Why communalists dance with secularists

Democracy blurs the borders between secularism, religion and politics. Mahatma Gandhi once declared that those who want religion and politics to be kept separate do not understand either religion nor politics. Lal Advani’s Karachi misadventure has added a new twist: those in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who want secularism and politics to be kept separate do not understand either secularism or politics.

Politics is about winning elections. That requires both an ideology to establish a base, and flexibility (some call it hypocrisy) to create winning coalitions. I interviewed Atal Behari Vajpayee before the 1998 elections, and found him downplaying Hindutva and the whole traditional BJP platform. “Atalji, this is dilution of BJP ideology”, I exclaimed. “Not at all”, he replied. ”Once we were a small north Indian group. As we expand over India, we include more and more sections of opinion, and must respect the aspirations of those sections. This is evolution, not dilution.”

Extremism may help create a base, but the majority of votes in any democracy lie in the centre, and so extremists have to move towards the middle to attain power. This transformed Vajpayee. And it has now transformed Advani too.

The opposite is also true. Parties of the centre may find they do not have enough votes, and so will ally with extremists to gain a majority. Thus democracy constantly produces two-faced politics, with communalists sometimes acting secular and secularists sometimes acting communal.

Consider Jinnah. He was not a deeply religious Muslim, and married a Parsi. His August 11 speech, quoted by Advani, was unquestionably secular. Yet the same man had called for Direct Action Day in 1946, which unleashed communal slaughter in Calcutta on a scale never seen before. He was neither exclusively secular or communal. He was both.

Much the same is true of Advani. He too is not deeply religious. Yet his Ram Yatra in 1991 created unprecedented communal polarization. It was a political success that helped the BJP increase its Lok Sabha tally from just two in 1984 to 120 in 1991. But that was still far short of the 273 needed for a majority. So the BJP was obliged to tone down its communal rhetoric and woo secular allies to come to power. Advani has moved from communal slaughter to secularism, just as Jinnah did earlier.

Nor is there is anything special about subcontinental politicians mixing secularism and religion. In the second largest democracy, the USA, President George Bush won two elections by aggressively pandering to the religious right even while claiming to be secular. The Christian Democrats have won many elections in Germany and Italy.

Some secularists still say that politics and religion should not be mixed. But, as Gandhiji pointed out, this is impossible. People define themselves in terms of group identities, including religion. People think of themselves in terms of religion, ethnicity, region, caste, class, and other such group characteristics. Politicians cannot ignore this. So secularists find they have to appeal to identity politics of some sort, and communal parties find they have to appeal to secularism of some sort.

Nehru was the most principled secularist of all, a giant among pygmies. He stood for all communities, not just Hindus. Yet he too failed on a major occasion. When reforming personal law, he moved legislation applying to Hindus alone, saying that minorities should be given time and opportunity to propose their own reforms. So, on this occasion Nehru suddenly behaved like a Hindu leader acting on behalf of Hindus alone, not an all-India leader seeking to reform the personal law of all communities.

The Congress Party spends most of its time trying to portray the BJP as a communal killer. It has plenty of facts to back its case. Yet the Congress itself turned into a communal killer in the Delhi riots of 1984.

After castigating Narendra Modi for the Gujarat killings of 2002, the Congress decided to adopt a soft Hindutva line itself in the next state election. It chose as its leader Shankersingh Vaghela, the man who helped launch Advani’s Ram yatra in 1991 from Gujarat. Vaghela left the BJP only because he was power-hungry. In the 2002 Gujarat election, a Muslim Congressman like Ghulam Nabi Azad was told not to go to Gujarat to campaign, since the Congress did not want a pro-Muslim image. For the same reason, hard secularists like Mani Shankar Aiyar were told to stay away. The entire Sonia Gandhi approach was to win over soft communalists in Gujarat.

Deservedly, the strategy failed. But it drove home the point that the Congress is willing to flirt with communalism no less than the BJP is wiling to flirt with secularism.This may seem like universal hypocrisy. Yet such hypocrisy is inherent in the spirit of compromise that enables a democracy to manage dissent without mayhem.

What do you think?