The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Secularism cannot be left to the mercy of political parties

Standing in the courtyard of the Indian International Centre in New Delhi one morning in late October, a prominent member of the Congress think tank and an ardent advocate of the free market told me, “The Congress will have shot itself in the foot if Congress doesn’t win three of the four states.” He was referring, of course, to the elections the results of which are now known. Having shot itself in the foot, the Congress is no longer limping. It is hobbling and may even be close to collapsing.

It is not just the fact that the Congress has lost three of the four states but it is also the scale of the defeats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that makes the Congress somewhat of a non-starter as a candidate to unseat Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government next year. Add to the defeats the fact that in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is not even an also-ran; that in West Bengal it is practically non-existent; that in Maharashtra Sharad Pawar is unlikely to play footsie with an obviously losing side — and you get a picture of a political party that is no longer in a position to provide any kind of challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The remarkable decline of the Congress has another grave implication. It means that the political party that was seen as a vehicle for opposing the communal politics of the BJP is now non-existent as a force. There are two factors that explain why this has happened.

There is the question of leadership. There is a widespread scepticism about Sonia Gandhi’s abilities to lead the country. Even committed secularists feel if in a hypothetical presidential election they had to choose between her and Vajpayee, they would probably prefer the latter. This has nothing to do with her Italian origins which the BJP attacks. It is a more fundamental doubt about her abilities. As president of the Congress, she has done precious little to remove these doubts. She has failed to give to her party any programmatic and ideological direction. The Congress has been buffeted like a rudderless boat alternately by the currents of Nehruvian socialism and then by liberalization. Ms Gandhi is neither a liberalizer nor a socialist — even if one were to comepletely disbelieve the canard that she is a liberalizer after Manmohan Singh has spoken to her and a Nehruvian after a spell of conversation with Pranab Mukherjee.

Similarly, the Congress can no longer boast of a strong secular thrust. It has failed to reject completely a soft Hindutva line to counteract the BJP and woo the majority vote. One has only to remember Sonia Gandhi starting off the Gujarat election campaign in Ambaji temple and more recently Digvijay Singh’s pathetic attempts to be more Hindu than the sangh parivar. The Congress’s secular credentials have always been a trifle suspect, especially after the massacre of the Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Ms Sonia Gandhi, either through intent or through inactivity, has failed to reaffirm Congress’s commitment to secularism.

Ms Gandhi has not even tried to put her stamp as a leader on the Congress. She is a leader by default because she has no challenger or, what is worse, because she is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi.

The other factor consists of the subtle changes in the BJP under the initiative of Vajpayee. Ever since he became prime minister, Vajpayee has been trying to distance his government’s policies and the BJP from the more fanatical proponents of Hindutva. Not that there haven’t been instances of doublespeak on his part and a slew of clarifications. But overall there has been a move to put issues like the Ram mandir on the backburner and to concentrate on development. The grotesque aberration in this has, of course, been the pogrom in Gujarat but there has been no repetition of the experiment despite threats from Togadia and Modi. Significantly, Hindutva was not prominent in the election campaigns, not even in the states where the BJP has won against the tide of conventional wisdom. These elections were won and lost on the basis of performance and governance or the lack of them.

It is also important that despite pressure from sections of the sangh parivar, the BJP under Vajpayee has not abandoned the path of liberalization. In this and in the highlighting of governance during the election campaign, Vajpayee and his deputy, Lal Krishna Advani, have spoken in one voice, whatever differences they may or may not be having on other matters.

Under Vajpayee, the BJP has usurped the political and ideological space that was previously occupied by the Congress: closet Hindutva plus liberalization. (It needs to be recalled that neither Indira Gandhi nor Rajiv Gandhi was beyond playing on majoritarian sentiments when it suited their interests.) The great Indian battle between communalism (read BJP) and secularism (read Congress) is no more than a piece of shadow-boxing: men of straw in a mock battle with Rama and Ravana easily interchanging places.

Does this mean the battle for secularism in India is over or actually non-existent' Has the BJP changed colour or is it that the anti-minority crusade has been abandoned' The answer to both questions is in the negative.

A journalist known for his loyal espousal of the cause of the BJP — arguably the only writer in English who does so with eloquence and a disarming and pernicious rationality — wrote in The Telegraph the day after the election results: “If the BJP steered well clear of emotive issues centred on its Hindutva ideology, it was not because the party is no longer interested in its core ideology.” The verb “steered” is important. Hindutva has not been abandoned. The BJP stayed away from it because the particular political and electoral context demanded a different set of priorities and a different kind of campaign. There was a degree of political acumen in the choice. But this is no guarantee that Hindutva and majority-led violence will not be used in the future for political gains.

The battle for secularism has become more difficult because circumstances have forced the belated recognition that secularism cannot be made dependent on any political party. It is far too important for that. Political parties have betrayed India’s past; India’s present and its future cannot be left to them.

Secularism is an endangered value and an important one. It needs to be defended and upheld by individuals as individuals or in a group. For those who believe that secularism and tolerance are vital to civlized existence, the election results convey an urgent message. The results underline a danger of mistaking appearance with reality. The challenge is to combat the BJP’s core ideology and not be swayed by a context-driven election campaign and the ensuing victories.

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