A full-page technicolour advertisement by the Union ministry of communications and information technology has Atal Bihari Vajpayee saluting the IT revolution, in which Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Hindus to Muslims, the world to India, all say hello to a new India. The explicit message is, vote for an incumbent government. This government has more than doubled in the last five years the number of telephones, mobile phones and internet connections. The subtext is that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has brought about a revolution by making “Hindus” speak to “Muslims”, who, presumably, spoke less to each other before it came to power in 1998. Text and subtext raise interesting questions.
Even that celebrant of market freedom and of the implosion of Nehruvian social justice through dirigiste control, Gurcharan Das, in his India Unbound, ascribed the IT revolution to the Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao ministries. As late as two years ago, he doubted the BJP’s will to complete a revolution initiated by a new Congress. Jackdaws preening themselves in diseased eagles’ feathers is an old fable, whether in Sanskritic or Aesopian folklore. Not only does the NDA wish to appear as a Congress of the right wing, but even those who once swore by Sardar Patel now parade quotations from “Jawaharlalji Nehru”. The BJP would like to be a beneficiary of revolution. The only one it has actually initiated is communal discord as a tool for divide-and-rule. In that, too, it imitates British-Indian vice-regal incumbents of Raj Bhavan, Calcutta, such as Curzon or Minto.
Leave aside the question of spending taxpayer’s money on government advertisement, supporting the ruling party’s election propaganda. Coming down to the nitty-gritty of this particular case, consider the second synthesis it claims to have accomplished. Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the world and India are familiar metaphors of togetherness, whether by national integration, or by surrender to globalization led by the United States of America. Hindu-Muslim is an antithesis, which the sangh parivar innovated in its revival of a communalism that was dying out in Nehruvian times. This antithesis is not the same as the more legitimate one of majority-minorities, in which the groups mentioned in our national anthem — Hindu-Baudhha-Sikh-Jaina-Parasika-Musalman-Khristani — all have parity.
The strategy now is to leave out lesser minorities, pick out the largest minority, and turn it into a punching bag for the predominant religious denomination, which the sangh parivar advocated in its street-fighting days.
In the turbulent Eighties, cultural discontent used to be rife in inland Hyderabad, or in Bihar’s Gangetic plains. Riots between insecure Muslim artisan and backward class communities, and resurgent neo-Hindu consciousness backed by right-wing Congress or sangh parivar elements, were common in the inner city of Hyderabad, in Marathwada or Bhagalpur. N.T. Rama Rao and Laloo Prasad Yadav rose to prominence by turning a Nelson’s eye to Muslim-bashing by the median, Hindu sub-castes. Brought to their knees in the carnage of the days before the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the Ram rath yatra of the early Nineties, poorer Muslims gave up incipient demands for religious separatism and accepted either the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s electoral bloc, signified by the acronym “MY” (Muslim Yadav), or the uneasy synthesis of Telugu Desam, in which burqa-clad women throng the Charminar areas or Golconda fort as they have never done before. This strategy of struggle-defeat-conciliation is the imperialist one that all tough rulers, notably Samudragupta or the Palas, the “Great” Mughals or the British viceroys, have practised.
This policy matured during the electorally weak position of Narasimha Rao’s Congress and the similar position of the NDA alliance that now rules India. It consists of not disavowing old tactics of communal strife to build up right-wing electoral blocs in the name of god-men, political religion and petty-bourgeois stability for short-term legislative control; and of then obscuring this by slogans of religious synthesis, in which minorities placate the political domination of the majority — as Deobandis did during Khilafat days or in India today. One may say, what is wrong with such a policy' What is wrong with emphasizing Hinduness, which the world now ascribes to us, if this helps us, under a shadowy US aegis, to negotiate with a chauvinistically Muslim Pakistan for a détente in intractable Kashmir'
What is wrong with making Islam (erroneously equated with terrorism, cultural separatism, lower-class poverty and population increase) into the “Other”, to be subordinated in the national interest' Or, for that matter, what was wrong with Narendra Modi in Gujarat last year' He won the elections, and by a thumping majority, didn’t he' This is how average middleclass people engaged in business and self-employment, or retired pensioners, prone to budget-sops, would think. The logic would run that this class, which reads the text of full-page advertisements, will filter the message down to the less literate poor, as Macaulay’s English was supposed to have filtered down to the 20th-century Indian masses. This is how right-wing chauvinism thinks.
Similarities have been noted between the political thrust of Indian right-wing election strategy and that of George W. Bush today, who insists that the American people must give him a further term to complete the good work that he has begun by subjugating west Asia. For the last sixty years, the Indian right wing and right-of-centre have looked to US leadership for its democratic political style. Till five years ago, this was kept under wraps. Where the BJP is new is to make middle-class subservience to the the US (as a creator of job opportunities and of market ideology) absolutely explicit. One has only to hear Pramod Mahajan’s invocation of American models and his justification of Lord Hutton’s white-washing of the Blair government’s flimsy grounds for following Bush’s line, to get a sense of right-wing expediency.
No one doubts that this does have an appeal among the classes on whom the BJP ideologues rely. The question is: does the filtration theory, associated with the anglicization of Macaulay or Curzon (whom the same BJP ideologues now seek to resurrect in one guise or another), necessarily work' It worked against the imperial interests of the originators, when nationalist India took the state over from those who had unified India in the colonial interest. It worked against the swadeshi interests of the old guard in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, when the NDA espoused the Western strategy of globalization, rather than develop a clear programmatic vision of national economic interest, such as are now being practised by regional powers like France, Germany, Iran or China.
Filtration might not necessarily work in a contemporary culture of empowerment — I repeat, begun by the Congress through people like Sam Pitroda, Manmohan Singh or P. Chidambaram — in which the poor and the semi-literate also have access to television, to vernacular newspapers, and to local leaders’ interpretations of which policies are good for parochial class or ethnic interests. Hindu versus Muslim, Hindus patronizing Muslims, Muslims accepting Indianness — all these have become outmoded jargon in the new sub-cultures being spawned by increasing democratic empowerment. Government sponsored dirigisme — now of the BJP — may well not work. Let us hope that people will exercise their individual judgments, understanding all of this in the coming elections.