The core Hindu voters never left the BJP. But after watching the Narendra Modi government for four years, there is a palpable feeling that the party is leaving them.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan had famously asked during the 1980 US presidential debate with his rival (and incumbent president) Jimmy Carter, and got elected. Barack Obama would ask the same question three decades later and would get re-elected.
The Narendra Modi government is completing four years this month. Are we better off now than we were four years ago? The answer to it lies in another question. Who is likely to make the “Reagan question” his theme song for 2019: Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi? My bet is on the latter.
But all is not going well for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Imagine if in 2014, you had told Narendra Modi’s staunchest supporters that four years down the line, the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate would be six point something, that the tax bureaucracy would seem to have more unchecked power than ever, that traditional vote banks of the party — traders, businessmen, the middle class — would be a disgruntled lot, that Modi’s cabinet would be bigger in size than that of Manmohan Singh’s, that Modi’s capitalist cheerleaders would be resigned to internalise the Congress dictum that only socialism is in conformation with India’s ground realities. Imagine if you had told all that, the same people who defend Modi’s incrementalism today would have laughed you out of the room. They had voted for transformational change. Alas!
But their discontent pales in comparison with the anguish of the hardcore Hindu vote base of the party whose expectations were much higher. At least the economic right had had some wins, even big ones, in the past three decades. On the other hand, the cultural right had never felt represented in the corridors of power.
One might say that Atal Behari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government also disappointed its Hindu vote bank, but lest we forget, there were genuine coalition compulsions. Yet, BJP did try to push its cultural agenda, especially in the education sector, where human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi made key appointments to important bodies, and implemented a new school curriculum framework. It also stuck to its demand of amending Article 30 of the Constitution which confers special rights to minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.
But more importantly, the nature of minorityism itself had changed drastically between 1998 (when Vajpayee came to power) and 2014 (when Modi became prime minister). Earlier, appeasement was limited to politics alone. During the decade-long rule of Sonia Gandhi’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA), minorityism got enshrined in policies too.
Against this backdrop, the enthusiasm of the silent majority knew no bounds at the ascension of a self-professed Hindu nationalist, who did not fear to wear his religion on his sleeve.
“The BJP won the 2014 elections on the strength of the Hindu vote, mobilised by the prospect of being able to bring Narendra Modi to power. Finally, the BJP had a Hindu leader! At least that was Modi’s reputation, Hindu hridaya samrat (emperor of Hindu hearts), earned in 2002 by his refusal to be cowed by all the post-Godhra slander and indictments,” says Indologist Professor Koenraad Elst, who authored the widely-acclaimed book Decolonising the Hindu Mind. In an email exchange with Swarajya, Professor Elst said that though there was not much “saffron” about Modi’s rule in Gujarat after 2002, the media kept on painting him as a Hindu fanatic. “Unintendedly, this worked in his favour, and millions voted, in Baba Ramdev’s words, ‘for Modi, not for the BJP’.”
As noted earlier, the UPA government embedded sectarianism in policies and framed minority-first laws, starting with creating a separate ministry for minorities. It set up a separate statutory commission for their educational institutions, launched a series of scholarships exclusively for minority children, passed the 93rd constitutional amendment paving the way for the government to interfere in private educational institutions but keeping minority ones out of the ambit of law, funding infrastructure in minority-dominated districts, giving loans at lucrative rates and much more. Prime minister Manmohan Singh went so far as to declare publicly that Muslims had the first right to any government aid and subsidies.
The Hindu vote base of the BJP had hoped that Modi would crack down on this Congress mindset of divide and rule. Perhaps they even expected that the party would take up old demands such as the Uniform Civil Code, repealing of Article 370, and building the Ram temple at Ayodhya. But these issues have been relegated to the backseat, just as they were in the party’s election manifesto, where they featured on the last page.
Professor Elst finds the BJP’s slow movement on the Uniform Civil Code “defensible”, as the party “would only get the blame for the massive media-supported Muslim rioting that would ensue”. However, he is in no mood to forgive the party for not even trying to implement its cultural agenda. “It is absolutely unforgivable that they haven’t moved to abolish the very consequential anti-Hindu discrimination from the Right to Education Act, nor have they made a start in dismantling its constitutional scaffold in Articles 25-30,” he says. “Oh, but first we need development, say the BJP devotees. Pray, how is bankrupting Hindu schools and forcing them to close down by the hundreds, as the Right to Education Act has done, furthering development? Same story on temple management: unlike churches and mosques, temples can be nationalised and plundered without any ado.”
