On the eve of its ninth anniversary the UPA government is besieged by scandal and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under personal attack from every end of the political spectrum, including from within his own party. These are the dying embers of a failed ministry and an election is the only remedy. So we must first attempt to pick through the fog of scam after scam that engulf our television screens nightly and only then look past the chaotic immediate to the far ground of the electoral battlefield, our ultimate concern.
Modi, Rahul, Mulayam, Advani and the rest of the pack of aspirants have had their chances ebb and flow in recent weeks. But their prime ministerial ambitions have had to play second fiddle to an astonishing period of news that has involved everything from a border standoff with China, tit-for-tat murders of inmates in Pakistan and Indian jails, the Supreme Court ravaging of the government on the Coalgate cover-up, the Railway Minister involved in high corruption, the resultant sacking of two senior cabinet minister after their protector the PM was brutally and publicly cut down to size by the Congress President. The astrologers blame these events on Saturn’s presence in Libra, and no doubt there are more than a few politician like the desperate Pawan Bansal who will resort to such horrid rituals such as sacrificing a goat in full media glare to appease the gods. Indeed even the PM found a scapegoat for his troubles in the form of an unrepentant Ashwani Kumar.
How can a political novelist possibly compete with such a reality as currently exists in sarkari Delhi. The rules of the game in the political arena have been irrevocably transformed by a lethal combination of the Right to Information Act, feral television news channels, an aggressive Supreme Court, and a booming economy being matched by an exponential growth in opportunities for graft. But India’s politicians seem still to be playing by the permissive rules of the past, incapable of adapting to a new world, and so all their shady doings have become transparent to the world. It beggars belief that so many senior politicians thinks it a good alibi to claim to be blessed with a family full of genius entrepreneurs in industries that plainly mirror their ministerial portfolios. Times have changed and voters are angry. Thus, after nine years in power the UPA government has stalled under the weight of a lengthy incumbency, accentuated by it owns incompetence and blatant corruption. No CBI witch-hunts or glitzy PR blitzkrieg like the government’s recently launched Bharat Nirman campaign, carrying with it the stench of desperation as it does, are going to make people forgive and forget. It is time for an election, and for us to continue our foray into the electoral landscape once again. When election season does arrive at our doorstep in four to nine months the scams and cover-ups that so intensely cloud our horizon now will become a part of the larger tapestry of issues that will sway voters and affect the formation of post-poll coalitions. The communal conundrum is sure to be foremost in everyone’s thoughts.
There is no greater insult in Indian public life than to be tarred with the charge of being ‘communal’, even a murder indictment may not be perceived as being equally damaging to a leader’s electoral prospects. To explain how this state of affairs came to pass is also to retell the story of India’s creation and historical experience as a nation-state. The debate about who and what is communal and secular goes to the core of the argument of what is India and who is Indian. It is the defining issue of our times and shows no signs of being displaced from its perch in the foreseeable future. Without satisfactorily coming to terms with the secular-communal divide, no political party or leader can hope to rule India with any degree of coherence.
Let’s start at the beginning, as to how the word ‘communal’, generally recognised as a hospitable term for community and inclusiveness in the English-speaking world outside South Asia, came to take on a sectarian connotation in our part of the world. The British Raj and its cynical policy of divide and rule are to blame, initially at least. The Communal Award of 1932 provided separate electorates on the basis of religion, thereby assuring that division and discord would forever more be equated with the communal. It set the stage for the partition of India and extension of sectarian strife for generations into the future. It is the main fault line upon which India’s polity still rests.
At first there was a bit of confusion in south India regarding the meaning of the term as there had been an existing communal award in the form of a 1927 government order dealing with caste-based job reservation aimed at loosening Brahminical dominance in Madras state. But by the time India and Pakistan come into existence in 1947 there was no doubting what it meant to be communal, it was a lesson drenched in the blood of untold masses across the breadth of the sub-continent. The word embodied a scar to the national psyche.
Equations changed after Independence with the Congress and Muslim League rivalry giving way to the Congress and the Sangh Parivar. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination brought a flashpoint to the new rivalry that continues to this day with the argument ebbing and flowing with the tides of history. The Congress Party’s role transformed from being seen as a threat by Indian Muslims in the pre-partition period to being seen as their protector after partition. The Emergency and it excesses, particularly strong-arm tactics like forced sterilisations and slum removal, alienated the Muslims from the party. But by Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 landslide election win all was well again and they were firmly back inside the Congress electoral tent.
