Regionalism, not secularism, is the new pivot of Indian politics, writes Barkha Dutt
At a recent panel discussion to launch a book of essays by senior lawyer and Congress spokesperson, Abhishek Singhvi, I pushed the speakers to define what “secularism” is. Singhvi’s introductory chapter identifies secularism as the first principle of Indian democracy. As a philosophical notion of diversity and a constitutional guarantee of equality, of course I entirely agree. It is what makes India unique and wonderful.
But I was more interested in exploring whether it still holds as a marker of political differentiation. Hasn’t secularism become corroded and compromised as an electoral slogan?
Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress retorted — rather candidly — “This secularism debate is all politics.” He wasn’t dissing the idea of religious pluralism which he said was innate to India; his remark was on the electoral squabble over the word.
But perhaps nothing illustrates the fact that the old political silos no longer apply than the meeting between his party’s boss Mamata Banerjee and the Shiva Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray. Unlike his father, Uddhav is someone I have often described as “the reluctant fundamentalist”. But notwithstanding his seeming discomfort with the traditional militant parochialism of his party, it would be hard for anyone to call the Sena a secular force. Yet, an unfazed West Bengal chief minister said she “respects Shiv Sena; no one is more communal than the BJP”. Since then, Uddhav has become an unlikely rallying force for the anti-Modi federal front, even though he hasn’t yet left the alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra.
The message is clear: the rhetoric notwithstanding, in the run-up to 2019, the pivot around which the non-BJP parties will organise themselves will be regionalism and federalism — and not secularism. The anti-Narendra Modi sentiment among these state satraps is higher than an anti-BJP ideology per se. In any case, most of the regional political protagonists have had alliances and understandings with the BJP in the past. Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati, N Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrasekhar Rao have all either been in alliance with the BJP or showered praise on its leadership at different points of time.
Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United — stung by three consecutive losses to the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD — has begun to murmur its disenchantment with the BJP, amid rumours that a faction could split under Sharad Yadav. In fact, nothing better represents the demise of secularism as a meaningful political slogan more than the Bihar chief minister’s fickleness. Nitish was hailed by liberals as a secular alternative to Modi. Last year, before Nitish walked into the arms of the BJP, historian Ramachandra Guha suggested that the Congress back Nitish as its prime ministerial candidate. “He is a leader without a party,” Guha told me,” and the Congress is a party without a leader.” But neither Nitish’s alliance with the BJP, nor his second exit, should it come later this year, will have anything to do with secularism or an antithetical ideology. His decisions will be a by-product of realpolitik.
The Opposition’s win in Kairana has offered a ready blueprint for what lies ahead — alliances, arithmetic and an attempt to make the elections as local as Modi will try and make them presidential. On this chessboard of moves — and despite Jayant Chaudhary’s memorable winning line — Ganna, not Jinnah — the organising principle of the arrangement of power will be regional blocs, caste calculations and the cementing of anti-Modi calculations. Don’t be surprised if the Shiv Sena joins such a federal front officially revealing that the old rules of secularism have changed. No one is a political pariah any more. And the traditional notions of Left vs Right have collapsed.
The party that will be hurt the most by the ascent of regional forces and their localised identities will be the Congress. For years the Congress has argued that the fundamental difference between it and the BJP is that it is secular. But now — unless wins in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh can tilt the scales — the Congress not just has to play second fiddle in a rainbow coalition of regional parties; it also has to accept that these state forces will set the narrative. Most likely the political fault line in 2019 will be Hindutva vs Caste disruptions.
The Congress displayed its confusion on the secularism issue by showing visible anxiety about the Right-wing labelling it anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. It’s slightly vague attempt to be Hindu Lite to the BJP’s hard Hindutva hasn’t got it significant gains yet. As it wraps its head around how best to define a new version of secularism — different from the Nehruvian ideal — the regional parties have bypassed the question altogether.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal