India is already in the election mode, even as the general elections to elect the country’s next Prime Minister and ruling party in Delhi is still some months away. It would not be wrong to say that the 2019 elections are likely to be the most important one since India got independence from the British in 1947. For one, the results of the polls next year will determine the very basic fundamentals of this nation, from its secular credentials to the place of minorities. The basic issue will be religion and more specifically the Hindu-Muslim divide.
If the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is showing signs of reviving the old debate of Ram Mandir vs. Babri Masjid, it comes as no surprise to any political observer in India. After all, this is the party that has prided itself on its Hindutva image, conveniently assigning development to a number two position as the clamor for votes takes precedence. But the real surprise has come from the old Congress party. For long, the party took pride in its secular credentials and minorities across the countries voted for it in the belief that it would protect its interests as much as that of the majority.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhaya, a political commentator and the author of the book, ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’ explained that after India became independent after 71 years, there has been three phases in the political arena. “In the 1950s to 1970s, there were shades of socialism in the political arena. You had to be some kind of a socialist to get legitimacy. From the 1980s onwards, secularism became the defining line. It was about secular versus communal. From 2010, the central point of political discourse has been Hindu nationalism. And all political parties are trying to orient themselves on this.”
He said that the 2019 polls will be decisive and will be a verdict on the extent of the penetration of Hindutva in our society.
Mukhopadhaya also pointed out that the BJP will try and build a common discourse in the national elections and that will be based on identity politics in which the most important issue will be that of the Babri Masjid, but other factors like beef eating etc will also find space. “The BJP cannot come back to power on the basis of performance hence the attempt will be to create this national discourse”, he said.
There are already voices within the BJP asking that a temple be built on the Babri site. The Opposition parties are playing deaf and dumb and seem to be quietly going along. This story erupted on the national scene in 1992 when a group of Hindu kar sevaks (workers) took the law into their own hands, destroyed the 16th century mosque, claiming that this was actually the birth place of Lord Ram, a Hindu God. It again is an open secret that top leaders of the BJP like LK Advani were the primary instigators behind this act. The backing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the mother ideologue of the BJP, has always espoused this cause. But again, it is hardly a secret that the government at the Centre was a Congress one and they happily ignored this violent act and sat back as the mayhem unfolded. Today, the matter is before the Supreme Court of India and the next hearing is scheduled for January 2019.
Focus on development
Sandhaya Jain, who works as a senior fellow in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library however feels that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has actually focused on development and kept the religious issues out of the political sphere. She pointed out the various schemes started by the government which aim to provide free gas cylinders and electricity to all villages and every home as proof of that.
“Much of the genuine concerns of the middle class is actually caused by the finance ministry and the budget it presented,” she said. There has been no positive affirmation of any Hindu issues by this government, she added.
But legal and judicial matters aside, the politics of the mandir-masjid issue come dangerously alive every time India head into a election mode. This time, more than ever, the litmus test will be who wins and more importantly, if any political party will have the courage to stand up and say this is a land of all religions. Guess is none, and the violence and demagoguery over this will highlight the Hindu-Muslim divide this nation is witnessing.
Kavitha Shrivastava, National Secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), said that the BJP has adopted a ‘cafeteria approach’ and they will serve on the menu whatever will bring in home the victory.
“The BJP is devoid of people’s issues. The other political parties are most of the time just reacting to what the BJP is saying.”
She feels that the BJP today has the money and people, as seen on social media, and they are calling the shots. She also said that not just the 2019 elections but even state elections results will decide the future course of the country as secular, democratic values are under threat and the BJP “is pushing us backwards and have destroyed institutions including the academia”.
‘Soft Hindutva’ makeover
Images of Congress President Rahul Gandhi visiting various Hindu temples, participating in rituals that prove his Hindu lineage, has been doing the rounds of late. This trend is likely to increase in the coming months as the Congress stands ready to shed its secular image in return for a ‘soft Hindutva’ makeover. Reason is really simple, and that is the electorate. If in the past, it was a secular party image that got them into the corridors of power, and today the soft Hindutva image might do the trick, well, Congress thinking seems to be to just don the saffron robes.
All this leads one to then question as to who is the real loser in this race for power and politics?
It will likely be the very contours of this nation that has prided itself on being a home to communities like the Parsis, the Mughals and many those who came and made India their home.
On a more practical level, the losers will be India’s religious minorities, the Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others might find that they have no political voice on the national stage post 2019. (The Sikhs might be an exception since their majority status in one Indian state, the Punjab, ensures them a certain political value).
At the end of the day, the polls for 2019 are likely to be between the different hues of Saffron. Some like the BJP will don the bright and shining Saffron hue while others like the Congress will wear a softer and more subtle hue of the colour. But it will all be saffron at the end of the day.