Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)
In its modern avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), since its inception in 1980, donned a liberal mask. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first president of the new party and he declared “Gandhian socialism” as the new party’s new mantra. It looked that the BJP is not the same as its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), founded in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, with its unapologetic and pronounced anti-communist, anti-minority and Right-wing nationalist tilt.
Friends and foes of Vajpayee called him the right man in the wrong party or the wrong man in the Rightist party. Vajpayee became the reassuring liberal face of the party through the 1980s. But it turned out to be a disaster through the first decade of the party.
LK Advani, who succeeded Vajpayee as the president of the party, embraced the Hindutva ideology, riding on the issue of building a Ram Temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Vajpayee took a back-seat. But in 1996, Advani realised that his hardened Right-wing image would not be acceptable to the country, despite the demolition of the Babri Masjid by a Hindu mob in December 1992. He stepped back and declared Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate of the party.
It took the liberal Vajpayee two years before he could put together a coalition of anti-Congress parties to head the first BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 1998. When the NDA was defeated in the 2004 polls, it looked that BJP’s experiment with liberalism had failed.
In 2009, Advani was declared the prime ministerial candidate, but it was clear that he would not win. He could not project himself either as a hard core Right-wing Hindutva politician that he was, nor could he convince the people that he was now a reformed liberal in the mould of Vajpayee.
So, in September 2013, the BJP went back to its core ideology of Hindutva and chose a Right-wing hawk like Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate. Modi did not talk about Hindutva or about the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, but he sent out a clear message that he was a Hindutva leader who speaks the language of economic development and national glory. Modi’s mantra was ‘India First’. The BJP had travelled from the confusion of Gandhian socialism of the Vajpayee era to the assertive and aggressive nationalism of Modi.
But for purposes of political debate, BJP under Modi refuses to accept the label of ‘Rightist’ or ‘Right-wing’ party. The Leftists are proud of being Leftists. The Rightists are not. The Rightists do not like to be termed Rightists. They think that they are a nationalist party but not a Hindu or Hindutva party. They have no hesitation in using the term Leftist in a pejorative sense, and they use it freely against intellectuals and others who are opposed to the BJP.
The intriguing question is, if they have no problem in using the word ‘Leftist’, and they perceive themselves to be the opponents of Leftists, then why is it that they hesitate in appropriating the terms Rightist and Right-wing for themselves?
The BJP leaders have also no hesitation using the word ‘fascist’ against political and ideological opponents like Indira Gandhi and the Congress under Indira Gandhi. They would be quite outraged and perplexed if the critics were to use the term ‘fascist’ to describe the BJP. They would deny it outright.
For the BJP rank and file, as well as the top rung leaders, nationalist and Hindu are coterminous words and they do not see anything alarming in their use of the two terms. They are also surprised that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains should have any apprehensions over the use of the word Hindu as a synonym of nationalism, because they think the word Hindu does not really challenge the other religious identities.
All the BJP leaders are fond of referring to the Supreme Court observation that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion. They argue that Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are religions, but Hinduism is not, and that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are Hindus because Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. It is logic carried to absurd lengths.
At the same time, the BJP leaders are worried if ‘Hindu society’ is divided across caste lines. One of the boasts of Advani was that by raising the issue of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya he had saved Hindu society from breaking up because of the Mandal Commission recommendations of reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs that then prime minister VP Singh had announced on August 15, 1990.
The party, however, recognises the hard reality of caste in ‘Hindu society’ and when it comes to fighting elections, the party reckons with the caste factor. In late 2013 and early 2014, many BJP leaders harped on the theme that the party would be making a backward class candidate, Narendra Modi, as the prime minister of the country, which had not been the case earlier. Of course, the claim was inaccurate. Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda was from the backward class of Vokkaligas.
The party does not like caste but it has no problems in playing the caste card whenever it is politically convenient to do so. At the ideological and rhetorical level, it is Hinduism that overrides caste that overrides other religions.
But the BJP leaders are painfully aware of the deep-rooted caste rifts among the Hindus. Modi saw the signs of trouble in the rebellion of the Young Turks in his home state of Gujarat, Hardik Patel representing the Patidars, Jignesh Mevani representing the Dalits and Alpesh Thakor representing the Other Backward Classes.
In his post-Gujarat assembly election victory speech at the party’s national headquarters in New Delhi, Modi said that he would not allow Gujarati society to be divided on caste lines. He was aware that the Patel-Mevani-Thakor opposition was based on caste lines. The BJP’s counter-strategy is to unite all Hindus against the followers of other religions like Muslims and Christians to gloss over the caste divide.
While arguing that Hinduism is not a religion, the BJP had used the Ram Temple card through the 1990s to improve its status and move centerstage in national politics. Ram Temple is a religious issue, but BJP believes that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. It should have then kept away from the temple question. The BJP’s criticism of the Congress was that the Congress appeased the religious sentiments of the Muslims and that using ‘religion’ in politics is bad. But on the question whether there should be a Ram Temple where the Babri Masjid stood in Ayodhya, the BJP had no hesitation in supporting the demand for the temple on the specious ground that a temple was destroyed to build the mosque.
