Swapan Dasgupta, a writer I’ve admired for long writes in the Wall Street Journal about the BJP’s chance of making a fresh start under Nitin Gadkari. It’s really an OK piece compared to Swapan’s more incisive articles. No new insight or food for thought and not quite blog-worthy except for this.
Since it lost power in 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s principal opposition party, has lost its earlier appeal among the middle classes and the youth. This erosion of support was a consequence of a tired leadership, internal feuding, the pursuit of a policy of blind obstruction to all government initiatives and a failure to check sectarian hotheads identified with its Hindu nationalist ideology. From being a party of conservative Middle India, the BJP ceded its centrist space to the Congress Party. In recent months, it has been paralysed by a failure to counter the appeal of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress heir-apparent.
As he says, the BJP’s multipronged problems today surely stem from a mix of these factors but to say that BJP ceded its “centrist space” is to miss the mark really hugely. And this is also why we urgently need to define and fix certain terminologies in public debate. For starters, there is no such thing as a “center” or “right” in India as I’ve argued several times in this blog.
The Indian political landscape comprises two main sides. One, the Left, which has itself, unambiguously defined what it stands for. Two, the Congress party, which stands for…well, opportunism, to put it mildly. Because the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and other pro-Hindu organizations don’t fall in either category doesn’t mean they fall in what’s incorrectly called the Right. And then we have folks–like Swapan here–who hate the Left and are turned off by the Congress’ opportunism and are also uncomfortable with what they call extreme Right Wing. They describe themselves as the Centrists, Center of Right, and so on. I have a more, impolite term for such people: fence-sitters.
The fence-sitters are typically decent, urbane, English-educated, intelligent, well-read and thinking people. However, while they are readily able to see through the Congress’ crassness and can’t stomach the Left’s duplicity, they are not quite equipped to do the initial donkey labour required to understand what the “right wing” is all about. They go by superficial displays of the “right wing’s” anger–the trishuls, demonstrations against MF Hussain’s “art,” the Ayodhya movement, etc–and conclude that this is not good for a healthy democracy. But is this all that the “right wing movement” stands for?
To be fair, most of the vocal exponents of the “hardline Hindus” are not well-versed in framing their viewpoints in the sophistication that current public discourse demands. Which only hurts them, and makes these self-described “Centrists” run away from them. However, fundamentally, the “right wing” is about reviving an ancient, deeply spiritual way of life and applying it to current times as appropriate. If some proponents of this show dogmatic tendencies, we have an atmosphere where we can openly criticize such dogmatism but dismissing the thought itself as “ancient,” “outmoded,” “regressive,” etc shows both arrogance and impatience with something that doesn’t fit your worldview. A small example will suffice. The concept of Rna (or debt) means that we borrow everything from the future generations. Thus, it becomes our responsibility to safeguard nature, the environment, values, etc for the future. Now, if you instill this concept in public/societal consciousness, you won’t need to frame laws to safeguard the environment. One way of doing this is by regarding nature as God or something that’s worthy of deep reverence, if you hate God so much. If anybody from the “right wing” calls for bringing about this change, it is bad practice (and manners) to call them “hardline.”
The Ayodhya movement is similar. Every nation needs its heroes and symbols and Gods and other cultural icons. And so when Swapan casually says,
[Nitin Gadkari] offended Hindu hardliners by opposing the regional xenophobic agenda of their Shiv Sena party allies and suggested an out-of-court, political settlement of a 60-year-old case over a site in Ayodhya that Hindus believe is especially sacred but which was also the site of a 16th century mosque.
Not too many regard the Shiv Sena as some great Hindu/cultural/unifying force. However, Swapan truly shocks us with this Ayodhya statement. Does it mean then that all those scholars and leaders and ordinary folk who toiled for years and presented a mountainous heap of evidence as proof that the Ram temple existed laboured towards an illusion? Swapan’s choice of words is pretty interesting: “Hindus believe is especially sacred.” And so, archeological, historical, and literary evidence means nothing? Also, what explains the fact that the Babri Mosque was made of material from the demolished Ram temple? It seems that Swapan considers anybody–BJP or otherwise–wanting the Ram temple built on the site are hardliners who are not good for the BJP’s revival. So what does that make the BJP then? As Elst says, the BJP will truly become the Congress party’s B-team. Elsewhere in the piece, Swapan says,
To that extent Mr. Gadkari has made a good start and has earned himself considerable goodwill. The more difficult journey involves winning the trust of voters, particularly that generation which never experienced the heady Hindu mobilization of the early 1990s.
