Misplaced Prescriptions for the BJP

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?

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22 comments for “Misplaced Prescriptions for the BJP

  1. S S
    August 30, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    I am amazed that this piece is not yet shared at fb, twitter, et al. Though it contains a great insight summarised and restated in the last paragraph. Exact words to describe a missing element in Swapan kind of well-meaning ‘bjp minded’ analyst.

  2. Ravinder
    March 26, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    Somewhat off-topic…

    The Khalistani separatists must be getting pretty desperate. Here is a classic case of misinformation. They picked a posting by a random blogger on the website sanghparivar.org, which has no affiliation to the RSS: Anyone can post there, and there is hardly any moderation. There is a clear disclaimer saying the website has no affiliations to any sanghparivar organization. The choice of name then might be inappropriate, but that is beside the point I will make shortly.

    Anyway, the Dal Khalsa (the premier Khalistani separatist group, which recently came out of a ban, and operates freely, using our country’s freedoms, from Amritsar), and their American mouthpiece, the “world sikh news”, deliberately mention ad nauseum that a particular post is from the “official website of the RSS” and even post it on the wikipedia, send letters to the SGPC about it etc. You can trace the links from here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashtriya_Swayamsevak_Sangh#Allegations_of_Anti-Sikhism

    The first thing that greets any reader to sanghparivar is the disclaimer that it is NOT affiliate. None of the posters there are spokesmen for the RSS. Inspite of that, I guess repeat a lie a hundred times and it becomes the truth. Notice the slyness – they stress that the source is the “official website of the RSS” but deliberately suppress a link to it, because then one click would reveal their lie.

    I was hoping one of your readers would take up the matter.

    Thanks,
    Ravinder (I am a Sikh btw., and have seen far worse from the separatists back in the day. I also greatly respect the RSS for what it did for Sikhs during the 1984 riots. Just wish they would get off their high horses and actually start an official website!).

  3. seadog4227
    March 16, 2010 at 4:59 PM

    Well done!
    Dasgupta hovered near the ground for a while but has got onto the fence very quickly!
    What you are is quickly revealed when you are in the company of foreigners–you tend to give simplistic, disparaging,dismissive or self-effacing comments.
    When my own views began to fructify, for example, I was accosted on a flight from the USA to India by an American missionary who laid out his views and agenda with aplomb. After mumbling some neutral remarks, I sought to turn away, but was aggressively buttonholed again ! This time is decided to let him have it within earshot of my largely Indian co-passengers. After taking him apart without any remorse, he quickly excused himself and disappeared for the rest of the flight. All my co-passengers nodded their approval after he had left.
    But, Dasgupta is intelligent and quick to engage, and appeared openly supportive of the BJP for a while, but appears to have been disregarded after the internal schism of the BJP. Let’s watch …..

  4. March 13, 2010 at 11:24 PM

    Perhaps, at this late date, this is not the forum the question I have in mind but here goes anyway.
    Is it not the case that the most salient feature of Indian politics- especially in the Hindi belt- is the demographic shift as well as socio-economic empowerment away from so called ‘forward’ communities?
    One way to legitimate power is through Religion- either attacking it or claiming to safeguard it. I wonder whether the Godra atrocity was the result of a previously ‘backward’ biradari using Religion to flaunt is new status? In that case, had the State Govt. concentrated just on cracking down in that particular locality other ‘backward’ communities (irrespective of sect) might have felt that it was the new found assertiveness of their class which was being attacked.
    In this context the State Govts. response sent the message that no such targeting on a class basis would occur. Furthermore, by making an equation between the Indira assassination riots and Godhra (with the metropolitan elites also taking a hit) a populist message was sent.
    The C.M- being a brilliant speaker- had the possibility of being a National leader. Wisely, he sacrificed that ambition to concentrate on his own Home State.
    The point I’m groping towards making has to do with the real drama of Indian politics which has to do with socio-economic interests wearing all manners of disguises.
    The problem is that there is now a lot of incentive incompatibility in the system. Okay, for the moment, the threat of fiscal disaster through senseless populism has (as for as market perception is concerned) been contained, but this manner of doing politics where nothing is called by its right name simply can’t run on indefinitely.
    I recall reading Raja Kumud Mukherjee’s magisterial account of Ancient Indian Education. The importance of open discussion- without cant- about the economic needs of different communities was very much highlighted.
    Yes, in some fields, e.g diplomacy- there was ‘kutniti’ BUT NOT in Economic affairs. This is one reason why Indians did not hunt down heretics. Economic issues never wore a sectarian disguise. Thus, though warfare was common- civil strife was not endemic.
    Religious texts which we read as acts of devotion do have a lot of content relevant for the proper conduct of Politics.
    But first there must be Truth not Hypocrisy.

