It is well known that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) abhors secularism – the word and its meaning, connotation and significance – to an extent that it warped the word into “pseudo-secular” during LK Advani’s era and “sickular” in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s time as a term of insult or mockery for those with a different political ideology from that of the BJP. However, this must be the first time that a BJP man, Bhagat Singh Koshyari occupying constitutional office as the Governor of Maharashtra, used “secular” as a slur in his official communication. That too, in his letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
This is, however, not an accidental mistake or slip of the keyboard; it is intentional and deliberate. It is one more way to corner Thackeray, and through him, the Maharashtra government that will complete a year next month.
The Governor’s letter on Monday pointed out that Thackeray had needlessly extended the closure of places of worship though Delhi had opened temples on 8 June without any surge in Covid-19 cases, and that he had received three representations to reopen places of worship. He lamented it was ironic that the Thackeray government had allowed bars and restaurants to gradually reopen this month while “gods and goddesses have been condemned to remain in lockdown”, and remarked “I wonder whether you had a premonition to keep postponing the reopening of places of worship…or whether you have suddenly turned secular—a term you hated.”
Beyond the war of words
The letter, its language and references shocked many and set off a political row. Its tone is mocking, it uses secularism as a jibe. It is without a sense of decorum and formality usually reserved for exchanges between head of the state and head of the government; instead, it takes broad personal swipes and links a government decision to the chief minister’s Hindutva. It reads as if it was drafted by the well-oiled troll factory that passes off as BJP’s IT cell. In signing such a letter, Governor Koshyari dropped all pretence of holding a constitutional office.
Thackeray held nothing back in his reply written in Marathi. My government is definitely thinking of reopening places of worship but the concern for people’s health is greater, Thackeray said. “I don’t need a certificate of Hindutva from you,” he retorted. “Are you trying to say that opening religious places means Hindutva and not opening means secularism? Isn’t secularism a key component of the Constitution by which you took oath of office and secrecy as Governor?” The usually mild Thackeray seemed to say—Don’t Anger Me.
To call this a new low is pointless because what’s a low for a party that routinely shows little respect for the Constitution or the values enshrined in it. To term it “intemperate language”, as Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar pointed out to Modi in a letter yesterday, is to focus on the language and miss the intent of the Governor’s missive. To read this exchange merely as a war of words, as a few commentators have done, is to skirt the purpose of the slur.
The purpose is to trap Thackeray; to show his Hindutva as diluted, not genuine, and not as legitimate or authentic as the BJP’s – therefore not good enough. Thackeray swore by aggressive saffron till recently; the Shiv Sena supported the Babri Masjid demolition and cheered Ram temple construction. Governor Koshyari’s use of the secularism-Hindutva binary is not inadvertent; he has given voice to the BJP’s political intent and embraced it as his own. He wrote not as the Governor of Maharashtra, but as a BJP man. Ironically, he did not pen off a similar letter to Goa chief minister, BJP’s Pramod Sawant, to reopen places of worship there and mock his secularism. This isn’t the first time that a governor has been this politically biased but the men and women appointed to this office have rarely been this blatant and barefaced.
Governor as party man, party man as governor
It is no secret that the BJP has tried every trick in its book to delegitimise and unseat Thackeray’s government on one pretext or another, from Covid-19 mismanagement to actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide. The Governor could have legitimately questioned any of the moves of Thackeray’s government during the last seven months as Covid-19 cases galloped, but he picked the issue of reopening of places of worship, not coincidentally when BJP leaders across Maharashtra led demonstrations to various large temples seeking entry.
How and why did reopening places of worship—read only temples and not sites of worship of other religions—become critical in reopening the state’s economy and society, more important than resuming the suburban train system in Mumbai that impacts nearly eight million people? The more important question is why Governor Koshyari wrote legitimising and amplifying the BJP’s agenda, ticking off Thackeray for his secularism. This comes on the back of several issues that he has sparred with Thackeray on including the latter’s handling of Kangana Ranaut’s episode last month.
Koshyari, a RSS veteran, was once the BJP’s national vice president and its chief minister in Uttarakhand. He also served terms as Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha MP, the latter ended in May 2019. Four months later, he was appointed governor of Maharashtra with additional charge as governor of Goa.
His tenure is remembered for the secret and unconstitutional swearing-in of BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister last year though the BJP did not have majority. That “government” lasted less than 80 hours before the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi—formed by Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress—demonstrated its majority and he had to administer the oath of office to Thackeray. The BJP has tried every trick in its book to overthrow the government by means fair or foul. Its senior-most leaders such as former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis have likened the MVA government to a three-wheeler rickshaw that’s unstable, unsteady and uncomfortable. Governor Koshyari probably believes this too.
There are unintended outcomes of this letter-exchange. One, the MVA has closed ranks. The usually recalcitrant Sharad Pawar hastily shot off a letter to Prime Minister Modi saying he was “shocked and surprised”—he also says “pained” at another place—which is a signal to the BJP that he will not allow its machinations to upset Thackeray. Pawar remarked that the Governor’s letter had “intemperate language” and called the entire episode “an erosion of standards of conduct by the high constitutional office”.
Pawar pointed out to Modi that the word “secular” is in the very preamble of the Constitution and it “equates and shields all religions, hence the chair of the chief minister must uphold such tenets of the Constitution”. He backed Thackeray all the way—from his reply, its wide dissemination in the media, decision to defer reopening places of worship. The Congress, typically, has said little so far.
Two, the letter row has brought Thackeray sympathy and given him room for manoeuvre at a time he seemed weighed down by the huge pile of issues his government must deliver on. Thackeray has voiced his displeasure in the past that Governor Koshyari has consistently given audience to “anti-government” people; he cited that the three representations to reopen temples were from BJP people. Before ticking off Thackeray on actor Kangana Ranaut’s episode, Governor Koshyari twice rejected proposals to nominate him to the state legislative council, questioned him on his decision to cancel/postpone university exams, and so on.
Three, the letter row has pushed Thackeray to commit to secularism on record—a move far removed from what his father would have preferred and he would have been uncomfortable with. As chief minister, he is committed to upholding secularism which is de rigueur; as Shiv Sena president, he swears by “his Hindutva”. And he does not see the contradiction. This delicate balance, not sustainable and not for long, is where the BJP has been trying to drive a wedge.
Governor Koshyari ill-advisedly and unfortunately lent it heft without a care for the office he holds. For the BJP, which has brought constitutional offices under a cloud, what could be wrong with that?
Smruti Koppikar is an independent award-winning journalist and columnist, who writes on politics, cities, gender and the media. The views are personal.