Engage with BJP on religious nationalism
Nationalism usually leads to violence and so it should be handled with great care.
The election in Gujarat was a clear win for the Bharatiya Janata Party. We can speculate about the reasons why but the results are unambiguous. They are in keeping with the way Gujarati voters have spoken for the last 20 years. To call the Congress rise in voteshare a sign or a trend of something larger in the nation will need to await more data and more results from other states. In Gujarat the BJP triumphed.
Having clarified that let’s examine why so many people were hoping that the Congress would perform well. Or more accurately why the BJP would not win again. Such people are usually called Modi-baiters, though it is unclear what that is supposed to mean. I have not met many people who will offer an outright defence of dynastic politics. So we should assume that many of these people who are worried by another BJP victory are not supporters of the Congress in the positive sense. They are merely concerned about something else. What is it?
The answer is religious nationalism of the sort that the BJP deliberately pushes. Nationalisms can be of many types. You can have composite nationalism, which includes all Indians of all religions and all communities and all geographies. This is not what the BJP champions. Can a Naga or Mizo assert her Indian identity with pride if she feels it? In the way that the BJP has framed it, this individual can do so only through Hindi slogans (like Bharat Mata Ki Jai), and through stopping eating beef, even if that has been their traditional food for thousands of years.
Can a Muslim from Kerala assert Indian identity? Only if he promises he will not fall in love with a woman who is Hindu. The nationalism of the BJP is not meant for all Indians. It is only for a particular kind of Indian. The thing is: even some of those types of Indians do not like it. I am a Hindu male from north India (assuming Gujarat is north India, though that is debatable). I do not want to be a part of a nationalism that excludes other Indians.
I have a problem with all nationalisms generally speaking because they are used to mobilise one group against another. And the other group is then caricatured and demonised in a way which I find repulsive. Nationalism usually leads to violence and so it should be handled with great care. But within the set of nationalisms, I find religious and ethnic nationalism particularly nasty and dangerous, and especially in our part of the world. I don’t like Pakistan’s Muslim nationalism. I don’t like China’s Han nationalism.
Many Indians feel the same way as I do and that is why they view the BJP with alarm. You could be opposed to nationalism that is based on one religion and be a Bahujan Samaj Party voter, as I am. You could be a Trinamul Congress voter or an Aam Aadmi Party supporter or someone who prefers NCP, TDP, PDP, JD(U), CPM or any party anywhere. But if you are a supporter of religious nationalism, anywhere in India, you will back the BJP. There is only one party that deliberately pushes this as its primary agenda. This is why those who are concerned by its actions and its rhetoric and the damage they do to our nation, will have wanted to see the party decline in Gujarat, no matter what their political affiliation is.
If one removes the element of religious nationalism, one finds that the policies of the BJP are not very different from other parties. I am not saying that these common policies are good. In fact, they are not. Almost all the issues that are taken up by the human rights organisation I work for are problems created under the Congress rule. For example, the use of AFSPA and the criminal exploitation of adivasi lands. None of these is a creation of the BJP or Narendra Modi.
However, the BJP is adding to these, rather than reducing them. And the fallout of its aggressive pushing of religious nationalism is visible in the news every day. The frequent episodes of violence like beef lynchings we are reading about now are deliberate creations of the BJP. If they do not pursue the course of dividing Indians on the basis of religion mainly but also on the basis of geography and caste and gender, most of these incidents would not happen.
The violence on our streets, and the violence in our media (the calling of individuals as “dalals” of Pakistan) is the physical manifestation of religious nationalism. It brings an urgency to the problem that many of us cannot look away from. We wish it would end so that Indians would not get harmed and we could focus on real national priorities like poverty, health and education.
This, more than anything else, is the reason why many people wished that the BJP would not have triumphed again in Gujarat. But it has, and we have to accept it and resume the dialogue with its supporters to try and make them see our perspective.