A week is a long time in politics. Nowhere is this as true as in India today. Till a few days ago, the rift between the Congress and the Left over the character and nature of the ties between India and the United States of America was at centre stage. The “Ramar Setu” issue, to give it its correct and full Tamil name, has displaced it, or at least taken some of the public space away. Yet, the latter offers a deep insight into the way in which the two leading political parties operate. Irrespective of one’s views on the matter, and there are bound to be strong views on a case such as this, there is now little doubt that the United Progressive Alliance government finds itself vulnerable under attack from an energetic Bharatiya Janata Party. In the process, the latter is setting the former’s agenda.
It is a different matter that many Congress men and women do not see things quite that way. The damage control by the prime minister and the Congress president was swift. Yet, it leaves more questions unanswered than they might be prepared to admit. The Sethusamudram project was first proposed as long ago as 1841. It was cleared by the National Democratic Alliance government headed by the leader who said he would always be a swayamsevak: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. All parties in the state of Tamil Nadu, save only one, have not only supported it but actively campaigned for it both in and out of the corridors of power.
For the UPA government, to now say that realignment will be an option is to ignore that the dredging and preparation of the channel cannot be left half-finished. To make matters more complex, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Kalaignar Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who has just completed a half-century as legislator, has a record few outside the state take notice of. He has been an atheist as a teenage volunteer in the rationalist Dravida Kazhagam, the precursor of his own party. In Tamil Nadu, unlike in much of the Hindi belt, Ram has always been a deity worshipped by a small minority of Vaisnava Brahmins. In any case, the larger Dravidian logic cuts across parties and will appeal to men like V. Gopalsamy and A. Ramadoss.
The larger fact is that the issue has given the BJP just the opportunity it has been desperate for. Ever since it lost the May 2004 general elections, the party has been in a state of drift. It has been unable to define an issue that fits into the larger grammar and idiom of Hindutva. The last time such an issue lent itself to such mobilization was the Ram temple movement, whose success exceeded all expectations. It is no coincidence that L.K. Advani was at the forefront then, and is so now. In both cases, it was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that prepared the ground, with the political party following only after the public mood had been tested.
In the Eighties, the party was a small shadow of what it is today. It did not rule a single state and had only two Lok Sabha members of parliament. Yet, the ground for its re-emergence from the ruins was prepared by none other than the Congress. Within the same month, the government opened the locks on the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and announced its intention to amend the Muslim Personal Law. Each act was to balance the other. One was aimed at consolidation of Hindus and the other at reassuring Muslims. By 1989, some three years later, it was evident that the Congress had fallen foul of both.
But the key point was that Hindu consolidation eventually helps only one political party and that is not the Congress. It may be a coincidence but the Union law minister in 1986 was the same senior Congressman as in 2007, Hans Raj Bhardwaj. The statement on the Ramar Sethu he gave last week could well have been given by a spokesperson of the Hindutva camp. The reality is that the Congress is unable to either confront or to co-opt the views and attitudes that go with the sangh parivar. In fact, in trying to speak in the same language and steal the latter’s clothes, the Congress loses something of itself.
The larger issue is a more serious one. Public debate on vexed issues is the lifeblood of democracy. There is no reason any two persons should agree on what should be done about the realignment and dredging of the straits that separate India from Sri Lanka. But there can be no substitute for the rule of law in a civilized, law-governed society.
The same logic ought to apply irrespective of which religious or cultural group is an aggrieved party. It is ingenious to claim, as some columnists have, that faith is above reason. No less a person than Mahatma Gandhi, when confronted by learned Sanskrit pundits who found chapter and verse to uphold the exclusion of “untouchables” as an act of faith, found a way out. Confronted with the choice between reason and the shastra, he chose the former. Reason could not bow before faith as it was essential in creating a humane society.
Of course, there have been other approaches to the issue. Nehru was an agnostic and not a believer. Ambedkar went further than either man, embracing Buddhism in the twilight of his life because the Buddha appealed to reason and not blind faith. These are issues of faith, politics and rationality that were by no means confined to those engaged in the struggle for freedom or for social change in the century just past.
The debates and the dogmas are older and a roll-call would summon to the bar some of the most significant names in India’s intellectual and political history. But what should concern all who believe in a reasoned debate is the alacrity with which not only the ruling alliance but much of middle-class opinion has swung around to the soft Hindutva point of view.
There is no doubt that such intolerance is not the monopoly of any one group or faction. In his recent book, Beyond the Age of Innocence, the veteran Singapore diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, remarks that it is a measure of the breadth of Western public opinion that Bertrand Russell could write a book that has been republished many times, Why I am not a Christian. Mahbubani remarks that the publication of such a book in any Muslim majority country other than Turkey might trigger more extreme reaction. He may well have a point.
He need not have gone so far. When the professor, Kancha Ilaiah, wrote his classic on caste exclusion entitled Why I am not a Hindu, the varsity authorities tried to initiate legal proceedings against him. Better sense eventually prevailed on the Osmania University.
But the point is an important one. Freedom cannot be divisible and yet endure. There can be little ground for claims of tolerance and universalism if those making such claims refuse to subject themselves to a debate. No one can compel anyone to believe or disbelieve that a particular spot is or is not sacred. It is a truism that such beliefs cannot be imposed.
That is effectively what opponents of the Sethusamudram are doing. They are making their beliefs the touchstone for all. Worse than that, the government of the day, ostensibly committed to pluralism, has no qualms bending over backwards to please this view. This is appeasement by any name. It is not archaeology but the ideas of a law-governed state and a humane and rational society that are at stake. Those who stand silent will hasten the demise of reason, the life blood of democracy.