That “change is the only constant” is an eternal principle as valid in the theoretical and conceptual world as it is in the realm of everyday existence. Change manifests itself in two ways. Most of the time, when situations change, people mould themselves accordingly. This is what Charles Darwin called “survival of the fittest”. But there are occasions when some people create situations that force others to change.
This has been seen in India’s political history as well. In 1947, for instance, parliamentary democracy, which originated in the West, was introduced into the Indian polity by people who had no prior experience of such a system. Another great endeavour of the visionary leadership of the time was to draft the Constitution with ‘secularism’ as one of its basic tenets. In the early years of Independent India, uncertainty loomed over the future of these steps. Yet, for 67 years, secularism worked fairly well with the country’s democratic apparatus largely managing to keep religion at a distance from politics.
However, a new era seems to have dawned in Indian politics. A new kind of leadership has emerged that has redefined the established beliefs and norms. It is widely believed that one of the reasons for the BJP’s magnificent victory in the General Election was that it rivals were perceived to be pro-Muslim. This perception polarised a large section of Hindus in favour of the BJP. In the post-poll scenario, the non-BJP camp appears to be adopting an attitude that was impossible to imagine six months ago. For instance, the Congress has issued orders to all its state units to celebrate every Hindu festival. The Samajwadi Party has also turned a cold shoulder to the Muslim community and sidelined leaders like Azam Khan. In the south, a top leader of the DMK sent out greetings on Ganesh Chaturthi this year, something that was unthinkable in Dravidian political circles earlier.
Clearly, the tide is turning in India’s political history. “This is a new chapter in Indian politics. The old established norms are collapsing and new ones are taking their place,” says senior Hindi journalist Ram Bahadur Rai.
There is not a single Muslim among the BJP’s 282 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Perhaps, this has prompted the other political parties to try and ‘readjust’ their ideologies and strategies. This is a signal that the country will no longer be run on norms established prior to 16 May. “It is true that India is a religious country. But this form of religion-based politics is new,” says senior political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. “Not even during the Ram Mandir movement had the other parties changed so much. The amalgamation of religion with a majoritarian ideology has set a dangerous trend. The huge majority of illiterate and poor people in the country need to wake up to this threat well in time.”
Let us first look at the changing attitude in the country’s oldest party, the Congress. On 14 August, three days before Janmashtami, the party’s Delhi unit announced that it would celebrate the festival. A bhajan recital was also organised. State Congress leaders sent an invitation to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Though Rahul stayed away from the function, it was held with much fanfare. This was done perhaps in response to the BJP’s accusation that the Congress indulged in the appeasement of Muslims. Certain events, such as the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi just before the General Election and then appealing to Muslims to vote for the party, gave the BJP enough ammunition to drive home the point.
Until now, the only large-scale celebration held at the Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road other than the birth and death anniversaries of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was the iftar party during Ramzan. “We need to change this. That is why we have decided to celebrate other festivals as well. We want to send out a clear message to non-Muslims that the Congress respects all faiths,” says a senior party leader.
Other party units of Congress have begun following the example of the Delhi Congress. On 29 August, the chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit, Arun Yadav, got an idol of Lord Ganesha installed at the party headquarters in Bhopal and organised prayers on Ganesha Chaturthi. This had never happened before and soon all the district offices across the state joined the race to install Ganesha idols.
However, not all partymen were happy with Yadav’s initiative. Protesting against the “saffronisation” of the party, Akbar Baig, former secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, distributed biryani and sweets on the occasion of Bakra Eid. He said that since the Congress is a secular party, if Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated, so must Bakra Eid.
“The 1980s and ’90s saw a rapid Congress-isation of the BJP. But the BJP-isation of the Congress in recent times has been even more rapid,” says Thakurta. “When the BJP and the RSS linked Hindutva to development, the Congress, too, started doing the same surreptitiously.”
Another reason behind this recent transformation in the Congress’ outlook is perhaps the AK Antony report assessing the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha. In the report, the former defence minister pointed out that one of the main reasons behind the party’s electoral debacle was its image of being pro-Muslim.
“The ideology of the BJP and the RSS is impacting the thinking of other political parties,” says Professor Tulsi Ram of the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “The BJP propagates communalism in the name of nationalism. Other political parties fear that if they keep vouching for secularism, it might damage their electoral prospects. Therefore, they are shifting from their previous stand. But they will end up weaker in the long run. No one can beat the RSS in communalism and nationalism. These are dangerous times and there is a need to hold on to secularism even more strongly.”
The trend has not left the regional parties untouched. Following the drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls, the Samajwadi Party has taken measures that show it is trying to change its worldview. Its prominent Muslim face, Azam Khan, has been sidelined. Khan had so far been projected by the party as its most vocal representative of the minority community. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, Khan had missed no opportunity to add to the communally vitiated environment in Uttar Pradesh. After the results, the party has almost shunned him. He is no longer seen at the party’s important meetings. Moreover, party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav is trying to revive ties with Khan’s staunch opponent Amar Singh.
Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is doing his part to counter the charges of Muslim appeasement against the party. He has announced a scheme worth crores for the beautification of the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Launching such a project in the holy city, where the MLA is not from the Samajwadi Party, has its own political significance.
The winds of change have affected the MLAs and MPs of the Samajwadi Party at the individual level as well. Take Ayodhya MLA Tej Narayan Pandey alias Pawan Pandey, for instance. After the Lok Sabha polls, Pandey kicked off a series of developmental activities that, on closer scrutiny, seem to serve the Hindu cause. With Ayodhya’s annual Sawan Mela, Ram Vivah Mela and Ramayana Mela in mind, he has proposed the construction of a Satsang Bhavan with a seating capacity for 500 people. He has also laid the foundation stone for a gate named after Lord Ram in Ayodhya’s Naya Ghat at an estimated cost of Rs 65 lakh.
“The chief minister has supported and encouraged me. He has also promised to build an auditorium in Ayodhya with a seating capacity for 5,000 people,” he says.
Winds of change are also blowing in the southern states. On 29 August, MK Stalin, the political heir-apparent and son of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, sent out Ganesh Chaturthi greetings to the people of Tamil Nadu on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook post garnered 2,700 likes and 200 comments. It was the first time that a leader of the DMK, a party founded on the staunchly anti-Brahminical ideology of Periyar EV Ramasamy, had extended greetings on any Hindu festival. Karunanidhi has always ridiculed all sanatana dharma traditions.
Did Stalin’s post reflect a change in the ideological stance of the DMK after the party drew a blank in the Lok Sabha polls? On the evening of 29 August, the party issued a clarification that the posts were made by mistake and that it remained firm in its ideology. The posts were deleted from both the social media sites and the party-backed Kalaignar TV featured a programme on the “futility” of Ganesh Chaturthi that very evening.
How should this transformation in the political parties be understood? Is it mere opportunism or is there something more to it? “It is an established truth that the ruling party determines the political culture of the country to a large extent,” says Ram Bahadur Rai. Tulsi Ram says that the BJP’s win has made communalism a “part of the system”. “Modi came to power because the other parties have been lax in their commitment to secularism,” he says.
It is true that the changed attitude of political parties has much to do with the landslide victory of the BJP under Modi. But ideological diversity is essential for a vibrant democracy. Sooner or later, the parties will be forced to realise how damaging imitation can prove to be.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman