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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


BJP and the politics of religious extremism

By Asghar Ali Engineer

The BJP’s propaganda plank in the late eighties was ‘a party with a difference’ and ‘a most disciplined and non-corrupt party. The Hindu middle classes swallowed this propaganda for a number of reasons. There was anti-Congress atmosphere in the country in general and V.P.Singh had launched a powerful anticorruption movement against Rajiv Gandhi Government on the Bofors gun scandal. The AASU, Khalistan and Shah Bano movements had shaken faith in the capacity of the Congress to govern the country. The Shah Bano movement by the Muslim leadership and Rajiv Gandhi’s reversal of the Supreme Court Judgement by enacting the Muslim Women’s (Protection on Divorce) Act also convinced the Hindus that Congress indulges in the ‘Muslim appeasement’ policy.

It was in such a charged atmosphere that the Hindu middle classes fell for the BJP propaganda and its ascendence began. It was seen as the only viable alternative to the Congress and ‘truly nationalistic’ party, which believed in ‘justice for all and discrimination against none’. This was accepted as ‘positive secularism as against the pseudo secularism of the Congress which appeased Muslims for their votes. These sounded as sweet words to the ears of middle class Hindus.

The communalists, of whatever variety, always resort to half -truths and downright lie to attract people of their faith community. The Muslim League before partition and the Jan Sangh and Bhartiya Janata Party (after it was re-christened) had absolutely no qualms to indulge in such propaganda to achieve their political objective of achieving power at any cost. The BJP which had got only two seats and 7 per cent votes in 1984 got 88 seats and 11.4 per cent votes in 1989 in alliance with the Janta Dal. It was a big leap for the BJP.

Then L.K.Advani rode to power with Rath Yatra to construct Ram temple with the emotionally charged slogan ‘mandir wahin banaenge’ (we will construct temple there only) and he received tremendous applause and finally succeeded creating the Hindu vote bank while accusing the Congress of creating ‘Muslim vote-bank’. And in 1991 election BJP won 120 seats with 20 per cent votes, something never had happened in the electoral history of the right wing Hindu party. In 1996 the number of seats went up to 161 even though the vote share remained stagnant.

Finally it formed the Government in 1999 with the help of some so -called secular parties on mixed bag of promises. However, its core issues remained what came to be known as the Hindutva issues i.e. construction of Ram temple, abolition of article 370 of the Constitution (pertaining to special status of Kashmir) and enforcing uniform civil code. These issues however, did not attract the rural voters much and its vote share in rural areas remained poor.

Once it came to power with the help of ‘secular allies’ it had to moderate its image somewhat by pretending that these core Hindutva agenda was its own and not of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But it did not wash with its militant organisations like the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal. It tried to buy off some of the members of these militant outfits by giving them Parliament tickets or even making them ministers like Uma Bharati, Adityanath and others. Persons like Vinay Katyar were also sought to be co-opted by making them office bearers in the Party.

And as long as the BJP remained in power with the help of the allies, they could silence the militants with various baits though dissenting voices continued to be raised. But once power was lost these voices became quite shrill and at last unmanageable. Mr. Venkiah Naidu could no longer manage to contain the dissenting voices, was seen as weak and finally made to resign.

Mr. Advani who was the hero of the late eighties and who managed to bring the BJP close to power with his Ram temple campaign was thought to be capable of making the BJP power-fit once again and entrusted with its leadership. But 2004 is not 1989 and the BJP has totally lost its sheen and no longer seen to be ‘party with a difference’ and one with discipline and clean image.

Once it came to power its leaders proved to be more corrupt than the Congress leaders and many skeletons fell off from its cupboards. Corruption and communalism became its hall marks. The illusions were totally shattered. Carnage in Gujarat alienated the peace loving Hindus. Once it had boasted that there are no communal riots when the BJP is in power. Even this turned out to be totally untrue. The independent India had never witnessed such communal carnage as in Gujarat in 2002.

Then what remained of this ‘party with a difference’? Nothing except a wreckage of its former self. Advani has no magic wand as he had in 1989-90 to rebuild the party. Ramjanambhoomi no longer evokes the kind of emotions it did in the late eighties of the last century. It is at best looked upon a political ploy. Mr. Advani did try to use this ploy on becoming the president of the party again but drew complete blank. He could not convince even his own party people. He is facing million mutinies today in his own party. He is being mocked at by RSS and VHP people.
It has been observed again and again that once you create a monster for short-term gains, it controls the master rather than the other way round. The BJP created the Ramjanambhoomi issue to win the elections ‘and now it is this issue, which is destroying the cohesiveness and discipline in the party. The RSS and VHP militants are up in arms accusing the BJP leaders of deserting the issue of Ram temple to enjoy comforts of power. It is true that the BJP leadership had used Ramjanambhoomi issue only to capture power.

Once they had aroused the anguish among the Hindus that they cannot build temple in their own country. Little did they realise at that time that it was only a ruse to build their power base. Thus Advani’s magic word ‘Ayodhya’ has lost all its sheen and he lost his credibility further by uttering it again. You cannot arouse religious frenzy among people and then take them for granted.

One should also remember that any misuse of religious issues for political purposes leads to religious extremism in a section of the people and no one can control it. We also have example of Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan. He used slogan of Islamisation in eighties in Pakistan and created religious extremism and Jihadi militants who the present government of Pakistan finds extremely difficult to control. The moderate elements in Pakistan in late eighties when Zia was in control, were extremely worried about such gross misuse of Islam for political purpose and they rightly felt that this would lead to uncontrollable extremism in years to come and their prediction came true.

Only those who have no respect for religion use it cynically for political purposes. The entire Sangh Parivar has used Hindu religion for political ends. With globalisation it is becoming easier for politicians to misuse religious and cultural issues. One cannot expect even otherwise quite educated people to behave rationally and thoughtfully. This has been proved by re-election of Bush for the second term in USA. More than half the people of America bought the false propaganda of Bush that America needs rightwing Christian politics to enhance its security and hegemony in the world.

Bush mainly relied on issues like danger of terrorism on one hand, and, Christian values and family values, on the other. The hard issues like health care, outsourcing of jobs, increased unemployment etc. did not bother them. Bush has also misused Christian religion for his political purpose. The born-again Christians are dominating his administration and he increasingly relies on think tanks dominated by such rightwing Christians. The Christian revival is a fact of political life today in USA. Modern education and scientific progress has made hardly any difference to them. 

Countries like India with so much illiteracy and high rates of unemployment can easily be ignited (as Gujarat has proved beyond any ken of doubt). It is thus extremely dangerous to play with religious sentiments in politics. It is highly unfortunate that BJP leaders openly associate themselves with Hindu extremist leaders of RSS and VHP and look towards them for political support and seek to pacify them. 

What is most unfortunate is that these very leaders take oath of secularism and swear by Constitution while contesting election. It is true that Election Commission by enforcing its code has brought down misuse of religion in election campaign to some extent. But much more needs to be done to curb such misuse further. In fact mere declaration of secularism in election affidavits should not be enough. Any party, which raises religious issues in direct contravention of the Constitutional provisions should be de-recognised by the Election Commission. Any party, which associates itself with extremist organisations should not be allowed to contest elections. 

Strict enforcement of Constitutional provisions is the only way out. The Narsimha Rao Government totally ignored the blatantly communal propaganda by Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharti and others in late eighties and early nineties and the country had to pay dearly for that with demolition of Babri Masjid and following Bombay riots. The BJP Government enacted carnage in Gujarat. These are strong danger signals for ideals of our Constitution. Let us not underrate this danger any more. The extremists in the BJP do pose such danger again.

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