Why the victory of Bihar wasn’t about secularism

Published: November 27, 2015 - 17:02 Updated: November 27, 2015 - 17:16

Using the discourse of secularism to garner votes on the basis of caste, and use it to consolidate a venal system of power is the most distasteful aspect of this triumph of secularism 

Rajat Datta Delhi 

The intensity of opposition to the Modi phenomenon has been phenomenal. For the BJP, the euphoria of the 2014 mandate is now increasingly turning into disappointment, and this is in no small way because of the rapid erosion of the Modi phenomenon itself. He has lost much of his sheen and bluster, and his favourite hunting ground - the social media- is increasingly becoming his nemesis. First the AAP in Delhi and now the Mahagatbandhan in Bihar have really turned things around. The BJP is actually on the back foot. For all its hype and rhetoric, the economic agenda of the BJP is an extension of what was being pursued by the UPA and the parameters of performance fail to arouse. Further, its show piece- the Hindutva agenda-will have to be placed on the back burner for the BJP and Moditva to survive till 2019. Both the party and the man have to reinvent themselves to remain relevant to the Indian electorate. Post-Bihar 2015, this will be an insurmountable hurdle for both the party and the man. 

The opposition has been enormously successful and it doesn’t matter whether it was `manufactured’, `fabricated’ or just spontaneous. What did BJP expect? Just because they had a convincing electoral win, all opposition had been swept aside? Opposition will continue and strengthen as liberal voices become more vocal and as regional political parties hem in the BJP in the states. The Congress, shaken out of its ennui, will begin to play a crucial role in the days ahead. There is therefore reason to be optimistic. 

But what is this optimism about? Is it just a matter of feeling good about hemming in the Hindutva agenda? Of course to be able to do so by whatever means is critical, but is that all there is to this? Isn’t there an alternative ideological and cultural space that needs to be opened up, protected or strengthened? Secularism has almost become a term of abuse in this country. Competing religiosities constantly make counterclaims over this word. Hinduism is secular, Islam is secular as is Christianity, say the advocates of these faiths, while simultaneously accusing the other of sectarianism and communalism. Majoritarian voices conflate secularism with minority appeasement (so-called pseudo-secularism) whereas minorities, threatened by the stridency of the majoritarian (Hindutva) rhetoric, retreat into walls of sectarian seclusion or raise their voices against growing majoritarian intolerance, all in the name of secularism. Even hard-line Hindutva ideologues, of which Modi is an exemplar, while carefully avoiding this `S’ word do talk of it in roundabout terms like co-existence and pluralism. In India, secularism has become communalism’s alter ego. 

The rhetoric of secularism is used to gloss over deep inconsistencies of political behaviour. Let’s take the example of the recently concluded Bihar elections. The defeat of Modi (and secondarily of the BJP) was a matter of great significance and caused justifiable euphoria. But once we look beyond the results the façade of secularism shows deep cracks. Using the discourse of secularism in order to garner votes on the basis of caste and then use the victory to consolidate a venal system of power is the most distasteful aspect of this triumph of secularism. The images of Arvind Kejriwal embracing Lalu Prasad Yadav just eighteen months after he had dubbed the latter as the epitome of corruption is equally unsettling. On social media, secular responses to criticisms of the rise of the Yadava dynasty in Bihar media have been a barrage justifying this as the unavoidable consequences of a greater good, a small price to pay for Modi’s defeat in Bihar. Political manipulation and venality with so-called secular credentials is justified by counterposing the existence of highly undesirable communal elements among BJP MPs. One wrong is cited to justify another. The loser either way is secularism. 

The political situation is one of despondency, but the resounding defeat of Modi is the silver lining.  The silver lining has four components. First, the ideology of a majoritarian cultural nationalism (which had minority bashing as its corollary) has been decimated. Second, the BJP-RSS cohort has been forced on the back foot, and the so-called `fringe’ elements which were increasingly threatening to occupy centre stage have been now actually relegated to the fringe. Their sporadic outbursts can be now dismissed as such—merely outbursts of an inconsequential lunatic fringe. Third, Bihar has been the destroyed the Modi-Shah combo. The rest of Modi’s tenure will be a downhill journey, probably spent in overseas visits, for he has nothing left to offer to his Indian constituency. Fourth, and for me the vital point is that the idea of secularism as it has been practiced in the Indian politics now stands denuded. It is now bereft of any moral or ethical content because of the way it has been used to justify the most perverse forms of political behaviour. On the one hand by using secularism as a trope by Modi in his overseas demagoguery, he has made this concept malleable enough to be appropriated by communal politics in order to argue for a majoritarian-oriented secularism. On the other hand, and the recent Bihar elections revealed it, secularism is used to foster narrow familial, venal and casteist forms of politics. On what moral grounds can the latter be used to condemn or counter the former? 

But herein lies the opportunity for the invention of a new political discourse which should seek a closer location in Indian history than this ahistorical adherence to the term secularism, which is a modern concept with very little moorings in Indian history. 

Despite dominant political narratives in medieval India which tended to privilege political and religious fractiousness, the real history of the medieval centuries was one of pluralism, co-existence and syncretism. The period between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries saw the apogee of these tendencies. Society remained intensely religious, but not divided on religious lines. The social discourse of these centuries, combining Vedantic, Bhakti and Sufi principles was one of liberalism whose public manifestations were unbelievably complex, mature and universalizing. This discourse was also uniquely non-elitist and non-urban for it was created, shared and propagated by all forms of subaltern religiosities, for example by people Kabir, Nanak and the Sufi pirs whose charismatic hold on rural societies was unquestioned and unquestionable. This universalizing religiosity was not `secular’, for religion permeated its very essence, but it was not communal for it critiqued all forms of denominational/scriptural faiths. It was a genuinely liberal discourse configuring itself on the conceptual terrains of `adar bhav’ (universal humanism) and `parupkar’, (universal benevolence), espoused for instance by Kabir. For the fifteenth century savant Narasinh Mehta of Gujarat, this liberalism was honour and respect for all (sakal lok) and a universalizing vision for all (sama drishti). 

Seeking roots of liberalism and universal humanism (and not just tolerance) in Indian history is both culturally and politically necessary to correct the glaring shortcomings of secularism as a concept, and to deliver a stinging retort to ideologues of Hindutva who find nothing but destruction of temples and decimation of Hindus in these medieval centuries.

Using the discourse of secularism to garner votes on the basis of caste, and use it to consolidate a venal system of power is the most distasteful aspect of this triumph of secularism 
Rajat Datta Delhi 

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