Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hour-long speech in the Lok Sabha on the subject of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and his immense contribution to the Indian constitution was a study in political pragmatism. Modi had suddenly morphed into a passionate consensus seeker, so conciliatory in his words that everyone was made to wonder whether the leopard had indeed succeeded in changing its spots. There was a lot praise for Nehru – as the man with such a big heart that he readily deferred to Ram Manohar Lohia when the latter questioned the Planning Commission figures on poverty reduction.
Modi was quick to concede how the nation, as it stands today, is a result of the ‘tapasya’ (dedicated efforts) of past governments and past Prime Ministers. Contrast this with his statement in North America that his government was tasked with removing 65 years of accumulated dirt. Or his assertion elsewhere in Asia that Indians born before May 16, 2014 must feel particularly unfortunate.
So what has triggered this apparent transformation in Modi? The main motivation is possibly a desire to rescue his image as a man who can deliver on his promises.
There is little doubt that this is a major tactical retreat on the part of the PM who is staring at a severe loss of credibility after the Bihar electoral defeat.
More than the result of the Bihar elections, Modi must be deeply worried about his image globally as the man who promised to bring big changes in India’s political economy, but who could not rise to the job. The growing protests over intolerance in India are also denting the PM’s image, whatever spin doctors like Arun Jaitley might say. Though Modi’s Lok Sabha speech was marked by studied humility, Jaitley’s statement on the eve of the Lok Sabha session that the protests over intolerance were wholly manufactured continued to reflect BJP’s refusal to accept reality.
Of course, it is not a surprise at all that the BJP and Sangh leadership should speak with a forked tongue. They are past-masters at conveying different things to different people. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s attempt to open a debate on secularism in the context of its subsequent introduction in the constitution by Indira Gandhi is a case in point.
Nevertheless, it is still important to take Narendra Modi at face value and hold him to some of the things he said on record in his Lok Sabha address. It is significant that he said the constitution was the only holy book for the government; And this means the constitution in its present form, which includes the amendments of 1976 which formally inscribed the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the preamble.
Modi also said something significant which can be used to their advantage by those protesting against the growing intolerance in the country.
Modern equivalent of Bhakti movement
He asserted that Indian society had naturally operating purifying filters, which cleansed it of social and religious bigotry from time to time. He cited the Bhakti movement led by the likes of Kabir, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Guru Nanak etc. who actually fought the orthodox Hindu Brahmanical order by spreading the message of love and tolerance.
The Bhakti movement, which first originated in South India, spread to North and Central India between the 14th and 17th century and attempted to free the common people from the vice like grip of a caste-ridden Brahmanical order.
So in today’s context, it is the RSS and Sangh parivar outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) who are out to rigidify Hinduism by developing dogmas – with ploys such as beef politics or the Ram Mandir – on which political Hindutva could eventually ride. In a sense, all the sections of civil society – artists, scientists, writers, sociologists, students etc. – who are protesting against the dogmatic approach of the Sangh Parivar must be seen as society’s “auto-purifiers” which Modi has referred to in the context of the Bhakti movement.
The BJP leadership would do well to recognise that the protest against the Sangh’s agenda is a deep signal coming from below. It must therefore course correct as soon as possible. Modi would be taking a very short-term view if he thinks that by temporarily winning over the Congress party, and by passing a few important economic legislations, he can recover lost ground. Fundamentally, the Sangh parivar, of which Modi is an integral part, must figure out whether a resurgence of Hindu society should be based on internal reform and introspection, as seen in the Bhakti movement, or on a mindless campaign for political Hindutva based on demonising “the other”. The choice is clear.