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Indian General Elections 2014: Piercing the Veil of Secularism

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Ambassador Prabhat P. Shukla

A Novice Looks at the BJP’s win at the recent General Elections

The period 1987 – 89 was a watershed one in recent Indian political history. It was over this period that the Congress dominance ended, and a period of coalitions began. The speed of the collapse of the Congress Party from its historic peak of 400-plus seats won in the Lok Sabha elections in 1984 to a split in 1987, and a seat tally of 197 in 1989 is relevant to what happened in the 1990’s and the stunning outcome in 2014.

The congress Party, since the days of Gandhi’s dominance, was a Big Tent party, which approached India and the Indian electorate as a conglomeration of different religions and castes. It had worked assiduously at putting together a coalition of castes and religions over the 20th century, to ensure its primacy in the political domain. It started with co-opting the Muslims by endorsing the Khilafat movement in 1921, even though the Arabs [and even the Turks] did not want the continuation of the Ottoman Caliph. It then proceeded to bring in the Dalits by offering reservations and the emotional appeal to the “Harijan” Samaj. Finally, it co-opted the upper castes through a mixture of a “secular” appeal, together with a soft Hindu message through Gandhi’s references to the Geeta and his working with the Hindu Mahasabha to form a winning, and unbeatable, combination. This was what Nehru inherited, and this was strengthened by the assassination of Gandhi, which was used to destroy the standing of the centre-right and Hindu forces.

To this, Indira Gandhi added a large measure of nationalism, especially after she split the Party in 1969. The bank nationalisation and the successful war for the liberation of Bangladesh cemented her position in the hearts and minds of the Indian public as a leader who was a nationalist and one who cared for the poor. The Emergency did set her back, but only for a short while, as much because of the ineptitude of the Janata experiment, as for her own resolute response to the defeat of 1977.

By 1987, the Congress Party had exhausted the Big Tent construct. The Shah Bano episode alienated a large segment of Hindu opinion, and the re-opening of the Ayodhya dispute soured Muslim opinion towards the Party. In a way, the leadership split that occurred in 1987 exemplifies the nature of the collapse of the Congress. Two pillars of the Government, VP Singh and Arun Nehru, left the Party together, but then went their separate ways later. The first became the father of the Madalisation of society, and spawned the later parties that were based on narrower caste appeal and the Dalits; the second drifted into the BJP.

The 1989 election results illustrated the impact of this split. The Congress remained the largest party in the Lok Sabha, but with 197 seats, a drop of over 200 seats from 1984. VP Singh’s Janata Dal emerged in second place with 143 seats. The BJP went from 2 seats in 1984 to 85 in 1989. In short, the three-way split from within the Congress resulted in the break-down of the caste and religious combination that the Congress had stitched together over a hundred years. The backward castes and the Muslims went with VP Singh, in the main; the upper castes went largely with the BJP.

This is not to minimise the Bofors effect in the election of 1989. Of course, it was a serious challenge, but it is important to recognise that the corruption charge, the credible charge that Rajiv Gandhi was personally involved, hurt the Congress. But the Bofors issue did not point the way to any one single party deriving the benefit of the haemorrhaging of the Congress Party.

The period of the 1990’s was one where the Mandal vote was further sub-divided, as individual caste leaders emerged, representing different, and ever-narrower, segments of society. The Dalits found expression in their own Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party. This was the period when it was presumed that only a leader belonging to a particular caste could see to the welfare of that caste. This was particularly true of the Hindi heartland; in other parts of India, especially in the South and the East, it was regional parties that were coming up.

However, under the surface, other forces were in play. The abandonment by all parties, except the BJP, of the nationalist agenda after 1989 was a cause of worry among many middle-class Indians, even though it did not find a political outlet. The BJP did tap into this in part, but the charge of communalism ensured that the average urban educated Indian, brought up on Nehruvian secularism, remained non-committal. A deeper reality was the growing concern of the Hindu, qua Hindu, that their religion was getting unfair treatment.

This deserves a little more detailed analysis. Reference has been made to the Khilafat movement; it was the original sin in our understanding of secularism. First, the appeal was made on behalf of the religious head of world-wide Sunni Islam, for that was what the Ottoman Caliph was. And second, it was a transparent ploy to get the Muslims behind the Congress Party. Little wonder that our understanding of secularism, as practised and propagated by Nehru and his Congress successors, was one of accommodating the Muslims at any cost. From Khilafat to Sonia Gandhi’s naked appeal to the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid is one straight line descent.

It became worse over the years. Elements of the Constitution – and nobody can impugn the secular nature of the Constituent Assembly – like the Uniform Civil Code, or Article 370, which provides for its own repeal, somehow became “communal”. The “secular” assault took absurd forms, even going to the extent when singing vande mataram – which the Congress leadership itself used to sing - also became “communal”.

But the worst and most egregious assaults from the “secularists” came under UPA 2. The first was the public take-over of one after another Hindu temple, putting them under the charge of state governments, sometimes under non-Hindu management; every Hindu understood that this would never happen with a religious establishment belonging to any other religion. The second was the empowerment of minority educational institutions, which gave such an unfair advantage to minority institutions that even bodies like the Ramakrishna Mission sought to be declared a minority organisation. And the third was the Communal Violence Bill introduced in 2011, under which the Hindus were pre-judged guilty in any incident of communal violence. In addition, religious conversions by inducement and fraud remained a leitmotif all through.

