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Secularism doesn’t have a constituency

By Ajaz Ashraf

It will be a fallacy to judge the popular pull of secularism — or, more appropriately, the idea of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood — the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. That is because Opposition has largely refrained from ideologically challenging Hindutva’s anti-minority prejudices or mobilising people against its policy of impairing Hindu-Muslim relations. With Hindu-Muslim unity not offered as an alternative imagination to Hindutva, secularism cannot even be said to be an electoral issue in 2019.


The Opposition has, instead, offered the public the option of choosing between caste and Hindutva. This choice has emerged out of the Opposition’s strategy of building state-based alliances to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the proponent of Hindtuva. A state-based alliance, typically, aggregates each of its constituent’s support among different castes to create a social base that matches the BJP’s in the Hindi heartland. From this perspective, the anti-BJP alliances have deployed the rhetoric of caste to contest the Hindutva philosophy.

Battle for Muzaffarnagar reflects Oppositions use of caste to trump Hindutva in LS polls; secularism not on ballotRepresentational image. Reuters
In addition, the Congress has evolved a two-step strategy to take on the BJP.

The first of these involves borrowing Hindutva’s benign elements, which is precisely why the Congress has harped on the Hindu identity of its leaders.

The second step focuses on governance issues, such as falling farm income, rising unemployment, a sluggish economy and corruption, to criticise the BJP’s rule.

Yet, neither of these strategies explain why Hindu-Muslim unity has a civilisational value and is, therefore, a politically desirable goal. Neither has tried to imagine for the electorate the destructive consequences of communal amity being shattered. Neither has vociferously critiqued Hindutva from the perspective of humanism and mobilised people against the violent actions of the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh’s affiliates.

When anti-BJP formations haven’t cared to reconfigure composite nationalism as an ideological alternative to Hindutva, when they cannot take to the streets to thwart RSS affiliates from directing their wrath against religious minorities, it is not wrong to conclude that the electorate hasn’t been asked to choose between Hindutva and secularism. That is why it would be impossible to quantify secularism’s direct contribution to anti-BJP’s votes.

The Opposition’s strategy of countering Hindutva is best demonstrated in Uttar Pradesh, the principal playground of Hindutva politics. After receiving a drubbing in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) realised that their only hope of trumping the BJP in 2019 was to pool their resources. They had a good reason to do so: Despite the BJP’s mammoth victory of 2014, the BSP and the SP’s combined vote-share of 42.12 percent was only marginally behind the BJP’s 42.63 percent. In the main, they represent 21 percent Dalits, 19 percent Muslims and 10 percent of Yadavs. This social reality prompted the SP and the BSP to combine and win the bypolls in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana constituencies last year.

But even after these victories, their criticism of Hindutva was largely from the perspective of forward-backward caste or elite-subaltern binaries. There is nothing wrong in that. But it is certainly a case of ideological confusion that they should mistake caste-based challenge to Hindutva for secularism.

It was as if they did not wish to interrogate Hindutva’s anti-minority prejudices lest it incurred them the hostility of increasingly Hinduised social groups which they represent.

This is why the BSP and the SP did not think of popular mobilisation against Hindutva even in the fifth year of the BJP rule. As for the Congress, it did not have even have a base to build an anti-BJP phalanx at the grassroots, although political scientists would testify that scripting a popular movement is the surest way of reinvigorating a moribund organisation. The Congress’ emphasis on its Hinduness reflects its lack of certitude to take on Hindutva on its own terms.

The use of caste arithmetic to trump Hindutva is most vividly illustrated in Muzaffarnagar, where the horrific violence of 2013 triggered a state-wide communal polarisation in 2014. It is to Muzaffarnagar that Ajit Singh, the leader of the RashtriyaLok Dal, has shifted from his old constituency of Baghpat to contest the 2019 elections. In an interview to The Hindu, Ajit claimed that the thought of working for communal amity struck him on his visit to Muzaffarnagar on 13 February, the day after his birthday. He said, “I [had] completed 79 years. So I said, the 80th year I will spend on getting rid of that communal divide [created by the 2013 riots]. I called it bhaichara [brotherhood]. And for the last one year, I have been to at least 10 districts, two or three times and stayed there overnight, talking to different groups.”

Ajit’s noble intentions happily coincided with west Uttar Pradesh’s caste configuration becoming favourable to him. His own caste of Jats, who were at the forefront of the 2013 communal riot and overwhelmingly voted for the BJP in 2014, became disenchanted with the BJP because of agrarian distress. The riots also snapped the symbiotic Jat-Muslim relationship: Muslim labourers migrated or were unwilling to work on the farms of Jats. These factors might have assured Ajit that his talk on bhaichara could get a hearing from Jats.

But the more important reason for Ajit suddenly discovering his secular convictions was that the RLD was on its way to become a part of the BSP-SP alliance, as has happened. The alliance must have come as an assurance that speaking of communal harmony will not have a negative electoral impact. For instance, in his constituency of Muzaffarnagar, 6.07 lakh Muslims, 2.07 lakh Dalits and 1.52 lakh Jats provide him a potential base of 9.68 lakh, nearly half the constituency’s electorate of nearly 17 lakh.

Ajit’s belated attempt to bridge the communal divide should have us wonder why he did not think of dispelling the fascination of Jats for Hindutva in the past four years. This is not to scoff at his efforts to work for Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. There can be gains from it, which was eloquently explained by Ajit’s son, Jayant Chaudhry, who is contesting from Baghpat, “It is a great opportunity [the forging of the BSP-SP-RLD alliance] for us to build social cohesion. When people vote together, they start thinking together, they start working together.”

Chaudhry’s prescription is for the future. For the present, though, the Opposition’s doubts about opposing Hindutva at the grassroots have seen political parties squander opportunities to repair broken community relations. Late last year, for instance, Babri village in Shamli district, just 40 kilometres away from Muzaffarnagar, found pork in a mosque and beef in a temple. Local Jat leaders rushed to check the volatile situation from spiraling out of control. They tied rakhis around the wrists of Muslims to symbolise their resolve to protect them from Hindutva assailants. Muslims reciprocated by establishing welcome stalls for kanwariya pilgrims. Yet, astonishingly, none of the parties thought it was worth their while to turn Babri village into a shining example of communitarian camaraderie.

The Opposition’s failure to evolve a socio-cultural response to Hindutva has only widened the Hindu-Muslim chasm.

This is best illustrated by the experience of Harsh Mander, the writer-activist who takes Karwan-e-Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love, to visit families of victims of hate politics. Mander has made 27 such visits in 15 states. About his impression of the families of victims, Mander wrote, “They feel alone and abandoned as they battle loss and the hate of their neighbours or strangers who attacked their loved one… Often, families in distant parts say that we are the first people who reached out to them.”

When neighbours cannot even be moved by the death of the innocent, then it has to be a case of political stupidity to think that secularism or the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity can contribute to anti-BJP votes. Caste politics cannot be mistaken for secularism. The sad fact is that secularism, unlike Hindutva, does not have a large constituency of its own, of which the most eloquent symbol is the battle for Muzaffarnagar.