Column: BJP's divisive impulses are test of India's plurality
19 Sep 2015 - 18:15
By Amulya Ganguli
The 12 percent increase in the BJP's vote share at the national level between 2009, when it secured 18.8 percent, and 2014, when this rose to 31, showed that a fairly large section of those who did not constitute the party's traditional support base had voted for it. The reason for their support is known - Narendra Modi's promise of rapid economic growth.
Two questions are relevant here. One is how many of those who chose the BJP, probably for the first time, have remained with it? The other is whether the party's traditional supporters, who seemingly have less interest in the economy and development than in a pro-Hindu outlook, are influencing the party's agenda.
According to a recent survey, Modi's approval rating remains high. However, it is a curious feature of present-day politics that support for the prime minister cannot ipso facto be equated with support for his party. This strange outlook of the voters was highlighted by the Delhi assembly elections where the BJP was badly mauled.
But, otherwise, the party was able to hold its own in states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand and even made inroads in Jammu and Kashmir. The outcome of the civic elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka has also underlined the BJP's continuing influence.
Although the party appears to be well-entrenched, there is at least a section of its non-traditional supporters who may have become uneasy about some aspects of the government's policies.
To be fair, such disillusionment is normal in any democracy where no ruling party can boast of cent percent support. Even then, there are bound to be some in the party's 12 percent "extra" supporters who are currently engaged in mental balancing acts between the government's positive and negative features.
While they will be hoping that it will pursue the promised economic reforms, they will also wonder whether an increasingly prosperous India will not also harbour intolerant sectarian elements.
What is more, these may not be driven by anti-Muslim sentiments alone as at the time of the BJP's emergence from the margins of politics to centre-stage in the 1990s, but by attitudes involving minorities other than the Muslims which can also open up a divide between sections of the Hindus themselves, such as between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
It is not surprising that Mumbai, with its cosmopolitan mix of communities, should be a focal point of such competitive parochialism and varying dietary preferences with the compulsively vegetarian Jains being sought to be placated with a ban on the consumption of meat during one of their festivals and a counter move by the Shiv Sena and Navnirman Sena to oppose the prohibition.
The controversy has been largely defused by a judicial directive allowing the sale of meat. But what the uproar has shown is how the BJP's record can be hit by the various divisive impulses which are coming to the fore.
Mercifully, the apprehensions of communal acrimony have subsided because the government has apparently compelled the saffron hotheads to cool down. The attacks on churches have stopped though not the killing of rationalists.
But other issues which should have been allowed to remain very much in the background have raised their heads. Vegetarianism is one of them and the promotion of Hindi another. An RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya, has argued that English should be "chased away" and Hindi encouraged "to become an organ of Bharat's self-respect, progress and pride".
Although the Panchjanya remembers the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu, which made Jawaharlal Nehru say that English will remain one of the official languages as long as the non-Hindi speakers want it, the magazine tries to circumvent the episode by saying that "conspiracies were hatched to organize other Indian languages against Hindi" without advancing any credible evidence of such sinister plots.
Probably, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will ask the newly-appointed saffron apparatchiki in the Indian Council of Historical Research to unearth such proof. As a member of the Hindutva lobby has noted in the context of the saying that history is written by victors, "the so-called Hindu Right is the victor and a history will get a new coat of paint and varnish and also numerous designer alterations".
If such observations are regarded as not representative of official views, this cannot be said of union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma's statements on imposing a ban on the sale of meat during the nine-day Navratri festival, making Hindi compulsory in schools and including Ramayana and Mahabharata in the school curriculum, but not the Bible and Quran since these do not reflect India's "soul".
His most quotable quote, however, was the observation that the former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was a nationalist "despite being a Muslim".
Carrying on from where the culture minister had left off, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has ordered that all files should be signed in Hindi.
It is yet to be seen whether these diktats are floaters intended to test the public mood. But the non-saffron supporters of Modi cannot but be concerned about the articulations of important people in the government which contravene the country's pluralist norms.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])