The year 2017 ended with the Bharatiya Janata Party narrowly escaping being hoist with its own petard. The faux pas for which Union minister for skill development and entrepreneurship Anant Kumar Hegde was roundly castigated confirmed the true nature of BJP’s appeal for the multitude. It also exposed the gulf between reality and posturing, orthodoxy and modernity.
A veteran Congressman like the late Prafulla Chandra Sen, West Bengal’s chief minister in the 1960s, didn’t find it necessary to dissimulate on this point. According to an apocryphal story, Sen turned up when his political arch-enemy, Promode Dasgupta, the Marxist leader who died appropriately enough in Beijing, was being cremated in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Seeing the surprised faces, he explained, “I always try to attend any ceremony concerning fellow Baidyas.” He was referring to the privileged physician caste that claims to be twice-born and to which both men belonged. Caste is also deprivation. As B.P. Mandal said, “If Karl Marx were born in Calcutta, he would have realised that caste plays an equally important factor in denying people their rights.”
It would be nice at the start of 2018 to wish that caste ceases to define a person’s identity and is replaced by the inclusive Indian definition for Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and all other religions but that’s asking for the impossible. Caste is integral to the DNA of most Indians. Even the descendants of Goanese and Mangalorean Brahmins who converted to Christianity several generations ago cling to the ancestral label. A glance at any newspaper’s matrimonial ads reminds us of the difference between today’s increasingly bigoted India and the rational, scientifically-oriented, superstition-free society Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned. True, some seekers on the marriage mart do piously genuflect to the “Caste no bar” ideal. But there are many more insertions under the “By Caste” heading, some splitting sectarian hairs.
An engineer in Seattle, for instance, won’t be palmed off with any old Kayasth bride; he wants a “Kulin Kayasth”, no less. An IT specialist in Slough presents himself as a “Bhumihar Brahmin”. I mention these two instances because they illustrate that highly-qualified, well-to-do emigrants are often the strongest champions of social and political conservatism. They are encouraged by conditions in India that, in 2017, seemed to lend tacit sanction to many obscurantist prejudices although our political leaders mouthed empty slogans picked up from modernist texts. Smart publicists were rewarded handsomely for giving the BJP a worldly gloss.
So, I can’t pretend to share the shock and horror seemingly aroused by Mr Hegde’s call to his Kannada constituents to identify themselves “as Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Lingayat or Hindu.” Most of them probably do so already. Second, his derision of secularists as people who “do not have an identity of their parents and their blood” betrays the influence of the now virtually forgotten Lal Krishna Advani who set the fashion by mocking “pseudo-secularists”. Every little saffron careerist has faithfully parroted the term ever since. Mr Hegde’s third point was probably intended to demonstrate that as a five-time member of Parliament baptised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he takes his ministerial responsibility for “innovative thinking” very seriously. “We are here to change the Constitution”, he announced, so that it acknowledges the part caste plays in establishing identity.
The implicit boast was that India, especially under the BJP, isn’t an unimaginative stick-in-the-mud country like the United States which has amended its Constitution only 27 times since it came into force 228 years ago on March 4, 1789. In contrast, India’s dynamism as the country marches ahead is reflected in more than 100 amendments in the 67 years since the Constitution was enacted in 1950. One more constitutional change to exalt the role of caste would not only bring the Hindu elysium of their dreams closer but would ensure that even “those claiming to be secular and progressive” are subject to the discipline of a society that revolves round the twin pivots of caste and clan, varna and gotra.
Given this background, the contrived furore in the BJP’s ranks reminds me of Atal Behari Vajpayee once telling a parliamentary committee that every MP started his career with the lie of the false election return he submitted. More articulate and plausible than many of her colleagues, Nirmala Sitharaman, the defence minister, was entirely right in telling reporters that the government wasn’t on the same page as Mr Hedge. It’s not, but only to the extent that the hapless minister went public on a matter that his more mature bosses find expedient to keep a dark secret. Despite his impeccable credentials, Mr Hegde hasn’t been a minister long enough to appreciate that some cats must be fed, nursed and pampered in private but not let out of the bag in public until the time is thought strategically ripe.
It’s like alcohol ads. Everyone knows they advertise whisky but, officially, they are advertisements for club soda or even cricket gear. Faced with outraged Congressmen and BJP colleagues who were censorious in their embarrassment, Mr Hegde vowed he held the country, the Constitution and B.R. Ambedkar in high esteem. But his “As a citizen, I cannot think of violating the Constitution” may have reminded some that only a few months ago Jharkhand’s BJP government enacted the Religious Freedom Bill whose only purpose was to deny Hindus the freedom to convert. A spate of similar Freedom of Religion Bills became law when Morarji Desai was Prime Minister.
The man who invented “Newspeak” — George Orwell began life in the old Indian Police as Eric Blair — would have recognized the tactic. Its practitioners know that given India’s demographics and tradition of independent thinking, Hindutva can be introduced only in cautious stages. Mr Hegde jumped the gun.