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The Opposition’s Guide to the BJP

There are many opportunities for the opposition – but are they up to it?

In the Hindi heartland, the old social justice parties must recognise that they have hollowed out secularism. Credit: Reuters

In the Hindi heartland, the old social justice parties must recognise that they have hollowed out secularism. Credit: Reuters

The first thing the opposition must do is understand the BJP.

This is the age of the hegemony of the BJP – so its growth in new territories in inevitable. Note the entry into the northeast.

For all its ideological distinctiveness, the BJP in the age of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is pragmatic. Note the large number of entrants from other parties, most notably the Congress.

With momentum on its side, the BJP today has become a well-oiled election machine, with an appetite for power. It is part of a structured cadre force of the RSS, that has among the largest number of volunteers in the world.

The BJP’s current leadership made mistakes in its first year, earning the ‘suit-boot sarkar’ tag. Modi also learnt from his mistakes, very consciously choosing to project the government as pro-poor (true or false is not the point, it’s the illusion of hope he can create that matters). But the most important thing to understand about the reborn BJP is that its social base has expanded. It is not just the party of the middle classes with some OBC support. Modi intends to expand the social base to the poorest sections and success has already come his way.

Therefore, to say that the opposition will offer the Bihar economic model vs the Gujarat model is missing the fact that since 2014, the picture has changed. Quick on its feet, changing strategy all the time, the BJP led by a man with humble beginnings is no longer a “Brahmanical conspiracy”. (Even if some friends would argue that it is, please understand that the messaging, policies and freebies offered intend to change that perception and to an extent already have.)

The ideological Hindutva project, using cow as the primary motif, moves simultaneously.

I have covered the party since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first government was formed in 1998. At that time, the BJP played the coalition game very intelligently, giving India its first non-Congress government that would last a term. On that day in 1998, when I went to attend Vajpayee’s swearing-in along with the BJP notables, also sworn in were Nitish Kumar (then part of the Samta Party) and Naveen Patnaik, two future chief ministers, and two former chief ministers, Ramakrishna Hegde and Surjit Singh Barnala. In 2014 I attended the grand swearing-in of Modi and I now believe I witnessed a watershed moment in India’s history.

Where’s the opposition?

It does appear at times that what the opposition is doing is joining the BJP. The BJP is, in a manner of speaking, the new Congress that gives due respect to defectors such as Hemanta Biswa Sarma, Rita Bahugana Joshi, S.M. Krishna and so on.

The answer to defeating the BJP lies in the grand alliance formation as practiced by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish, but with a big difference.

At this point it would be a terrible mistake to conceive of it as a last-minute electoral arrangement, X caste plus Y caste equals Z for victory. It’s not going to work that way, as by the time we get to 2019, new social groups would have deserted the old players.

In the Hindi heartland, the old social justice parties must recognise that they have hollowed out Mandal. It was not about social justice by the time they were defeated by the BJP. For the Samajwadi Party, it was about the Yadavs and non-peasant OBCs, excluded from getting any real benefit. For Mayawati, it was about the Jatav sub-castes and not all Dalits.

Parties across India must also recognise that they have hollowed out secularism, which is a word that is now used to only apply to Muslims. It is a word used to enable fear: vote for us or the BJP will come.

What traditional ‘secular’ parties will discover is that since the BJP has already arrived, Muslims are not going to form a voter bloc so easily and some will start making arrangements with those who they have to live with. Yes, a section of Muslims will sup with the devil!

At the very least Muslims do not want failed secular parties to shoot off their shoulders. Indeed, a politician such as Mayawati should recognise that her projection of the mullah, meat-trader, muscleman candidates fitted communal stereotyping and hurt rather than helped a community she so grandiosely gave over a 100 tickets too and set out to represent.

The frantic chase of the Muslim vote by the non-BJP parties only fuelled counter polarisation in Uttar Pradesh. Take the example of two of Mayawati’s candidates who were rich meat traders (the kind of people who have been hit by the crackdown on slaughterhouses). They moved around in convoys of Mercedes, Lamboriginis and had titles of Haji affixed to their names. Their campaigns consisted only of wooing Muslims (as the BSP’s Dalit voter bloc presumably was expected to come for free). In this dystopian universe there were clerical advisories being issued. The mullah, the meat trader, the strong-man, fit the worst stereotype – but they were also the reality in parts of UP.

