Frontline
November  1999
Special Report

Secularism: a mere mantra?

The conduct of parties, political pundits and the print and electronic media during the recent Lok Sabha polls shows that secularism for them is little more than a ritual chant

It was an embarrassing moment for many secularists in India watching Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav’s response on Star TV, prime time, as election results from his state pronounced the near rout of his party in Bihar. “Mr Yadav, do you think this is due to the voters’ disenchantment with the government for lack of any development in the state”. “No”, replied Yadav bravely, “the issue in the election was secularism, not development”.

 Can secularism ever be a one–point agenda unrelated to other concerns of people?  
In the midst of the election campaign in August, a Muslim petty trader, Rehman, was burnt alive at a village market in Orissa. One of the eyewitnesses told the police that Dara Singh — the man charged with the torching alive of Graham Staines and his two sons, in the same state earlier this year — was the man responsible for the latest incident. A week later, a Christian priest, Fr. Arul Doss, too, was done to death in the same state. 

The Bajrang Dal, the RSS and the BJP were quick to condemn such brutal killing of minorities in Congress–ruled Orissa. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad even issued a press statement, maintaining that whoever was responsible behind such killings “could not be a Hindu”. But, ironically, the Congress party — the party that swears by secularism, the only party capable of challenging Hindutva on a national plane, the party that depends crucially on minority votes — maintained a deathly silence. 

Is secularism a mere mantra  — to be enshrined in the party manifesto and chanted reverentially on convenient occasions — which has nothing to do with issues like the security of life and property of all citizens, irrespective of their faith? 

Was secularism an issue at all in the Lok Sabha polls of 1999? To begin with, what does one mean by secularism — not in the academic sense but in terms of how it relates to the lived experience of people?
In the 1991 polls, with the Shiv Sena as its only ally, the BJP secured 120 Lok Sabha seats. With three more allies on its side in 1996, the Akali Dal in Punjab, the George Fernandes–led Samta party in Bihar and the Haryana Vikas Parishad (HVP) in Haryana, the BJP’s tally climbed up to 161. Having emerged as the single largest party, the BJP was invited to form the government and given two weeks to prove its majority in the Lok Sabha. 

But it was still a different India three years ago where the BJP was a political untouchable for most politicians. In the 13 days that his government lasted, Atal Behari Vajpayee and the rest of the saffron stalwarts were unable to win over even a single MP to their side. Leave alone party politicians, even those who had fought and won as independents were unwilling to shake hands with the party whose manifesto contained ‘contentious issues’ — 

Ø Building of a Ram Mandir where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya; 

ØRemoval of article 370 from the Indian Constitution which grants a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir;

Ø Introducing a Uniform Civil Code (to replace the different existing personal laws for different religious communities).

Until the BJP’s electoral drubbing in the Assembly elections in UP and elsewhere in late 1993, then BJP president, L.K. Advani, used to revel in the ‘majestic isolation’ of his party. But the acute isolation of 1996 confronted the BJP and its sangh parivar with a difficult choice: retain ‘ideological purity’, remain a political untouchable and make a solo bid to power by hard–selling Hindutva. Alternatively, adopt tactical flexibility and put ‘contentious issues’ on the backburner so as to break out of political isolation.

Since the prospects of coming to power on the strength of its own divisive agenda seemed remote, at least in the current scenario, the BJP and its parivar deviously chose the latter. And reaped rich dividends in the elections of 1998 and 1999. 

The BJP entered the electoral arena for the Lok Sabha polls in February 1998 with 18 allies. Thanks to the alliances, the party improved on its own tally of seats — from 161 in 1996 to 182 in 1998 — and, more importantly, headed a coalition government. But the wafer–thin majority of the BJP–led coalition made Vajpayee hostage to some of his mercurial allies — Jayalalitha being the most obvious. 

On the eve of the 1999 polls, the BJP made yet another quantum leap. In June this year, the Janata Dal, which formed the core of the ‘Third Front’ (the Congress and the BJP being the first two), disintegrated with virtually the entire bulk of the party choosing to ally with the BJP. Leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav, who for years had shouted themselves hoarse at the communalism of the BJP, suddenly had no qualms rallying behind the saffron bandwagon. 

