As Congress Woos Hindu Vote, Will BJP Head For Bankrupt Pseudo-Secular Politics?

R Jagannathan

Jan 12, 2018, 02:10 PM | Updated 02:10 PM IST

 Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah paying his respects at the historical Ram Tirath Temple on May 3, 2015 in Amritsar, India. (Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah paying his respects at the historical Ram Tirath Temple on May 3, 2015 in Amritsar, India. (Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • The BJP’s political future is Hindu, but without discrimination against the minorities. That is the balance it needs to strike, not try the shop-worn tactics of the old Congress.
  • Interesting swings in political posture are taking place in India. Even as the BJP, in its bid for a Congress-mukt Bharat, becomes more and more “pseudo-secular” in order to occupy the political centre in Indian politics, the Congress is moving in the other direction, trying to woo back estranged Hindu voters.

    A few days ago, journalists were sent press releases from the office of Sanjay Nirupam, president of the Mumbai Pradesh Congress Committee, about his visit to Sabarimala, abode of the celibate god Swami Ayyappa. Clearly, this is about gaining political mileage rather than just a statement of the Congressman’s piety.

    This is one of a piece with Rahul Gandhi’s recent entry into upper caste (“janeu-dhari”) politics, where temple-hopping was a key part of his attempt to woo Gujarati voters. The Congress clearly is trying to get back to its old electoral math – upper castes plus Dalits, with minority votes being counted as already in the bag since they have nowhere else to go. This combo was what kept it in power for more than 55 years.

    The Congress clearly wants to shed it pro-minority image, and even Siddaramaiah, Chief Minister of Karnataka, who was keen to present his beef eating credentials some time ago, is now declaring himself to be a “100 per cent” Hindu. In fact, a better variety of Hindu than the BJP. His party has also gone slow on trying to divide the Lingayat vote – where BJP has an advantage, with CM candidate B S Yeddyurappa being the tallest leader in the community – for fear of alienating the Hindu vote in general.

    In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress realises that it has overdone its minority appeasement politics, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is busy wooing Brahmins and visiting temples. Ironically, it is the BJP that is accusing her of practising soft Hindutva politics. The saffron party is now trying to reach out to Muslims, who constitute 25 per cent of the voters in the state, a move that is too clever by half.

    At one level, the shift in Congress politics (and also the Trinamool’s) is a clear recognition that the opposition now has to fight the BJP on the latter’s agenda. It also means that the BJP, at least theoretically, holds the high cards. But the party seems to be morphing into something that is less and less distinguishable from the old Congress, and alienating its core Hindu base.

    For some time now, the BJP has been trying to add a “secular” border to its saffron robe, in the hope of widening its appeal among non-BJP voters. For example, it has made every effort to woo political opportunists from parties like the NCP (in Maharashtra) and Trinamool Congress (in West Bengal and Tripura). In Kerala, it is trying to woo the Kerala Congress (Mani) group, which recently parted company with the Congress-led UDF. The idea is to woo the Christian vote in Kerala, without which it cannot convert higher vote share into seats. This is one reason why it also elevated Alphons Kannanthanam as a Union minister in the last cabinet shuffle.

    The problem for the BJP is that its national posture as a Hindu party has to be diluted in the minority-dominated states or districts where it wants to make some gains in 2019. Thus, even as its cadre and the Sangh parivar want the government to prevent religious conversions and take on a more strident pro-Hindu stance, it is forced to ally with forces inimical to these goals in Kerala, West Bengal, and the Northeast.

    In fact, the alliance with the larger share of the Hindu vote – by default – in Kerala is the Left Democratic Front (LDF). This is not because it is particularly pro-Hindu, but because the UDF is dominated by Muslim and Christian parties, with Hindu leaders playing a smaller role. With the BJP flexing its muscles, the LDF now fears an erosion of its Hindu vote base, which is one reason why Kannur remains a killing field for the Left. Any split in the Hindu vote will end up making the UDF dominant. This is why the BJP wants to woo Christian voters, much to the disappointment of its own cadres in the state and elsewhere.

