Terms of Trade | Fighting communalism requires politics, not moral indignation - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Fighting communalism requires politics, not moral indignation

Apr 23, 2024 05:02 PM IST

Rewards of communal politics for BJP need to be understood in historical context and current social contradictions rather than condemning it on ethical grounds

“In political life, there is no guarantee that the more civilized positions will win out. Even the most morally justifiable ideological positions have to fight for their political life”, Sudipta Kaviraj, one of India’s most eminent political scientists has written in the introduction to his collection of essays The Imaginary Institution of India: Politics and Ideas.

That the BJP uses communal polarisation to boost its electoral prospects and even its tallest leaders are not shy of peddling such rhetoric is something that should not shock us anymore.(HT Archive/For Representative Purposes) PREMIUM
That the BJP uses communal polarisation to boost its electoral prospects and even its tallest leaders are not shy of peddling such rhetoric is something that should not shock us anymore.(HT Archive/For Representative Purposes)

Kaviraj’s warning is a good place to understand the futility of an entirely justified outrage which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks warning (Hindu) voters that the Congress will redistribute their hard-earned wealth among Muslims have generated.

That the BJP uses communal polarisation to boost its electoral prospects and even its tallest leaders are not shy of peddling such rhetoric is something that should not shock us anymore. Moral imperatives notwithstanding, the more interesting question; both intellectually and politically, is what will it take to make this kind of communal dog-whistling backfire on the BJP?

A short recap of the evolution of Indian politics is useful to answer this question.

The core of BJP’s politics is based on the idea that all Hindus, an overwhelming majority in India, will gravitate towards it because it represents their idea of a civilisational state. The electoral traction for such an idea was extremely weak until the BJP exploited the Ram Temple movement in the late 1980s to emerge as the main opposition party in India.

While this momentum weakened in the 2004 and 2009 elections, the BJP has not only rediscovered its mojo in the post-2014 period but also taken it to new heights. The BJP’s rise as the national political hegemon has been accompanied by a political marginalisation of the Congress.

Why did the Congress lose out to the BJP in this struggle? It was, after all, the party which won the country its independence. It is the story of death by a thousand cuts. Congress’s initial challenges came from its inability to unleash creative destruction within its own leadership to accommodate the rise in democratic aspirations of the proverbial subalterns as electoral democracy took root in India.

Economic problems of a supply-constrained economy added to the discontent on the ground. By the late 1960s, rebellions, often more factional than ideological in origin, were facing the Congress in many states. What followed was a political harakiri in the imposition of the Emergency which inflicted a crippling blow to the Congress.

Its portrayal as an authoritarian force allowed the opposition to bury its own political-ideological contradictions in ganging up to defeat the Congress, which is what led to its first national debacle in the 1977 elections. The Congress, it can be argued in hindsight, drew the wrong lessons from its 1977 defeat.

Ideological clarity and integrity, the post-1977 Congress decided, was something which could be dispensed with completely as long as the electoral contest could be aced by gaming the first-past-the-post system. It is this cynicism or foolhardiness which led the Congress to make the mistakes which generated the Hindutva tailwinds for the BJP in the late 1980s.

Why did it take the BJP from 1990 to 2014 to establish itself as the national political hegemon? It was primarily a resistance from the democratic churning against the Congress system which had its roots in India’s social structures, read the rise of the Other Backward Class (OBC) identity.

How did the BJP overcome this final frontier?


The reason for the decline of OBC politics, especially in the northern part of the country, was that it promised nothing more than political representation and the material rewards associated with it. Because there are clear limits on the inclusivity of such a reward, the Mandal consolidation was bound to suffer cracks.

Its current state is best described by a strategic promiscuity of the OBCs and Dalits between the BJP and its opponents with the former holding a huge edge in national contests and the latter still retaining their competitiveness, if not dominance, at the regional level.

How is all this relevant to the 2024 contest and Modi’s attempts to vilify Congress as a political entity which wants to take away the wealth of Hindus and redistribute it among Muslims?

The Congress, with Rahul Gandhi as the vanguard, seems to have arrived at the conclusion that the best way to recapture lost political ground in the struggle against the BJP is to offer some sort of a ‘New Deal’ of social justice which is more sincere and radical than what Mandal politics has offered in this country so far.

The crux of this narrative is something like this. Upper castes, mainly Hindus, thanks to their historical privilege, continue to hold most of India’s wealth and the opportunities for upward mobility and the only way to correct this persisting imbalance is to first conduct a comprehensive socio-economic survey and then tweak policy; beginning with reservations, according to its results.

