When the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign began to gather momentum from 1989 onwards, Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart LK Advani took to engaging in lexical warfare over the term secularism. He said secularism in India implied non-BJP parties pandering to the religious minorities, particularly Muslims. By contrast, those who articulate Hindu grievances and seek their redressal are dubbed communal. Extending his argument further, Advani said secularism in India is nothing more than “pseudo-secularism”, a term which soon crept into the writings of journalists. Thereafter, the terms secular and secularism began to appear within inverted quotation marks, thus suggesting that such concepts did not exist in reality.
In 1989, the BJP was not even in the sniffing distance of power. Yet the party’s decision to invoke Ram to lay claims to the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya sparked an outcry that it was subverting the principle of secularism, which was defined during the national movement, among other things, as providing protection to religious minorities and guaranteeing their rights. This was the moral barrier that the BJP required to surmount in order to become a contender to power. Advani did so by replacing the term secularism with pseudo-secularism. India’s alleged political culture of pseudo-secularism became a justification to demonise and even mistreat Muslims. This strategy has, over three decades, enabled the BJP to become India’s most dominant political party.
It is, therefore, surprising why Prime Minister Narendra Modi harked back to the old debate on secularism in his speech on the 41st foundation day of the BJP. Resorting to largely forgotten Advani-speak, Modi questioned the yardsticks employed to label parties as secular and communal. Modi said secularism in India implies framing policies for a few to further or consolidate their votebank. This was his way of accusing the Opposition of being pro-Muslim. Modi went on, as only he can: “Those who frame policies for all, who speak for the rights of everyone, who work for everyone, they are dubbed communal.” But Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishwas—Modi’s very own slogan—has begun to “change these definitions”, that is of secularism and communalism, he declared.
Before readers exclaim, “Oh, Really!” they should note how Modi has sought to change the frame of the debate outlined by Advani. In the 1990s, the BJP sought to portray the Hindus as a community ignored by political parties labelled secular. From this perspective, the Hindus were the victims of secularism. In 2021, the Opposition still panders to religious minorities, according to Modi. But it is he who has shown the correct path to secularism, with his model of governance that includes all.
It is not for anyone to question whether Modi’s idea of secularism also encompasses lynching Muslims, bashing up Christian priests and nuns on the suspicion of carrying out proselytisation, passing discriminatory laws on citizenship and making interfaith marriage inordinately difficult. Slogans rather than action demonstrate his government’s intent; deaths here or there are simply to be glossed over.
In power at the Centre for seven years now, it is extremely difficult for the BJP to argue that Hindus continue to be victims of secular politics. After all, they cannot be victims in the states comprising the Hindi heartland, where the BJP on its own or in coalition largely rules. By contrast, Hindus can be projected as victims in the Opposition-ruled states, as in Kerala and West Bengal, for instance. It is these states where the politics of votebank, according to the BJP, defines governance—and religious minorities are pampered. It follows that the definitions of secularism and communalism would be irrevocably changed only after the ruling parties in different states are voted out. The grim prospect of the BJP uprooting the Opposition from states has prompted the secular brigade to engage in a conspiracy of crafting narratives to weaken the Modi government—or so the Prime Minister thinks.
This has Modi to say that the Opposition spread rumours that the Citizenship Amendment Act would snatch the citizenship rights of Muslims, and that the three new farm laws and the labour codes are detrimental to the farmers and workers. “Imaginary fears are being created,” he said on the 41st foundation day of his party.
Indeed, Modi has harked back to the communal-secular debate of yore to ensure that the moral barrier to the subversion of secularism remains low, even as the contracting economy fans social discontent. Hindtuva is a telling weapon to supplant Opposition parties from power. However, Hindutva does not a tool of governance make. This is why Hindutva must be anchored in victimhood and insecurities spawned by conspiracies imagined by its votaries.
It is scarcely surprising that after speaking on the BJP’s foundation day, Modi flew to West Bengal where he played victim-victim. Referring to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s warning to Muslims that they should not split their votes, Modi said, “I don’t know if Didi [Banerjee] has got notices from the Election Commission. But had I said all Hindus must unite and vote for the BJP, the EC would have sent me eight to 10 notices.” Modi was ostensibly accusing Banerjee of resorting to communal politics and, at the same time, projecting himself as one against whom the entire world conspires, including the Election Commission, apart from subtly asking the Hindus to consolidate behind the BJP. There cannot be a bigger joke than that.
In May 2019, during the furious campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, Modi, speaking at a rally at Wardha, in Maharashtra, was stridently critical of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for contesting from Wayanad, Kerala. He said the Congress was “taking refuge in areas where the majority is in minority” and was “running away from majority-dominated areas.” At Latur, Maharashtra, Modi said, “I want to ask my first-time voters, can your first vote be dedicated to the soldiers who conducted the Balakot air strikes? Can your first vote be in the name of the martyrs who lost their lives in Pulwama?” In Nagpur, Maharashtra, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “And this Rahul baba, for the sake of his alliance, has gone to such a seat in Kerala where when a procession [by the Indian Union Muslim] is taken out, you cannot make out whether it is India or a Pakistan procession.”
These three speeches led to complaints being filed against Modi and Shah to the Election Commission, for violating the model code of conduct. The commission ruled in their favour, but the decision was not unanimous. One Election Commissioner dissented. He was subsequently hounded into leaving the Election Commission. Think of Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose penalty for threatening a Bodo leader was reduced because he apologised.
Even as the BJP claims to be a victim of secular politics, it goes around brazenly demonising Muslims. Forget the speeches of Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. Nothing can quite surpass the rhetoric of Trinamool Congress turncoat Suvendu Adhikari, who is contesting against Banerjee in Nandigram. In a speech on 29 March, Adhikari said, “If Begum [Banerjee] comes back to power, the state will turn into a mini Pakistan.” An account of his shrill rhetoric can be read here.
It would seem Modi and the BJP feel morally compelled to have communalism march in the dress of secularism. They must accuse others of “pseudo-secularism” to justify their communal politics. Really, they might as well play the game by its name.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.