    In Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP’s marriage of convenience with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is costing it goodwill in its stronghold of Jammu. The state government has no interest in helping the ethnically cleansed Pandits to return to the Valley, and, instead, there seems to be a covert plan to settle more Muslims – especially Rohingyas refugees from Myanmar – in Jammu to whittle down the Hindu majority there. This has the potential to change the demographics of Jammu over the long term, which is currently Hindu majority. The partnership with Mehbooba Mufti has ensured that few of Jammu’s concerns have been addressed. The only plus is that over the last one year, the Army has been given a free hand to bring down militancy in the Valley, but opinion in Jammu is turning against the BJP-PDP coalition.

    More recently, the BJP has attempted to split the minority-based parties by aggressively pushing its triple talaq bill. But whether this will fetch it a few more votes from Muslim women or not is an open question.

    Put simply, the BJP is trying to become more like the Congress of the past, and the Congress is trying to claw back some space in the Hindu voter’s mind to the detriment of the BJP.

    The coming months will force the BJP to make difficult choices. It cannot afford to reduce itself to the pseudo-secularism of the old Congress, nor can it – if it wants to expand its footprint in regions where the call of Hindutva is weaker – bring its national agenda to places like Kerala, West Bengal, the North East and even J&K.

    Can the BJP be the main pole of national politics and still remain a Hindu party? One answer is to play cleverer Hindutva politics, which has not been visible so far. As long as its brand of Hindutva is focused on a subtle anti-minority plank, it cannot live up to its broader promise of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” and expand its national footprint. Its Hindutva needs to be positive, where it addresses Hindu concerns without making it a zero-sum game for the minorities.

    Among the causes it needs to espouse are the following:

    One, a long-term plan to hand over Hindu temples back to the community, with states, especially in the south, playing no role in running temples. Another could be a tweaking of the Right to Education Act, which forces only majority institutions to take on this burden. Two options are possible: one is to offer lucrative financial inducements to majority institutions to take on students from the poorer sections of society, which will strengthen its Hindu credentials. The other is to force the burden on to all institutions, whether majority or minority. A third area of change could be to suggest constitutional amendments to articles 25-30, which give special rights to the minorities when the need is to make them applicable to all institutions. No one can oppose a move to give equal rights to majority-run institutions.

    Two, its strategy needs to be regional even in its Hindutva posture. There is, for example, no reason why it should not embrace Tamil politics by drumming up the Tamil identity of Hindu dynasties like Cholas, Pallavas and Pandyas. The Cholas created India’s first multinational empire, and Tamil pride can be stoked – and the Dravidian racist narrative combatted – by taking ownership of the Chola and other achievements in the state. Bringing in a Hindi-best Hindutva agenda will not work. Regional pride is key.

    Three, in both West Bengal and Kerala, the Hindu vote is splitting between the Left and BJP. In any sane polity, it is this partnership that should have been pursued by both parties in these two states. It is as logical or illogical as a PDP-BJP alliance in J&K. But the Left is stuck on its high horse of “secularism”, where its leadership is totally divorced from what its cadre may well be willing to put up. Instead, the Left and the BJP are involved in mindless mutual slaughter. The BJP’s dilemma is that it is considered right-wing in terms of economic policy, while the Left is obviously socialist. The BJP’s road to power in these two states lies in seeking an alignment with the Left, or to seek its decimation in stages. The sensible route in the short-run is compromise, and not confrontation. But for that, the Left has to grow up, too.

    Four, the BJP needs to mend fences with its allies, especially the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, where it faces a united challenge from the Congress, NCP and some other regional parties in 2019. It makes no sense for two Hindutva parties to ruin each other’s chances in the state just because they can’t agree on who is the senior partner. In the Lok Sabha elections, that can’t be the issue, since Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister for both parties.

    Five, the BJP’s weak spot is caste – which is why the opposition is trying to engineer caste riots and tensions. To overcome this, the BJP needs to strengthen caste collaboration, and one idea it could experiment with – perhaps at the level of the RSS – is the creation of a United Castes Council in all states, so that caste conflicts can be sorted out through dialogue and compromise.

    Net-net: the BJP cannot afford to give up its Hindu posture in the short-term pursuit of power. When even its opponents – whether it is Congress or Trinamool – understand that the road to power is through the Hindu vote, it would be foolhardly for the BJP to vie for the pseudo-secular space that the Congress occupied in the past. The BJP’s political future is Hindu, but without discrimination against the minorities. That is the balance it needs to strike, not try the shop-worn tactics of the old Congress.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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