The most vital questions about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s smashing victory in Gujarat concern its impact on the balance of power within the sangh parivar, the way it is likely to affect the relations between partners in the National Democratic Alliance government and its bearing on the country’s constitutional commitment to a secularist ethos. Since Narendra Modi’s policy of letting the police allow frenzied rioting mobs to avenge the death of 60 kar sevaks in a railway coach set on fire by allegedly Muslim miscreants at Godhra by killing 15 times as many members of the main minority community in Ahmedabad and other places, and thus polarizing the state into two hostile communal camps to rally Hindus, has paid off, he has become something of a role model for the BJP leaders.
His elevation to the position of a hero, and the loose talk in BJP circles of the Gujarat experiment being repeated in the states where elections are due next year, leave no room for doubt that the Gujarat tragedy will strengthen the more aggressive advocates of both Hindutva and swadeshi in the sangh parivar, one of whom has hailed the Gujarat victory as a first step towards the creation of a Hindu rashtra.
The prime minister’s own attitude is a bit cagey. While keen to sustain his public image as a moderate, he is never slow in adjusting his sails to the winds of change in his ideological family. In answering the question whether the Gujarat experiment would be repeated elsewhere with the counter-question whether there would be more Godhras, he resorted to a not-too-clever dodge. With so many Inter-Services Intelligence agents active in the country, it is all too easy to engineer a provocation which triggers a major riot. The real test for those who do not wish to see India slide into anarchy is whether any responsible party or government should exploit a despicable act like the one at Godhra to bring about the kind of communal polarization Modi tried hard to achieve in the state under his control.
That the Gujarat development will also have far-reaching repercussions on the character of national politics is also pretty certain. The fissures in the NDA government, which stalled the economic reform process for a long time, are likely to widen if the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad force the BJP to push their Hindutva and swadeshi agendas and if the Vajpayee government, under duress, tries to give national politics a pronounced saffron complexion. Both the regional and caste parties which are at present allied to it will be in any case far more reluctant to allow the BJP more room for manoeuvre to extend its base in their preserves.
Thus, while Gujarat may enable Modism, a new word coined by the media to signify an electoral strategy based on bringing about a communal polarization to mobilize Hindu votes solely on the basis of religious affiliation, to gain new ground in the sangh parivar, it is also apt to engender a backlash from regional and caste groups, which are firmly opposed to alienating the minority communities, and also provide a new incentive to Pakistan-based terrorist groups to extend their proxy war against the Indian state to new areas. It will be no small irony if the forces of Hindu nationalism thus unwittingly play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalist and separatist groups.
It is impossible to overstress the dangers implicit in the communal polarization strategy in the country which has been plagued for years by many insurgencies in tribal areas and has had to contend for over a decade against separatist movements in Kashmir, which often work in concert with both the Pakistan government and the militant groups funded and trained by it.
The Gujarat story has also made many people here wonder how secure are the supposed secular foundations of Indian society. With each passing day, the question acquires a new pathos as well as a new edge. In one sense, the very division of the subcontinent on communal lines was a fatal blow to the secular ideal. That the two-nation theory, already rebutted by history, could pass muster in 1947, was not solely the work of the colonialists. It was also a result of the failure of the Congress to mobilize the Muslim intelligentsia and youth in Hindu majority provinces and the latter’s blindness to the all-too-obvious fact that partition would reduce them from a 30 per cent minority in the undivided country to 12 per cent in a truncated India.
The bitter truth is that the British did not create the communal divide. They merely exploited what was already there to prevent the nationalist movement from fully mobilizing the Muslim community in the struggle for independence. It was not too difficult a job since the reactions of the two communities to the coming of the British left sufficient political space for the British to ensure that the degree of cohesion between different sections of the population which national unity demanded would not materialize.
While large sections of the Hindus welcomed the coming of the British as a liberation from oppressive rule by decrepit and despotic Muslim regimes and an incentive to have a fresh look at their own moribund tradition, which made them an easy prey to a succession of foreign invaders, the Muslim elite groups either took refuge in nostalgia for their lost glory or cooperated with the British, like some of the Hindu landed gentry, to save their old privileges.
However deep one goes into the history of the seven centuries of Muslim domination of large parts of the subcontinent or of British colonial rule for over a century, it is difficult to apportion with any precision the responsibility for the rights and wrongs of the communal divide. Whatever the evil feudal or imperialist legacies, the main problem facing India since partition has been how to weld the numerous religious, regional, caste and tribal groups into a nation-state. That the country’s two neighbours, in both the west and the east, have declared themselves Islamic republics, may have made its task more difficult. But whatever the solution, the fact that the Muslim population in the country is still as large as in Pakistan, together with a substantial presence of other religious minorities, rule out any project of turning it into a Hindu rashtra.
Some leaders of the national movement like Jawaharlal Nehru may have grossly under-estimated the hold of religion on people’s minds. And others like Gandhi may have over-estimated the appeal of syncretism based on the unity of all religious groups at the highest level, forgetting that the mystic way is open only to a select few. Where all the nationalist leaders were right was in perceiving that for a maddeningly pluralist society like India’s, the only valid path to unity was peaceful coexistence under a democratic system. In any case, national integration, as one thinker has sagely pointed out, depends not so much on shared memories as on a shared amnesia or forgetting old wrongs.
When the founding fathers committed the country to secularism, it was not in the Western sense of the word where, as T.N. Madan, the well-known sociologist, has pointed out, the concept was produced by a dialectic of Protestantism and the Industrial Revolution and led to a separation of religion and politics. Most religious groups here regard such a divorce between the two as opposed to their faith. That is why the idea of secularism in India has been pared down to one which merely demands from the state due regard for the susceptibilities of all religions (sarvadharm sadabhava) and neutrality in all religious matters (dharmanirpekshita).
How these innocuous ideas, which do nothing more than provide a pragmatic basis for peaceful coexistence of different religious groups, has been mauled in recent years is shown by the cynical comment of a sangh parivar functionary who hails the Gujarat election result as a victory of genuine secularism over pseudo-secularism. In any case, why is the BJP so anxious to appropriate this word, so alien to it'
It is all too easy to prove, as T.N. Madan does, that secularism has been a failure so far and the ideas of both equidistance and neutrality trivialize the strength of religious beliefs. But do the strong emotions religious differences arouse justify the maintenance of permanent divides in political life or the all too frequent outbursts of violence that have disgraced India’s history since independence'
Whatever the degree of success or failure of the secular ideal, a highly pluralist society such as India’s cannot survive without finding more effective means of peaceful co-existence. A continuous search for such means is all that secularism boils down to in the Indian context. If the Gujarat experiment, which has yielded rich political dividends to the BJP and lent a certain legitimacy to Modism, is ever tried out in other states, it will further queer the pitch for peaceful coexistence to the detriment of both internal peace and economic growth. We may not be able to replicate the experience of the West. But there is nothing to prevent us from adjusting the secular idea to the country’s need by giving it a local ambience as well as habitation. What counts is not the philosophical or sociological validity of the secular idea, but the harsh necessity of peaceful coexistence of all religious groups in the Indian context.