Should future historians debate precisely when the project of Nehruvian secularism breathed its last, their shortlist will surely include this date: May 23, 2019.
Until election results poured in that day, BJP’s stunning victory five years earlier could be viewed as an aberration, the proverbial black swan event in Indian politics. Many pundits had predicted a second term as prime minister for Narendra Modi, but the consensus view said his party would win fewer seats than before. To defy this prognostication was to defy political history. No prime minister had won back-to-back single party majorities since Indira Gandhi in 1971.
On the evening of his triumph, Modi made a speech to the delirious party faithful that hinted at the scale of social transformation at hand. “In this election, no party had the guts to confuse the people by donning the niqab of secularism,” he said, a metaphorical reference to the face veil worn by some orthodox Muslim women. The subtext was clear: In the past, political parties had pandered to Islamic orthodoxy in the name of secularism. That era was now over.
Conservative parties across the world – often rooted in tradition and a sense of pride in the majority culture – find it harder than leftists steeped in universalism to accommodate religious and racial diversity. But even with this caveat in mind BJP stands out. Roughly every eighth Indian is a Muslim, but not one of the ruling party’s 303 directly elected members of the Lok Sabha belongs to the community. In this dispensation it comes as no surprise that, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the sole Muslim in the Cabinet, is responsible only for minority affairs.
If you ask people in BJP about their party’s lack of religious diversity, the responses usually come in two flavours. “The Muslims must also meet us halfway,” said a Member of Parliament. His case: Since Muslims rarely vote for BJP it’s unrealistic to expect greater representation for the community in the party.
Another party leader told me India needed a break from its endless public debate about pluralism and minority rights. As his argument went, the model that most Indian parties tried since Independence – essentially bending over backward to please the most orthodox elements of Muslim society – had failed. Regular people had more pressing issues to worry about than minority representation. Under Modi and Amit Shah, BJP had the right to declare a moratorium on the question for now.
I’ve argued before that over the years India’s version of secularism – grounded in group identity rather than individual rights – had come to resemble a piece of outmoded software.
In 1950, with the trauma of Partition still fresh, it made sense to embrace the idea that Muslims were entitled to separate laws in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, and that any social reform in the community could only come from within. But with each passing decade this 19th century approach to secularism made less and less sense. At least in part, BJP’s rise can be attributed to the failure of secularists to make the case that they had a better model to manage religious diversity in the 21st century than their opponents.
That said, it’s one thing to point out that the old model has run its course, quite another to believe that it requires no replacement. No diverse country enjoys the luxury of hitting the snooze button on questions of how best to manage that diversity. For the Indian Right, picking holes in the left liberal approach to pluralism – hypocritical, sentimental, and at times blind to extremism – was the easy part. Coming up with an alternative will be much harder.
For BJP, in particular, three habits of mind stand in the way of adopting a sensible approach to pluralism closer to that of the Conservative Party in Britain than to far right ethno-nationalist parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz. First, neither the Sangh Parivar nor BJP have shown either the ability or the inclination to weed out extremists in their own ranks. Exhibit A: Sending terrorism accused Pragya Singh Thakur to Parliament.
Second, many Hindu nationalists appear to blur the line between caring about history and being unhealthily obsessed with the past. Bluntly put, people keen on settling 16th century grudges in the 21st century don’t make the best stewards of diversity. There’s nothing wrong with taking a dim view of Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan if that’s your thing. The problem arises when you start imagining that your Muslim neighbour owes you an explanation for them.
Lastly, for the most part discourse on the Indian Right fails to distinguish – clearly and unequivocally – between a minority of Islamist extremists and the vast majority of peaceful Muslims. Clubbing them together makes no sense.
These prejudices may be difficult to overcome, but it’s not inconceivable that they will be transcended one day. In Britain, for instance, most Muslims prefer Labour to the Conservatives. But it’s the Conservatives – the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher – who propelled Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, to the home minister’s office.
If it’s to run the country successfully, BJP will have to come to terms with the reality of Indian diversity. The sooner it starts grappling seriously with the question, the better it is for everyone.
Wanted: A new Indian secularism – Instead of rejecting religious pluralism the Indian Right needs to find a way to embrace it – Times of India