Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, writes one of India’s most perceptive and readable political columns in the paper he edits. But for several weeks now, his column has been missing. Yesterday it returned to the pages of the Express with an explanation. It wasn’t just laziness that had kept him from writing, Shekhar explained. It was that politics had sunk into a morass of dullness and banality, and there were few issues that excited him enough to base a column around them.
As somebody who also writes a weekly column, I know exactly what he means. Rarely has it been more difficult to find subjects that touch a chord with readers or, even, issues that provoke me enough.
Shekhar’s column, however, got me thinking. He made several interesting points. Among them: this government had lost its sense of where India was heading or what the public was thinking; that India had a remarkable capacity for healing bitter divisions as was evidenced by the reconciliation between Sikhs and Hindus in the 1980s; that the BJP was no longer regarded as untouchable by most political parties; and that we were into a new era of inclusiveness.
In the spirit of that new inclusiveness, let me frankly concede that this week’s Counterpoint is inspired by the issues raised in Shekhar’s Saturday column. I agree with much of what he says. He uses the Punjab example to illustrate India’s essential unity. I can think of others: the bitter anti-Hindi and partly secessionist struggle waged by Tamil parties in the 1950s and 1960s which is now forgotten; the ability of the people of the Northeast to forgive the shameful brutality with which we treated them (the Nagas first, then the Mizos in the 1970s); and the ability of such great cities as Bombay to heal after the communal riots of the early 1990s.
I agree with him also about the change in the manner in which the BJP is perceived. Some of it, of course, is the new inclusiveness. But much of it is the new fragmentation. We now live in an age where it is hard to conceive of any political party winning a majority on its own. In an era of coalitions, nobody can remain a political untouchable forever.
Shekhar uses the examples of Inder Gujral and HD Deve Gowda, two accidental Prime Ministers of India, who owed their elevations to the so-called fight against communal forces. Both have now snuggled up to those same communal forces: Gujral to the Akali Dal, and Deve Gowda (at arm’s length, via his son) to the BJP itself.
There are also endless other instances. Chandrababu Naidu went from being convenor of secular forces to jumping into bed with the BJP. Both Tamil parties (the DMK and the ADMK) will go with whoever offers them the best deal — secularism has nothing to do with it. The NCP may be a component of the UPA but in the run-up to the last election it entered into detailed negotiations with the BJP. Mayawati has an on and off relationship with the BJP. Mulayam Singh Yadav uses anti-BJP rhetoric for the benefit of Muslim voters but it is no secret that his party has always kept a channel open to the Sangh Parivar.
The change in the political mood has three major consequences. The first has to do with the BJP itself. As long as it is the party of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (and perhaps LK Advani), it will have relatively little difficulty in attracting allies. But the problem is that it is not just the party of Vajpayee and Advani. It is also the party of Narendra Modi. And even during the Vajpayee era, the central leadership was unable to rein in Narendra Modi, let alone replace him.
The central crisis of the BJP, at the moment, is one of leadership. If you were to go by the sentiments of the cadres, there is no doubt that Narendra Modi would be the obvious choice as the 21st century leader. But in today’s inclusive, coalition-driven politics, Modi will not be acceptable to allies. Therefore, the BJP will have to find a moderate face to lead it (Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj or somebody like that) into the next election. A moderate leader will attract allies. But will he be able to control the Narendra Modis and the lunatic fringe of the Parivar? Given that even Vajpayee failed to prevent mass murder from being committed on the streets of Gujarat, it is hard to see how any of the potential BJP leaders will be able to control all of the party. And yet, the moment the moderates lose their grip, the allies will all abscond; even inclusiveness has its limits.
The second consequence has to do with the nature of political rhetoric. Of course, I accept that secularism is the key to India’s unity. And I was as perturbed as the next secularist by the last BJP government’s attempts to rewrite our history and to try and transform the nature of our institutions. But I don’t think that anybody buys all this nonsense about ‘secular forces’ and ‘communal forces’ any longer. Partly, this is because — as Shekhar’s examples demonstrate — most politicians have revealed themselves to be hypocrites in this regard. And partly, it is because, as important as secularism is, it cannot be the sole defining factor for political judgments.
Most political parties have come to terms with this. The exception is the Left. And to some extent I understand the CPM’s sensitivities. But let’s not forget that secularism has been used to cover up a multitude of sins. The CPI cheerfully supported the Emergency on secular grounds as though democracy itself was of no consequence. And these days, the CPM takes the line that good governance is secondary to secularism. More bizarrely, it acts as though caste-ism is wonderful, while secularism is bad.
The third major consequence is one that we in the media focus too little on. It’s easy to talk about inclusiveness when the BJP is out of power and the minorities feel no threat. But all indicators suggest that India’s Muslims are feeling increasingly alienated from the system. One of the great boasts of Indian secularism has been the refusal of Indian Muslims to subscribe to pan-Islamic extremism. We brag about the absence of Indians within al-Qaeda, and note approvingly that Muslims throughout India refuse to see the Kashmir conflict in Hindu-Muslim terms.
I don’t know how long we can continue with these claims. It is unreasonable to expect that, as the world’s Muslims get increasingly Islamised, Muslims in a country which has the world’s second-largest Islamic population will remain immune to these trends. If Muslims perceive the BJP as being hostile to their interests — and there is no doubt that the vast majority do and even vote tactically to defeat the BJP — then the new inclusiveness may well end up excluding them. And once they feel ignored by the political system, they are at the mercy of fanatics and religious extremists.
You don’t have to be a secularist to concede that this is a worrying possibility. India cannot survive as an entity if a substantial chunk of its population feels that it has been excluded from the political mainstream. To recognise that Muslim concerns need to be addressed is not to be pro-Muslim. It is to be pro-Indian.
And finally, I think I agree with Shekhar when he talks about urban anger against the government. The problem with the UPA is that it has fallen off its tightrope. Any government has to address two major constituencies. The first is the aam aadmi who is supposed to be the focus of this regime. And the second is the emerging middle class which is increasingly powering India’s rise in the world.
The BJP got it wrong when it wooed the middle class, but forgot about the aam aadmi. The UPA is making its own mistake. Such factors as inflation are alienating the aam aadmi. And the middle class feels that the government is completely unappreciative of its success.
Over the last month the perception that the government is targeting electorally significant minorities has gathered strength. Such issues as reservation and minority-ism matter less during a political honeymoon. But once a ministry crosses the halfway mark, fatigue sets in and the public are less tolerant. The fiasco of the attempt to consider imposing President’s Rule in UP tells us something about the regime’s lack of political skills. It has now ended up with the worst of both worlds. It is seen as wanting to act undemocratically and yet lacking the courage and the capacity to achieve even that. And Mulayam Singh Yadav has scored a public relations victory — at least on the 24-hour news channels.
Responses to the budget are indicative of some of the disillusionment. I agree with the Finance Minister when he says that middle class objections to his budget amount to nothing more than a demand for more exemptions. Where I disagree with him is this: I think he should let the exemptions continue.
They don’t amount to very much in revenue terms. But the signals they send out may well determine the future of this government.