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THE LAXMAN LINE

Print edition : Sep 16, 2000 T+T-

Bangaru Laxman, the new national president of the BJP, prescribes a 10-point social agenda to overcome the factors that have worked against the growth of the party of Hindutva, but his bid to court Indian Muslims and non-privileged sections has met with scepticism within the party and outside it.

THE "Bharatiya Janata Party's continued rapid expansion", admitted Bangaru Laxman in his presidential address to the party's National Council session in Nagpur on August 26 and 27, has been impeded by three factors: first, the party is yet to consolidate its new support base among Dalits, adivasis and backward classes; second, in States where the BJP has once been elected to power, it has failed to cope with the incumbency disadvantage in the next round of electoral contests; and third, the equation bet ween the BJP and the Muslim community has just not worked out right yet.

Laxman's analysis of why the progress of the party of Hindutva has hit a plateau would perhaps merit high marks for candour and transparency from detached observers. But the prescription he has issued on ways to overcome the factors that have worked agai nst the growth of the party, has provoked an intense debate within the party on its prudence and outside on the BJP's real intentions here.

Laxman has, first, urged all party units to make sustained efforts to expand their political and organisational work among Dalits, adivasis and backward classes. The Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh cautioned that the promotion of social justice and soci al integration cannot be achieved through governmental action alone. This implies that all party workers and leaders would need to be closely associated with some social reform activities in their regions.

This appeal to BJP workers to take up apolitical, constructive work - almost in the Gandhian mould - was received with scepticism within the party. In recent times, it has shown a proclivity for theories such as "social engineering" as a technique of exp anding its social base. Laxman's elevation as the party's national president could itself be considered, in this interpretation, a consequence of the strategy of "social engineering". But the strategy of engineering a leadership hierarchy that mirrors th e larger reality in its social origins, has been implemented only sporadically and selectively. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the post of State unit president was recently given to a Brahmin leader. And since the backward class leader Kalyan Singh's ou ster from the party last year, it has relentlessly sought to marginalise other backward class leaders who figured prominently in its hierarchy earlier. In this context of acute competition among various castes for the internal levers of power in the part y, it is considered somewhat implausible that Gandhian devotion to social constructive work would yield any significant dividends for the party.

The likely impact of Laxman's ascent to the post of national president on the party's social base is yet unclear, despite his claim that it has thrown the parties claiming to champion the cause of Dalits, notably the Bahujan Samaj Party, into a state of "shock". The BJP boasts that it has the largest number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe MPs and MLAs in the country.

But as Laxman himself would admit, the number is still not sufficient to show that the party has a winning strategy to woo these sections. Laxman's 10-point agenda for advancing social justice, outlined in Nagpur, is a list of the BJP's avowed goals, and lacks the practical thrust to inspire the confidence of these sections.

Laxman urged all his colleagues in States where the BJP had been a victim of the anti-incumbency factor, to do a critical analysis of their gains and losses. "They should also learn from the positive experiences of other political parties that have survi ved the anti-incumbency trend," he counselled. Some of the States where the disadvantage of being in office has not seriously damaged the electoral chances of the incumbent party are West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Considering the BJP's new-found aggression in West Bengal and its animus towards the Laloo Prasad Yadav dispensation in Bihar, the exhortation that the party should learn from these States should seem somewhat curious.

Yet the BJP obviously has much to learn on this score. With the exception of Rajasthan in 1993, when the party won an ambiguous victory despite being in office till the previous year, the BJP has suffered massive anti-incumbency effects in elections wher ever it has held office. And its incumbency in Uttar Pradesh is almost certain to end in a rout when elections are next held in the State.

The reasons for the BJP not being able to survive the incumbency disadvantage in States where it has held power may perhaps be partly found in its inability to attract the durable allegiance of Dalits, adivasis, backward classes and religious minorities. When its core constituencies begin fraying after some years in office, the BJP invariably suffers disastrously, because it is unable to attract other groups to its banner. Indeed, Laxman's thesis on the need to rework the relationship between the BJP an d Indian Muslims, has been interpreted in different ways. While Muslim public opinion has been generally lukewarm to Laxman's invitation to join the party, the BJP's motives in making this course correction have attracted considerable interest.

Laxman was indeed right in assuming that one of the chief reasons for the virtual stagnation of the BJP in terms of electoral support in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 and 1999 was its failure to secure Muslim votes. "Ironically, although Shri Atalji is highly respected and popular among Indian Muslims, they tend to keep away from the BJP," he said in Nagpur session. Some of the course correction measures that he has proposed include espousing developmental issues concerning common Muslims, bringing mo re dynamic and socially respected Muslim activists into the BJP, and having more Muslims in the lists of the BJP's candidates to various elections.

Laxman's repeated use of the term "Indian Muslims" showed that the BJP is yet to change its mindset regarding the country's most numerous religious minority. To the specific question of why he had chosen to characterise Muslims as 'Indian Muslims' when H indus were not similarly described as "Indian Hindus", Laxman evaded a clear answer at his first press conference in New Delhi after assuming charge. But observers were quick to point out that the BJP leaders used the term Indian Muslims, in order to dis tinguish them from those who were suspected to have extra-territorial loyalties. Far from the benign message that Laxman sought to convey, they observe that the term "Indian Muslims" has a deeper and more sinister connotation.

IN wooing Muslims, Laxman claimed during his presidential address in Nagpur, the BJP should be guided by what Deendayal Upadhyaya himself exhorted them to remember, in his presidential address at the Kozhikode (then Calicut) session of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in December 1967. Laxman went on to quote Upadhyaya as having told the Jan Sangh at that session: "Muslims are the flesh of our flesh and the blood of our blood." An examination of the full text of Upadhyaya's speech and its context might facilitat e a better understanding of Laxman's current utilisation of it.

