Friday, August 1, 2014

Secularism (no exceptions please)

Indian secularists supposedly have a soft spot for muslims (sweet), while ignoring other minorities such as Sikhs (why? perhaps because they are successful and can look after themselves). Thus we have honest liberals like Mukul Kesavan (reluctantly) white-washing the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom (as opposed to the 2002 anti-muslim one). MK makes the case that Congress kills because of opportunity while BJP kills because of ideology. Yes.....but so what?

Meanwhile, in Saharanpur three Sikhs (officially) have just been butchered by a muslim mob (led by an ex-Congressman) and the predictable Twitter wars have been launched.
When people are murdered do they really feel better that they are being killed on account of ideology or because of opportunity? How about the claims for justice, in which case are they more (or less) valid? Is it really true that the appointment of Man Mohan Singh as Prime Minister (who then issued a mealy-mouthed apology) is all that is required to wash away the blood-stains?
We do not see the difficulty in laying blame equally on opportunity and ideology. And we see considerable virtue in not suppressing the truth and being impartial. Thus when Hindus kill Muslims or Muslims kill Sikhs, such actions should be condemned with equal intensity.

We already know how the bigots will behave. If left-liberals also choose to be economical with the truth, they will lose credibility. People will then feel free to ignore their bleatings the next time the big bad wolf shows up at the door..
Even before Indian politicians could cause the Saharanpur riots to snowball into a secular party versus communal party war, guess who took their spot? The country's media. A day after riots in the Western UP town claimed four lives, Gaurav Sawant, a journalist with English news channel Headlines Today tweeted questioning the reportage of the riots by the mainstream media

He asked why the victims in the Saharanpur riots were not identified by their religion.

He also questioned why, while there had been a huge furore over a Shiv Sena MP shoving a roti into a fasting Muslim worker's mouth, there had been no anger over fasting Muslims gathering to pray and leading to a riot.

His comments kicked off a Twitter storm with people lining up on either side of the debate.

Twitter then saw a series of  squabbles over allowing him to carry on his job as a journalist. Several petitions and counter petitions were filed in the course of the day, with colleagues and friends tweeting pictures in support of the journalist.

This is how a Facebook friend responded to the exit polls predicting an easy victory for Modi:  
"One good thing about Modi becoming PM will be the daily opportunity to dissent."

He seems to have missed the daily opportunity to dissent provided by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance's second term. UPA-2 did a lot of things people now fear a Modi government will do.  

There was the corruption of the Commonwealth Games, they blamed the auditor for exposing the telecom scam, they put Anna Hazare in jail for asking for a Lokpal and even killed a Baba Ramdev supporter making the same demand. Students came out to protest against rape and they responded with tear gas. 

They passed a draconian anti-terrorism law and put Muslims in jail for fake terrorism cases. They hanged Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru to appear strong, weren’t able to do anything about anti-Muslim violence in Congress-ruled Assam, let the situation in Kashmir deteriorate, allowed the economy to tumble, let Maoists get the better of them, slapped sedition cases against people who didn't want a nuclear power plant next to their homes, put people in jail for criticising the government online, and created a Central Monitoring System to snoop on all phone and internet communication. Acts like this, if committed by a BJP government, will be more vehemently opposed in the name of fascism.

To each crisis, the Congress leadership responded with arrogance, compounding their mistakes, losing the trust of the judiciary and the media, reviving the moribund BJP. Had it not been for the self-destructive performance of UPA-2, Modi would arguably not have chosen this election to make a bid at the top job. If the independent Left sees Modi as a problem, it should criticise the factors that encouraged the BJP leader's rise in 2013-2014: the failure of Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and her chosen Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Instead, when Modi was sharpening his knives, Left-leaning intellectuals and activists were attacking the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal-led Jan Lokpal movement. They said that the Lokpal movement was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh conspiracy to make the Congress look bad, as if the Congress needed any help with that. 

Over the past three years, I have seen more bile, fear and frustration over Hazare and Kejriwal on my social media timelines than over Modi. Rants about how the Lokpal movement was proto-fascist and full of RSS workers all served to show how the Indian Left is still traumatised by the Babri demolition.

Perhaps it is only fair that the Hindutva brigade gets to rule a country whose liberal intelligentsia has shown such great poverty of political imagination as to trap itself in the Congress-BJP binary, ceding altogether the once-vibrant space for anti-Congressism to Hindutva supporters, and thus falling into their trap.

One thing is clear. The Left still matters. While the party Left – the world's first communists to contest democratic elections – have been in self-destruction mode, the independent Left plays a crucial role in shaping political discourse. They used that power to the hilt to discredit the Hazare movement.  

