A friend — middle-aged, middle class, male, Bengali — sounded surprised when I said both the libraries I use were closed on Tuesday because of Eid. “Just imagine!” he exclaimed. “And we put up with it.” The faint tinge of outrage could be linked to a chain of well-publicized incidents all over the country with similar communal overtones. It could also provide a straw in the electoral wind of a West Bengal that is already speculating about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position after 2016.
Election results are of mainly partisan interest, but social dynamics affect everybody. And that is where cause for concern arises. No government can be judged by any yardstick to which it doesn’t subscribe. It would have been illogical, for instance, to criticize Jawaharlal Nehru for not being sufficiently militant in defending what the Americans called the “free world”. Similarly, it would be silly to expect “the spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion” to fill any BJP leader “with horror” as it did Nehru who abhorred “blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests”.
We know little of Narendra Modi’s personal beliefs, but his cheerleaders in the media have a point when they complain that “Left-liberal” indictments are irrelevant. However, in its bid to capture more states and improve its Rajya Sabha position, the BJP is in danger of falling foul of the all-embracing inclusiveness of its own professed “sabka saath, sabka vikas” slogan that John Kerry eulogized the other day.
This may have mattered less if public attention had been absorbed in a series of daringly imaginative development plans or foreign policy initiatives. All those lingering fears about social tension might then have evaporated in exuberant applause for the promised strategy of “development, good governance and stability”. However, the government has given so few signs of life in the nearly 10 weeks since Modi was sworn in that one might be forgiven for wondering if the masterstroke of his invitation to eight regional leaders to attend his inaugural was only a flash in the pan. There have been no other moves to suggest the radical break from routine United Progressive Alliance policies that voters had expected from a prime minister who accords higher priority to toilets than to temples.
The silence and the somnolence are broken only by raucous disputes that recall the warning in these columns before the election that, however commendable the BJP’s own programmes might be, its dominance might encourage the rise of rabid fringe organizations that are more loyal than the king. It now appears that those fears were not misplaced. Outfits like the Bajrang Dal, which was guilty of a particularly gruesome triple murder, the Sri Ram Sene, which goes on the rampage against places of entertainment, or the clearly illiterate Shiksha Bachao Andolan functionaries who spearheaded the attack on Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History can bring little credit to even the most pragmatic development-oriented government.
Other groups like the Hindu Rashtra Sena whose activists are believed to have killed a young Muslim technician in Pune have surfaced since then. This is probably what Jaswant Singh meant when lamenting that the “nakli BJP” had usurped the space that should rightfully belong to the Hindu Right. Nor are fringe elements alone to blame. Some of the incidents that continue to shock responsible citizens (though they may appeal to the friend to whom I mentioned the Eid closures) suggest a certain recklessness even in the BJP ranks.
The prime minister may not be responsible for these spurts of crude religiosity. But silence can be eloquent. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s admission about “mak[ing] a decision not to make a decision” was a reminder that governance involves acts of omission as well as commission. No one expects Modi to climb the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 and denounce Shiv Sena politicians who try to stuff inedible chapattis into the mouths of Muslims fasting for Ramazan. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to, for despite its crushing Lok Sabha majority his party remains beholden to the lumpen elements of the nakli BJP. In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Mohan Bhagawat had given notice that the BJP could not expect his help in the Maharashtra assembly polls, though he may have changed his mind subsequently. But does Modi want to discipline these elements or does their rumbustiousness serve his long-term strategic purpose? His passionately eloquent anger over the Godhra carnage (this writer was among the lakhs of people to receive e-mailed videos of the then Gujarat chief minister’s speech) made moving oratory. By that token, his failure to utter a single word in condemnation of the subsequent massacre of Muslims reinforced existing suspicions about what he stands for.
The word, Hindutva, may never be uttered, but there’s no need to since the BJP’s pyramid of rational conservatism rests on the base of sangh parivar primitivism. The India that is emerging is unlikely to have much sympathy for the dream of an island without masjid or mandir that inspired the fictional Hossain Miya in Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi, which the theatre-group, Pratikriti, staged in Calcutta with great verve. Someone who is so media-savvy and so adept in making use of social media cannot be unaware of the conclusions people are bound to draw. If Modi persists in endorsing these episodes through his silence, it can only be because he has calculated that the people who approve outnumber those who don’t. English-language newspapers such as this one or even highly entertaining English-language TV channels have only a limited relevance to the BJP’s constituency.
With a legislative majority in five states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Goa) and sharing power in three others (Punjab, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh) as well as the Union Territory of Puducherry, the BJP is looking forward to the national supremacy that was once the Congress’s monopoly. Nor is this an impossible dream. The BJP has previously ruled Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi on its own, and Maharashtra, Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand in coalition. With elections due in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir by the end of the year, and hopes of a fifth if Lalu Prasad can be persuaded to abandon Nitish Kumar, everything Modi says and does (or doesn’t say and doesn’t do) is with an eye to pleasing voters.
He can’t be blamed for that is the name of the game politicians play. Nor would India be India if sycophants didn’t jump up to intone what they think the prime minister wants to hear. Flagging interest in iftar parties is another straw in the wind. The Delhi High Court’s recent ruling that “individual interest or smaller public interest must yield to larger public interest” could turn out to be even more significant. With so many little pots bubbling in so many places — a suspected Pakistani in Telengana, Muslims coveting Sikh land in Saharanpur, Maharashtrians feeling deprived in Belgaum — a sense of crisis is inevitable. Crises demand a saviour, especially when most of the bubbling pots touch on India’s Hindu identity. A Princeton historian, Bernard Lewis, corroborated the late Muammar Gaddafi’s boast that Europe would become “a Muslim continent within a few decades”. Lewis argued that “current trends show that Europe will have a Muslim majority by the end of the 21st Century at the latest. … Europe will be a part of the Arab West — the Maghreb.” That may be fanciful but with a similar fear stalking the land, silence might turn out to be the most rewarding response. My middle-aged, middle class, male, Bengali friend reflects the prevalent mood.