This week, President Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian head of State or government to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism (or Jewish nationalism), in Israel. It was a momentous occasion in the history of both countries. At home, proponents of Hindutva (or Hindu nationalism) threatened to run India’s bilateral relationship with Pakistan aground, first by forcing the cancellation of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concerts in Mumbai and Pune and later by blackening the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni who was to moderate a discussion after the launch, also in Mumbai, of former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book, “Neither A Hawk Nor A Dove”. Incidentally, around the time President Mukherjee was laying a wreath at Mount Herzl, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray was getting ready to felicitate the six Shiv Sainiks who allegedly threw black paint on Kulkarni.
For reasons that need not detain us, Zionism and its consequences for West Asia and beyond has been the subject of intense debate and research for over the past century and more. Just as the implications of Zionism continue to unfold, the “extremely sad” lynching of Mohd Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, to quote Prime Minister Narendra Modi from an interview he gave to Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika, and the “unfortunate” cancellation of Ghulam Ali’s concerts as a consequence of unbridled Hindutva continue to animate discussions, in cities as far and wide as New Delhi and New York, about where India is headed.
That a party and its leadership which places a premium on optics feels emboldened to conspire with their silence even at the risk of putting off some of those who have tended to give them the benefit of the doubt in the past or who might have dismissed their detractors as alarmists should tell you something about the challenge at hand for the liberal-minded. That those seeking to reclaim the liberal space in India should find themselves in a similar predicament as, or worse off than, their Pakistani counterparts is even more unfortunate, given both countries’ respective trajectories post-Partition. That the contemporary discourse in India bears resemblance to that in Pakistan can be had from an Ayesha Siddiqa column published by The Friday Times in which she contests the notion that liberals are anti-nationals or have no influence on setting social and political trends. Siddiqa writes, “… the contestation remains as to what kind of state it was meant to be and how it should grow. Broadly speaking, the issue with the liberals is not the use of religion but that the state must not use it politically to then excommunicate some citizens. The emphasis is on pluralism so that people can talk to each other.”
To borrow an analogy from cricket, you don’t tinker with a winning combination or formula. That is what the BJP under Modi seems to believe as it goes about pursuing its agenda with an almost messianic zeal, unmindful of its consequences. But, in politics, as in cricket, the law of diminishing returns will kick in sooner than later but by then, hopefully, India and the idea of it would not be beyond redemption. As a former BJP ideologue KN Govindacharya told this columnist some time ago, the party today is at risk of turning into an electoral machine. “Just winning election or numbers is not the end of the road,” says Govindacharya. “The State is supposed to protect those who can’t protect themselves. So I see that in this respect, more sensitivity is required by all parties, including the ruling party.”
BJP patriarch LK Advani, who has maintained a studious silence over the past year, has let it be known that democracy must provide room for tolerance and all kinds of views. “In the last few days,” Advani says, “there are these signs[…] where any person or any point of view is not acceptable, then you resort to violence or turn intolerant towards them”.
One only hopes that the Modi government, riding high on its recent electoral successes, resists the temptation to resort to victor’s justice. Otherwise, it will be reduced to a one issue government. A one-trick pony!