By R Jagannathan
Apr 19, 2014
One of the good things that might come out of the communal polarisation in this year’s general elections is a serious examination of Indian secularism. When all parties target one man, and when communal rhetoric and innuendo – whether utilised by Amit Shah or Azam Khan – are par for the course, we have to see the Indian version of secularism for what it is: a sham.
This time it is largely the so-called secular parties that have polarised the election. Thanks to the emergence of Narendra Modi as a development icon, the non-BJP parties have gone out of their way to add horns and war-paint to Modi’s visage in the hope that it will scare Muslims. Given his perceived status as a Hindutva hardliner, this embellishment is intended to ensure a Muslim consolidation in favour of the “secular” tribes who feel threatened by Modi.
While this may not happen everywhere, what it has ensured is a reverse polarisation of the Hindu vote – a sampler of which we saw in the western Uttar Pradesh phase of polling on 10 April. In effect, by painting Modi as Resident Hindutva Evil, his rivals have enhanced his appeal to Hindus outside the core Sangh Parivar. This is a fantastic feat for secularists. It is a defeat for the Indian brand of secularism, which is now clearly past its sell-by date.
As Shekhar Gupta writes in The Indian Express today (19 April), the anti-Modi liberal war-cry is bogus and an “affront” to both Hindus and Muslims. This is to presume that only Muslims can stop communalism, and that most Hindus are communal. “To say that only Muslim consolidation can stop Modi, or at least limit his mandate, is unfair to the Hindu majority…
The most generous opinion poll estimates put the NDA’s vote share in the mid-30s, which accounts for just over a third of India’s Hindus. The remaining majority will be voting for others. And most of these 30-odd percent would vote for the BJP/NDA not because they want to build grand temples, spank the Muslims or banish them to Pakistan. They will be voting in search of an alternative to the weakest, most incompetent, uncommunicative and incoherent full-term government in our history. To insinuate that this mass of Hindus will be voting Modi because they have suddenly turned communal is unfair to them.”
A poster of a Hindu goddess is seen on the wall as a voter leaves after casting her at a polling station during the general election in Bhangel village on the outskirts of New Delhi. Reuters
Gupta still pins his faith in secularism as defined by India’s illiberal Left – but here I would disagree. For a country that is defined by a multitude of identities and extreme diversity, secularism in the western sense of the term – separation of church from state – is a limited construct and makes no sense anyway. We carry our little gods and Tilaks everywhere, including our office desks, just as Islamic beards are seen more frequently in public spaces and Azaan caller tunes are heard in offices and bus-stops. As a people, we don’t usually separate our religious and cultural identities from our normal day-to-day routines.
Amartya Sen is fond of saying that we are all multiple personalities. But the truth is we are not schizophrenics. Even though there are separate aspects to our individual identities, each Indian is actually unique and not just a sum-total of the parts. Even assuming Hindus can leave their religiosity at the door, in Islam there is no scope for the separation of religion and state power.
The prophet was both the community’s spiritual and political leader, and Muslims are not about to separate their two selves. So if the ordinary Indian is not going to let go of his chosen identity of the moment – which, incidentally, is not cast in stone, but keeps changing all the time – the devout Leftist belief in antiseptic secularism is not going to work either.
What will work for India is an appeal to pluralism – a belief that you can be what you want to, whether at home or in public spaces or at work – as long as you do not directly or indirectly impinge on someone else’s rights to be himself or herself. Pluralism is the way for india to go. I would thus believe that Indian secularism is not going to develop further along the lines we have seen in the last 67 years, but in a new direction. We will probably be looking, at least in the short run, at identity-based coalition models as in Kerala or Malaysia – where each community has a share of power without giving up its identity. This is not the final stage for Indian pluralism and nationhood.
But in the short run it is at least honest and gives to each community its right to be itself, instead of believing in a synthetic nationalism shorn of any cultural meaning. 2014 could be a watershed year for the failed Indian brand of vote bank secularism. Change is round the corner.