by Ratnakar Tripathy
|Rahul Gandhi greeting the public on Eid|
Although we have endlessly debated secularism in our country for the past few decades what it has all amounted to in practice is that the political parties and the electoral candidates take turns at placating the different segments of their constituencies. The simple reason for this is India in reality is a conglomeration of almost countless minorities, some or many of whom may come together on occasions that require coalescing on specific counts. It is not just religion and caste but even region, language, skin colour, sub-region that may play the determining role in forming our identity for the moment on a given occasion but also in a more enduring sense. So secularism is in reality a guiding principle only as an expedient that helps a politician succeed in carrying out acts of balancing all the time. It of course depends on what kind of ‘balance’ a politician is aiming at. I am writing this article just to illustrate what seems a trivial or ignorable feature of our political system is instead rather central to it. According to a number of reports, recently when the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Ayodhya and offered his prayers at the Hanuman Garhi, he promptly followed it up with a visit to the local madrasa in Jaunpur and shared lunch with the students and the clerics. Of course these trips must be carefully preplanned but the sequence of the two events marks what may be the core political instinct of public figures in our country, namely to take turns at reassuring or placating the opposing sides, in this case the two mega-communities of Hindus and Muslims in the region of eastern Uttar Pradesh. This however is how politicians all over the world behave and may be one of the commonest features of a democratic political system. But hidden and unstated behind the acts is the attempt at placating the communal elements and the extreme margins on both the sides.
What seems rather benignly a balancing act and a habit of strategy may often amount to political endorsement and even the very opposite of a ‘balance’. It is now increasingly clear that both the main political parties, the BJP and the Congress and some others like Samajwadi Party in UP thrive on social disharmony and for that reason have a vital stake in it. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is really a matter of degrees, although that difference is of deep significance at this point in history when the BJP is gambling on unforeseen consolidation of Hindu votes and is increasingly willing to either target the Muslim voter or to altogether ignore him. Recently, the chronic communal malaise in the Muzaffarnagar district of western UP made it abundantly clear that SP depends very heavily on Hindu-Muslim polarization and would like to be seen as a bulwark against the BJP by the Muslim voter. All these may support my contention here that the so-called balancing act, whatever its aims does not really lead to a balance or some kind of homeostasis. The purpose is to sustain a desirable degree of confrontation between the two communities. The trouble is calibrating a desired degree of confrontation never works - disharmony can escalate into heavy tension and violence and go beyond the control of the politician. It is this perpetual state of simmer that allows the professional engineers of communal riots to have a riot on order and in many instances when the two communities enjoy great mutual harmony, the riots become harder to organize or provoke and require much more perseverance. While Rahul Gandhi’s act of alternating between the Hindu and Muslim poles somewhat harmless, the recent move by the Haryana government to check samples of Biryani from restaurants is however a clear act of provocation towards the Muslims in the state and elsewhere. It has even brought a new phrase into existence – ‘beef-policing’. The Haryana drive is aimed specifically at the Mewat, a region of Haryana least developed but also known for a large Muslim population and a history of high levels of uninhibited mingling among the two communities. Bhagwandas Morwal, a Hindi novelist friend from Mewat known for writings based on the region has put up a series of Facebook posts in the past few days alleging a conspiracy to upset the amity between the two communities in a region with almost no history of mutual strife. Clearly, the ruling party has decided that targeting the Muslims is the only way to muster the support of the larger Hindu segments, bringing them under a common political roof. This is a gamble of a high order unlikely to succeed and has already backfired in a number of instances. But the problem is the Congress party is neither in a position nor willing to face the BJP frontally on the issue, fearing the loss of the Hindu voter, thus making itself a prisoner of a dilemma that it cannot resolve.
This in brief is where our national politics stands with significant regional variations. If parties like AAP and JD[U] or Laloo Yadav’s RJD are able to challenge the might of the BJP on a limited scale with various degrees of success, it is only because unlike the Congress they are sufficiently bold in their rhetoric and are not burdened with a guilty conscience and a flawed historical track record.