India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is in decline, its ideology is in retreat and it is unable to enthuse the Hindu middle class. Now is the time to reassert secularism.
So resigned have Indians become to the idea of impunity for the powerful, especially in respect of hate speeches and crimes targeting ethno-religious groups, that the mere summoning of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi by the Special Investigation Team generated near-euphoric responses from the media.
That Modi was questioned on the Gulberg Society massacre case and related issues for nine hours is significant, but it is by no means clear whether this will lead to specific charges being framed and a proper trial being conducted in which Modi is among the accused.
The SIT, appointed by the Supreme Court, has shown few signs of vitality or urgent intent to bring to justice the culprits of the communal violence cases referred to it. It will not be easy to prepare the ground for prosecuting the culprits given the shoddy state of police records in Gujarat and the failure to properly note the sequence of events, the names of the accused, the nature of injuries sustained by the victims, and so on.
By all accounts, the police did a pretty leisurely cover-up job for themselves and for the killers, arsonists and looters who went berserk following the Godhra train fire and butchered 2,000 Muslims. Had the Centre dismissed Modi as Chief Minister and imposed President’s Rule, as it ought to have done, things might have shaped up differently. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government did not rise above petty party interests and refused to do its duty by the Constitution.
Even the Election Commission, having first declared the Gujarat situation unfit for holding Assembly elections, eventually caved in. It agreed to organise the elections barely nine months after the violence. The situation in the State then was still abnormal and communally polarised. The perpetrators, collaborators and defenders of the pogrom were in a triumphant mood, and thousands of victims were cowering in refugee camps, where they could not be realistically expected to exercise their franchise without fear.
While Gujarat was unique in the scale and barbaric quality of its communal violence, as well as state collusion in the pogrom, the whole country was under the spell of communalism during the BJP’s years in power at the Centre and beyond.
Thus, institution after institution, including the civil services, sections of academia, the corporate media and even the judiciary, came under the influence of what might be termed, for want of a better word, a certain genteel kind of Hindu communalism. And, it was common for bureaucrats and senior police officials to air Hindu communal views.
As this column reported (“A hothouse of communalism”, August 12, 1994), a raucous celebration broke out on December 6, 1992, at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie (now in Uttarakhand), where all-India services officers are trained. Among the most enthusiastic participants in the jubilation over the Babri Masjid demolition were some of the top-ranking Indian Administrative Service officers then undergoing their final phase of training. The principal response of the Academy’s faculty and trainees to this embarrassing disclosure was denial, followed by a closing of the ranks.
The police force in many States too got deeply communalised, to the point where it became virtually impossible to prosecute anti-Muslim hate speech. Harassment of young Muslims under the guise of anti-terrorist measures acquired dangerous proportions.
Rabidly communal writers and anchors were catapulted to positions of prominence in the mainstream media. School textbooks were rewritten with a viciously communal bias. The Supreme Court refused to order effective corrective action. Indeed, in 1995, the court passed the “Hindutva-as-a-way-of-life” judgment, legitimising the ideology of Hindu nationalism and a truncated notion of citizenship. BJP leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee were lionised in middle-class drawing rooms despite their complicity in or condoning of overt violence in Gujarat.
The BJP made two huge gains during the 1990s and the early years of this decade. It extended its support-base outside the savarnas in the Hindi belt, to attract the Other Backward Classes. Second, and even more importantly, the BJP deepened its penetration among the urban upper-caste middle and upper classes and became the preferred party of the elite.
While the first gain eroded rapidly, especially in States such as Uttar Pradesh, the second proved more lasting. Large sections of the elite continued to support Hindutva even after the BJP was trounced in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP continued to behave as if the election was stolen from it. It pretended that it had lost only because of tactical errors such as the India Shining campaign and continued to behave as if it was the natural party of governance. In reality, the BJP was punished by the electorate for its divisive and sectarian politics (of which the Gujarat violence was only one manifestation, if a particularly vile one) and its brazen pursuit of neoliberal policies. Its base had eroded considerably.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) did very little during its first term to re-secularise Indian politics and society emphatically, barring the revamping of the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) to produce non-communal and pedagogically superior textbooks, and the establishment of the Sachar Committee on the status of Muslims.
It is only after the BJP’s second consecutive defeat in 2009 and its poor performance in major States such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan that the realisation that the party was in decline sank in. The BJP today faces multiple crises: a crisis of ideological identity (linked to Hindutva and its umbilical cord with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh); a leadership crisis (the difficulty of making a transition to a post-Vajpayee-Advani generation, and rivalry among younger leaders); an organisational crisis (manifested in inner-party dissidence and uneasy relations between the BJP and different branches of the Sangh Parivar); and a crisis of strategy of political mobilisation.
The BJP squandered away the best opportunity it ever had – when it was in power at the Centre – to make a clear ideological and organisational break with the RSS. It did not muster the will to do it. It is highly unlikely even to want to do so now. In fact, the RSS has tightened its grip on the BJP through securing the appointment of its cadres as the party’s organisational secretaries in all the major States as well as nationally.
The RSS dictated terms to the BJP by forcing L.K. Advani to resign as party president after his public praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah. More recently, it forced him to quit as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Nitin Gadkari, the new BJP president, is an RSS nominee. His organisational team bears a strong RSS impress in the form of Ram Lal’s appointment as general secretary (organisation) with two joint general secretaries, both RSS members, under him.
Under the circumstances, it is hard to see how the BJP can resolve its crises and stem its decline. It has no imaginative policies and programmes that can win it mass appeal. There are no issues around which it can mobilise political support. And the fading appeal of Hindutva, and loss of power in the Hindi belt barring Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, means that it cannot draw in young people as activists, as it once did.
Prosecute the culprits
Today is the right moment to decisively marginalise the BJP and reaffirm secularism. The best way to do so would be for the UPA to seriously pursue the prosecution of the culprits of the Babri demolition and the wave of violence which followed, and above all, the Gujarat pogrom. Simultaneously, the UPA should do all it can to empower the marginalised among the Muslim community by aggressively implementing the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Committee.
The testimony of police officer Anju Gupta in the case against Advani and others in a Rae Bareli court is a landmark development, which holds the potential for bringing the perpetrators of the Babri demolition to justice. Anju Gupta’s account of the events of December 6 can and should be richly corroborated by other evidence, including eyewitness accounts and video footage of the inflammatory speeches by Sangh Parivar leaders and the kar sevaks’ actions.
The UPA would do the public a great disservice if it drags its feet on this case. The urgency to end the impunity of Hindutva leaders cannot be overemphasised.