Pakistan has always been central to India’s right-wing political imagination. The bellicose narrative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the current leadership and direction of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached its nadir, with the two sides adopting offensive foreign policy postures. As India moves closer to the elections in April-May 2019, the public discourse on Pakistan is likely to become more obtrusive in the country, mainly for domestic political gains. While this is symptomatic to the Modi-led BJP, Pakistan has always been fundamental to the BJP’s politics, including those of the former and the late prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Saba Naqvi’s book, Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi, traces the evolution of the BJP through these two towering figures who led a nation of complex cultural and religious diversities by first creating an enemy within — the Indian Muslim — and associating it with the enemy without — Muslim Pakistan. Naqvi is a senior political journalist and commentator who worked as the political editor with India’s leading current affairs magazine Outlook. As a beat reporter she has covered the developments in the BJP for the last two decades. Arguing that the BJP has evolved in its political strategy, ideology and approach, her book also shows that there are continuities from its own ideological past.
As Indian politics gradually spiralled towards Hindu nationalism with Modi’s victory in 2014, the aggressive discourse on Hindu identity politics — diluting caste divisions and accentuating communal polarisation — came to prominence. While the issue of appropriation of caste is more about the BJP’s social engineering programme within the fold of Hinduism, the antagonisation of the Indian Muslim is in proximity to the political rhetoric on Pakistan.
The subject of caste mobilisation has been broached by the BJP leadership at all times. Continuing with the tradition of expanding its Hindu mass base, the party has persisted in its outreach towards backward castes and Dalits (untouchable caste). In pursuing its social engineering process, Banguru Laxman, a Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh and member of the BJP’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), became president of the BJP in 2000. His appointment was a radical move in keeping with the party’s social engineering approach.
The BJP has mastered the art of expanding and retaining its social base. Moreover, in legitimising this strategy, the BJP tactfully abandoned the trend of anointing chief ministers from castes that are traditionally dominant in the states. For instance, in the Jat-dominated northern state of Haryana, the BJP chose Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi-Khatri and former RSS pracharak (ideologue), as the first non-Jat chief minister. While a little misadventure with caste politics can disturb the social mass base of the BJP, its divisive communal politics have, on the other hand, consolidated the support of the previously warring castes.
The present leadership of the BJP has been more inclined towards hard Hindutva that has interchangeably been used as ‘Moditva’, which may be defined as that ‘phase of Hindutva personified in an individual’. Unlike his predecessor Vajpayee, who had visibly softened his approach towards Muslim minorities in 2004 in an attempt to project a secular face, Modi has, since his early days in the RSS, believed that in chasing Muslims the BJP may end up alienating Hindus.
Moreover, the hardening of communal sentiment was a fallout of the 2004 election debacle, which, according to Naqvi, led the party hardliners to revisit their “original agenda — focus on ideology and forget everything else.” While there has been constant change in the political narrative of the party — depending on the leadership — the ideological nucleus, that is, the RSS, has been committed to its Hindutva doctrine.
Veteran patriarch L.K. Advani faced the ire of the party and the mother organisation soon after his visit to Pakistan in June 2005; he was at the time leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha [Lower House] and made some controversial statements during his week-long visit. Advani’s overwhelming stature was diminished for his political naivety exhibited abroad; his invocation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah cost him his glorious political career, never to be redeemed again. Calling Jinnah a “great man” who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity, Advani expressed his remorse at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the 1990s, calling it “the saddest day.” Adding further insult to injury, Advani sent ripples down to New Delhi when he said that Partition was irreversible and that there is a Pakistani in every Indian.
This was nothing short of “heresy for the party of the faithful”, writes Naqvi. Their ideological guru had just debunked an entire body of beliefs. This led to a political debacle within the party which resulted in Advani losing the support of the RSS. Another casualty was senior party leader Jaswant Singh who published an empathetic book on Jinnah, titled Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. Following the publication of his book, Singh was unceremoniously expelled by then party president Rajnath Singh and reduced to insignificance.
Incidentally, the ghost of Jinnah still lurks in Modi’s India and continues to shape his present and future politics. A case in point is the May 2018 controversy over Jinnah’s portrait in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which led to a violent confrontation between Hindutva forces and AMU students. The outrage over the presence of Jinnah’s portrait, which had been hanging at the university since 1938, defines the BJP’s communalisation of politics.
Naqvi’s account of the BJP is a glimpse of modern India’s realpolitik that has wilfully sacrificed the principles of freedom and secularism enshrined in its Constitution at the altar of majoritarian Hindutva politics. As the author candidly narrates her journey inside the BJP, she foregrounds the party’s obsessive pursuits — Muslim first and Muslim last — from the Mughals in pre-colonial India to post-Partition Pakistan.
The relevance of the book lies in its detailed account of the evolution of the BJP and right-wing politics in India. As the country inches closer to the 2019 elections, it remains to be seen if the ghosts of history still haunt the political landscape of India and shape the uncertain future of the largest religious minority in the world: the Indian Muslims.