The Bharatiya Janata Party has proven it again. First in Maharashtra in October 2014, then in Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, then again in Gujarat in December of the same year, and now in Karnataka, the BJP has emerged the single largest party in the state elections and formed the government without fielding a single “minority” candidate or pandering to their vote banks directly. In the four major states of India where the party has even a slight presence, representing almost 29 percent of the land mass, over 36 percent of the population, and nearly 42 percent of the economy, the BJP has shown that it is not hostage to minoritarian sentiments and can rule without their support if necessary.
Psephologists and pundits will attribute this to several reasons. Two, however, are prominent enough to be visible to even the casual observer. The first, a more optimistic take on history and humanity, is that this is a new India – the youth is interested in upward mobility and want infrastructure and opportunities more than in arbitrary government handouts based on identities modernity and urbanisation may have frayed. This postulation arises from a Marxian privileging of material over the intangible and belief in the infamous rational actor.
While there are, no doubt, many who belong to ‘New India,’ an equally persuasive argument posits that the opportunistic excesses – political, economic, as well as social – of the Left has turned people away from them towards the Right. The litany of complaints against the Left are well known – the usurpation of temples, a war against Hindu customs exclusively in the name of social progress, unequal status in education, double standards in the freedom of expression, whimsical amendments to the constitution, the whitewashing of history in academia. Resentment against these and many more grievances built up over the years and economic liberalisation coupled with the democratisation of the public sphere via social media gave vent to long-repressed sentiment.
A corollary to this view is that the Left’s “Nehruvian secularism” has eventually led to a small degree of Hindu consolidation. Narendra Modi’s ability to deliver development targets while at least stemming the tide against Hindu institutions has proven a potent electoral formula. The wages of the Left playing minoritarian identity politics for decades has come back in the form of majoritarian identity politics. The four victories and the manner in which they were achieved will only encourage the BJP to stick to their formula. In the short term, this is a welcome corrective to the national narrative.
In the longer term, however, the ramifications of Hindu consolidation might be more problematic than we imagine. Other parties may begin to try and emulate the BJP’s successful formula – already, we saw Rahul Gandhi undertake a temple-hopping trip and claim to wear the sacred thread to project a Hindu identity. Such overt, even if diluted, displays of Hinduism do not come naturally to the Indian Left which has historically been more comfortable sporting a taqiyah before elections.
The shifting of the Overton window on Hindu identity could potentially isolate large numbers of, without beating about the bush, Christians and Muslims. Admittedly, there is a substantial number that does perfectly well in integrating with the diverse national community but as Shiraz Maher, an analyst with the rare qualification of being a former member of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir, warns in his Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, the vast majority of Muslims may not be violent but many share the same idea of utopia as their violent co-religionists. The isolation of “international” minority communities makes them ripe for radicalisation attempts. Remarkably, the BJP’s governance has shown a far more inclusive posture than its electoral strategy. This maintains an extended hand towards India’s minorities and sees the country as a single entity – as any political party should. The inclusive approach, without favouritism, should retard a drift towards radicalisation.
For the well-being of the country as well as for their own narrower interests, minority communities must retain some influence in the national public sphere; without it, they have little to lose. One option is to hitch their wagons to the more acceptable aspects of the BJP’s platform such as development. With sincere effort in building the party and nation, it is a matter of time before they have more voice in the BJP. Thorny issues could be discussed calmly and seriously instead of making a public circus out of them. Minority communities may retain their unique identities but must learn to subordinate them to the national whole rather than stick out as rocky little islands.
A genuine and thorough inclusion of minorities into the public sphere, not just pro forma or for a token broken secularism, will change the nature of politics in India. Moreover, the effect is beneficial for all involved – the nation as a whole will be stronger and more stable while minorities’ participation in the national conversation ensures that there will be no gradual encroachment on their distinctiveness. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru inherited a state from the British; it is time Indians made a nation to go along with it.