Meanwhile there was trouble with another minority, the Sikhs, who the Congress had enraged after Operation Blue Star and riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. A decade of strife followed before Punjab could be brought back into the stream, but return it did. In the meantime the forces of Hindutva had found their voice thanks to the ham-handedness of the Rajiv Gandhi government in its handling of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. While pandering to the ulema by legislating to overturn the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgement that awarded maintenance rights to Muslim women, the government sought to counter accusations of Muslim appeasement by opening the locks of the disputed site in Ayodhya, hoping to play the saffron card but not realising they had set in motion forces inimical to the Congress Party’s own political fortunes. Rajiv Gandhi’s irresponsible display of pendulum politics left the whole country dizzy.
L.K. Advani found his voice in his Rath Yatra that traversed the Hindi belt in 1990 as he accused the Congress of propagating ‘pseudo-secular’ policies, finally finding a political phrase that could act as a worthy rejoinder to the decades of unanswered political taunts. Although Advani immortalised the word, it is less commonly known that it was Atal Behari Vajpayee who is said to have coined it in his 1969 piece titled ‘The Bane of Pseudo-secularism’. Thus ensued a rivalry between the communal and pseudo-secular, for the first time it seemed like a fair fight and the BJP’s increasing seat tallies in election after election bore that out. Backed by a rising tide of support Advani seemed destined for the Prime Minister’s chair. But the Sangh Parivar overplayed its hand and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 took the steam out of the movement as nation-wide riots and the Bombay bombings that followed in retaliation awoke the country to the dangers of religious extremism in all its shades.
Nonetheless, in 1996 the BJP found itself the largest party in the Lok Sabha but politically untouchable and marooned, a pariah to most other parties. It formed a government that lasted a mere fortnight. The party realised Hindutva had only brought them halfway to their goal and it would take a moderating touch to take them the rest of the way. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as they say and that’s exactly what happened. Vajpayee gave one of the great parliamentary speeches of India’s television age, or of any age, when in a single peroration he reset the political map and how his own party was perceived by allaying the fears of voters by making a flawlessly delivered argument for the BJP as a safe pair of hands and the natural party of governance. Vajpayee single-handedly dragged his party kicking and screaming towards the respectability of the political centre. He won India’s trust that day, and became the dominant politician of the land for the next decade, decisively eclipsing Advani. He ended his speech by announcing his resignation, saying that the BJP had shown its mettle by fighting its way into the mythical maze that was the Chakravyuha and would soon enough show how to fight its way out and return to power. It’s a speech that I often return to, as a way to remind myself how political rhetoric, properly deployed, can inspire and sway minds.
Two years later Vajpayee was indeed returned to power at the head of a broad NDA coalition government. It wasn’t smooth sailing at first but after the Kargil War the NDA was re-elected in a mid-term election with an increased majority and the Vajpayee government found its footing. So much so that I would venture to say that in January 2002 had there been a snap election, the BJP on its own would have crossed the 200-seat mark. It was the only period in my adult life that I would have voted for one of the two main national parties, it would have been a vote for Vajpayee and not for the BJP. A lot of people felt that way at the time, they trusted the Prime Minister not his party. But then came the violence in Godhra and riots in Gujarat thereafter, followed by Vajpayee’s failed attempts to remove Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat. That was the end of the dream, the attempt to capture the political centre of India. So close, but not to be. Vajpayee would continue in office for two more years but it was not the same government and he knew it, almost resigning as Jaswant Singh has previously recounted. If he had resigned, Vajpayee may still not have triumphed politically but his legacy would have been unstained and set a precedent no PM has been equal to, that a leader is known by how he relinquishes office just as much as his conduct during his stay in power. One of history’s missed opportunities.
So this brings us to our current political scenario where the Congress and BJP fling charges related to the 1984 and 2002 riots at each other almost weekly. Each party and its allies try to win nightly debating point by saying your riot was much worse than our riot. Such is the state of political discourse in the India of 2013. Comparing the innocent dead from two politically-motivated massacres that the respective ruling governments oversaw and both used the same self-exonerating alibi that the bloodshed was an understandable reaction to an act of terror. As a Sikh who was in Delhi in 1984 which was my introduction to Indian politics as an eight-year-old, and then again as someone whose political worldview was completely transformed by the horrendous television pictures and stories of what took place in Gujarat in 2002 propelled me on the path to becoming a political novelist, I can unequivocally declare that there is no differentiation to be made between riots when innocents are murdered, raped, burned, mutilated, orphaned. Both riots brought shame on India and Indians everywhere, but even now the Congress and BJP are reluctant to accept responsibility for the blood spilt by their leaders and cadres in the riots.
