A long march to nowhere

The people of India have become even more cynical about the use of religion as a political tool. Political parties are prone to forget that the common man has a pretty shrewd idea of what is going on.

The recent attempt by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) with the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to undertake a yatra to Ayodhya raises important issues. One view is that the whole episode was pre-fixed between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. If so, why? Others praise Mulayam Singh Yadav for the firm stand he took to preserve communal harmony by preventing the yatra. Whatever the truth, the basic question remains unanswered: why did the BJP/VHP plan the yatra in the first place? The framework to resolve the mandir/masjid dispute is clearly laid down: negotiations or a judicial verdict. What then was the purpose behind the yatra now, and what was sought to be gained? Obviously, there was a political agenda behind it. Was this the brainchild of the BJP’s new messiah for Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah, or was it a result of the pressure of front organisations like the VHP, which feel that with Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant now in command, such events can be easily pushed?
I ask these questions because I think the yatra may have been counter-productive for the BJP. Voices within the party which claim to be keen to make governance the real agenda appear to have been overwhelmed by the old forces for whom only Hindutva matters. That leaves people guessing about what the party’s real agenda is: governance or Hindutva. Or, perhaps, it is both, and if so, which is the more important? Running with the hare and hunting with the hound is a good proverb but often disastrous as policy. People don’t know on which side you are, and you end up diffusing your goal and confusing the audience. The only plausible answer I can think of is that the BJP is incapable of making a choice between the one or the other. It cannot contain elements within the larger parivar who encourage communal polarisation. Nor can it relinquish an influential segment of its leadership which genuinely believes that Hindutva is, and should remain, the raison d’etre of the party. Hence the attempt to proclaim both goals: governance for certain audiences, and Hindutva for others. But since there is very little in common between governance and Hindutva, it just leaves people perplexed as to what is really happening.
If, as appears to be the case, the BJP cannot forsake the narrow Hindutva agenda and hopes to gain political dividends by mixing religion with politics, then it may well be milking a non-existent electoral cow. The party did profit after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but not for long. In the 1993 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh it formed the government, but the issue of building the Ram temple in Ayodhya steadily lost its appeal. The BJP actually failed to get a simple majority in the elections in Uttar Pradesh in 1996, and has since long ceased to be the single biggest party in the state. Ironically, the BJP’s vote share has been steadily declining in Ayodhya itself. The city’s shopkeepers, traditionally strong supporters of the BJP, are more concerned about the declining volume of business than about the construction of the temple. A prominent local politician, who left the BJP in 2002, went on record to say that the repeated agitations in favour of the temple have hit people of his community, the baniyas. Dhanda or business is the real dharma of a baniya, he said, and religion only a personal matter best left to each individual. Such an approach was borne out by a “Mood of the Nation” survey done by India Today in August 2003. Fifty per cent of the respondents said that Ayodhya does not in any way influence their voting choice. In June 2002, in a survey carried out by the Outlook that covered Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, 64 per cent of the respondents replied in the affirmative when asked: Do you think the BJP is using Hindutva as only a way to get votes? A year later, the same magazine did a similar survey among the Muslims. The bulk of the respondents replied in the negative when asked: Do you consider those fighting the Babri Masjid case as true spokespersons for the Muslim community? The great majority among them also said that they would like a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute, while the rest declared that they would be happy to accept a judicial verdict.
These responses came in when Ayodhya was still relatively recent. Today, a decade later, much water has flown down the Sarayu river, and the people of India have become even more cynical about the use of religion as a political tool. Political parties are prone to forget that the common man has a pretty shrewd idea of what is going on. The overwhelming mood in the nation — both among the Hindus and Muslims — is to swim away from the islands of religious exclusiveness inhabited by mullahs and mahants, towards the mainstream of greater secular opportunities. Beyond the sterile instabilities of communal strife, people want an atmosphere of peace and harmony in order to enjoy effective governance which can give them jobs, a sustainable livelihood, opportunities for education and health, water, power and opportunities for progress. In short, the people of India want to get on with their lives, not remain hostage to laboured attempts to once again whip up communal hysteria.
It is a matter of worry if the BJP is unable to grasp this basic truth. The nation needs to know what are the compulsions that compel it to repeatedly hark back to an outdated, overplayed political construct that no longer has resonance with the people. Is it possible that while speaking of governance, the BJP is actually stuck in the old Hindutva mode in the hope that the citizens of this country will be taken in? Such questions need to be clarified, otherwise the mobilisation of sadhus and party cadre for a march to Ayodhya at this juncture makes no sense.

Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma’s latest book is Chanakya’s New Manifesto: To Resolve the Crisis Within India

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