To the credit of Akhilesh Yadav, he did not do this and in fact the Samajwadi Party manifesto did not mention Muslims. I have also covered Bihar extensively and believe that the grand alliance worked because the traditional politician that he is, Lalu put his heart into campaigning for Nitish. He considered it a necessity. He may be a flawed figure, but both Nitish and he knew what was necessary when push came to shove. Both avoided striking the stereotypical postures that create resentment against what is called “minority appeasement”.

Nitish has been promoting the grand alliance concept because it succeeded with all its imperfections in Bihar. The arithmetic of UP too suggests that a grand alliance would surpass the 40% vote share of the BJP. But something more than arithmetic has to be applied because the BJP is imaginative and effective in power.

Mayawati has currently indicated she is ready for a grand alliance. Frankly she has no choice, as she does not even have the numbers to be re-elected to the Rajya Sabha when her term ends in 2018 without the help of the Samajwadi Party and/or Congress. But any alliance has to be of a common platform and set up months before the general elections of 2019. It has to have a moral centre and a narrative beyond “we are getting together to save ourselves”. It has to be about saving people, running movements among them and creating an altogether different narrative.

Ultimately the Congress party has to be at the centre of any alternative arrangement. There have been greenshoots for the party in Punjab, Goa and Manipur, where they could not form the government inspite of having more seats than the BJP. Yet the party is plagued by a terrible paralysis.

On the other side, it is the BJP that actually seeks to occupy both the Right and Left sides of the ideological pole.

There are many opportunities for the opposition but the question is: are they up to it? The question now is does the opposition even have the will to reorganise? And if they do, do they have the imagination to fight back with a vision that is about something more than arithmetical calculations?

Hollowing of Mandal

First, we must recognise that there has been a hollowing out of principles of social justice and secularism because of the way they have been applied in electoral politics. I think this audience would know that post Mandal, there was the emergence of parties in Uttar Pradesh such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, who claimed to speak for the downtrodden. The idea of breaking the dominance of the upper castes was appealing, hence it was called social justice politics.

I firmly believe that it is the corruption of the politics of secularism and Mandal that is responsible for this political debacle for the traditional caste-based parties of UP. The vision of the Mandal reforms – a very bold initiative taken by then Prime Minister V.P. Singh – saw the empowerment of the Dalit and backward castes. In terms of social justice, they did deliver by not just giving a sense of empowerment, but also by making people from backward castes and Dalits representatives of the people. There are stories I could tell you about pre-Mandal UP.

As a young reporter, I had occasion to visit a village where acid was thrown on Dalits for daring to access water during a drought from a well located in the Thakur area of the village. There was no well in the Dalit area. Rajnath Singh, the chief minister of UP then, was forced to act because he was in a seat-sharing understanding with a young Mayawati. When she came to power she ensured government benefits, including wells, went to Dalit areas. This was radical. This was change. This was big.

But as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party became the pre-eminent players in UP, they also became cynical practitioners of the arithmetical model of elections and destroyed the real spirit of Mandal. In the end, nearly two decades down, we have to admit that they reduced Mandal to the welfare of the Yadav parivar and the Jatav caste respectively. The Samajwadi Party government’s unabashed favours to the Yadav caste could hardly be ignored. In every police station that I visited during my four trips to UP during the recent elections, I would find a Yadav ensconced. Not only were the lower ranks of the police and constabulary filled with Yadavs, but every important district-level officer was invariably of this caste.

Similarly, Mayawati’s overt preference for her Jatav constituency was all too blatant. Stories of the prices paid for ticket distribution by the Bahujan Samaj Party revealed the inbuilt bias. Much was made of the 100 tickets she gave to Muslim candidates. Each was paid for by predominant people with business interests. Subsequently, after their defeat, I learnt of an Ansari candidate who raised money from the community for the ticket. Along with him, lots of small traders and middle-class Muslims sunk their money. She did not, however, charge many Jatavs for the tickets.

It is in these ways that the social justice and secular planks were sold out.

