Throw Hamburgers to the Wolves

Dear Prime Minister, Politics in a democracy is about conflict resolution. The RSS does not seem to understand this very well, but you do. This is the main reason for the quarrel between the RSS and your liberal wing of the BJP at the recent Bangalore conclave.

The press reported it somewhat differently, as a battle between the party and the government. Now that was certainly part of the story. You took the position, quite rightly, that decisions have to be taken in Cabinet meetings, not chintan baithaks of the RSS; that the widest consultations are desirable, but decisions of the government must be final; that if George Fernandes could defer to the majority Cabinet view on insurance and patents reforms, so should BJP critics.

During the election campaign, the RSS as well as its bitterest critics (like the Marxists) agreed on one thing: that Atal Behari Vajpayee was only a liberal mask worn by the party, and that once elected its Hindu fundamentalists would call the shots. You have proved that both sides are wrong. Indeed, you have established that the BJP has a liberal wing with a non-traditional agenda, and that this wing is in charge today.

This does not surprise those (including me) who interviewed you during the election campaign, and heard you distance yourself from the historical position of the BJP. I asked you at the time, is this not dilution of policy? Not at all, you replied. When the Jan Sangh started, it catered to the aspirations of a small section of society. As the party grew and grew, it had to cater to the aspirations of several other sections of society. This, you declared, was not dilution but evolution. Tathastu.

Mr. Lal Krishna Advani has taken a similar position. He says that religious extremism has a very limited support base in India, and a party based on this cannot hope to come to power. For that it has to attract other sections of society too. And on this basis Advani has supported the government against the RSS. He too understands that to succeed in a democracy, you have to find ways of resolving conflict rather than exacerbating them.

But while you have grasped the need for conflict resolution for India, you seem to have neglected the same need within your party. True, the RSS must bear much of the blame for intra-party conflict. It had expected to dictate terms to the government, and is both surprised and outraged that it cannot.

Yet you too must bear part of the blame. You say, quite rightly, that the RSS cannot take the government for granted. But it is equally true that the government cannot take the RSS for granted. You have embarked on certain liberal economic reforms which the RSS has long castigated.

You have not handled the issue well.

Skilful ppolitics is about assuaging the disgruntled. If you are being chased by a pack of wolves, you should throw them some meat. The RSS will dislike this analogy, not because it has a low opinion of wolves but because all pracharaks are vegetarians. So let me put it a little differently-you should throw them some pizzas and hamburgers.

A few years ago, RSS mobs were attacking new outlets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds and Pizza Hut. They claimed this invasion of junk food was destroying our great Indian culture. The argument was bogus, of course. The RSS never objected when thousands of Indian restaurants served hamburgers or pizzas for decades. It became het up only when foreign chains started following in the footsteps of the Nirulas. Clearly the objection was not to junk food or foreign culture but to foreigners.

Indeed, the experience of McDonalds proves that Indian culture is much true too strong to succumb to foreigners.

The boast of McDonalds is that its product is identical in all outlets, that a Big Mac bought in New York is the same as one bought in Moscow or Beijing. Yet in India McDonalds has been obliged to defer to Hindu tastes, and make hamburgers out of goat meat instead of beef. Hindutva has conquered McDonalds, and the RSS, amazingly, remains ignorant of it.

Yet in this ignorance lies opportunity. The agitation against fast food was somewhat ludicrous, but did little overall harm. By contrast, agitations against Christians or foreign insurance can inflict substantial damage. The RSS cannot be told to shut up, but its energies can perhaps be diverted to areas that are important to pracharaks but are of little consequence for the country. So, Prime Minister, why don’t you appoint a committee to go into the threat to Indian food values, and reserve lots of seats on the committee for the RSS? Why not announce a ceiling of 20 outlets for each foreign chain per year till the committee submits its report?

Why not launch a campaign for the protection of Indian intellectual property in the food area?

The new rules of the World Trade organisation give us property rights over the use of region-specific names. Basmati can be used only by exporters of north Indian long-grained aromatic rice, and similar American varieties have been prohibited from using the basmati tag. We need to pursue aggressively the cause of our other speciality foods like Darjeeling tea, Alphonso mangoes, sarson ka saag, kanji, and much else.

This will not win over the RSS, but could assuage it. And that is what conflict resolution is about.

What do you think?