These differing perceptions and competitive propaganda about the riots is also reflected in the response of Sikh leaders to the Gujarat riots and Muslim leaders to the 1984 riots. BJP ally Akali Dal goes missing when any 2002 Gujarat riot-related court case comes up and similarly the part-time Congress ally Samajwadi Party goes uncharacteristically mute when 1984 riot-accused Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler burst into the headlines. Competitive secularism is a game that can only be played if you have a requisite quota of hypocrisy in the tank. Its this same fixation on sectarian politics that forces Narendra Modi to avoid skullcaps like the plague and confess to his biographer with pride that he never ever wears the colour green. Conversely Congress slavishly panders to Muslims on issues as varied as the Batla House encounter, religion-based reservation, and Rahul Gandhi’s continuing obsession with a mythical creature called saffron terror that is visible only to him and his acolytes. This dance between parties will continue till the 2014 elections and beyond as Congress tries to brand the BJP communal in the eyes of prospective allies and the BJP tries to evade that tag by winning so many seats that the lure of power attracts allies to their cause, even if the allies have to hold their noses while shaking hands. How the BJP fares in the coming election only time will tell but without Vajpayee, clearly irreplaceable, the BJP is struggling to find the right tone. Modi may be an electoral asset but he does not bring the BJP closer to the political centre, if anything he may push them further to the right. That’s not how you win elections or form stable governments. If the BJP does not heed Vajpayee’s example, it does so at its peril.
Nowadays the cloak of secularism provides the perfect alibi for every non-NDA party to trot out when caught in an act of loot or blatant political opportunism. A case in point, corruption-tainted Mulayam and Mayawati have for years proclaimed their dedication to secularism in order to avoid talking about how Congress ruthlessly extracted their critical outside support for the central government with the CBI used as a spear in their backs. To be secular in modern India is to be beyond the bounds of morality. Indira Gandhi used the fight against communal forces as one of her excuses during her infamous and shameful address to the nation on June 26, 1975, as she attempted to explain why she was declaring Emergency and stomping on her father’s vision of a democratic India. Just to drive home the point she even thrust the word ‘secular’ into the preamble of the Constitution. Needless to say the secular principle in its truest form is a non-negotiable part of what India must stand for, so there is no excuse for the Sangh Parivar’s utterly sectarian ideology that would leave no room for most minorities to live in India with self-respect. The Sangh must realise that though Muslims will not vote for the BJP anytime soon, the Muslim vote in the normal course is as divided as any other caste or community, unless they feel threatened and then they vote strategically for the party that assures them of security and the defeat of the BJP. There is a reason why Maulana Mulayam wears his title with pride. It is in the electoral interest of the saffron forces to put Hindutva in cold storage and provide some reassurance to Indian Muslims and Christians. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one, though.
Being secular to the Akali Dal in Punjab means to be pro-Sikh, to the Congress and Samajwadi in Uttar Pradesh it is to be pro-Muslim, and so on and so forth. To be truly secular is to speak against religious extremism in all its shades. The sad truth is that there are no secular parties left in India, the concept died with Pandit Nehru and he had no ideological heirs. Pandit Nehru, perhaps the most reviled Indian politician currently, understood something his daughter and grandson forgot, that the Nehru family itself was left refugees after the British recaptured Delhi in 1857 and wreaked havoc in the city. Which was why Motilal Nehru was born in Agra in 1861. You could say the carnage of 1984 in Delhi was also the second death of Jawaharlal Nehru, just as the 2002 riots in Gujarat showed how very far the land of his birth had strayed from Gandhi’s path. History has shown that without moral leadership, and left to its own devices, a nation will revert to its worst self.
