One of the BJP’s most powerful political messages over the past 3 decades has been its critique of the Congress’ model of secularism, criticism that was, incidentally, first bought up more than 6 decades ago by Jinnah
Over the past 3 decades or so, the BJP has emerged as the Congress’ most formidable opponent, one that, if the “pundits” are to be believed, is going to reduce the Congress to tatters in the coming election.
As the Congress’ opposing party, however, the BJP’s differentiation on economic matters has been rather thin, even confusing. In practise both parties are mostly crony-capitalistic and even the BJP often indulges in the odd bit of protectionist rhetoric (such as its opposition to retail FDI) when it suits its electoral compulsions, much as the Congress does. A much sharper difference is perceived, though, on matters of culture, religion and identity. In fact, right from its establishment as a party of any relevance in the second half of the 80s, the BJP has consistently attacked the Congress’ brand of secularism best captured using Advani’s memorable coinage, “pseudo-secularism”.
Congress secularism, invented by Gandhi and secured in independent India by Nehru, is rather different from the European concept on which it is supposedly based. In the West, secularism means a separation of the Church and the State, a model which is redundant in India given that neither of India’s two major religions have anything like a centralised church in the first place. In India, the term has, therefore, come to mean a political ideology or party to which people of multiple religions subscribe. A good synonymous, if clunky, phrase would be, “multi-religious big tent”. So the Congress, which has supporters from all of India’s religions is “secular”. The SP, BSP, TMC, Left, supported by both Hindus and Muslims are all largely “secular”. The BJP, Akali Dal or Shiv Sena are, on the other hand, not “secular” given that their support base is mono-religious—which may explain why the 3 parties have steadfastly stuck together as part of the NDA since 1998, even as other “secular” parties have come and gone. This definition also explains why, uniquely in Indian English, the word “communal” (an otherwise harmless adjectival form of the word “community”) is used as an antonym for “secular”.
Taking up from where Advani left off, Modi has, throughout his 2014 campaign, kept up the heat on the Congress with respect to its practise of “secularism”, which it characterises as nothing but a charade. For example, when asked why he refused to wear headgear commonly associated with Muslims, Modi retorted saying, “I cannot fool people by posing for photographs wearing a cap” clearly taking a dig at the Congress (ironically, party president Rajnath Singh has been photographed in a dargah in full-blown “Muslim” attire, as he battles it out in Lucknow, showing that Congress Secularism is, maybe, hardier than Modi might think).
What is most interesting is that this is not the first time the Congress has been attacked for supposedly fooling people using secularism and utilising it for its narrow political purposes. The original critic of Congress Secularism, one whose denunciation significantly mirrors the BJP's own was, like the BJP PM candidate, also a Gujarati, but from Bombay: Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
While till the 30s, Jinnah had tried to work with the Congress, most of his overtures had been rebuffed. In the 40s, therefore, Jinnah built himself up as a Muslim politician, emphasising his position as a leader of the community and offering to work out a political compromise with the Congress on the basis of communal identity. Consequently, the Congress were now, in a mirror to his Muslim politics, painted as a “Hindu party”. In January, 1940, just two months before the Lahore Resolution, Jinnah wrote an article criticising the wholesale import of western political institutions into India (mirrored in many ways by the BJP's protestations at the import of secularism from Europe) and remarked that “two nations who both must share the governance of their common motherland” so that “India may take its place amongst the great nations of the world”. The implication, of course, being that he led one community or nation, the Muslims, and the Congress represented the other, the Hindus, rather than, as it claimed, all of India.
This position was, more or less, to define Jinnah’s politics for the next decade. And like Modi does now, it was now crucial to portray the Congress’ secularism as an attempt to “fool” people and try and repudiate the party’s claim to represent Muslims, since the League now sought to be the sole spokesman of the Indian Muslim.