Upadhyaya's presidential speech made in Hindi is carried as Appendix IV in the book, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya: Ideology and Perception, Part VII - A Profile, by V.N. Deodhar. His remarks on the minorities, made towards the end of his speech, are too general in nature and he did not refer to any particular community, let alone Muslims: "We are pledged to the service not of any particular community or section, but of the entire nation. Every countryman is blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh ." (The Hindi version of the speech says "every countryman is our relative - "bandhav".) "We shall not rest till we are able to give to every one of them a sense of pride that they are children of Bharatmata," Upadhyaya concluded.

None can deny the BJP the right to take liberties with quotations from its own ideological gurus, in order to drive home an expedient current message with greater force. However, Upadhyaya's remarks have to be understood within the totality of his politi cal philosophy. It was certainly not the intention of the Jan Sangh or of Upadhyaya to recognise the inalienable rights of Muslims as a minority. Recognition and respect for the diverse culture, as represented by Islam and its believers in India, is not what Upadhyaya had in mind when he made the speech at the largely Muslim town in the erstwhile Malabar region. In fact, at an RSS camp in Rajasthan on June 9, 1966, Upadhyaya was clearer and more specific about his basic beliefs. He said: "As long as Hin dus live, there is no threat to Islam. There is no difference between Ram and Allah. In Vishnusahasranamam, there is no harm if we add one name of Allah. But the fight is not over religion, but ambitious, communal politics, resorted to by Mosques."

Writing in the Republic Day Special of Organiser in 1962, Upadhyaya stated: "There is no harm in Christianity and Islam continuing along with the other sects of Hinduism. In fact, they can exist only if Hinduism is the dominant part of our nationa l life. However, their followers should be one with the national current."

These statements seem to indicate that Upadhyaya fully subscribed to the Sangh philosophy which denied the existence of a separate Muslim identity. As Upadhyaya's biographer, and BJP's Rajya Sabha MP, Mahesh Chandra Sharma said: "Upadhyaya believed in th e geo-cultural identity of Hinduism. Thus he refused to recognise that there are two nations, or two communities, or two cultures. He was against treating Hinduism as a religion. There is no reason to disbelieve that Upadhyaya would have considered Musli ms as an integral part of our society."

Symbolism is what the BJP resorts to while trying to woo Muslims, and Laxman's line is not the first of its kind in the party's history. The BJP created a Minorities Cell within the party on the eve of the 11th Lok Sabha elections in 1996. Arif Beg, who was the convener of the Minorities Cell, however, quit the party after failing to get a ticket to fight the Lok Sabha elections in 1998. Another prominent Muslim leader, Sikandar Bakht was unceremoniously excluded from Vajpayee's third Ministry in 1999. The BJP Minorities Cell had prepared a comprehensive package offering taaleem (education), tanzeem (organisation) and tijarat (employment) to Muslims as part of its campaign for the 1996 general election. But Muslims were not quite c onvinced about the party's credentials.

The new emphasis on gaining the trust of the minorities is inducing certain curious changes in the pattern of utterances issuing from the party leadership. When in Opposition, the BJP lost no opportunity to castigate the Congress(I) for providing a subsi dy in the matter of the air fare for the Haj pilgrimage, which in its eyes then was a symbol of minority appeasement. Today, the BJP proudly advertises its decision to increase the subsidy given to the pilgrims.

Even as Laxman was appealing to his partymen to woo Muslims, the National Commission for Minorities released its report on the riots in Surat, following the BJP's protest bandh over the killing of pilgrims to Amarnath by Kashmiri militants. The bandh, su pported by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal on August 3, turned violent in Surat. The NCM has found that Bismillah Hotel, owned by a Muslim, was targeted and ransacked. Besides, shops, business establishments and powerloom sheds belong ing to Muslims, were selectively targeted throughout Surat. A total of 150 business establishments were burnt down, even though Muslims had closed their shops, and announced full participation in the proposed bandh. The NCM, therefore, asked the State go vernment to persuade the VHP and the Bajrang Dal to accept full moral responsibility for failing to prevent their field functionaries from resorting to violence while enforcing the bandh. The NCM received several representations from Christians and other minority groups in Gujarat about incidents of violence against them in recent months.

Praful Goradia, former editor of BJP Today, the official party organ, said: "Laxman has begun a process. It will take time for the activists to change their attitudes. With more Muslims joining the BJP, they will change." It seems the BJP currentl y has a membership of 16 lakh Muslims, who have been enrolled as primary members during the past few years.

In the context of a general sense of insecurity felt by the minorities, particularly Muslims, the BJP needs to demonstrate its sincerity rather than engage in mere sloganeering.

The RSS obviously has no problems in letting such symbolic efforts by the BJP to woo Muslims. A senior RSS functionary refused to describe Laxman's appeal as an effort at appeasement, but the Nagpur speech has certainly angered the BJP's ally, the Shiv S ena. Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chieftain, not only disapproved of Laxman's invitation to Muslims to join the party, but warned the BJP that the Shiv Sena would review its ties with the BJP if it makes a Muslim leader one of the five general secretarie s of the BJP, as suggested by media reports.

Notable among the allies who have reason to welcome the kinder, gentler image of the BJP are the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam Party and the Tamil Nadu allies, the DMK and the MDMK. All these parties took significant risks with their traditional co nstituencies among the religious minorities to align with the BJP. Though the alliance did not prove a liability in the last elections, it could have proven embarrassing if the BJP had not opted for a change of image. The BJP might ignore the Shiv Sena's provocative behaviour for the moment, as it is more than offset by the support of the other allies in the National Democratic Alliance. But it will have to go beyond symbolism to the real substance of winning Muslim loyalty if it is to sustain the new i mage.