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Not secularism, stupid

Not secularism, stupid

How does one define a tweet as secular or communal? Last week, I sent a morning greeting wishing people Happy Ekadashi. A particularly auspicious day in Maharashtra, it is linked with the God Vithoba, considered a revered form of Vishnu.

That Ekadashi greeting was enough for Internet Hindus to suggest that I had lost the plot. “How can a pseudo-secular liberal like you be thinking of a Hindu god?” was the question asked.

For a moment, I felt a bit like the late VN Gadgil, the veteran Congressman. Mr Gadgil was once accused of betraying his secular credentials because he had begun a public meeting by breaking a coconut. The criticism led Mr Gadgil, a gentle intellectual, to write a pamphlet and even call for a debate on secularism.

That was in the 1990s when the forces of Hindutva were on the political march. Now, years later, that debate is being sought to be re-ignited. Unfortunately, confusion still persists between religiosity and communalism.

A devout, religious person is not necessarily communal. Celebrating a religious festival, breaking a coconut, or even seeking to build a Ram Temple are not ‘communal’ acts. But when the temple is sought to be built by destroying a mosque in defiance of the law, then the vandalism is a communal act.

When an Akbaruddin Owaisi projects himself as a community leader of Muslims by threatening non-Muslims, he is clearly pushing a dangerous form of communalism. When the Shiv Sena chief, the late Bal Thackeray asked Muslims to “behave” or go to Pakistan, he was engaging in the worst form of incendiary communal rhetoric.

Which brings me to Narendra Modi and the ‘burqa’ debate. Did Modi make an overtly communal statement by suggesting that the Congress was hiding behind the ‘burqa’ of secularism?

To my mind, Mr Modi made an ill-conceived, politically incorrect analogy, but to call it a ‘communal’ statement would be a slight exaggeration. Yes, Mr Modi’s past utterances would suggest that making such religious allusions is part of his political vocabulary designed to incite and provoke (remember his references to a former chief election commissioner as James Michael Lyngdoh and to Mian Musharraf and Mian Ahmed Patel?).

It would suggest a deliberateness to stoke prejudice that does little credit to his credentials to lead the country, but to dismiss them as communal is classic Modiphobia.

Rather than focussing on Modi, the real debate should be two-fold. First, is the Congress really hiding behind the veil of secularism as is being suggested? And second, is this a debate relevant to the India of today.

To answer the first question, there should be little doubt that the Congress has moved far away from the secular ‘fundamentalism’ of Jawaharlal Nehru. For Nehru, secularism was a personal badge of honour that at one level meant a virtual rejection of any form of religiosity in public life.

In a deeply pious society, Nehru’s aversion to religious rituals was always going to be a difficult act to follow. Which is why the post-Nehru Congress chose the more politically convenient option of running with the secular hare and hunting with the communal hound.

Truth is, the Congress has appeased religious groups across the spectrum for political benefit, thereby exposing a bankruptcy in thought and action on secular values.

When the gates of the Babri Masjid were opened and a shilanyas was allowed to be performed at the disputed site, Hindu fundamentalists were ‘appeased’. When the Shahbano judgment evoked controversy, the Muslim women Act, which diluted a Muslim woman’s right to maintenance, was enacted to ‘appease’ Muslim clerics.

The BJP would like to suggest that this appeasement has only benefitted Muslims at the cost of the majority community. This too is a bogus argument. As the Sachar panel report makes amply clear, India’s Muslims still lag behind on several key social and economic parameters.

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If the State is to give them greater opportunity, this is not ‘appeasement’ but a constitutional obligation to ensure a level playing field among all social groups. Which is why we need to differentiate again between ridiculously flawed attempts to woo minorities by declaring the Prophet’s birthday as a national holiday and welfarist programmes like education scholarships which can genuinely uplift the Muslim youth.

The second question is, whether this debate over who is more secular should determine voter behaviour in the next election. The fact is, there have been only two elections in this country where the content of secularism was pitched as the defining issue.

The first election of 1952 took place in the backdrop of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the fierce determination of Nehru not to allow India to descend into a Hindu Pakistan. In almost every speech on the campaign trail, Nehru stressed on the need to fight the forces of bigotry and communalism.

The 1991 general elections also saw the BJP successfully pitch the secular-pseudo secular debate at the heart of the national agenda. The emotional fervour created by LK Advani’s rath yatra and the failure of the then Congress leadership to offer an effective response created a political space which was exploited by the BJP to become a genuine contender for power.

But the India of 2013 is very different from 1991. A post-liberalisation country is driven by aspiration not emotion, by economic growth not social identity alone. If the BJP believes it can win the election by projecting Modi as the mascot of Hindutva nationalism, it is sadly mistaken.

Modi as a Hindutva nationalist may appeal to a section of the urban middle class, but his real shot at power will be if he is able to convince the silent majority that he is truly an emblem of good governance. Likewise, the Congress cannot win the next election by seeking to change the agenda from the numerous corruption scandals to its so-called secular credentials. Mock fights over secularism make good television; in the real world, it is the economy, stupid.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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