To clinch the argument about Hindu unease, it is instructive to look at the results of the elections of 2004 and 2009. There is a widespread belief that the state of the economy is the largest determinant of the extent of support that a ruling party gets. By that reckoning, the NDA deserved to be voted back in 2004, for there is no gainsaying that the economy, especially in the closing years of their term in office, was in very good shape. Since it did not, the bogus hypothesis of “India Shining” having done in the NDA was advanced. It suited all sides, including the BJP, since it evaded the central issue – that of Hindu disenchantment with the BJP. Not only did it not even attempt the agenda it had campaigned on, for that would have been bad enough. Worse, even on the nationalist agenda, such as counter-terrorism or illegal immigration, it was no better than previous governments.

This disenchantment shows in the electoral turnout. From 62% in 1998, it fell to 58% in both 2004 and 2009. Clearly, a large number of the Hindu voters decided to stay home and not vote at all. This time, by contrast, the voter turnout, at 66%, has been the highest in history, and the result is there for all to see.

It is important to understand that there is nothing communal in all of this. The backlash is against the unfair treatment of Hindus over the decades, and in particularly egregious form in the last decade, as has been enumerated earlier. And it is not just Hindu anxiety. This is coupled with nationalist anxiety: frequently enough during the current elections, ordinary voters, from all parts of India made the point that they were troubled by the weakness shown by the Government in the face of hostile action across the land borders with China and Pakistan.

This was the dynamic that the BJP confronted going into the elections. The UPA had made clear that it was no longer interested in seeing India as one entity, only as a collection of castes and religions to be used as vote-banks. It had revealed its hand and it was not worried about the Hindu voter, because it was confident that the divisions along caste lines had destroyed any coherence among the Hindus. Similarly, it was not concerned even with the country’s interests. This could be seen across the board – in the economy, in internal security, in foreign relations, and in all else. Its only response to any challenge was, never to fix the problem, but to dissemble and somehow manage the popular revulsion. Corruption added to the cup of sorrows of the Indian voter. [That it was not paramount is shown by the dismal showing of the Aam Aadmi Party.]

Thus, what was happening in Indian society was a growing consolidation among the Hindus and among the nationalists, and it is hard to say which was [and is] the dominant strand. The splintering that had occurred under Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 – 89 was being overcome within Indian society itself, unnoticed by most political parties. The problem in the past had been that there was no Party that saw this evolution, and hence there was no alternative being offered to the growing number of people who felt that the splintering of society had gone too far. The BJP had become almost a mirror image of the establishment parties, all of which appeared to have worked out a spoils system, whereby each would get their turn, either at the Centre or the States.

All of this was the consequence of the Congress having abandoned the two planks that had kept it in power for several decades – nationalism and a modicum of accommodation of Hindu sentiment. This was where a bold move was called for – to try and tap in to the growing consolidation of the Hindus, which the political parties had not taken cognisance of, thinking the Hindus remained divided along caste lines, and offer a credible alternative who would address the concerns of a growing number of Hindus and nationalists at the dangerous state of affairs. This would enable the country to overcome the divisions sown by the Mandalisation of society. The changing demographics also helped, since the younger generations were also more aware of the way the world was changing, and the importance of getting a politico-economic order that would offer better economic prospects and meet their aspirations for a better future.

The evidence of the Hindu consolidation is in the numbers. From 2 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, the BJP presence rose to 85 in 1989, buoyed by the Ayodhya developments. This number went up to 120 in 1991, following the Rath Yatra of LK Advani. It touched 160 in 1996, and then stagnated at 182 in 1998 and 1999. This was a period where doubts began to emerge, as the weak responses of the NDA-I became apparent. And, of course, their numbers fell in 2004 and went down still further in 2009, as the BJP abandoned its ideological moorings. And this time, with a clear message of both, a return to ideological clarity, and efficient economic management, the number has crossed the half-way mark.

The strategy has succeeded brilliantly. What the nation is seeing is the emergence of a new coalition which could become the new natural party of power. There are gaps in the strategy, notably in terms of minority support and geographical spread, both of which are, however, easy to address. The strategy of the Congress and the Mandal offshoots to scare the minorities, especially the Muslims, and offering “secularism” as the panacea has already worn thin. With good governance, as has been promised, all residual fears can also be laid to rest.

The results also indicate that the much-vaunted “idea of India” – so beloved of the “secularists” - has no appeal among the people. That “idea” sees India as just a collection of minorities, to be played off among each other. Worse, it makes no real effort to change their status in life: the poor remain poor, the Muslims and Dalits remain backward, while the parties continue to exploit them for their political ends.

The charges being levelled by the losers – that the BJP spent colossal amounts of money, or that the Government did not communicate its message – are as bogus as the “India Shining” argument was. Elections have shown on several occasions that money does not buy votes. As for messaging, the message from the UPA was in its record of governance, and the voter had seen and experienced enough. The losing parties need to understand that the country has shifted, to the right, and to demanding equality of treatment for all citizens, regardless of caste and religion.

However, it is important to stress that the strategy of NDA - 2 is going to be challenged – and challenged viciously - making it vital for the NDA Government to deliver. One more disappointment of the kind delivered by the NDA-I will lead to the resurgence of the casteist parties with a vengeance – or worse. It could lead to a kind of disenchantment with democracy itself, with unpredictable results.

New Delhi,

May 2014.

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