The politics of religion

Columnist  | Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Opinion, Columnists

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu as best illustrated by Bollywood films.

BJP Logo

The rout of the BJP, in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections, were loudly touted as evidence of the deep roots of the “idea of India” — so dear to the Left-leaning, “secular” intelligentsia. Two years later, Bihar is back in the BJP stable and Delhi limps along with Arvind Kejriwal nursing his 2017 defeat in the Delhi municipal elections.

In parting ways with his “less than kosher” partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk — and realigning with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has apparently, revised his views on the Hobson’s choice between aligning with corruption or with communalism. He has now switched to the latter, as the lesser evil, possibly nudged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public resolve to abolish both by 2022. In the meantime, he forfeits the somewhat unlikely “halo” around him as the leader of a national “secular” Opposition. Muslims and dalits also face this choice now — between a clean, effective government albeit Hindu government or self-serving, dynastic patriarchs, posing as ersatz secularists.

For the BJP ending “communalism” or “casteism” means ending the use of narrow votebanks based on traditional identities, around which regional parties have grown deep roots, like the RJD in Bihar, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP’s strategy is to consolidate the Hindu vote across regional and caste divides to strengthen its majority government at the Centre and control enough states to cover two-thirds of the voter population. The idea is to become like a mega political mall, encompassing diverse shades of opinion. Smaller parties, like the JD(U) are welcome to buy-in or opt-out, but none would be critical to the BJP’s survival.

The BJP sees no contradiction between resolving to root out “communalism” whilst “consolidating” the Hindu vote by ending archaic caste divides. It wants Muslims and Christians, both foreign religions, to harmonise their religious beliefs to fit seamlessly into the dominant local culture. Eating beef and pork is fine in Christian majority Nagaland. Bonding over beef is the custom in Kerala, but not in Uttar Pradesh. A more decentralised India can give greater space for making choices about customs and norms more harmoniously at the local government level. But for now, the onus is on the minority community in any area to negotiate workable local compromises. Detractors of this “majoritarian” approach say this illustrates the disenfranchised status of minorities

Free Games on The Asian Age. No Installing, No Charges. Stay Home Stay Safe. Click the Banner to play Now.

To be fair to Muslims and Christians, this is a stretch. They have been misleadingly nurtured, since 1947, into expecting that the Indian State shall provide special mechanisms to safeguard their active political participation, in view of their numerical disadvantage. They have never encountered a government that is coldly dismissive of their expectations.

There is also disagreement on what being secular means. Should the State actively shun anything to do with religion, as in France? Or be even handed, with all religions, as in the UK? Or should we further refine our version of secularism, in which, says political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, both the State and religions influence each other. The State actively intervenes in religion — taking over the administration of Tirupati or subsidising Haj travel for Muslims or opening Hindu temples to dalits. Similarly, religion actively influences State action. Demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by karsevaks breached the law. But it was passively watched by the State in deference to Hindu sentiment. In 1986, an executive ordinance effectively nullified a Supreme Court order granting maintenance to Shahbano, a Muslim divorcee, which greatly agitated Muslim clerics.

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu as best illustrated by Bollywood films. Our movies cater predominantly to Hindu cultural settings, often on the backs of filmstars, who are Muslim. With 80 per cent of the population being Hindu, it cannot but be otherwise.

Similarly, the founders of our Constitution were prescient in anticipating that Hindu sentiment would be politically dominant. Article 25 of the Constitution, excludes Christian and Muslim religious and social institutions from State regulation. But it specifically limits the fundamental right of Hindus (which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) to practice religion, by allowing the State to intervene for reforming Hindu religious institutions.

Muslims and Christians are not the only ones isolated by the Hindu revivalism. One-fourth of Hindus (dalits and backward tribal communities) are uncomfortable with traditional, Brahmanical religious practices. Often these are just a cover for hanging onto the asymmetric political and social power structures benefiting the upper and the “Mandal”-empowered backward castes. Babasaheb Ambedkar articulated this fear as a deal-breaker for political cohesion.

Should we be worried by a BJP mega political mall? We are schooled to believe that pervasive, political power begets authoritarianism. This hypothesis will now be tested. The BJP believes that a “national” government in which political sub-interests, defined by gender, caste, region or religion “work” the system from within is better than the template version of parliamentary democracy in which active Opposition keeps the transgressions of the ruling party “in check”.

The BJP had 100 million registered members in 2015 — 18 per cent of the registered voters. It has a massive majority in the Lok Sabha and shall replicate this majority in the Rajya Sabha as legacy UPA members retire. The BJP directly controls states comprising 54 per cent of India’s population whilst another 23 per cent of the population lives in states ruled by allies or jointly with the BJP. Together this constitutes more than three-fourths of the population. Why then does it feel compelled to grow bigger?

In any competitive market, to stand still is to lose ground. Indian sporting teams are often criticised for lacking the “killer” instinct to convert their strengths into wins. But in politics, as in business, this genetic flaw is an asset. Leaving something on the table boosts the “feel good” factor for all. This has merit in politics, where there are no permanent winners or losers.