The author is a political scientist and has recently published the book, Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Secularization
One of the more comforting assumptions that political analysts have had is that India’s sheer size, complexity and array of diverse and cross-cutting social, cultural, ideological and economic demarcations force all national-level politics to ultimately move towards some kind of “moderate” centre. Even though the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh parivar pushed the centre of gravity of Indian politics to the right, there has always been the argument that if the BJP wants to be a “normalized” ruling party then it cannot at the same time be the party of the Hindu rassemblement. Hence the repeated predictions that the only way it could grow electorally and legitimize itself nationally would be by moderating its ideological proclivities.
However, its first major spurt took place between 1984 (two Lok Sabha seats) and 1989 (89 seats) mainly because of its Ramjanmabhoomi campaign. Its next major spurt took place after its calculated demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 when in subsequent elections in 1996, ’98 and ’99, its tally hovered between 161 and 182 seats. This new electoral plateau had then suggested to many that the same principle of moderation stood as the guarantor preventing further acceleration of the Hindutva project.
The Gujarat results have put paid to this belief. It is by shifting even further to the right that the sangh now expects to make further electoral inroads. For if the failures of governance (the anti-incumbency factor) were the main reason earlier for pendular shifts between ruling and opposition parties in the states, thus holding out the promise of a Congress-centred ruling coalition at the national level in the next Lok Sabha elections, such a view must now be reassessed.
The gains from Gujarat for a hard and ruthless Hindutva project are very significant. The first lesson is that the failure of governance is not enough to topple a party if it also has a powerful mobilizing strategy and capacity. After all, a wearied electorate has enough experience of all parties performing miserably when it comes to governance. Second, a state-organized pogrom against Muslims does not horrify very substantial sections of society, not just in Gujarat. There is a new and widespread “common sense” about needing to “react” against “threatening” Indian Muslims supposedly linked by religion to both Pakistani treachery and “Islamic terrorism”. Third, patient grassroots work in civil society amongst tribals and Dalits through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other front organizations can pay rich dividends even if these activities cannot overcome material problems and deprivations faced by these communities. Fourth, allied parties in the National Democratic Alliance have neither serious political scruples nor any national vision and are most concerned simply to continue enjoying the feeble fruits of a minority share in power at the Centre. Fifth, the Congress opposition does not know how to oppose political Hindutva.
This last factor is perhaps the most disturbing. For the sangh to carry out fully its Hindutva agenda (the establishment of an anti-democratic reg- ime, and an authoritarian civil society) it must achieve an electoral majority or close enough to it so that it can rule on its own. Even better would be achieving the two-thirds majority that would enable it to permanently change the Indian Constitution and institutionalize irrevocably a Hindu rashtra. Standing in the way of this electoral route to decisive political authority is the Congress. The Congress must suffer a virtual electoral demise if political Hindutva is to fully triumph.
The Congress must fight this opponent at two different levels — the electoral and the ideological-political. For over 15 years, whatever the fluctuations in the electoral graph of the BJP at the Centre or in the states, the curve of the sangh’s ideological-political advance has moved steadily, even if sometimes only slowly, upwards. This is because there is no other force capable of matching the range and depth of their activities — from the cultural-ideological to the welfarist-recreational — in the pores of Indian civil society.
In contrast, the Congress has for a long time been little more than a ramshackle electoral machine periodically geared up, whose own activists are, in so many cases and at so many levels, attracted to various themes of Hindutva ideology as well as tempted to change sides since the sangh bears the aura of being nationally the possible “wave of the future” or at least the next party of governance in the states where the Congress today rules. The Congress has no inspiring vision of its own, no systematic programme that reflects strong social commitments to the lower castes and classes, and therefore no assured constituency of supporters, ideological, political or electoral.
In the longer term, the sangh has to be confronted and defeated in civil society. If the Congress cannot develop comparable grassroots organizations and activities, can it at least think of various local and regional, if not national-level, campaigns on particular issues that can provide inspiration and appeal to many sections of Indian society as well as enthuse its own party-workers and supporters'
Can the Congress become, at least in part, a campaigning force of some creativity not only adopting the negative posture of opposing Hindutva, which it must (soft Hindutva is finished, which is not to say the Congress might not still pursue this approach), but also of pursuing the positive posture of standing for something worthwhile and relevant to the lives and feelings of the people it wishes to attract' In short, how does it make itself politically distinctive and meaningful and how does it convince people of its sincerity and commitment in this regard' If today’s Congress is not even capable of doing this much, then is there anything else it can do'
Manmohanomics makes it neither distinctive from the BJP nor meaningful to society outside the mislabelled Indian “middle class”, that 10-15 per cent of the Indian elite which is in fact the strongest social base today for Hindutva. At the last general elections of 1999, 46 per cent of Hindu upper castes voted for the BJP compared to 21 percent for the Congress. Not only is the BJP no longer a Brahmin-Bania party (having made inroads into other backward classes as well as tribals) but it is also now the most favoured party of the Hindu upper castes and classes.
In the short term, there are two things the Congress can and should do besides abandoning permanently the temptation to pursue soft Hindutva. It must make pre-poll alliances with other political parties so as to forge stable coalitions that are seen as being stable, and by doing so send home the message that there is also a broad unity of forces strongly opposed to what Hindutva stands for. It can no longer afford to remain aloof or simply expect others to woo it. Second, given its programmatic or organizational limitations it must look for a “low fuss-high impact” initiative that has the potential to alter its image and to attract those sections of Indian society whose own resurgence offer the best chances of countering the sangh.
In effect, can it find a way, for example, to give its own ranks and support-base a Dalit composition' No mainstream party in India has had the courage to adopt a policy of reservations at all internal organizational leadership levels for Dalits, tribals and women in proportion to their membership within the party. As the membership of such groups grows, so does their leadership presence. Such a policy can galvanize the Congress as never before. It has everything to gain and what, given its current plight, does it have to lose'