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As we approach the 2024 Lok Sabha election, it is clear to most that the more polarised Hindus and Muslims become, the more powerful the ruling regime’s majoritarian mindset becomes. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is pushing for an electoral strategy where majoritarianism and polarisation reinforce each other in such a way that it yields unending electoral dividends for the party.
Among other things, majoritarianism is linked to the anxieties of the majority community vis-à-vis the loss of privileges; it works up a logic where not only the narrative of polarisation but also the counter-narrative against polarisation tends to further polarise.
In other words, the counter-narrative is fixed in a way that it does not lead to critical thinking by the majority community and fresh negotiations between Hindus and Muslims, but further pushes and strengthens the same dominant process of polarisation.
The counter-narrative fails to challenge the dominant narrative.
Counter-narratives are projected in such a way that they gain a specified place and meaning that majoritarian discourse assigns them. For the opposition parties, it is therefore not sufficient to have a mere counter-narrative but also its desired results of changing the mood and mindset of the majority community.
As of today, we seem to have a counter-narrative with neither a realisation of its ineffectiveness, nor a plan for keeping these counter-narratives from becoming counter-productive. Without this additional strategy, counter-narratives don’t seem to bother the BJP; in fact, they seem to encourage the party that sees counter-narratives as strengthening the purpose of polarisation.
In a recent surprise intervention, Arnab Goswami of the Republic news channel took to moral sermonising to opposition parties about their failure to take a position against the release and garlanding of those convicted of raping Bilkis Bano.
The Congress, Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist), among others, have condemned the move. Leaders of the TMC and CPI(M) have moved Supreme Court with writ petitions against the remission. The Aam Aadmi Party’s silence – aside from MLA Amanatullah Khan’s condemnation – has been brought up in analysis pieces.
However, progressive-secular activists are unhappy about political parties’ failure to wholeheartedly raise the pitch against the decision and subsequent celebration.
The political parties perhaps feel that condemning the criminality of rape is giving an easy pass to the BJP and will mean that they are falling into the very ‘trap’ the saffron party has set to fix the polarising narrative before the assembly elections in Gujarat later this year.
Silence has become a convenient way for ‘secular’ parties to avoid polarisation so that other social, economic and governance related issues can be debated, which is where they think the BJP will be on the back foot.
What the silence of the opposition parties is doing is allowing the BJP-RSS to also occupy the space of the counter-narrative. Opposition parties, with their silence on issues involving brutalities against Muslims, might be able to avoid an immediate polarisation, which may yield electoral dividends, but they are missing a larger social shift that will also have impact on electoral outcomes, in a much more substantive sense.
Silence carries the danger of making opposition parties look redundant and irrelevant – the kind of crisis the Congress is currently witnessing and one that the BJP is now trying to push unto the regional parties.
Parties such as the AAP are maintaining a silence on Muslim-related issues, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the Bilkis Bano case, and contesting solely on issues of governance, education and health related welfare. The BJP realises that the AAP’s only source of relevance and strength is welfare; therefore the recent attack on welfare as ‘revdi culture’ by Prime Minister Modi.
What the strategy of silence does is allow the ruling regime to also claim the space of reconciliation between religious communities. Not only do they polarise, they project themselves as ‘saviours’ from majoritarian violence; a classic strategy that police forces generally use while employing ‘third-degree’ methods. They inflict the torture but also offer the way out with sweet talk; while one officer tortures, the other offers protection – good cop, bad cop.
Helplessness compels the victim to take up the offer of reconciliation. A similar strategy is employed when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief periodically comes out with statements such as: there is no Hindutva without the Muslims. Such statements are then used to make attempted inroads into the Muslim vote bank, by raising issues such as the plight of Pasmanda Muslims, the Shia-Sunni conflict, and atrocities against Muslim women.
It is a different matter that Muslims do not yet trust the BJP, but this also allows the development of a larger-than-life image for the BJP leadership amongst the Hindu majority.
As part of this strategy, Narendra Modi famously maintains silence over almost all social conflicts. He stands ‘above’ the bickering and therefore, well-meaning people, like the faculty of the IIMs and others, make repeated appeals to him to intervene. This allows Modi to be projected as neutral, morally righteous and the only power that can resolve such conflicts, since all other parties and leaders have been pushed into silence and oblivion.
The appeals are not to a constitutional head; they are projected as reflecting the persona of Modi. In all this, opposition parties and its leaders become silent and irrelevant, and simply fall out of frame. They are pushed to play the waiting game.
The BJP has further perfected this art of silencing the opposition by seemingly patronising its voices and narratives. Earlier, it was Asaduddin Owaisi who would speak up boldly and strongly in a way that challenged Hindu sensibilities. Recall the video in which he was heard threatening the Uttar Pradesh police, saying, “…after Modi and Yogi leave, who will protect you?”
As Muslims are pushed into a corner, Owaisi emerges as the voice they are looking for, since opposition parties chose to remain silent. Muslims’ support to Owaisi en bloc then becomes a justification for Hindu consolidation. However, such a strategy seems to have failed, in spite of the incompetence and non-committal character of the opposition parties. Muslims have neither moved close to the BJP, nor voted en mass for Owaisi.
More recently, it was the turn of Ghulam Nabi Azad. The prime minister teared up for him on his retirement from the Rajya Sabha, showing the possibility of what Hindu-Muslim bonhomie might look like. He is now set to start a party in Jammu and Kashmir that is being made to look like a credible option for the Muslims of the erstwhile state, given Azad’s now demonstrable proximity to Modi.
Azad is now raising the demand for the restoration of statehood for J&K without criticising the BJP and its leadership for the the reading down of Article 370. It is a strategy of patronising the Muslims of the valley and to demonstrate to the mainland Hindus how the BJP succeeded in bringing the protesting Muslims to, at best negotiation, and at worst, their knees.
Azad becomes a symbol of how ‘errant’ Muslims are tamed into submission and how Modi and the BJP are the only force that can grant them benefits – not through protests but humility and submission. This, the BJP feels, will make the Hindus feel empowered and the Opposition redundant; they can neither criticise the reading down of Article 370, nor are they approached or relevant for further negotiation.
Majoritarian polarisation cannot be fought through a simple-minded counter-narrative that further polarises; nor can it be fought through a silence that is creating a deeper imagination of the irrelevance of the opposition and allowing the BJP itself to either directly or by proxy, occupy those spaces.
To begin with, the opposition parties will have to alert the majority community to the BJP’s insidious strategies and their deployment towards electoral use. As part of demonstrating the instrumentality of polarising discourses, they will have to find ways of formulating counter-narratives without allowing for polarisation. This will be partly possible when the opposition begins to distance and critique obscurantism in minority politics, which will also afford them the space to defend minorities against atrocities.
Only when they stand in full strength by Bilkis Bano will they be able to defend Shaheen Bagh without the majority Hindus labelling it conveniently as ‘appeasement’. The opposition will have to have a different imagination of religious minorities outside the majoritarian gaze of religious minorities as a homogeneous and unthinking mob in order to foreground the mutual interdependence between the Hindus and Muslims as an imperative for faster economic growth and social development.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor, JNU.