'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
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
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.