With the entry of Narendra Modi in the electoral fray as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, it is becoming clearer by the day that Muslims are going to be the biggest elephant in the room in the run-up to what, many believe, might turn out to be one of the most communally polarised elections in independent India.
The Muzaffarnagar riots have already set a chilling tone for where it is all going. Union minister Jairam Ramesh, squarely blaming the BJP, has described the riots as a “trailer” for “more communal tensions and flare-ups” ahead. The BJP’s Uma Bharti has also warned of “more tension” but accused the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) of provoking it. The SP, in turn, says that it is the Congress and the BJP which are trying to stir up trouble to woo Muslim voters.
So, there you are: a phoney competition among major political players to show that the ‘other’ is more communal is in full swing even before a proper campaign has begun. Modi’s entry has handed a flailing Congress the ammunition it desperately needed to turn it into a secularism-versus-communalism contest by casting itself as a champion of Muslims and the BJP as a threat.
It is a territory on which the Congress feels at home despite having lost its credibility as a secular force. Besides, hobbled by a poor record of governance and lack of charismatic leadership, it has nothing else to crow about.
Giving ample indication of his party’s election strategy, Ramesh said, “2014 is the first election, the Congress is fighting directly with the RSS, with Modi as its mukhauta (mask) and Modi’s mukhauta is development. It’s a double mukhauta. So this election is not the Congress versus the BJP but the Congress versus the RSS.”
The BJP, quick on the uptake, has launched an aggressive line of attack that includes demanding a closer scrutiny of the Congress’ record on treating minorities. In every television discussion, its spokespersons have taken to haranguing the party’s critics wanting to know why is it that the Congress is not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the BJP. Why is it, they ask, that the Congress’ role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence is ‘ignored’ while there is an ‘obsession’ with Modi’s alleged involvement in the 2002 anti- Muslim riots in Gujarat? It is an important question as to why the Congress is credited with secular image despite its poor record, and it must be answered.
For, leave alone the BJP, there are many disillusioned Congress supporters who are asking the same question and, in their anger, prepared to throw out the baby (secularism) with the bathwater (Congress). Let me make it clear that I am not a fan of the Congress. As a British citizen I have no stake in Indian elections except that I don’t wish to see the country of my birth overrun by forces whose vision of India is very different from the one on which its constitutional foundations were laid.
Swapan Dasgupta, one of the few intellectually coherent BJP voices, argues that in a democracy there can be more than one idea of India…so, why must we keep harping only on the so-called Nehruvian idea of India. He is right, but therein lies the rub: which idea suits better the temper and demands of a society as complex and diverse as India?
Millions of Indian Muslims chose not to migrate to their supposed ‘homeland’ (Pakistan) in 1947 because they rejected the notion of nationhood based on religion and wished to live in a country where nationalism was not going to be measured in terms of their religious identity. The idea of India sold to them and which they happily embraced was this: their Indianness would not be questioned because they happened to be Muslims, had emotional links with their Pakistani relations, or some of them foolishly rooted for the Pakistani cricket team. They would not be called ‘Babar ki aulad’; and their places of worship would not be forcibly demolished in the name of ‘righting’ historical wrongs.
To call it a Nehruvian vision alone is misleading though typically Nehruwallahs have sought to appropriate it with a little help from left wing academics. It was as much an idea of Nehru as it was of Maulana Azad, of Sardar Patel and of BR Ambedkar. It was a collective idea of an inclusive India — and most importantly it resonated with the overwhelming majority of Indians.
And here comes the Congress bit. Both a product and an agent of an inclusive nationalism, it became a vehicle for articulating and putting into practice this particular vision of India. And in theory that remains its core ethos.
At the time the Congress was preaching unity in diversity, the BJP’s parent organisation — the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha — was talking about Hindu Rashtra, cow slaughter, and about Hindu supremacy. Since then it has had many face-lifts (Jana Sangh transformed into softer-sounding BJP, Hindu Rashtra into all-new, wrinkle-free Hindutva) but the core RSS idea of India as a land of Hindus remains deeply embedded. The choice of Modi who defines himself as a Hindu nationalist first and an Indian later confirms this.
The suggestion that Modi’s development agenda offers an alternative idea of India is a red-herring. The RSS’ full-throated backing for him at the expense of its once-most favoured son, LK Advani, shows that it is all about protecting its core agenda. It believes that in old age Advani (written off as ‘history’ by Dasgupta) has become too soft to be trusted.
I am not suggesting any anti-Muslim conspiracy but it will be like the Muslim Brotherhood — spreading slow-poisoning through winks and nudges. My advice to the invisible Muslim elephant in the room: vote for Modi by all means if you wish, but have no illusions about his idea of India.
Hasan Suroor’s book on Indian Muslims will be out soon
The views expressed by the author are personal