POLITICS

Rajnath's Isolation Is A Reminder That BJP Doesn't Take Kindly To Secular Epiphanies

His ‘Kashmiriyat’ comment could work against him, if BJP history is anything to go by.

13/07/2017 1:40 PM IST | Updated 13/07/2017 3:38 PM IST
Utpal Baruah / Reuters

Every now and then, there dawns an epiphany of "secularism" on certain BJP leaders. Those who have had the flash rued the moment because thereafter their careers turned precarious. When the 2002 Gujarat violence started to erode his image and that of the NDA government he helmed, the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee broke his silence and reminded Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, in his presence at a public function that elected heads must adhere to "raj dharma" (the morality of governance). Vajpayee's counsel fell like water off a duck's back. Months later, he stood isolated in the BJP that voted decisively in favour of Modi's continuance in office in a national executive meet at Panaji in April 2003. Vajpayee lost his moral and political authority on that day.

In 2005, LK Advani lauded Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, while experiencing an emotional high when he visited the Quaid-e-Azam's mausoleum in Karachi. He lost the halo as an "avatar" of Rama he had worn around him since 1989 as the spearhead of the Ayodhya temple campaign.

To Hindu fundamentalists, terms like "Kashmiriyat"... connote a stream of multiculturalism and egalitarianism that is anathema to [their] brand of religious and social exclusivity...

Rajnath Singh, the Home Minister, might have had a manifestation of what it means to be "secular" when he took issue with a Hindu fanatical troll on Twitter after the killing of Amarnath pilgrims by terrorists last Monday. Singh's first statement on Twitter was faultlessly correct in line with the position he holds as the number two in the government's hierarchy. He noted that the attack was "cowardly and tragic", adding he was heartened to see the nation, including the Kashmir Valley, united against terrorism. "It shows the spirit of Kashmiriyat is very much alive," Rajnath remarked.

To Hindu fundamentalists, terms like "Kashmiriyat" and "Sufism" connote a stream of multiculturalism and egalitarianism that is anathema to the brand of religious and social exclusivity they pursue and practise. Expectedly Rajnath was denounced by those trolls who are regarded as Modi "bhakts". Notable among them was a lady who demanded that the Home Minister should "cull out" the terrorists before extolling Kashmiriyat.

Rajnath's plight was worsened by the fact that a line of thought leaders and opinion-moulders for long on the RSS-BJP's hit list such as Ramachandra Guha, Rana Ayyub and Omar Abdullah backed him unqualifiedly. The "secular-liberal" and "communal" polemics was at play on social media before Rajnath's tweet was unofficially explained away as an "expression of over-enthusiasm" by the "eager-beaver" team that manages his Twitter page. Apparently, the minister was not "briefed" fully about the offending tweet that triggered the face-off. In hindsight, the why and wherefore were necessary for Rajnath because not a single person in the BJP defended or explained the action, on or off record.

[A]n inopportune moment is the last thing a politician would want in the present moment, when the BJP cadre and leaders collectively celebrate the "Hindu identity"... To the party's rank-and-file, "secularism" is a bad word.

Rajnath can seek solace from the fact that while Vajpayee's "raj dharma" and Advani's Jinnah's moments swirled and seethed the BJP's inner power dynamics, his Kashmiriyat comment might pass without immediate implications. But it could well hammer home the message that an inopportune moment is the last thing a politician would want in the present moment, when the BJP cadre and leaders collectively celebrate the "Hindu identity", reinforced through the big wins chalked up in most of the elections held since 2014. To the party's rank-and-file, "secularism" is a bad word.

However, more than being "secular", Rajnath's articulations have been more nuanced than those of his peers even on potentially divisive matters. His anodyne statements have cushioned the blows dealt by some of the Centre's counter-offensive moves in say Kashmir and the bellicose justifications that came thereafter from senior ministers. Instance: when Kashmiri students were attacked in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, following the stone-pelting on security forces in the Valley, Rajnath issued an advisory to all chief ministers to ensure that the Kashmiris came to no harm.

Rajnath's stint in the Modi regime has been a mixed bag. He is on the government and BJP's apex policy and decision-making panels but in the early days of the government, it was conveyed that he would not have his way in appointing his staff. The briefs that were handed to him were sometimes ambiguous and the reasons were unclear. Shortly after the BJP won UP, it began the spadework in West Bengal. Rajnath was assigned to start the BJP's campaign. Known to be "soft" on the chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Rajnath's choice caused some in the BJP to wonder whether this was the high command's way of messaging him to change his attitude towards Mamata. But he refrained from critiquing her in West Bengal, signalling to the leadership that he would not necessarily deliver on the expected mandate.

In the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime, Rajnath figured out that there was little space to hatch and execute secret plans. He has accepted his place.

None of this makes him a rebel. Rajnath is a silent operator, who uses the stock-in-trade in a quintessential UP politician's arsenal to answer and sometimes vanquish his adversaries. Once counted among the BJP's most formidable leaders, Kalyan Singh, presently the Rajasthan Governor, was a victim of Rajnath's subtle but wounding tactics that ensured he was first marginalised and then ousted from the party. Kalyan returned but battered and shattered.

In the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime, Rajnath figured out that there was little space to hatch and execute secret plans. He has accepted his place. Indeed in the monsoon session of Parliament held in 2016 against a backdrop of attacks on Dalits and conflicts in Kashmir, Modi left it to his Home Minister to deal with the Opposition and fend off queries in the House.

Rajnath's ultimate undoing lay in the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP.

That was that. When it came to the crucial UP elections, Rajnath, once the lord and master, was indulged to the extent that his son, Pankaj, was given a ticket from Ghaziabad. When the ministry was constituted, Kalyan's grandson, Sandeep, was inducted as a junior minister while Pankaj was left out in the cold.

Rajnath's ultimate undoing lay in the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP. Like him, Yogi's a Thakur. Unlike him, Yogi has transcended caste boundaries but remains the season's flavour for the Thakurs. The co-mingling of social divisions perhaps makes Yogi a long-distance runner in politics.

More On This Topic