The acceptance of the BJP by virtually the entire political spectrum today is as comprehensive as its political isolation was stark in 1996. If it was Jayalalitha’s AIADMK which teamed up with the BJP in 1998, this time it’s the DMK in Tamil Nadu. If Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference decided to extend support from the outside to the Vajpayee–led government in 1998, this time it fought elections as part of the NDA and is now a part of the government at the Centre. The Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu fought against the BJP in the 1998 polls, agreeing to extend support to the Vajpayee government from the outside only subsequently. This time, the TDP and the BJP jointly fought the Congress in Andhra.

The BJP, which led an 18 party alliance in 1998, now counts on 24 allies. In theory, it now has to lean on many more parties to stay in power. But in practice it also means there are over 300 MPs behind Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha against the precarious figure of 273 in a House of 544. 

What does this augur for secular politics in India?  
Even for some secularists, the present political arrangement is not such a bad thing after all. With only 182 seats of its own — exactly the same number that it had in the last Lok Sabha – the BJP depends crucially on people like Chandrababu Naidu, M. Karunanidhi, Mamata Bannerji, Ramvilas Paswan, Ramkrishna Hegde and others. None of them can afford to ignore minorities’ votes in their respective regions and constituencies. The continued dependence of the BJP on these leaders and parties for their continued hold on power also means, according to these secularists, that issues like Ayodhya, article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code continue to be kept in abeyance. Such a grand alliance also means strengthening the ‘moderates’ and the ‘liberals’ and weakening the hold of the hawks within the sangh parivar. 

If Ayodhya, article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code was all that Indian secularism was about, there may have been some merit in such wishful thinking. But the ‘evil genius’ of the sangh parivar lies precisely in its ability to have, for all practical purposes, reduced the issue of India’s secularism to the BJP’s postponed agenda. 
Be it the reporters who raised questions at BJP’s press conferences during the electoral campaign, or TV anchors and even unsympathetic expert commentators who quizzed BJP leaders before and after the election results, or political parties who in their electoral campaign charged the BJP with playing communal politics. Hardly anyone went beyond asking the BJP to state for how long the issues of Ayodhya, article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code would remain postponed. 

Responding to these queries was, at the worst, a little awkward. Being past–masters in the art of double–speak, different leaders of the BJP and different segments of the sangh parivar said different things at the same time; or the same leader said different things at different points of the electoral campaign. The net result of this was Advantage BJP – the statement of one general secretary, Venkaiah Naidu, convinced the ‘liberals’ and the fence sitters that the BJP is turning ‘moderate’; the statements of another party general secretary, K. Govindacharya, reassured the core supporters of Hindutva that the party remains committed as ever to the Hindu Rashtra ideology.  

Neither the avowedly secular political opponents of the BJP, nor the print and electronic media thought it necessary to educate the voter how in the brief tenure of the BJP at the Centre and in states like U.P. and Gujarat —
Ø Life has come to mean endless anxiety, at best, for Christians and Muslims in Gujarat for nearly two years. After several independent fact–finding teams sent by civil liberties organisations and the National Minorities Commission had established numerous instances of attacks on minorities in Gujarat, Prime Minister Vajpayee, the most ‘liberal face’ of the BJP, visited the state only to return with a call for a “national debate on conversions”.  

Ø There is a sustained effort to infiltrate, capture and pack educational and cultural institutions with men and women known primarily for their commitment to RSS ideology. One such RSS leader, who is now going to decide what children should be taught in schools, proudly asserted in his autobiography how he killed a Muslim woman in 1947 because too many Hindus wanted to enslave her for their own lust! (See Pg. 22). 

Ø For the sangh parivar, Kargil became a convenient pretext to communalise the Indian armed forces.

Ø Attacks on minorities have continued before, during and after the present polls in Gujarat, Orissa and Kanyakumari by votaries of Hindu majoritarianism.

Ø It is not for nothing that both in the previous government and yet again, the home ministry (crime and punishment), the human resources development ministry (education and culture) and the information and broadcasting ministry (mass communications) were retained by the BJP at the insistence of the RSS. 
There can be no doubt that through Vajpayee’s earlier tenure as Prime Minister, and now, the saffron project continues to be advanced through other means, even while ‘contentious issues’ have been put on the back–burner — postponed agenda. Avowedly secular parties, political pundits and the print and electronic media have no perspective of building mass campaigns to raise public awareness on these very concrete issues that directly concern people. They could also be used to mount pressure on many of the BJP’s allies who still claim to have nothing in common with saffron politics. Otherwise, secularism will be progressively reduced to a mere chant, while the sangh parivar increases its stranglehold over society, and state. In preparation for the future Hindu Rashtra..

 

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