  5. pongo twistleton
    March 3, 2010 at 6:50 PM

    yeah, i might be tempted to call vivekananda a hindu hardliner. dude, not having an opinion is not also an opinion, believe me, everyone thinks they are right, including you. one more thing – I can really see a temple in ayodhya change my life, yeah i really need a temple miles away from me to give me a sense of security, the army can be disbanded into merry men, just give me a temple, yaar, i’ll be fine

  6. Sid
    March 3, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Kaphir,

    Please share some links if you find good stuff with the references Sandeep mentioned.

  7. Sid
    March 3, 2010 at 5:52 AM

    There is not much new that I can add. But I did not see much about this one:
    “As Elst says, the BJP will truly become the Congress party’s B-team.”

    Elst is a smart man, but why are we missing the signal that BJP has already become the B Team? True to it’s new found ideology (Advani and Bhagbat reportedly believe that they need to show more of their “secularism”, off course they believe this after the loss of election). There is really no use of wasting words on BJP, but the B Team would keep handing the big trophy to A team continuously while A team would bless the B team with smaller trophies i.e. few state governments. After all, Gandhis need power to survive. Common Indians…specially Hindus did not have power for centuries, they can live with another group of self alienating “intellectuals” ruling them. But what would happen to a Gandhi, Sindhia, Sangmas if they are not in power? B team would also ensure that no other guy from the street rises up using frustration of few “Hindu Hardliners” (to quote Swapan da, the article is in his blog too, what happened to this man!!) and disturb the status quo. See sharing powers has it’s advantages.
    Finally, it is a pity that Shiv sena is being known as Hindu sympathizers. What a pity!!!

  8. Malavika
    March 2, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    I wish there was an quivalent of Jon Stevarts comedy show in India. These TV channels have arrogated themselves to be the judge, jury and executioner(of charector ofcourse).

    BJP needs media presence and more important check those Darn EVMs.

  9. Ram
    March 2, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    BJP looks to be a unified house after Nitin Gadkari took over and there was no voice of dissent or internal differences aired in public now. If the party continues like this and puts the national interest more than personal interests, then it would be surely challenging the UPA in 2014 or earlier. Thanks to the LS’09 results, there won’t be anymore the threat of 3rd front and 4th front. If Communists are booted out from WB and Kerala (as per the existing trend), then BJP has to counter only the Congress. The number of Hindus who are becoming really Secular from being “Sickular” is slowly increasing, thanks to people like Sandeep.
    BJP should continue to focus on Good Governance, Antyodya and development oriented issues and of course sticked to Cultural nationalism as the main platform. Hope that in 2014, India will have mature electorate who can determine who is better of the 2 main parties and rightly bring BJP to power.

  10. Kedar
    March 2, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    The power of native literature cannot be underestimated. Everyone should learn to read what mahatmas of their own region have written till now, not to mention a further need to learn samskrtam.

    We need to organise and pariticipate in dharmika sabhas and charchas, even if at family or colony level. It all begins with the self and family.