They propped up dalit politician Udit Raj to suggest that dalits are opposed to the Lokpal bill. (Udit Raj has since joined the BJP.) They said the Lokpal movement was not questioning corporate corruption but then Kejriwal took on the Ambanis. They said Kejriwal was not speaking against BJP corruption but then he took on the BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, accusing him of a scam that forced him to resign from his post.

It was only when Kejriwal demonstrated in the Delhi assembly elections that he could take on the BJP that secular intellectuals started showing sympathy for the Aam Aadmi Party. A "No More" campaign on Facebook has argued for tactical voting to elect the candidate who can defeat the BJP in every constituency. Leftist activists from across the country descended upon Varanasi to tell the people to not vote for Modi.

This is the wrong way to go about it: simply backing the candidate that can keep the BJP out is not going to take them anywhere. Keeping the BJP out cannot constitute an entire political imagination. The Left needs an agenda, an idea, a cadre. Perhaps the AAP is not that option either, but India does need a substitute for the Congress. 

The Congress will keep making mistakes, keep showing its elitist arrogance and being blasé about corruption, and the BJP will keep exploiting its mistakes. This is how the BJP first came to power, defeating Narasimha Rao after he liberalised the economy and put it on the right track. And that is repeating itself. The party that opened the gates of the Babri Masjid cannot be the guardian of secularism.
The stock response of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the argument that Godhra makes Narendra Modi politically untouchable is “What about 1984?” There are several inadequate comebacks to that question and the best of them is that no one should use one pogrom to justify another.

The problem with this response, though, is that it doesn’t answer the questions that fly in close formation behind the “What about 1984?” question, namely, “Why is the BJP worse than the Congress?” and, relatedly, “Why is Narendra Modi any worse than Rajiv Gandhi?” specially given the latter’s infamous comment, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” which seemed, retrospectively, to rationalize the systematic killing of Sikhs in the days that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

These are important questions regardless of who asks them. The fact that they are often asked by Narendra Modi’s unlovely supporters isn’t a good reason for not taking them seriously.

1984 had two major consequences. First, it radically undermined the Congress’s claim to being a secular party that respected the political tradition of pluralism pioneered by its colonial avatar and consolidated by Nehru in the early years of the republic. The willingness of the Congress under Indira Gandhi to use sectarian issues for political ends had been evident before 1984 but the party’s willingness to sell its pluralist soul for immediate political advantage was most vividly illustrated in the days and months after her death.

The Congress, after 1984, stood out more and more clearly as a party that couldn’t even be accused of not having the courage of its convictions because it didn’t have any convictions at all. Pluralism and its traditional opposition to majoritarianism became labels that the Congress used for brand management in particular political contexts, not as principles that shaped its political agenda.

Let us return to our question, namely, “What makes Modi and the BJP worse than the Congress and its dynasts, given the horror of 1984?” The answer is simple and unedifying. 

The Congress, by a kind of historical default, is a pluralist party that is opportunistically communal while the BJP is an ideologically communal (or majoritarian) party that is opportunistically ‘secular’. The difference between the Congress and the BJP doesn’t lie mainly in the willingness of the former to express contrition about pogroms it helped organize; it is, perhaps, best illustrated by the fact that twenty years after the 1984 pogrom, the Congress assumed office with a Sikh at the helm who served as prime minister for two terms.

Try to imagine a BJP government headed by a Muslim ten years from now. It doesn’t work even as a thought experiment. And the reason it doesn’t work is that the BJP’s ideology is essentially the encrustation of prejudice around an inconvenient and irreducible fact: the substantial and undeferential presence of minority communities in the republic, specially Muslims who, for the sangh parivar, are the unfinished business of Partition. The idea that the BJP might appoint a Muslim head of government (as opposed to, say, the nomination of President Kalam to titular office) is unthinkable.

It doesn’t follow from this that Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership is a sign of the Congress’s political virtue; it isn’t. It is, if anything, a symptom of the dynastic dysfunction that has diminished the Congress. But the reason his prime ministership is possible is that the Congress isn’t ideologically committed to anti-Sikh bigotry (despite 1984) in the way that the BJP is committed to Hindu supremacy and the subordination of Muslims. That’s why Narendra Modi so excites the sangh parivar’s rank and file: the Gujarat Model is the BJP’s test run for India, and it isn’t the economics of it that sets the pulses of its cadres racing.

So the reason the dynastic Congress isn’t as dangerous as Modi’s BJP is dispiriting but straightforward: while the Congress is capable of communalism, it isn’t constituted by bigotry. With Modi, even when he’s talking economics and good governance, we get the “burqa of secularism” and Muslims as road kill. It’s not his fault; from the time that Golwalkar sketched out his vision of an India where religious minorities were docile helots, bigotry has been Hindutva’s calling card.


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