The BJP plays the classic cloak and dagger game in its use of Hinduism, now as religion, now as a way of life. At the theoretical level, the BJP does not much care for religious practices or traditions. At the ideological level, the BJP does not believe in religious faith. It has no hesitation in making changes in Hindu law and blowing the Manu code – the paladin of Hindu traditionalists – and it wants to shatter the legal codes based on religion in Islam and others.
Hence, its apparently ultra-national demand for implementing Uniform Civil Code (UCC), enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution. The BJP’s argument: Change the traditional Hindu laws as much as you like, but also change the religious laws of other communities. It appears that they want to displace traditional religions with nationalism and patriotism and proclaim that there can only be the religion of nationalism.
They have no objection to people practising Islam or Christianity, but personal faiths should remain subservient to the nationalist faith. This has been the credo of most European nationalists. The French, the English and the German nationalists suspected the Roman Catholics of harbouring extra-territorial loyalty towards the Pope in the Vatican!
But the mask comes off quite easily.
The BJP flounders on the issue of cow and beef. The Hindus revere the cow and do not eat beef on religious grounds. BJP leaders and their storm troopers terrorise Muslims and Dalits on these two issues. BJP leaders find it difficult to reconcile their belief that Hinduism is not a religion with the exploitation of religious symbols for political reasons.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi in an interview with Reuters, the international news agency, said that he was a Hindu by religious faith and he was a nationalist, and therefore he was a Hindu nationalist. He stated it as though it were a bland and bare fact though he too was aware that the connotation of the term Hindu nationalist was no harmless thing and that it is a divisive issue.
He is also aware like his predecessors, like Messrs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, that you cannot push the Hindu card too far, and that you have to reach out to Muslims and Christians, Dalits and tribals, that India is a pluralist society with many religions, many sects, many languages and cultural traditions, and that Hindu nationalism is incapable of absorbing the diverse elements.
The BJP leaders would be right in arguing that nationalism is right but not Rightist. The anti-BJP parties would argue the same and accuse the BJP of hijacking nationalism and making it part of an exclusivist hate-mongering Rightist ideology. The BJP critics also object to the party identifying nationalism with Hinduism and with Hindu heritage.
The Congress claims, and with justification, that it is a pre-eminent nationalist party which had spearheaded the freedom movement, and that its brand of nationalism is not based on religion. The communists too are reconciled to the idea of the nation-state and though their critics nail them for being internationalists and for ignoring the claims of nationalism, are as nationalist as anyone else. The Congress and the communists believe that nationalism will have to exist in the larger context of international cooperation and harmony.
When in power, the BJP too recognises that nationalism will have to be situated within the international context, and that India cannot afford to be hostile, intolerant and haughty towards other nations, and that all national cultures are unique. But most BJP leaders find it difficult to conceal their contempt towards other nations and cultures. There is a fierce sense of nationalism in China and Japan, and they display it mostly against foreigners. In India, the BJP displays its fierce sense of nationalism in belligerence towards non-Hindus.
The feisty West Bengal Marxist intellectual, Ashok Mitra, in an interview in 2003, when asked whether the BJP was a conservative party and the Congress the liberal party in the Indian political context, said that it was the Congress that was the conservative party, and that the BJP was an old, stone-age fascist party. As a Marxist, his contempt for a Rightist party like the BJP was inevitable. But he also thought that the BJP was not a modern political party at all, like other Rightist and conservative parties in the world. In the United States, the Republicans tacitly believe in family, church and country.
It is not clear whether BJP cherishes family values or religion. It is exclusively focused on the country, and it is of the view that family and religion must serve the country. For the American Republicans/conservatives, the country makes sense only if it upholds family and church, and family and church are important because they uphold the values of compassion and togetherness. For the BJP, compassion and togetherness do not have much value, as far as their belief system is concerned. They believe only in national glory at all costs.
One of the characteristics of a Right-wing party is authoritarianism, and the BJP prefers authoritarianism especially in national matters. It, however, professes faith in democracy and it would be in a tight spot when the choice is between democracy and nationalism. It is on weak ground when it comes to individual rights, especially fundamental rights like the right to speech, belief, faith et al. Its preference is towards the Directive Principles in the Constitution rather than towards the Fundamental Rights. That is why, the BJP harps on Uniform Civil Code and the protection of cow, enshrined in the Directive Principles, rather than on the rights of minorities as enshrined in the Fundamental Rights.
The BJP, whether its leaders, followers, admirers and ideologues admit it or not, is a Rightist party because it leans towards nationalism of the exclusivist kind, and it is of the view that the majority view should prevail, that individual rights are subservient to the collective cause. It is however forced to accept the democratic framework which emphasises individual freedoms, the diversity of opinion and the importance of dissent. All Rightist parties, the BJP is no exception, are uncomfortable in democracies but they are aware they cannot overthrow democracy. So, they try to use democracy to promote their politics of dominance and intolerance.
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