  11. Sandeep
    March 2, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    Kaffir/others,

    Sure. Start with P.V. Kane, K P Jaiswal, Hiriyanna, Shyama Sastry (translator of Artha Shastra), R.K. Mookerjee, and Ananda Coomaraswamy.

  12. Kaffir
    March 2, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    Did you guys (Ravi and Raman) miss what Sandeep wrote? Here it is again:

    “But the BJP being the BJP, it’ll probably hand victory on a platter to the Crown Prince who’ll then become King.”

  13. raman
    March 2, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    and i hate to say this. the bjp as it stands today is absolute s**t. Basicaly a bunch of corrupt old fogies & hypocrites.

  14. raman
    March 2, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    i completely agrre with ravi rgarding rahul gandhi. sandeep u underestimate the indian voter’s capacity to self-destruct. the “threat” of Rahul Gandhi might turn out to be real, thanks to the Indian voter.

  15. Krishnan
    March 2, 2010 at 10:01 AM
  16. Krishnan
    March 2, 2010 at 9:59 AM

    I came here to say what Kaffir has mentioned in his post. Sandeep, could you give a list of classics (preferably in English) that you think can be helpful for people who want to know more about our religion and the ideologies/thoughts that shaped Bharatvarsh?

  17. March 2, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    “Servantile Journalism” : NDTV Style

    I didn’t coin the word Servantile but it best describes the kind of interviews NDTV conducts with some select people and some of its practices. I don’t find the need to explain what servantile means but here are some examples:

    January 2010, in his interview with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Prannoy Roy pays him a compliment: “Your credibility is impeccable…” This particular compliment is all over the internet now given the personality he had interviewed. This is Rajendra Pachauri of the IPCC scandal, .Glaciergate, Climategate, TERI funding based on inaccurate glacier-melting threats, TERI gaining a contract while he was on the board of ONGC, and his own personal wealth under scanner. This is the Pachauri of the “Voodoo Science” insult to an Indian glaciologist. Given all this, Prannoy Roy still believes his credibility is really impeccable. Servantility at its best!

    NDTV is famous for such servantile interviews. Barkha Dutt routinely does it. Remember her interviews with Priyanka Gandhi, P Chidambaram and recently Shahrukh Khan, the list can go on. Servantile journalism is not only despicable but also harmful for the public. I have chosen NDTV as an example given the recent interviews of Rajendra Pachauri and Shahrukh Khan with them. Let’s examine what is so seriously wrong with it

    Every year NDTV gives out some awards called “NDTV Person Of The Year” in various categories. The awardees are mostly politicians, ministers, businessmen, celebrities and so on. (Mind you other news channels are equally guilty of such a practice.) I am not questioning the right of people to receive awards. I am questioning if it’s the business of a supposed news channel to be giving out such awards?

    Let me touch on something else. In March 2009 in his now famous smack-down of CNBC (the American financial channel) Jon Stewart of The Daily Show showed how the journalists at CNBC asked all stupid and servantile questions to CEOs of companies like Bear Sterns, AIG, GM, Merryl Lynch, one even went far enough to ask Allen Stanford “how does it feel to be a billionaire?” (Prannoy’s compliment to Pachauri falls into this category of journalism) In weeks after the interviews each company collapsed and Stanford was actually running a Ponzi-scheme. Yes, the very same Allen Stanford who sponsored a cricket event in the WI. The point here is, the journalists sucked up to the CEOs of these companies and never asked real hard questions that would indicate the health of their companies. The end result was the economic collapse in the US. How can you be giving awards to the very same people to whom you should be asking really hard questions. NDTV calls itself a news channel, if it called itself an Entertainment channel I wouldn’t care if they gave out a “Call-girl of the year” award.

    In a TIME magazine poll last year, after Walter Cronkite’s death, Jon Stewart was voted the most trusted newsman in the US. The irony is, Stewart’s Daily Show is a Comedy Channel program and Stewart is a comedian who calls himself a “snake-oil salesman”.

