As a Hindu party, the BJP will feel the tremors as long as caste remains a major fault line in India.
Here are 10 things that the party can do to retain power in the 2019 elections.
The eruption of Dalit violence yesterday (2 April) in protest against what is perceived as a dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act following a recent Supreme Court judgement shows the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) inherent political weakness whenever the caste cauldron is stirred. Whether the cauldron is stirred by Dalit assertion or opposition forces or the two in combination is immaterial; as a Hindu party, the BJP will feel the tremors as long as caste remains a major fault line in India.
The problem with the BJP is that it has got carried away by its 2014 rhetoric of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, without creating its own narrative of what it is all about. Vikas (development) is a necessary condition for political success, but never a sufficient one. Vikas needs to be topped up with issues that glue its constituencies together. The Narendra Modi government, and the party under Amit Shah, have not asked themselves a simple question: what is my core constituency, and how can I not only serve it but also expand it through my policies and actions?
The answer is that the BJP is a Hindu party without actually doing much for the cause of Hindus. It does not have to be anti-minorities to be a Hindu party, but it has to be demonstrably Hindu to retain its core constituency. Without this core, it has no bargaining power with the other parties that it may need to form a government at the Centre in 2019.
Just as the United Malays National Organisation cannot lead a coalition in Malaysia without commanding the allegiance of Malay Muslims, or the Congress cannot lead the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala without the backing of Nairs and Christians, the BJP cannot hope to become a permanent party in power without consolidating the Hindu vote with a positive agenda.
The BJP has managed to transcend its upper caste origins by extending its reach to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in many states, but it is yet to cross the final emotional barrier with Dalits. This will take years, especially since there are many Dalit parties with a greater claim to their allegiance. The fact that significant sections of the upper castes are still not willing to accept Dalits as equals in many states means the BJP needs to do much more on this front. In the short run, it has no hope of attracting too many Dalit votes. The 2014 elections were an exception.
Logically, the BJP should find success by being a Hindu party for the forward and backward classes first, for this is the constituency that is closest to emotional integration under a religious identity. The Dalits, who have been forcibly kept out of Hinduism, are unlikely to find the umbrella of Hinduism adequate for their political aspirations right now. For that to happen, the social distance between them and the rest of the Hindus has to narrow down first – and that is a tall order.
If the BJP is slipping badly on the road to 2019 (losing byelections and allies on the way), it is because it has not kept its core constituency intact. The party lost Lok Sabha byelections in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh because it foolishly hoped that the caste combo it wove together in 2014 will remain permanently intact. But Indian castes are always chasing better deals. In the two UP bypolls at Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the BJP lost to a coalition of Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits. The emergence of a truly Hindu party depends on how the BJP welds all castes into a political combined powerhouse. If the BJP does not do this, some other Hindu party will emerge and complete the process.
Unfortunately, despite being labelled a Hindu party – a label owed more to its opponents than itself – the BJP does not seem to understand what a Hindu agenda should include beyond periodic assertions about building a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
This is apparent from how it is trying to gain the Hindu vote in states like West Bengal and Kerala, where the invocations ought to be to Maa Durga, Maa Kali, Mahabali, Ayyappa and Guruvayoor Krishna. While Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanthi have resonance everywhere, it is the stronger local rallying cries that will find you the Hindu vote. Even in UP, consider the potential of the cry Jai Sri Krishna among the Yadavs compared to Jai Shri Ram.
In Karnataka, the BJP is behaving like a deer caught in the headlights when faced with Congress attempts to divide Hindus by giving Lingayats a separate religious identity. The logical counter to this attempt should have been a simple statement from the BJP that it will amend the Constitution to give all communities the same rights as minorities, whether they actually are one numerically or not.
This confusion comes when you are a Hindu party without being able to figure out what ought to be a Hindu agenda that is not anti-minority or bigoted.
A truly non-bigoted Hindu agenda that will unite most major castes and religious denominations ought to include the following:
One, equal rights to autonomously administer educational and religious institutions, including temples, for all communities, and not just those deemed minorities.
Two, abolition of minority commissions along with the strengthening of human rights commissions.
Three, abolition of Article 370 along with greater devolution of powers to all states, both economically and politically, making India a real “union of states”.
Four, moves towards a uniform civil code, by giving every community the right to its own cultural practices, but with individuals having access to uniform Indian civil and criminal laws.
Five, a ban on foreign contributions to religious bodies, which makes the funding of churches and mosques easier than temples.
Six, an explicit commitment to prevent illegal immigration and demographic changes from destabilising India’s current religious mix. Indic religious refugees (Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists) from Pakistan and Bangladesh should be given preference for asylum and citizenship over communities from other religions. Reason: there is only one place in the world with an Indic majority, and this majority is vital for the safety and security of Indic peoples everywhere.
Seven, the Pandits who fled the Kashmir Valley must be resettled within reasonable time, with or without the consent of Kashmiri Muslims. Jammu and Ladakh need to be separated from Kashmir and given autonomy, either within the current J&K Constitution, or as Union territories. Indians anywhere should be freely allowed to settle and buy properties in J&K.
Eight, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh must be disenfranchised, but they can be given work permits so that their livelihoods are not disrupted.
Nine, the Right To Education (RTE) Act, which targets only majority institutions, must be made optional, with subsidies being offered to all institutions to take on students from the economically weaker sections. RTE should be incentive-based, not compulsion.
Ten, the resultant Hindu party should offer power sharing deals with those who represent Dalits and Muslims. This is the road to permanent power for the BJP. Pretending it is all things to all people will not work.