Jinnah, thus, repeatedly cast the Congress as a “Hindu body” and Gandhi as a “Hindu leader”. The crux of this strategy can be seen in the trying year of 1946, as the Congress and League manoeuvred to form an interim government as per the June 16 statement of the Cabinet Mission. Of the many conditions Jinnah put for the League to join the government, none was more important to him that the League, as the “sole spokesman” of India’s Muslims, get to nominate all the Muslim members of the cabinet, a claim that the Congress, as a “secular party”, rejected. (In the end the Congress did not give in and the League was forced to join the government without any of its demands being met)
However, it must be asked, what makes this rather amazing coincidence work? Two parties, ostensibly at opposite ends of the spectrum, separated by 6 decades agreeing so closely on the issue of Congress secularism (or lack of it)—an unlikely concurrence if there ever was one.
The most obvious answer is that both the League and the BJP agree because the criticism is, to a large extent, valid. Pre-independence, while the Congress claimed to be “secular” and to, therefore, speak for Muslims, it did not really have any actual Muslim support after the Non-Cooperation/Khilafat movement of 1920. By the time the Congress decided to launch the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930), it had few Muslims backers and the action was seen as a “a movement in which the Muslims were not likely to figure prominently” (Prelude to Partition, David Page). Given this lack of cross-communal participation, both the Civil Disobedience Movement and, later on, the Quit India movement often triggered off widespread rioting, further alienating Muslims from the Congress. As a result of this, the Congress rarely won seats reserved for Muslims; in fact its prospects were so poor that it mostly didn’t even bother to contest. For example, in the 1937 provincial elections in UP, the Congress only contested 9 out of 66 Muslim seats and lost all. In Bombay state it contested only 2 out of 30 and, again, lost both. This, remember, was without even any “Pakistan” issue in the fray. In 1946, its results were even poorer: for the central legislature, the Congress failed to win a single Muslim seat and attracted a mere 1.3% of the Muslim vote. To quote former BJP leader, Jaswant Singh from his book “Jinnah”:
“This was really spurious reasoning, simply because the party called itself secular, therefore it was national and because of this self-adopted nomenclature of national, it was automatically representative of all Indians, regardless of what the election results demonstrated does not carry any conviction. The idea of ‘secularism’, just the idea not the fact, thereafter became more important than any empirical reality.”
It is using this exact same handle that the BJP now attacks the Congress: of using “just the idea not the fact” of secularism. In 1995, therefore, Advani argued that "secularism is only a euphemism for vote-bank politics. They are not concerned with the welfare of the so-called minorities. Their only interest is: the minority vote", a point that is difficult to disagree with.
However, while both Jinnah and the BJP might have identified legitimate flaws in the Congress model, both failed in proposing valid alternatives as well. The League's “poisonous Two-Nation Theory” (an uncharacteristically strong phrase used by Noorani) was a signal disaster both for Hindu-Muslim relations (pre and post 1947) as well as Jinnah's own political plans of using it as a ”bargaining counter" in order to get a greater share of power. In the end, the Congress rejected attempts such as the Cabinet Mission statement of 16 May 1946 which would share power within a united India and Jinnah was forced to accept Partition based on a plan drawn up by the Congress.
The BJP, on the other hand, in order to counter the Congress’ secularism went entirely in the opposite direction and looked directly to theology as a political stepping stone. Its rise to prominence was driven by the somewhat otherworldly question of the exact birthplace of the Hindu god, Ram. In its stronghold, Gujarat, the growth of the BJP has been especially disastrous for the minorities. Given the 2002 Pogrom as well as totalitarian laws such as the Disturbed Areas Act (enacted in its current form by the Modi government in 2009 making religious segregation official government policy) and the Freedom of Religion Act (makes the personal act of religious conversion contingent on permission from the government) it seems, even in the case of the BJP, the cure is worse than the disease.
The one difference between the two, though, is that the Muslim League opposed the Congress from a position of weakness and, as mentioned earlier, in the end had to accept a Congress-British settlement in which it has little say. The BJP, the way things are going, actually looks to now become more powerful than the Congress and seems in no mood for any compromise. The Grand Old Party had successfully fought off the challenge to its model of secularism in 1947. Chances of an encore, though, do look rather slim.
First published on NewsYaps