and reinforce its appeal. Among them, religious mobilisation through emotive issues have yielded maximum dividend. Beginning with the Ram Janmabhoomi issue such efforts have covered almost all regions. Other sites of religious contestation, such as Baba Budhangiri (in Karanataka) and Bhojshala (in Madhya Pradesh), were invented. Agitations were launched in protest against artistic representations of Hindu deities and scholarly interpretations of history. Such agitations with a religious focus were continuously kept alive. Such efforts achieved a very high degree of success in forcing a sense of division in society, since all these issues were advanced as matters of religious interests.

While the VHP was mainly in the forefront of these agitations, the RSS was engaged in constructing a more abiding influence through the activities of cultural and social institutional network. The access to power during the last five years considerably benefited these organisations, as RSS stalwarts such as Murli Manohar Joshi used their official position to patronise and promote them. What has happened, as a result, was not Hindu revivalism alone, but more grievously, the communalisation of the marginalised. Although these efforts have covered considerable ground, several social groups, particularly among Dalits and the Adivasis, have not yet been fully brought under the umbrella of Hinduisation. The Ekal Vidyalayas being set up in the tribal areas, manned by RSS cadre, and the sanskritisation of Dalit and tribal worship practices are part of imparting a Hindu identity to tribal people as a first step in their cooption to the communal fold.

The administration of the BJP had sought to project a modern face by advocating a capitalist development agenda. Despite the objections and opposition of the more conservative sections of the Sangh Parivar, the government enunciated and pursued a policy of liberalisation and globalisation, mainly to garner the support of the middle class, even if, in the process, it subordinated the economy to the imperial interests. The subordinate capitalist development, which ensued, was hailed as the model for future India. It was on that plank that the State Assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were fought and won. The campaigns of `India Shining' and `Feel Good Factor' were also informed by the same perspective.

DESPITE the electoral debacle, the Sangh Parivar is not likely to renounce any of these strategies. For they all appeal to various sections of its existing social base. But then the existing social base is not wide enough to ensure a majority on its own. The popular vote the BJP has received so far has remained in the region of about 20 per cent. In the given configuration of political forces, it is not likely to mark any substantial increase. Even in the first past the post system it is not sufficient to ensure a majority in Parliament. An increase of at least about 10 per cent is required to achieve it. In the coming years, therefore, the Sangh Parivar would be forced to refashion its strategies, if it wants to expand its social base. Then only can it hope to realise its oft-repeated dream of gaining a majority that would enable it to implement the agenda of Hindutva without constraints. Such a reorientation of strategy would mark a new stage in the history of Hindu communalism.

The character of the new stage would constitute a conscious preparation for a Fascist order. The Sangh Parivar had not bargained for a premature take over as happened in 1999. It was one of those accidents in history, from which it tried to derive maximum mileage. The aim of the Sangh Parivar was to come to power only when their social and ideological structures were firmly put in place in society. The Fascism of Hindu communalism would come to stay only if it flows out of such a social situation. Therefore the future portends the `return' to the civil society by expanding the RSS programme of `constructive' cultural, social and intellectual interventions. The hitherto communally uncolonised sections of society such as Dalits and Adivasis are likely to be the targets of Hindutva `social engineering'. That the extension of such interventions into new areas would intensify violence, particularly against Christian missionaries who are engaged in social and philanthropic work among the tribal people, is a distinct possibility.

Upsetting all calculations and predictions, the people have provided an opportunity to retrieve the secular ethos of Indian society and politics. This is a triumph occasioned by the active mediation and involvement of a variety of forces. Individuals, political parties and voluntary organisations have contributed to this secular assertion. What has happened as a result is the defeat of communal forces at the hustings, but communal ideology has not been worsted. It is still alive and active. And during the next five years it would be more assertive. The secular forces have been, so to say, gifted with a golden and perhaps the last opportunity to countermand communalism; to dismantle its ideological structures, to undermine its social ascendancy and to marginalise its political influence. History never repeats itself. Another such opportunity may not materialise at all.

K.N. Panikkar is Vice-Chancellor, Sri Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.

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