Do I detect a strong sense of nostalgia among the liberal media for the good old ‘bad days’ when the BJP was a ‘party with a difference’ for all the wrong reasons? Going by the media’s reaction to the BJP’s manifesto that was released last week, one would think that top on the party’s agenda are the twin obsessions about Ram and Islamic terror. But if one actually goes through the BJP’s 2009 Lok Sabha Election Manifesto, one will be disappointed. That is, if one is hoping to find the text littered with references to ‘appeasement’, ‘Hindutva’, ‘terror’.
But first things first. This is the first manifesto that the BJP has come out with in eleven years. Both the 1999 and 2004 elections saw the party articulating its plans as part of the ‘agenda of governance’ of the NDA. Perhaps it was the hand-rubbing thrill of finding the BJP manifesto, now undiluted by any thoughts from ‘secular’ allies, containing a ‘Back to Hindutva’ gameplan that led many a liberal-Left BJP-watcher to find a ‘Hindutva’ agenda resurfacing anyway.
Instead, with the ‘Ram Temple’ getting four lines on the penultimate page of the manifesto — “There is an overwhelming desire of the people in India and abroad to have a grand temple at the birthplace of Sri Ram in Ayodhya. The BJP will explore all possibilities, including negotiations and judicial proceedings, to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.” — it was Varun Gandhi’s ‘hate speech’ that everyone readily latched on to. No mention of any ‘legislation’; no promise or demand that the Centre butt in, Shah Bano-style, to hand over the Ayodhya property to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas to build a temple.
The section, ‘Preserving our cultural heritage’, in which the ‘Hindutva-digger’ hoped to get a Hindu fundamentalist Santa Claus wishlist, contains five lines on the Ram Setu (“a national heritage”), six lines on a Ganga purification programme, eight lines on protecting the ‘cow and its progeny’, 12 lines on freeing maths and mandirs from government control, four lines on taking steps “to remove encroachments from and unauthorised occupation of waqf properties, two lines on the Archaeological Survey of India to be provided resources to look after national heritage sites, six lines on the development of Indian languages — “including Urdu”. No, nothing on any ‘cultural nationalism’.
In the section, ‘Minority communities’, we read about the BJP “cherishing” the diversity of cultures in India. It mentions the “unfortunate fact that Muslims form a substantial part of the underprivileged” and how the Congress has secured “minority support” through the “politics of fear”. It promises to implement a set of policies “committed to a massive expansion of modern education among Muslims” through a nationwide network of schools in a public-private programme. Nothing sinister that Vinay Katiyar can approve here.
Even on the national security front, after a para on the scrapping of Pota, the 2001 Parliament attack and the UPA government keeping Afzal Guru in limbo, it makes the usual noises about strengthening the “authority of the State”, something that it believes has been “diminished by the Congress in pursuit of vote-bank politics”. This sounds like standard oppositional procedure; not the second coming of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. A paragraph on religious conversions starts with the setting up of a “permanent inter-faith consultative mechanism to provide harmony among and trust between communities” and goes on to talk about a dialogue “in the spirit” of the Inter-Faith Dialogue on Conversions at the Vatican in 2006. Legit or not, it’s a long way from Kandhamal.
The manifesto provides more space to talking (and whining) about national security, agriculture reforms, job generation, energy and food security, foreign policy, Centre-state relations, healthcare and environment than any pitch for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Barring the ‘Rs 2 per kg rice for BPL families’, these bits got no mention. All the rubbish about ‘Our national identity’ from the 1998 manifesto (“The evolution of Hindutva in politics is the antidote to the creation of vote banks and appeasement of sectional interests. Hindutva means justice for all.”) is absent this time. But that fact wouldn’t have made good copy about the BJP’s sinister plans, would it?
All this ‘normalcy’ in the manifesto doesn’t, of course, automatically mean that the BJP is your normal, anti-Congress party. The existential confusion shown while reacting to Varun’s Pilibhit speech provides strong clues to the fact that the BJP is yet to be cleansed of communal toxins. But if one does go by the BJP manifesto, it would take an imaginative conspiracy theorist to find traces of a ‘revived Hindutva agenda’ in the text. And we saw a whole posse of them scurrying about last week with the BJP election manifesto in their hands and shouting ‘They’re back! They’re back!’ In the process, the BJP was once again provided the luxury of playing the perennially misunderstood, stereotyped ‘victim’.