Agenda ’14: Sickularism
By Sidharth Bhatia
Jun 24, 2013
One of the theories advanced after the abrupt split of the 17-year-old Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party partnership in Bihar is that Nitish Kumar got worried about the Muslim vote in his state. His calculation was, so it is said, that any truck with the BJP after Narendra Modi was formally named to head its election campaign would be disastrous for the JD (U) because the Muslim voters, who form a substantial part of the state’s population, would move away.
On his part, Mr Kumar, while pointedly attacking the new forces taking charge in the BJP and ridiculing the so-called Gujarat model of development, said that he was provoked by principle rather than expediency. We believe in certain basic tenets, he said, and those are non-negotiable. When the Prime Minister said that Mr Kumar was secular, the chief minister was delighted enough to bring it to the notice of his Assembly.
So which is it — cynical political calculation or steadfast adherence to values? Or a bit of both? To those who think that no politician does anything without an eye on the electorate and will change ideologies swiftly if the situation demands, Mr Kumar is little more than an artful dodger who is readying himself for the forthcoming general election. The loss of a seat in Maharajganj to the hated rival Lalu Prasad Yadav shocked him into quickly assessing the situation, and the inexorable rise of Mr Modi made him worry that his base among Muslims will get eroded. After all, he did not have any compunction about sticking with the same BJP all these years, even praising Mr Modi as a leader with great potential outside Gujarat. So why break up the alliance now?
Even considering Mr Kumar’s long partnership with a party known for its hard-line Hindutva views, his insistence that his secular ideology drove him to take a stand cannot be dismissed. Apart from his own personal commitment to it as a die-hard Lohiaite socialist, he understands a fundamental truth — India is and will remain a secular country. This is not because the word is enshrined in the Constitution, though that means a lot; secularism is embedded in the nation’s DNA.
In the past few years — from the time the BJP began emerging as a serious player on the country’s political scene — the idea of secularism has been much ridiculed. L.K. Advani, now a repurposed politician seen as some kind of elderly Bhishma Pitamah, full of saintly wisdom and experience, is the man who can claim credit for coining or at least popularising the phrase “pseudo-secularism”. This was meant to ridicule all those who were on the side of the minorities to the detriment of the great Hindu nation. The phrase stuck and soon enough, in the 1990s, secularism became a dirty word. (That Mr Advani eventually used it for Mohammed Ali Jinnah of all people is one of those priceless ironies of Indian politics.)
Today the so-called secular brigade is on the defensive. The Congress has always been blamed for “minority appeasement” and “vote bank politics”, and again the reason for that is its secular attitude. To a particular kind of Hindu, this is unacceptable since it gives needless attention to minorities who, they feel, must live in suffering in this Hindu country. Those who are slightly more sophisticated and urbane couch their own antipathy towards Muslims by pointing out the need for Uniform Civil Code etc. The overall message is the same — under the garb of secularism, all kinds of favours are handed out to the minorities. Even a casual look at the condition of Muslims will demolish those bogus arguments, but this is not the place for that discussion. The broader point is that secular ideals, which, for decades were considered a bedrock of Indian society, are under serious threat.
But despite all the attacks on pseudo-secularists and now, “sickulars”, the word of choice of social media trolls, politicians of all hues know that there is no escaping secularism. Not only can it be politically rewarding, but any noticeable move away from it can damage a party’s prospects. They may pay lip service to it and grit their teeth at the very word, but they have to appear secular.
One could argue forever about the definition of the word and even claim that what is practised in India is not secularism per se, but in India there is considerable clarity about what it means, even if it is not put into words. Indians understand secularism instinctively and the co-existence of diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic communities for centuries is proof of that.
That Indians reject extremism of any kind is a lesson that the BJP has come to grasp. In the early 1990s, its main plank was Hindutva; today it is economic development. Even in the aftermath of the Rath Yatra and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, realisation had dawned in the party that it could not make the architect of its success, Mr Advani, the Prime Minister; Atal Behari Vajpayee, who stayed away from the extreme positions of his colleagues, had to be wheeled out to become the face. He may have been ridiculed as the Mukhauta, but that such a mask was required tells us a lot.
History is repeating itself. Mr Modi, whose state saw a brutal carnage against Muslims in 2002, is making a bid to become the Prime Minister. His vocal followers on and off the social media bristle at the very mention of that brutal episode; the new party line is to say that “there has been no communal violence since 2002”. What could be more bizarre than this? The state of Muslims in his state has been sufficiently documented; the administration is no friend of the community.
Yet, deep in his heart Mr Modi knows that he has to turn his back on anything that looks as if it is promoting Hindutva. Which is why, he is resolutely staying away from contentious forums such as the rabid Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s meeting in Ayodhya. He knows that will derail his self-proclaimed image as a man who can kick-start India’s economic growth. The currency of Hindutva is no longer a valid legal tender; it’s time to leave it behind. That the BJP’s most hard-line politicians in their bid to become mainstream give up their most cherished beliefs can be put down to political expediency. But it is also the victory of Indian secularism.