On minorityism, Professor Elst says that the BJP state governments themselves participate in this game. “They have condoned and expanded programmes of reservations for ‘minorities’, totally anti-Hindu. In a secular democracy, there is no such thing as a ‘minority’, only citizens equal before the law regardless of religion. So on this front, the BJP’s term in office has been worse than a failure.”
Many “core Hindutva” BJP voters are beginning to wonder if the party has even an intent to remove blatantly anti-Hindu policies.
Professor Elst says that some BJP leaders, who happen to control the party, believe in a secularist make-believe discourse: “Though they only enjoy office because of the sweat of campaign workers dedicated to Dharma, they cultivate a guilty conscience about Hindu vote-catching, as if there were anything wrong with candid Hinduness.”
A prominent right-wing legal eagle, who frequently appears on news debates, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Swarajya that the government could have easily delivered or at least initiated action on issues such as rehabilitation of displaced Kashmiri Hindus, separating Ladakh and Jammu from Kashmir, repealing the Right to Education Act, deporting illegal migrants, settling persecuted Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh in India, encouraging at least BJP-ruled states to free Hindu religious institutions from state control, constitute a scholarly committee to revamp history books at all levels. He says the reason the Modi government has not invested in any of the above is because “I don’t think the government is interested in any of the above. It lacks the intent, clarity and the depth needed to pursue these achievable deliverables, which makes one wonder if they are putting faith in the myopic and cynical adage ‘make hay while the sun shines’.”
“This has pushed the core base to ponder over the absence of a credible Indic-minded political alternative to the current dispensation. Before the government completely alienates its core base, it would do well to deliver on some of these issues,” he says. He thinks there could still be time to deliver.
Professor Elst thinks so too. “They still have a year to drastically mend their ways,” he says.
Ashish Dhar, co-founder of pragyata.com, a portal that hosts courses on Indian culture, disagrees. “I think it is too late for the government to make amends and the tide has turned as far as the core voter is concerned,” he says.
A Kashmiri Pandit, Dhar calls himself a refugee in his own land. What has the BJP done for the community? he asks. “BJP in power has consistently proved to be worse than secular governments in terms of its sincerity towards providing justice to us,” he says. “To be fair to Mr Modi, he never hinted at, much less promised us, any brownies. When he addressed his first rally in the state as a prime ministerial candidate, he didn’t deem it fit to even mention the Kashmiri Pandits while he tortured the audience by naming scores of sub-castes and tribes of Jammu and Kashmir,” he says.
Dhar reminds us how last year “for the first time, the home minister of India openly admitted that the government had no strategy for sending Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir, which is a euphemism for ‘we don’t care whether you (and your culture) live or die’.”
He says that Jammu Hindus feel betrayed and let down by the BJP whom they had chosen to tilt the balance of power in the state towards Jammu. “What is more shocking is that for all their chest-beating against Rohingyas in the media, BJP leaders are facilitating their settlement in Jammu. There is a sense among Hindus that BJP in opposition works much better for us than when they are in power. The evidence certainly suggests that,” says Dhar.
“The party has taken us for granted,” says Ramesh Soni, a Delhi-based businessman, who claims his family has been voting for BJP since its Jana Sangh days because it was a “Hindu” party. “They don’t care for us. They think we can never go anywhere else. Maybe they are right. But this time, Modi had really given us a lot of hope, that he would do something for Hindus. But he has done nothing. How is this government different from Congress?”
Tracking Evangelism, a Twitter pseudonym, who runs a blog with the same name where he closely tracks the activities of Christian missionaries, says that the BJP has done nothing on the evangelism front nor has it cracked down on foreign contributions flowing into evangelicals and other such groups. “You frequently see articles in the media that the government cancelled registrations of thousands of foreign-funded NGOs. But this is nothing new. The UPA government also did the same. These are mostly dormant entities, which did not file their mandatory annual returns,” he says, adding that total inflows have in fact increased under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) since 2014 for many organisations working tirelessly to harvest our souls.
Does the law need to be changed to put a stop to these activities? Tracking Evangelism says that there is no need to amend FCRA; even amending the rules governing the act would do, “if there is any intent”.
Apart from the usual suspects, there are other FCRA NGOs which are doing political work, says Tracking Evangelism, and these harm the BJP as well. “They went after a couple of low-hanging fruits like activist Teesta Seetalvad,” he says. “That’s all. They are not even realising what harm these organisations are doing. These are involved from policy making to policy implementation, interact with various government agencies, train officers and what not.”