A symptom of this skewed perception of religion in India’s polity is the one issue that no contemporary political party knows how to deal with and that is relations with Pakistan. There is an impression among the so-called secular parties like the Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Janata Dal (United) that talking peace with Pakistan even in the face of terror will safeguard their Muslim vote at home. On the other side you have the BJP, its Parivar and not to forget the Shiv Sena whose hawks have yet come to terms with the very existence of Pakistan even after almost seven decades. But what is more interesting is how some among them like Advani and Jaswant Singh have tried to showcase their moderate streaks by bizarrely talking up the supposedly repentant deathbed pronouncements of Jinnah, whom I personally consider the villain of the partition story and no amount of bogus revisionist history is going to change that reality. Jaswant Singh wrote a sympathetic biography of Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam and suffered expulsion from party and parivar. Advani paid his respects at Jinnah’s tomb in Karachi and was soon after forced out of the BJP’s presidency.
So both sides of the secular divide share a warped idea of how Indian Muslims and their place in India. Neither realise that Pakistan through its thoroughly dysfunctional history as a failed state is conclusive evidence proving that the two-nation theory belongs in the ash heap of history right next to Communism and the Berlin Wall. More than anybody Indian Muslims realise this reality and for the most part no longer think of themselves in relation to Pakistan, in fact they yearn to break out of this enforced marriage of identities thrust upon them by every secular fundamentalist on a book tour. They want the same thing the rest of India wants, a chance to live in peace and have their children be part of the promised Indian dream. Our politicians need to bury Jinnah once and for all.
Political parties in India have a long electoral history of preying on the insecurities of the populace and winning elections as a result. The Congress won an unprecedented super-majority in the general election of 1984, and Narendra Modi swept back to power in the Gujarat elections of end-2002. The bare truth is that the politics of hate pays electoral dividends. That’s why they do it. Some believe that in the age of television news the atrocities of 1984 and 2002 cannot be repeated. Maybe not in metropolises like Ahmedabad and Delhi perhaps, but India is a large country and ancient animosities linger in innumerable dark and forgotten corners. Last year’s sectarian clashes in rural Assam also had chilling repercussions in Bangalore and Mumbai, showing us how new technologies can be used to spread fear and violence at lightening speed.
We all bear hatred in our hearts born of prejudice, each of us has a small part within that is a bigot and a hater, it is the part most of us repress by silently admonishing ourselves when unacceptable feelings well up involuntarily. Whether we speak of the barbaric events of 1984 in Delhi, 2002 in Gujarat, 2008 in Orissa, or 2012 in Assam, our blood-soaked history is littered with countless similar atrocities where we the Indian people allowed these horrible little men, who call themselves political and religious leaders, access to that weak, insecure, hatred-filled, bigoted corner of our psyches and thereby ensured that we remain shackled to decades and centuries of contentious and ulcerous history that should have been wiped away when we started afresh with a clean slate on August 15, 1947, at the midnight hour when our poet-Prime Minister so eloquently declared a new beginning for all Indians and a promising future ahead. Whatever you may or may not think about Jawaharlal Nehru, unlike Jinnah he spent his life searching for the better angels in his countrymen and tried to inspire them to better action. He was not perfect, possessing some grave personality flaws, making more than his share of ghastly mistakes and, god knows, his last years in office were disastrous, but not since his death has any Indian Prime Minister really picked up the threads of the India story and spoken unreservedly in full voice about the principles of tolerance and strength though unity that above all else form the bedrock of the Indian ideal. Democracy is about more than winning elections and managing fiscal deficits, it is about a country’s common purpose as enunciated by its leadership. Indians are now thirsting for an inclusive and inspirational vision of India fit for the times.
No leader currently in Indian public life appears up to this task, at least as far as I can see, so let’s instead identify the qualities that would allow us to construct a composite of this purely hypothetical leader. A leader who will be equally at ease wearing a tilak on the forehead or a skullcap but would not hesitate to put a meddling Shahi Imam or a scheming Shankaracharya in their place when they tried to infiltrate the political arena with their medieval mindset. A leader who will accept that overwhelmingly terror in India is of Jihadi origin but also understand that an unacceptable proportion of Muslim youths in jail on terror charges are apprehended for no reason other than the names they bear and how they look. A leader who will take pride India’s multi-faceted heritage in all its hues but also understand scars of the past will not heal overnight by themselves and require the careful balm of rhetoric from the bully pulpit by a Prime Minister able to reach the hearts and minds of every Indian. A leader, in short, that India deserves and still awaits.
For these thoughts I fully accept some may think me among other things communal, pseudo-secular, naïve, insensitive, anti-Congress, anti-Sangh, and god forbid even a Nehruvian—or New Nehruvian if you please. Guilty as charged!