Besides, by 2014, the writing on the wall was there and the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party should have read it. Non-Jatav Dalits had voted in larger numbers for the BJP. Among the staunchest BJP backers I found on the ground were Valmikis or Mahtars. Similarly, non-Yadav OBCs and even some Yadavs had voted for the BJP. Mayawati had got zero seats while the BJP made a virtual clean sweep, getting 73 out of 80. The Samajwadi Party picked up a few from constituencies linked to the ruling Yadav family, the Congress won from the two Nehru-Gandhi family bastions.

In the 2017 assembly elections, this trend was clear to those of us on the ground. In western UP, I noted the ferocity of non-Jatav Dalits in backing the BJP. In eastern UP, small OBC groups such as Rajbhars and Kurmis were being pampered by the party. The BJP virtually won all the seats where it gave tickets to non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav Backward castes. It was what I would call a post-Mandal verdict.

Hollow secularism

For those of us who still have secular stardust in our eyes, let’s recognise that secularism as practiced in India is not some utterance of the soul that Jawaharlal Nehru may have imagined. It was in UP reduced to electoral management that first saw Muslims as a herd and then tried to keep that herd together. Bhed, bakri, Muslim…

The contradiction all along has been this: secularism is a progressive value, yet Indian secularism was being used to empower the most conservative elements in the Muslim community. I have nothing against religiosity but we have to understand the wider ramifications of what has been done

Once they appeared on the scene, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party continued with the hollow and symbolic secularism of the Congress. For them too, secularism became a word that was used to get Muslim support. The dynamic had changed in that this secularism was invoked not to ask for a liberal and just compact between communities but to instil fear among Muslims: vote for us or else Gabbar Singh will come.

In UP 2017, which took place after the 2014 parliamentary elections, Mayawati polarised the election when she distributed tickets to more than a 100 Muslim candidates. She set the stage for a great counter polarisation. To the credit of Akhilesh, he seemed more attuned to what could come, in that he rarely took the M or Muslim word and the Samajwadi Party manifesto made no mention of Muslims.

Let me share a little secret. One of the pollsters who worked for Akhilesh is a friend and he kept predicting a BJP wave in private. As the elections, began he polled 96 seats with a sample of 1,000 in each and again threw up a BJP landslide. I was fortunate to be privy to his findings and recognise now that it is possible that Akhilesh acted with better information than Mayawati did, but in the end they both lost badly.

The result, as it turned out, was a repeat of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP did not give a single ticket to a Muslim candidate, although they did interestingly field several Muslims in Assam, mostly from seats they did not expect to win.

These elections have also exposed as a zero-sum game that is the cynical mathematical model that works with the presumed value of the Muslim vote.

As the BJP, RSS and affiliate organisations plan their future conquests of India, a few parts of which do still remain outside their rule, they will again and again call up the bogey of the Muslim. In fact it was a great son of Maharashtra, B.R. Ambedkar, who wrote about the utility of using Muslims to get over the differences of caste in Hindu society. He famously said, “Hindu society is a collection of castes. A caste has no feeling it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot.”

Parts of this article are extracted from a recently-delivered public lecture about the UP verdict and its impact on national politics.

Saba Naqvi is a senior journalist and columnist.

  • Siddhartha

    The author needs to be commended for exposing the hypocrisy in our political system, by calling a spade a spade. For too long, news anchors and media pundits have been providing air cover to parties which neither believed in true secularism nor social equality. As a result, elections were won often by skirting the real issues. Now that the BJP is riding high, they need to be alert to the real developmental issues plaguing the populace and not frustrate their extensive support base with narrow orthodoxy and obscurantism.

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Kudos, Saba – for an excellent article that exposes both the machinations of the BJP and the opportunist selfish interests of an electorate which cannot find any trustworthy political party in the Opposition. But will the Opposition parties listen to the voices of sanity which warn of an impending fascist one-party rule ? As for me (past 80), I only hope that the ubiquitous image of a smugly laughing arrogant Modi that decorates the newspapers today, is replaced tomorrow – a distant tomorrow perhaps – by a photograph of his in the media, with a wimpish face cowering and cringing, seeking pardon from the people for his crimes.