Jyotiraditya Scindia (left) joining the BJP
The Congress party has received yet another big jolt with Jyotiraditya Scindia crossing over to join the Bharatiya Janata Party, leaving its government in Madhya Pradesh tottering towards a fall. Scindia is now being excoriated by many Congress supporters, and liberals in general, for putting career above principle and joining a communal party. The fact of the matter is that professional politicians often do switch ideological positions, and there is nothing remarkable in the phenomenon itself.
Expecting career politicians to go down with a sinking ship is akin to expecting all the staff in a company to not seek jobs in rival firms even as their company is shutting down, and the management is missing in action. It should surprise no one that leaders are leaving the party.
The worrying thing for all Indians is the bigger picture. The way things are going, the BJP’s dream of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” no longer appears fanciful. This is a problem for the entire country, and even for BJP supporters, because democracy requires checks and balances. With the only existing national alternative in disarray and key institutions appearing hollower by the day, what is at stake is the character of Indian democracy.
India is not too far from returning to the kind of single-party dominance at the national level that the Congress enjoyed for decades. The country’s Hindu masses, who comprise around 80 percent of the population, seem to have no problem with this. This is clear from the fact that the BJP under Modi won a second term with an absolute majority despite having delivered little by way of “vikas” in its first term.
The ire of liberals at Scindia for jumping the secularism ship should take this widespread support, and the recent success of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi – by steering clear of both the secularism and the nationalism debates and instead adopting Hanuman as mascot – into account. The fact may be unpalatable to many, but it is not enough to blame leaders alone for the poor state of Indian secularism. There are deeper issues.
Indian society was and is deeply influenced by its various religions. The power of religious taboos is one measure of this. The Hindu fundamentalist taboo on beef and worship of the holy cow have often been in the news in recent years. However, even apart from the fundamentalists, a very large section of the Hindu population does indeed avoid eating beef even if they eat other meats. Muslims, similarly, do not generally eat pork, and many do not eat any meat unless it is halal. The Sikh taboo on smoking is quite seriously observed in Punjab, especially around Amritsar, where the Golden Temple is located.
Belief in superstitions is also widespread across all faiths. These superstitions are often defended as zealously as taboos. This is borne out in the experiences of rationalists who attempt debunking superstitions and irrational beliefs. Sanal Edamaraku, a rationalist, was hounded out of India by Catholic groups after debunking a “miracle” in Mumbai. Narendra Dabholkar, who tried to educate the masses against blind superstitions mainly among Hindus, was shot dead, for which Hindu extremists have been arrested. M.M.Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh were similarly rationalists who were murdered, possibly by the same killers. Muslim and Sikh societies have their own irrational beliefs that it would be hazardous for anyone to question.
The point is that Indian society, across religious divides, was and is greatly influenced by religion. Voters in India live in this society. They are not secular Europeans; they are Indians who, barring a few, observe their taboos and cherish their superstitions and prejudices. To expect secularism of the European kind to thrive in such a milieu is unrealistic.
Recently, author and former Janata Dal (United) Member of Parliament Pavan K. Varma suggested in a column in The Times of India that the secularism relevant to India is the secularism of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated respect for all faiths, and not the secularism of Jawaharlal Nehru that considers overt religious practice “anti-secular”.
The secularism of Gandhi is in fact what most supporters and opponents of secularism in India understand by the term. The fight for secularism in India is a fight for equal treatment for adherents of all faiths – not the removal of religion from public life. Even Hindutva supporters often base their arguments on this idea, arguing, rightly or wrongly, that they only want equal – and not superior – treatment for Hindus and Hinduism. They present themselves as battling “minority appeasement”, not advocating majoritarianism.
The communist Left were the only Indian secularists who used to advocate for a proper separation of politics from religion. They seem to be realizing the political folly of holding that ideological line in a deeply religious country, and thus leaving enormous space in society free for religious fundamentalists of all hues to spread their message unhindered. Communist leaders in Bengal and Tripura have now started participating in Durga Puja and even want “secular-minded believers”, whatever that means, to take over temple managements. In Kerala, communist leaders from the chief minister down participate in Onam.
This would suggest that whether anyone likes it or not, the argument on Indian secularism is over. Gandhi’s ideas of secularism, with their overt embrace of religion, have won. All that remains now is the battle over the nature of the coming “Ram Rajya”.