The government’s inaction on sectarian laws, especially scholarships, seems baffling. As Tracking Evangelism points out, when he was Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi had taken the Centre to the Supreme Court for forcing his government to give scholarships based on religion. “Now, he is expanding them.”
Hariprasad N, who writes regularly on sectarian anomalies in the education sector, says that the BJP is aware of the issues, as is evident from their campaign speeches where they have touched upon them, but that happens only during elections and everything is soon forgotten after that. “So that makes me suspicious about whether the BJP will do anything at all even in the second term if it wins in 2019. Also the blind backing by a huge number of followers without making leaders accountable is dangerous.”
According to him, one silver lining is that the party is promoting leaders like Yogi Adityanath and Ananth Kumar Hegde, who are of a core Hindutva bent of mind.
But Tracking Evangelism is sceptical about Yogi too. “I don’t have high hopes because see how Modi was different when he was chief minister. Maybe there is something in Delhi that strips people off of their ‘core’,” he says.
“The BJP and its supporters keep complaining about the dominance of the left in academia when they are out of power but what have they done in the last four years when they actually had the chance to turn the situation on its head?” asks a professor at a central university. “They could have easily filled so many posts with people aligned to their ideology but they haven’t. Just look at the number of available vacancies. They are simply not interested.”
“The least this government could do is change the orientation of CBSE textbooks,” says True Indology, a hugely popular Indic Twitter handle who focuses on Indian history and civilisation. He says that if we go through the current textbooks, it is extensively Delhi-centric and chapter after chapter is written about Delhi sultanates and Mughals. “The Delhi Centric rulers were invariably Muslim and mostly Jihadi. Regional rulers were mostly Hindu. Except for Shivaji, these local rulers have been confined to a footnote in the textbooks.” True Indology explains where this bias originates from. “Nehru's own history books have been used as template for Indian history since early post Independence days,” he says.
“The old stagnant content that passes off as history is doing no justice at all. History not only tells us our past but also shapes our ideology. To see that the future generations are not further poisoned by the propaganda which passes off as history in textbooks, government needs to act and act urgently. Our house is on fire and we have to make haste,” he adds.
A BJP worker, who is currently involved in a state election campaign, is more sympathetic to the party. He says that “to expect the BJP to do something on these issues when most of us are not working with them is a bit too much. I believe it is fairly easy to push your agenda if you are working with them”.
He cautions the supporters that while they should continue their efforts to build an intellectual case for the causes, they should tone down their criticism of the party in the run-up to the 2019 elections — if Narendra Modi does not come back to power with full majority, the ideological agenda will be set back by at least a decade.
Should the alarm bells be ringing inside the BJP? Professor Elst says that the BJP has been as pro-minority as the Congress but Muslims and Christians are not going to vote for the BJP, no matter how much the party tries. And he says that there may be good reasons for Hindus to not bother to go cast their vote in 2019, “and I understand those Hindus who vow never to waste a vote for such a self-serving traitorous party again”.
These are harsh words indeed. But the good professor is a realist. “I still tend to rate a BJP government higher than its existing alternatives,” he says. “For me, the human factor is less important than the ideological course a ruling party charts, but even I can’t help appreciating some of its ministers and of course its prime minister.”
“The wider Hindu movement, and even its Sangh parivar segment,” he adds, “includes numerous people with a genuine dedication to dharma. Not to a party, except in so far as it is an instrument for dharma. Once in a while, some of those people may break through to positions of power and do a lot of good.”
“At worst, BJP does not show any intention to resolve Hindu issues and bends over backwards to appease secularists,” says True Indology. “But I will definitely go for BJP in 2019 since it is the least anti-Hindu party.”
While some are sceptical if the party will do anything on Hindu issues even if it is elected in 2019 with a bigger majority, many more doubt that the BJP will be able to repeat its performance of 2014.
And if the BJP comes back with reduced numbers, how realistic would it be to expect the party to deliver on Hindu issues it doesn’t seem to have cared about when it had a full majority?
Yet, the one thing that almost every core BJP voter — however frustrated — whom Swarajya spoke with agreed on is the importance of re-electing Narendra Modi. Congress is not a choice for them. It never was. Many pro-market supporters might have voted for the Congress in 2009, but not the core Hindu vote base. They never left the party. But there is a palpable feeling that the party is leaving them. The silent majority still finds itself searching for its champion, the Hindu nationalist leader — the man they thought Modi would be. And who they still fervently hope he will be.