Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mukul Kesavan - Hedgehogs and foxes: Why the BJP won't change

As we approach the second commemoration of Good Governance Day, there's a nice irony to the fact that this proudly 'Hindu' regime set out so resolutely last year to secularize Christmas.

That a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government should publicly try to colonize Christmas wasn't surprising; what caught some commentators out was the speed with which the BJP and its affiliates began to ride their ideological hobby-horses. Within six months of coming to power, Narendra Modi's ministers, his members of parliament and the foot soldiers of the sangh parivar had begun performing adaptations of their greatest hits with the practised skill of a touring repertory company.

There were the clever ghar wapsi skits that offered a solution to the pressing problem of India becoming a Hindu-minority nation. Mohan Bhagwat gave us an insight into inclusiveness, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-style, when he declared that Christians and Muslims were apna maal, literally 'our material'. The venerable sanghi idea that Hindus are India's natural citizens while the others need to be naturalized, was memorably summarized by Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti in her pithy distinction between Ramzadas and har****das. 
Even the RSS's ancient hostility to Mahatma Gandhi was reheated and served up by Sakshi Maharaj when he suggested that Nathuram Godse belonged in India's nationalist pantheon. In the skirmishes in Trilokpuri, BJP leaders dabbled in 'controlled polarization'. And then, towards the end of the year came Good Governance Day, the notional nativity of Jesus Christ rebranded as the actual birthday celebrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya. In this, if nothing else, the new regime rejected myth for history.

Symbolic though it was, Good Governance Day was a turning point in the career of Modi's government. It marked the moment when it became clear that the prime minister and his party were going to run the government from the further reaches of the majoritarian Right. Or to put it another way, it was the point when it became hard for Modi's 'centrist', 'reformist', even 'liberal' supporters to plausibly argue that the Hindu strongman of Gujarat had mutated into an inclusive prime minister.

It was the gratuitousness of the provocation that made it clear that the BJP couldn't help itself. Putting minorities in their place wasn't an optional extra for the BJP; it was its reason for being. A rational government of the centre-Right, one committed to getting its legislative agenda on the economy passed as smoothly as possible, given its weakness in the Upper House, might have deferred its culture war provocations till the heavy lifting of real governance was done. A government which really believed that it had been elected by a newly 'aspirational' India might have focused on meeting its - presumably material - aspirations. The trouble was that this vision of the BJP as the Indian equivalent of Germany's Christian Democrats and Modi as our answer to Angela Merkel was a fiction that lived only in the minds of op-ed commentators.

The BJP won an absolute majority in Parliament last year because a third of India's electorate endorsed Modi and everything that he stood for. It wasn't as if the independent swing voter held her nose delicately and decided I'll vote for his economic dynamism despite the pogrom of 2002. Much more likely she saw his summary way with Muslims as a sign of the same decisiveness that made Vibrant Gujarat possible. Modi's great triumph in 2014 was that he was elected on his own terms without conceding an inch of ground to his critics. He understood this mandate rather better than his anglophone enablers did.

This is why, despite the fiasco of Good Governance Day, the BJP continued on its majoritarian way. It is the reason why the lynching at Dadri saw BJP ministers and chief ministers and members of parliament say vile and stupid things about a tragedy that occurred on another party's watch for which the BJP would, in the normal course, have borne no responsibility. And yet responsible members of the party and the government courted infamy. They couldn't help themselves; it's who they were. It was also what they thought their voters wanted. It's why the prime minister remained silent.

Isaiah Berlin made a famous distinction between writers. Some writers were possessed by a single idea; they were hedgehogs. Others knew many things and refused to reduce the world to a single idea. These were foxes. The same distinction is useful for classifying political parties. The BJP knows one thing: India is a Hindu rashtra in the making and its entire being is committed to the realization of that ideal. The Congress (before it became a debased dynastic rump) was a fox; it believed that India was various and flirted with a range of ideas to encompass that plurality.

One reason why journalists and writers are reluctant to abandon the idea that Modi's general election victory was down to 'aspiration' rather than his charisma as a Hindu strongman is that letting go of aspiration seems to imply that a plurality of India's voters voted for a majoritarian agenda. But the two aren't irreconcilable; it's possible to want a better life for yourself without worrying too much about the fate of Muslims or Christians. The BJP understands this; there's a reason why there were no Muslim MPs in the BJP's absolute majority.

We use euphemisms and half-truths to understand electoral victories because it seems monstrous to imply that a large section of an electorate might vote out of prejudice. But it shouldn't be hard to grasp that in times of serious turbulence, discontent with the ruling dispensation is more easily alloyed with prejudice. We see this happening in the Republican primaries in the United States of America where Donald Trump has refashioned himself into a lightning rod for bigotry.

We see it happening in France where the National Front lost the recent regional elections only because parties of the Left supported parties of the centre-Right to keep out the extreme Right. If Marine Le Pen were to win the next French presidential election, France will have its Modi moment. The margin will define the mainstream and commentators will explain to us at some considerable length why this represented disillusion with elites who couldn't control borders, couldn't manage the economy and who bent over backwards to appease aliens who weren't socialized into being French. The fact that Le Pen's stock in trade used to be racism and bigotry will recede, discreetly, into the background.

The BJP, with Modi or without, is a hedgehog. The goal of a Hindu rashtra is its reason for being, the master-idea that sustains it. The BJP's cadres, its rank and file, agitated for Modi's elevation as the party's prime minister designate in 2013 not because they were interested in his economic blueprints but because they believed he was the One who embodied the majoritarian ideal in a way that might galvanize the electorate. They were right. In what world would a majoritarian party, led by a polarizing leader, back away from its core beliefs after they were endorsed by the electorate in a general election?

In May 2014, the BJP led by Narendra Modi thought, with some justification, that its time had come. The absolute majority that this hedgehog had worked tirelessly for had arrived. No longer was it constrained by unruly coalitions; it could be itself. Being itself meant ghar wapsi and har****das and Godse and Good Governance Day and Amit Shah, the grotesque equivocations over Dadri and Modi's sly insinuations about the Hindu poor losing their reservations to members of 'another community'.

A year ago, Good Governance Day announced that majoritarianism in action was the BJP's Plan A. This was the BJP in all-conquering mode, before the rout in Delhi. After that defeat people wondered if the BJP would recalibrate and what that Plan B might look like. On the road to Bihar that happened to run through Dadri, it turned out that there was no Plan B. Bihar was treated to variations on cow-slaughter and Muslim-lovers and the BJP's unwavering commitment to its People.

The BJP was routed again but the party knows that there's a constituency for its big idea. In good times and in bad, Hindu rashtra is the only idea it will ever broadcast. Narendra Modi will sideline majoritarianism at the same time as Marine Le Pen deletes racism from the ideological repertoire of the National Front... namely never. Hedgehogs don't retire their defining ideas. They live by them.


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