The Modi – Advani Saga, Secularism and J&K

The events surrounding the saga are eminently relevant for J&K and we would do well to chronicle it


Although the news from Delhi last week was dominated by the Modi – Advani story, coverage of it in the local papers was muted at best. Reportage was relegated to the inside pages and the op-ed pages skipped commentary. But the events surrounding the saga are eminently relevant for J&K and we would do well to chronicle it.
One interpretation of the affair is that the debacle has weakened the NDA coalition and spells trouble for the BJP today. To my mind the larger story is its message for the India of tomorrow. It was contained in the claim of the BJP ideologues of a “ground swell” of all-India support for Narendra Modi.
For the BJP internally, it was about a power grab. At the start of the crisis, Lal Krishna Advani was widely reported to be resolute, firm and final in his decision to resign simultaneously from three key party posts. It was immediate and, judging from the expressions and body language of the party leaders, a complete surprise. Significantly, it did not include resignation from the position of NDA Convener, leaving room for personal maneuver. Twenty-four hours later there was a reversal of the decision. It was on the say so of the head of the RSS (which should say much) with which vanguard faction Mr. Advani, pre-crisis, was not happy (which should say even more). It put paid to the allegedly altruistic motivation for his resignation: that he disapproved of personality cults. The resignation and return of Mr. Advani, it turns out, was a power grab to ensure that Mr. Modi’s appointment as BJP campaign chief for 2014 did not transmute into Prime Ministerial candidate. In other words, it was a battle of ambitions. No surprise there.
What the theatre meant for India on the whole was embodied in the UPA reaction. It was amusing to hear reports about its various constituents’ concern for what they saw as an ignored and discarded Mr. Advani. This view, echoed by the Congress, held that his more reasoned approach to politics would be missed in the face of the change of guard within the party. Quickly forgotten was that it is precisely his rath yatra antics, his Babri Masjid coaching and his Indo-Pak Agra summit-scuttling that have all defined Indian politics for the last quarter of a century. Meanwhile, the BJP actually hardened its decision to adopt a Modi-fied face for the party. Its “tallest leader” returned to the fold after receiving a courteous face-saver: he will be consulted on the NDA’s Prime Ministerial candidate.
The Congress’ cautious and soft response to the BJP’s embarrassing internal war suggests that the debate is not about generational shift or about soft versus hard Hindutva. It illustrates a pattern of majoritarian religious assertion and corporate profit interest converging to define the debate about a muscular religious nationalism that has permeated political India. It also suggests that the BJP may be tiring of “Hindutva light” in the NDA coalition and itching to go it alone in 2014. Put otherwise, nine years of UPA rule has confirmed that national agendas are not determined solely by the dominant party in power or the occasional consensus within a coalition. The assertive ideology of an opposition party also plays a crucial role.
The real story last week, then, was about the confirmation of Narendra Modi, an unapologetically religious nationalist, as the face of the BJP and as a credible Prime Ministerial candidate for the NDA in 2014. His candidacy as the NDA nominee for Prime Minister in 2014 may or may not materialize, but the march towards an ideology of a muscular nationalism, defined by religious mission and corporate interest, is less and less challenged if not yet universally accepted.
That is the broader message of the Advani – Modi debacle. What is more, the huge stake that corporate India has in media enterprises reinforces this grand coalition. It explains why the ultra conservative and loud Times Now is the most watched channel in the country. The corporate sector likes it because it is owned by them and the non-affluent like it because it consolingly promotes a righteous vision of an essentialist India. It also explains Arunab Goswami’s popularity in Kashmir: the Kashmiri every-person sees him as the “real face” of India.
All this should concern us in the State, because just as the opposition helps set the national agenda for the UPA, so too the definition of where India is headed determines the politics of J&K. But when I bring up the uncomfortable question of how religion is increasingly defining nationalism in India and so sub-nationalisms (the plural is important) in J&K, my urban elite friends rebut the implication by reasoning that India is “essentially” a “secular” country and that the loud television debates illustrate an “argumentative” bent of mind. Apart from the fact that this may be more a statement of hope than reality, it overlooks the fact that “secularism” has yet to be fully theorized – envisioned – as an idea in political terms. It leaves those of us who do not understand it uncomfortable at best.
If secularism is meant to suggest an absence of religion, it is a ludicrous application for any part of South Asia, indeed for most of the world excluding parts of North America and Australia. Another oft-heard definition of secularism is that it is tolerance for other religions, including the right to not believe: a more practicable thought. The problem however is that the loosely conceptualized notion of secularism is at best a liberal urban elite aspiration that is quickly jettisoned when it comes to corporate bottom lines or “national interest”. Practical evidence on the first approach is the repeated endorsement – despite Gujarat 2002 – of Mr. Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate by Ratan Tata, the doyen of Indian business. Mr. Tata’s secular credentials can hardly be challenged. As for the abdication of accountability for atrocities in the national interest, we have the precedence of somewhere between twenty-five and forty thousand Muslims slain in Hyderabad in 1947 during the takeover of that State by the Indian army. It took place when the country had a secular liberal as Prime Minister.
The country is approaching a fork in the road to re-defining Indian nationalism in the 21st century. The 2014 elections will not necessarily demarcate the moment of categorical choice, but it will divulge a pattern; that trend is of immediate interest to Kashmir.

Lastupdate on : Fri, 21 Jun 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 21 Jun 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 22 Jun 2013 00:00:00 IST

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