    So much for servantile journalism.

  18. Kaffir
    March 2, 2010 at 7:11 AM

    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.

    Sandeep, could you please suggest a reading list for those who are interested in learning more?
    Thanks.

  19. March 2, 2010 at 1:08 AM

    I think there’s one thing Swapan has done right. In the leftist, pseudo-secularist dominated media a slightly “rightwing” writer has tried to play around with words (WSJ prefers this style of writing). Instead of a headlong confrontation intellectuals with a different mindset should start writing for publications that have so far been the bastion of motivated leftist writers misinformers. A typical WSJ Indian journalist would have never mentioned Gujarat’s progress purposely.

  20. Palahalli
    March 1, 2010 at 11:55 PM

    Well, I don’t disagree with the post in so far as what it has had to say on Swapanda’s latest stances; I do have some observations on Sandeep’s take on “political categories” he thinks is not relevant to Hindusthan’s politics.

    Sandeep himself has agreed to “Left” and quite frankly “Centrists” are by definition Fence-Sitters. They also go by the fashionable label “Moderates”. So one sees an inbuilt tendency toward opportunism – a kind of please-all charachteristic. Politicians will please anybody who can help them win.

    So where is my disagreement with Sandeep? I also agree with him when he says the RSS/BJP is not “Rightist” or “Conservative”. But then they are not uncategorizable just because they won’t own a category. One can view and place their policies and stances on various issues.

    Perhaps one has not looked at all options. The one I like best is “Traditionalism”.

    Whilst it is true that Leftism and Centrism are universal in nature, Rightism/Conservatism are local. However, it is Traditionalism that lends meaning to rootedness when viewed from the perspective of how our society handled various issues via traditional mores.

    Let me give an example –

    When viewed objectively, Big Government is a Leftist project.

    However, if by Tradition our country always had Big Government and it worked well with our people and if our Traidtional Big Governments had developed societal institutions that helped it be the best for our people; then supporting Big Government in Hindusthan would be a Traditionalist (rooted in the soil and nature of our people)position and not Leftist.

    So yes, whilst it can be argued that Rightism/Conservatism can become dogmatic, it is not so at all wrt Traditionalism. It is like water – it finds its level in its terrain and settles in without much fuss.

    In my view the RSS/BJP have yet to decide what category they should own. And owning one is important for clarity. Not to own one will be like a blank board. Anybody can stick anything on you. Dangerous and costly, as we have all seen.

    Their impulse is Traditional and that is good. They need to expand and articulate it, that’s all.

  21. March 1, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    Kudos Sandeep,
    You have put things is perspective.
    I tend to share pessimism with Ravi above as I know the power of Committed to Sonia MSM. Sad but true, their campaign might effect a change in his favor even if not considerably but still nevertheless.
    Sandeep you ask, “Parting question for Swapan Dasgupta: if Vivekananda was alive today, would you describe him as a Hindu hardliner?”

    My Answer: YES. And MSM would have projected one Swami Aginvesh the Great and true Hindu.
    Swallow it, bitter but true.
    PI.

  22. Ravi
    March 1, 2010 at 6:56 PM

    Sandeep,
    While I agree with almost everything you have said, I cannot bring myself to share your optimism re: Rahul Baba. Come 2014 , I am sure the enlightened electorate of the worlds largest democracy will elect MR. Gandhi and his bunch of suave, smooth talking selfish sycophants. My pessimism draws inspiration not from the nature of public discourse, but on how the whole agenda for discourse has been subverted beyond repair. I do admire your courage and insight in articulating that. Apart from the largely inconsequential minority that understands this, the largest democracy is happy to truly embrace MNIK as the peak of our civilizational achievement and top it with Mile sur mera …. as our truly truly national anthem.
    And yes before you can say terrorism and security they are ging to thrust “peaceful talks wit Pak down your gullble gullet.
    Ravi

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