Hindu nationalism and unorganized social liberalism in battle for India’s soul


A SERIES of incidents in the past three weeks have illustrated, more starkly than in the recent past, the two forces that are in battle for India’s soul. On one side are Hindu nationalists, on the rise since the election to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last year, and ranged against it are diverse political parties whose pull is in the opposite direction.

The former first:

—In a village called Dadri in Uttar Pradesh state, a man was lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly eating or storing beef at his home. Leaders of the BJP called it an accident and a law and order problem.

—Sudheendra Kulkarni, a journalist and aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had black ink thrown on his face in Mumbai by the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, which runs the Maharashtra government in partnership with the BJP. This is because he was a panelist at the launch of a book by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.

—A concert by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali, who is extremely popular in India, was forced to be cancelled by the Shiv Sena—because he is from Pakistan, which supports terrorism.

And the response:
—There’s not much evidence yet of contrition in Dadri. Indeed, the media has been the first target of attack by Hindu villagers. But the Indian Air Force—the victim’s son works for the IAF—was exemplary in the way it stepped up in defense of the family, offering protection and relocation.

—At the time of writing this, some 40 writers had returned their prestigious state-endowed awards of recognition in protest at not only the Dadri lynching, but also India’s failure to protect three rationalist thinkers from the bullets of Hindu nationalists.

—Ghulam Ali will be back. No sooner had the Shiv Sena tasted blood than the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and West Bengal offered to host concerts by him. Digital media was even quicker, with a popular music station broadcasting a live Ghulam Ali concert across the nation.

There is nothing terribly new in this tug of war, but it assumes importance in the backdrop of the BJP’s massive win in last year’s general election, followed by victories in some important states. According to a Reuters investigation published last week, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the controversial group that is also the BJP’s ideological mentor, now wants to help the BJP score electoral victories in states where its presence is negligible. Based on interviews with two dozen RSS and BJP officials, Reuters reported that the first target is West Bengal—ruled for decades by communists and now by the Trinamool Congress, which isn’t part of the federal ruling coalition.

“We would want the BJP to win all the state elections because only then can significant social, political and cultural changes take place in this country,” RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale said.

There are problems with this aim. Firstly, winning elections is one thing, winning the hearts and minds of voters is quite another. Both the RSS and the BJP continue to be viewed darkly by minority religions as well as secular Hindus, mainly because of the RSS’s aggressive pro-Hindu agenda. Melding political centralization with a religious agenda isn’t a wild vote winner everywhere in India.

Secondly, several large states remain out of the BJP’s grip. These include Uttar Pradesh, Bihar (where assembly elections are now being held), Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal. In Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal, the BJP has only negligible presence, although Kerala and West Bengal are also home to some of the largest numbers of RSS units.

How influential are these states? I wondered if these forces of political decentralization can also strengthen social liberalism in India. For answers, I turned to Indian political scientist Yogendra Yadav, the man who helped found the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which now rules Delhi, and who was later expelled for opposing the candidature of some politicians who were thought to be corrupt. Did the swift moves by the Delhi and West Bengal governments signify a direction? Yadav was measured in his response: “Liberalism doesn’t have a political constituency in India—there hasn’t been one in a very long time.” Instead he put it down to what sounded to me like political expediency. Being a political thinker, he called it “political accident.”

The Left in West Bengal had hounded out political opponents when it was in power, he said. And the Delhi government had just made changes to the syllabus of secondary schools, deleting references to the disadvantages suffered by Muslims and discrimination against religious minorities.

In the long run, say some other distinguished political scientists, it is the forces of decentralization that are likely to win the battle. In 1982, American political scientist Paul R. Brass argued that despite centralizing tendencies, “the long-term trend in Indian society and politics is towards pluralism, regionalism and decentralization.”

Fifteen years later, he wrote: “I continue to believe that the tension between homogenizing and pluralist, national and regional, centralizing and decentralizing tendencies are at the heart of the struggle for power in Indian politics, and that the long-term prognosis remains in favour of the latter set of forces”—i.e. pluralist, regional and decentralizing.

I have a feeling that Yadav, despite being hounded out by a centralizing political party, may well agree with that view.



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