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Another gift to secular India

In May 2014, secular India elected Narendra Modi – the man widely seen to be behind the 2002 carnage of Muslims in the Gujarat communal riots – to the highest office of the land. Three years later, Modi has partly worked off his debt to secular India by picking Yogi Adityanath, a zealous exponent of Hindutva, to head the government of the nation’s most populous state – Uttar Pradesh (UP).

By supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last national election and now in the state polls in UP, on each occasion by an overwhelming majority, the electorate sent out the message that secularism and Hindu nationalism are not mutually incompatible. At the same time, a significant minority in the country will continue to question the credentials of both Modi and the BJP to lead a multi-ethnic India.

What’s happening in India is by no means exclusive to it; it reflects a bigger phenomenon that is occurring in different parts of the globe. Writing at the end of the cold war and drawing upon philosopher Hegel’s famous view that history advances in terms of a conflict or dialectic, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history’, as liberal democracy had finally triumphed over its erstwhile antagonist communism. However, Fukuyama failed to see, which Hegel no doubt would have noticed, that the triumphant liberalism would not have a smooth sailing and would soon beget another adversary.

The contemporary world, as we see it, is characterised by two conflicting phenomena. On the one hand is globalisation, which in a nutshell seeks to create a global culture based on North American and Western European values, such as liberal democracy, free market economy and multilateral economic integration regardless of creed or ethnicity. The other phenomenon, which in part is a reaction to globalisation, entails the assertion of particular identities, such as religion, sect, race, and language.

Referred to as identity politics, this phenomenon embodies a claim to power based on a particular creed or ethnicity. In its softer forms, identity politics stands for safeguarding the rights of a community, usually a minority or a marginalised one, by a peaceful, constitutional struggle. At times, however, identity politics goes berserk and fanatically seeks power for a community by means fair or foul, peaceful or sanguinary. And if that community, as in the case of Hindus in India, already happens to be in a pre-eminent position, it may seek total domination, even if it means annihilating the weaker identity. Here are some examples:

While running for the office of the president, Donald Trump championed the rights of the white Americans as opposed to the immigrants. He vowed, in the event of his election, to get tough on immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Now he is on the course of fulfilling his pre-poll pledge.

In Western Europe, identity politics is gaining currency, threatening the very existence of the European Union (EU), which embodies an attempt – until recently fairly successful – to construct a common European identity. Brexit poses a very serious challenge to that attempt. In all, the traditional right-left dialectic is giving way to exclusivity-openness antagonism. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed more than a million immigrants with open arms. The electorate responded by handing down defeat to her party in the local elections. Now, her own re-election later this year is very much in doubt. The far-right political parties are on the ascendency in several other countries on the continent, such as France, Austria, Greece, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark.

In Turkey too, identity politics has come to occupy the centre stage. The Justice and Development Party (JDP) founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan owes its rise, in large measures, to that brand of politics. From time to time, Erdogan and the JDP make references to the Ottoman era, which is the antithesis of secularism – the bedrock of modern Turkey.

Identity politics feeds on itself. The effort to transcend an identity more often than not gives rise to another, making the adherents of the former harden their position. Economic factors, such as unemployment and relative poverty, provide a fertile ground for the rise of identity politics. The members of a community can be made to believe that their share in the national pie is shrinking because other communities are getting more than their due.

Coming back to India, it is officially a secular state and logically so. The Indian National Congress (INC) had opposed the creation of Pakistan on the ground that the partition of a multiethnic India on the basis of religion would be unwarranted. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who spearheaded the movement for the establishment of Pakistan, was rounded on by the advocates of a united India for what they called injecting religion into politics.

The Congress Party, the successor to the INC, has remained committed to secularism. In the first three decades of independence, there was little credible opposition to the Congress, and by implication, there was little danger to secularism as a matter of state policy. The situation changed with the rise of the BJP. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the BJP’s roots can be traced to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the National Volunteers Corps, and its political arm, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) or Indian People’s Association. The BJS was wedded to rebuilding India into a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values or Hindutva. Formally set up in 1980, the BJP inherited the BJS mission.

Since its inception, the BJP has been fiercely opposed to secularism. In the early 1990s, the party supported the demand for pulling down the historic Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in UP and building a temple in its place. It is widely alleged that the people who razed the mosque in December 1992 were associated with the BJP. In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party and formed its first government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Since 1991, the year when former prime minister and Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, two dominant trends can be discerned in the Indian polity. One, the fortunes of the Congress have raked down – notwithstanding the fact that it has thrice formed the government since then – and those of the BJP have ratcheted up. Two, secularism has weakened and Hindu nationalism has strengthened. In 2014, both these trends combined to produce a joint effect: the resounding electoral victory of the BJP and the worst ever defeat of the Congress.

By virtue of its size, culture and history, UP is one of the most important Indian states. It has larger numbers of Hindus and Muslims than any other Indian state. The Muslims’ share in total population is the sixth highest (19 percent) in UP. It has provided India with more prime ministers, including the incumbent, than any other state.

For the last decade and a half, the BJP had not tasted power in the state. But the Modi or Hindutva wave has swept UP as well. To consolidate the gains from the victory, it was only logical that a hardliner would be given the most coveted office of the state.

The writer is a freelance countributor.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H Zaidi, "Another gift to secular India," The News. 2017-03-26.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political arm , Local elections , Poverty , Democracy , Immigrants , Unemployment , Rajiv Gandhi , PM Modi , India , Pakistan , JDP , BJP , RSS