Question: on what basis, and who ensured the said heady Hindu mobilization? The selfsame hardliners. Which brings us to the problems within the BJP. Apart from internal bickering, etc, the real problem is its dilly-dallying over crucial issues and its unmatched capacity to self-destruct. It has thrown away every advantage that came its way and has spectacularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. When everybody hollered to settle the issue of the “second rung/generation leadership” a few years ago, it blissfully dreamed on. It hasn’t still woken up to the fact of superior media and/or image management. Swapan himself has fallen prey to this when he says:
Although Mr. Modi remains controversial for his alleged complicity in the infamous sectarian killings in 2002, his government is marked for its efficiency and single-minded pursuit of economic growth rather than the advocacy of Hindu nationalism.
Exactly one question: why is it difficult for Swapan to mention Modi’s name minus “his role in” the 2002 riots? But the more accurate question to ask is this: why isn’t there a single Hindu-Muslim riot since Modi’s reelection after the riots? Of course, a twisted answer could be: because Modi is a “Hindu bigot” and Muslims live in an atmosphere of fear, etc. But then, that would contradict Swapan’s own mention that economic growth, not Hindu nationalism is why Gujarat is prosperous today.
Swapan also largely exaggerates the “threat” of Rahul Gandhi. “Popularity” and “appeal” in University campuses and local trains do not fetch votes. When the nation goes to vote in 2014, it will look at Manmohan Singh, his bosserina and the entire coterie and decide what to do. Two years down, we’ve seen where the gentle Dr.Singh has been leading us. One Rahul Gandhi who spends more time outside the Parliament than in it (his attendance is in single digits if I remember right, and till date he has asked NO question, and participated in NO debate) can’t ensure victory. Seriously, what does Rahul Gandhi have going for him: looks? the devilishly-charming smile? his circus yatras? This man hasn’t been able to convincingly answer ONE question from college-going undergraduates. And therein lies a pointer for the BJP–these are the issues it needs to pick. But the BJP being the BJP, it’ll probably hand victory on a platter to the Crown Prince who’ll then become King.
In the end, we wish Swapan Dasgupta could’ve shown a little more balance instead of dismissing everybody in the BJP who votes for Hindu causes. Nitin Gadkari’s “Village India” mantra is good but cut back to the “heady” ’90s. The Village India is where Hinduism and Indian culture really lives. Less than 40 Kms from Bangalore is a steep hill located amid a sizeable jungle, which has a Shiva temple on top. In January each year, more than 50000 people from villages surrounding the hill walk up to offer prayers. The temple is open throughout night and these village folk stand guard en route and help other devotees. Nobody really organizes this annual festival. But the deracinated innards of Bangalore could care less for what this signifies. Which is why the BJP needs to tap into this segment, affirm their faith, and give them avenues to better their conditions. Swapan’s prescription to move away from this will yield nothing.
But it’s quite understandable why the self-professed “centrists” analyze Hindu revivalism the way they do. As I mentioned earlier, they lack the donkey labour, which is the prerequisite foundation for attempting such analyses. Till about 70 years ago, we had an array of scholars and thinkers who knew their Shakespeare, Shaw, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, et al. But these people also knew equally well their Yagnavalkya, Medatithi, Valmiki, Vyasa, Kautilya, Vidyaranya, Kalidasa, Banabhatta et al. They had studied both the West and the East in their respective originals. And when they wrote, their words were worth their weight in gold. And they firmly and repeatedly called for a revival of India’s greatness based purely on Indian values. The so-called “right wingers” today–the BJP/RSS variety–are ill-equipped in the tools and techniques of modern debate. They are knowledgeable but not articulate. The so-called “centrists” lack knowledge of the primary sources of Indian tradition and neither show any inclination to equip themselves with it but they are articulate in the Western tradition.
Parting question for Swapan Dasgupta: if Vivekananda was alive today, would you describe him as a Hindu hardliner?
Tags: BJP, Center, Commentary, Congress, Ill-defined Labels, India, Indian History, Indian Philosophy, Indian Politics, Left, Left, Right, & Center, Meaningless Labels, Politics, Pseudosecularism, Public Debate, Public Discourse, Right, Secularism, Society & Culture, Swapan Dasgupta