POLITICS

Why Secularism Is The Real Loser In Uttar Pradesh

Come to think of it, 'sabka saath/sabka vikaas' could have been the slogan of a truly secular party.

21/03/2017 1:43 PM IST | Updated 21/03/2017 2:10 PM IST
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
A Sadhu, or Hindu holy man shows his ink marked finger after voting during the state assembly election, in the town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress will introspect.

Raj Babbar has already led a day-long review of its electoral debacle in Uttar Pradesh, where party leaders deliberated about the reasons behind its great defeat. A national-level review will also happen when Rahul Gandhi returns.

Already, the party has been trotting out some reasons, as reported by the Times of India.

The Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance was announced too late and not all SP leaders were on board. As many as 22 candidates from both Congress and Samajwadi Party were contesting from as many seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) failed to hold on to its votebank which was gobbled up by the BJP.

At some point, if this is truly introspection, the party needs to look not outside but at itself. And not just at its leader.

Prashant Kishor, the electoral miracle-worker, failed to deliver.

At some point, if this is truly introspection, the party needs to look not outside but at itself. And not just at its leader. There is a crisis confronting the Congress that's bigger than Rahul Gandhi. It's a crisis of secularism. It has allowed the word itself to lose meaning over the years because it has increasingly paid little more than lip service to it. Now, it is facing the consequences in its own diminishing relevance as it struggles to define what it stands for as a party.

"We should work on fighting the perception that secularism means minority appeasement," a senior party leader tells the Telegraph.

There is a crisis confronting the Congress that's bigger than Rahul Gandhi. It's a crisis of secularism.

While some in the Congress are hoping that Yogi Adityanath is so uncontrollable and vitriolic he will soon combust, a former MP says, "Yogi symbolized the anger against Muslim appeasement. And Yogi will also tighten law and order, curb corruption and enhance the BJP's appeal beyond specific castes." That should worry not just the Congress but the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party which relied on caste and religious identities for their base.

Pawan Kumar / Reuters
India?s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yogi Adityanath (C) is offered sweets after he was elected as Chief Minister of India?s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, during the party lawmakers' meeting in Lucknow, India March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

Put together, the quotes reveal the sorry state of secularism in the popular narrative.

It suggests that law and order problems and tolerance of corruption plaguing the state are somehow linked to minority (or votebank) appeasement. Giving up on the Nehruvian idea of secularism to crack down on corruption or law and order breakdowns is a tempting, and as the BJP has shown, an election-winning idea. Now, if no riots break out under Yogi Adityanath it would be seen as an achievement. No one will ask whether it also means that jittery minorities feel like second class citizens in their own country.

In a thought-provoking piece in Scroll, Harsh Mander argues that Yogi Adityanath is as much a creation of the so-called secular parties as he is of RSS and Hindutva politics. He writes that secularism is no longer an "article of faith" that should rise above petty electoral considerations. Instead it has become either "treating Muslim minorities as a hapless, powerless dependent client population whose votes can be taken for granted at election time and forgotten for the rest" or it is a "selective opportunistic policy" that is played with a "continuous timid eye fixed on not upsetting majoritarian communal sentiment."

CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images
In this photograph taken on September 1, 2014, displaced Muslim villager Sanjida Ali holds a child as she speaks at a Muslim relief camp in Muzaffarnagar.

As proof, he shows how two-faced the Samajwadi Party was in dealing with the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots. There was little presence of the state in the relief camps and they paid five lakh rupees to those uprooted by the violence as long as they promised not to return home. Thus, they did something that did not happen even in Gujarat post-2002 — they incentivised a communal separation instead of trying to repair and rebuild relations. Mander conjectures, that the Samajwadi Party hoped, just like the BJP, to benefit electorally from polarisation.

Thus secularism is merely being seen as building different votebanks with different rules. A small example is telling. In Kolkata for years, I have heard many people, certainly not RSS/BJP supporters, complain that young men ride without helmets in some Muslim areas of town, often three to a bike with reckless impunity. When police pull someone over in other parts of the city for riding without helmets or not wearing a seatbelt, that licence is noticed and remarked upon.

It's an almost insignificant example and the people noticing it are not communal bigots who want to drive Muslims out, but it is resented. That resentment feeds into a narrative that equates secularism with appeasement and pandering.

The Congress has a long history of running with hares and hunting with hounds.

The Congress clearly has feet of clay even as it tries to be the great champion of secularism. No one will forget that it was Rajiv Gandhi's government that reversed Shah Bano's right to alimony under pressure from Muslim clerics. The Shah Bano case helped the Ayodhya movement gain momentum.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
1993 Bombay Riots after Ayodhya Babri Masjid demolition (Photo by Soumitra Ghosh\Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Congress also endorsed the Ram Mandir shilanyas at Ayodhya by the VHP, declaring the site of the foundation-stone laying as undisputed land. Moreover, Rajiv Gandhi famously threw in an unscripted reference to "Ram Rajya" in his speech in Faizabad. The Congress has a long history of running with hares and hunting with hounds. They considered secularists as just another votebank with few viable national options other than Nehru's and Gandhis' party.

In her book The Unquiet Land, Barkha Dutt points out that some of the worst communal conflagrations in India have been in states under Congress rule. Even worse, in most cases the perpetrators walked scot-free as when 16 policemen accused in the 1987 Hashimpura massacre — where young Muslim men in Meerut were rounded up, allegedly by personnel of the Provinicial Armed Constabulary, shot and dumped in water canals — were all acquitted.

Something more dangerous happened in Uttar Pradesh. It excused, legitimized and eventually rewarded the incendiary rhetoric of a Yogi Adityanath.

And, of course there were the Sikh massacres of 1984. "If the guilty of 1984 had been punished, we wouldn't have seen the riots in Mumbai in 1993 and the riots in Gujarat in 2002. Be prepared for it to keep happening," AAP leader HS Phoolka told the BBC.

In politics, the fortunes of parties ebb and flow. That's only to be expected. Something more dangerous happened in Uttar Pradesh. It excused, legitimised and eventually rewarded the incendiary rhetoric of a Yogi Adityanath. It's foolish to think that the election was won by cunning manipulation of electronic voting machines, as Mayawati wants to think, or by fake news circulated through WhatsApp forwards. Those fake stories were believed because it fed into an already simmering resentment. Secularism did not lose the elections in UP. It was already a loser because the idea of secularism had become moth-eaten, threadbare and incredibly vitiated by many of its own standard bearers.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to people during his road show on March 5, 2017 in Varanasi, India.

The Congress now says the development mask has been stripped off the BJP and RSS's Hindutva agenda.

"Even BJP sympathizers are appalled. An insult to all those people who are befooled into voting for 'sabka saath/sabka vikas' and development," huffs party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi. But come to think of it, sabka saath/sabka vikaas could have been the slogan of a truly secular party. That Narendra Modi was able to claim it without much of a fight says a lot about the sorry plight of secularism.

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