BJP should think of life beyond Hindutva
By Swapan Dasgupta
International communism did politics a colossal disservice when it turned 'revisionism' into an expression of visceral abuse. The implications of this snarling revulsion were more than polemical grandstanding. Ideology became a cover for rigidity, the perpetuation of textual certitudes and craven hero worship. Critical inquiry, a precondition for intellectual evolution, was consequently shunned and denounced as a betrayal of the faith.
Curiously, it's not merely ideological outfits that have been affected by the fear of revisionism. Middle-of-the-road parties centred on pragmatism, common sense and some nebulous principles (such as freedom, nationalism and equality) have been casualties too. The British Labour Party spent 18 years in the wilderness for its failure to recognise that the country had changed, whereas it had not. Its Conservative rival lost three successive elections before it realised that the key to recovery was an image overhaul. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives are no longer a party of stuffed shirts and plummy accents; modern Toryism has imbibed Britain's new cosmopolitanism.
After two consecutive defeats which also signal the end of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L K Advani era, the BJP is confronted with precisely the choices that will prompt shrill charges of revisionism. The 2009 defeat was awesome. The BJP lost the incremental gains it made in the 1990s; its support in a growing middle class fell sharply; and it failed to capture the imagination of the youth. For the BJP, the 2009 loss wasn't just a managerial disaster; it was a resounding political defeat.
Confronted with adversity, ideological parties are often inclined to retreat into their political ghettos. The assumption is that the fall in electoral support is linked to a loss of ideological purity. For the BJP, such a step has a particular attraction since it was the conscious reinforcement of its Hindu identity that catapulted it from a low of two seats in 1984 to 161 seats in 1996. This clout enabled it to gather regional allies and be in power at the Centre for six years. Today, there are voices within arguing for a re-emphasis on Hindutva, the dissolution of alliances and a greater reliance on the RSS. Will an approach that paid dividends 25 years ago yield similar returns now?
The past is not necessarily a guide to future action. Hindutva emerged as an alternative idea of India in the wake of the collapse of the Nehruvian consensus. First, there was a definite impression at the time that a Congress party steeped in disrepute no longer had the political direction to confront separatism and sectional pressures on the polity. Secondly, there was widespread exasperation with the slow pace of economic development. By 1980, it was clear that the licence-permit-quota raj had become a drag on the country. Yet it was not until 1991 that the first tentative steps were taken to unshackle India's entrepreneurial spirit. Hindutva appeared in this interregnum. Finally, there was a freshness to the idea of Hindu resurgence which appealed to Middle India, more so because the BJP promised a "party with a difference".
What has changed in the 21st century? To begin with, India is far more globalised and cosmopolitan than at any point since independence. There is a greater inclination to look outwards and imbibe lifestyle shifts. These have corresponded to a demographic shift, resulting in a younger India. Secondly, growth of global Islamist terror has made Indians far more appreciative of the need to insulate India from sectarian strife. Finally, unlike the shambolic 1990s, there is a sense of self-confidence among Indians and a belief that their country can face the world on its own terms.
The BJP has been insufficiently sensitive to these developments. Intellectually, it has not moved beyond the formulations of the 1990s. Today's Hindu is no longer beleaguered. Rising prosperity has contributed to a gentler, pop nationalism marked by good-humoured flag-waving in cricket matches. Indians don't feel threatened but, at the same time, are repelled by bigotry. The BJP must candidly recognise that assertive Hindutva marked by hate speeches and moral policing is seen as ugly mirror images of the Taliban. The spectacle of old and middle-aged men oozing sanctimoniousness and droning on about India's ancient inheritance belongs to a bygone age. It also reeks of hypocrisy because the integrity quotient of the BJP isn't worth showcasing.
Hindutva is only a fraction of what the BJP stands for. Its larger image is, however, dominated by it, not least because the party gets exceptionally agitated only on issues of religious identity. The BJP, as someone put it, has become a caricature of the pious and severe Pandeyji or Mishraji who teaches Sanskrit in schools. Its natural attraction as a party that shuns dynasty and is partial to deregulation and enterprise is offset by its old-fashioned cultural face.
Modern India isn't necessarily partial to Congress babalog. It, however, abhors the values the BJP is seen to stand for at present.
In politics, image and perception are everything. Today, Hindutva has become an etymological obstacle in the BJP's path, diverting attention from the party's impressive record in governance. The party should consider freezing it in the way Jawaharlal Nehru quietly shelved Gandhism after independence. Enlightened nationalism, good governance and modernity must become the party's priorities.