On its own, the idea seems benign or rather some sort of a fait-accompli. The numerical dominance of OBCs in India has ensured that by and large every political party supports reservations for them and would not take an explicit stand against demands to increase its ambit.

The BJP, the pragmatic political beast that it is today, has not taken a categorical position on breaching the 50% limit on the SC-ST-OBC quota until now. But a national election campaign is too big on occasion to not engage with such demands.

This is where the BJP seems to have decided that the best way to discredit the Congress demands is to throw a polemic which will undermine the unity of the so-called `block’ which will benefit from the kind of programme that the Congress is proposing.

While India does not recognise SCs within the Muslim community, a large part of the community is a part of the OBC category and benefits from policies such as reservations. Like all other subaltern groups, Muslims have also been pushing for special provisions for them in policies such as reservations and other kinds of affirmative action. Whether or not such claims are justified is beside the point. What matters from the BJP’s perspective is this. It is easier to weaponize such demands from a communal perspective than taking positions in intra-Hindu conflicts where one particular OBC or Dalit group is asking for a bigger share of the affirmative action pie for themselves.

The BJP, after all, pretty much discounts Muslims from its electoral calculations and is happy to antagonise them completely.

To be sure, Muslims are not making such demands today. However, this kind of politics did gain traction in the period between 2004 and 2014 when the BJP was believed to have become a weaker political force in the country.

The UPA government formed bodies such as the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Committee which documented the socio-economic status of Muslims, found them to be extremely deprived, and recommended a pro-active affirmative action policy framework including special reservations for them.

On its own, such initiatives might have had a very progressive intent, but their political fall-out needs to be understood in the context of the larger political framework.

India’s post-reform economic growth has made the capital, both domestic and foreign, extremely averse to any kind of large ethnic violence, at least in regions which matter for the economy. BJP learnt it the hard way when it did extremely badly in the 2009 elections, which were fought under Lal Krishna Advani’s leadership who began his 2009 campaign trying to resurrect his rath-yatra of the Ram temple movement. BJP’s showing was the worst among India’s largest and richest cities. With a pan-India militant Hindutva agenda gone, the BJP was struggling to find an issue which could bring back the mojo of its othering Muslims to consolidate the Hindu voter tactic.

It is in this milieu that the BJP discovered the importance of exploiting the fault lines within the realm of OBCs. On the one hand, it pitted non-dominant Hindu OBCs against the dominant OBCs who were controlling Mandal parties in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and, on the other, it started raising the bogey of Muslims usurping all the gains of affirmative action. This kind of strategy can generate communal polarisation without any large-scale violence. To be sure, this is not the only polarisation trick in town.

With atrophying egalitarianism within the ranks of Mandal politics and a lack of any principled and sustained campaign on the need to strengthen secularism beyond crude electoral calculations, the BJP only had to hit a full toss out of the park to succeed in this game.

The politically correct cohort might scoff at this analysis and even call it an apology for communal politics in India. Should issues of socio-economic discrimination and deprivation of Muslims be buried because they might help the BJP’s communal politics, they can rightfully ask.

Nobody has any right to preach to anybody, including Muslims, about what issues they can and cannot raise in politics. The sanctity of this political agency, however, cannot be evoked to prevent a critical analysis of why the Congress and Mandal parties have failed miserably to stop the BJP’s juggernaut in north India until now and whether their dogma, opportunism and poor tactics have actually helped the BJP’s polarisation ambitions.

So, what will it take to defeat the BJP today? The answer becomes easier if one accepts that it is now the national political hegemon in the country. The BJP might continue to suffer one-off losses in one region or another, but it will not lose its hegemonic position unless it either slowly or suddenly self-destructs because of a stalled creative destruction within its ranks or an act like the Emergency. This is not something which the opposition can engineer. What the opposition can do, however, is to consistently struggle against the political ideas the BJP wants to champion as the new political hegemon.

If the Congress has to establish itself as the leader of this struggle, it will do well to wage a principled struggle against the BJP’s core politics rather than move from one false silver bullet to another between elections. Doing this will require unlearning almost everything the Congress has been doing on its forget ideology win elections road to self-destruction in a large part of its post-independence journey in Indian politics.

Roshan Kishore, HT's Data and Political Economy Editor, writes a weekly column on the state of the country's economy and its political fallout, and vice-versa

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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