Anybody with a passing interest in consistency or coherence might be forgiven for being stumped at the political spectacle unfolding right now. Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured us that his government was committed to reservations. The statement was made at a ceremony to inaugurate the Ambedkar memorial at the Indu Mills compound in Mumbai. The fact that ordinary Dalits, in the habit of thronging any joyous celebration on Ambedkar in big numbers, were kept out of the ceremony, is possibly irrelevant. After all, officialese is officialese, and no political party – certainly not the BJP – has a monopoly on stiff-necked commemorations of people’s leaders that want nothing to do with the people. It is Modi’s commitment to reservations and the Indian constitution that is of interest. In some ways a statement of this nature made at the inauguration of an Ambedkar memorial, makes perfect sense. Apart from the occasion and locale, also not coincidental was the timing of Modi’s statement – one that he himself alluded to, when he referred to the bitterly fought Bihar elections now underway, “With a BJP government in power and polls getting under way, a malicious propaganda is being spread that the government is against reservation…”. The fact that the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in Bihar has made reservations one of their chief planks, with Lalu Prasad Yadav declaring in his inimitable style that he will kill himself if reservations are removed, is relevant.
Zooming back from the Ambedkar memorial event, the PM was clearly also responding to the threat to his Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas model begun a couple of months ago by the irrepressible Hardik Patel. Patel – erstwhile BJP supporter, self-styled Patidar-Patel revolutionary and a wild child in imminent danger of being silenced (or coopted) by the BJP – was temporarily subdued by the Gujarat administration following the wave of violence over his first call for reservation, but resurfaced a couple of days ago to be the nightmare Modi hadn’t dreamed yet – saying his aim was to expose the “Gujarat model of development”. This is for the current party nothing short of the youngest born of a rambling illustrious family running into the street from the family mansion saying our house is made of mud! our house is made of mud!
The bafflement is this however. Patel is not the only renegade. Members of that family called the Sangh Parivar have been running riot into the streets (no pun intended) in Patelesque style without admittedly his nuisance value, outdoing each other in their sheer ability to contradict themselves, each other, the party high command, you-name-it. It is nobody’s case that the Parivar, or even just the BJP is or should be a unified house, party whip and all. The decades of well-honed party whipping inside the Congress has produced a party that is at best a good-natured joke right now, and at worst a bunch of sometime-talented politicians dissipated and prostrate at the feet of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. The problem is threefold – at the obvious, open level is the wide split between Modi and other leaders, not least of which is Nitish Kumar as detailed in Sankarshan Thakur’s to-be-launched The Brothers Bihari (Harper Collins 2015). While ideology is a factor in the Modi-Nitish split, this is mostly a classic big gun conflict. At the less obvious level are the multiple power struggles within the various outfits of the Parivar – the RSS versus the BJP, the BJP versus the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal versus the RSS. Not to forget the various Senes and Sansthas some of whom are in favour and some of whom are out of favour at any given time, and often for no obvious reason, as Subash Gatade has written. In this category we may also include the slippery relations between the BJP-ruled states and the Centre.
The bizarrest of all however, is conflict at the level of fundamental principles itself, as shown by the cacophony of views of national leaders within the Sangh Parivar. While reservations exposed a historically unmanageable rift in the Indian body politic – one which has haunted the Congress in the past – statements on personal habits, rights and liberties including especially beef have been astoundingly diverse. It is obvious that a taboo on beef consumption along with a preference for vegetarianism is a fantasy rather than reality for a majority of the Hindus within this subcontinent. Repeatedly, like a recurrent bad dream, images of cattle sacrifice in temples, trade in cattle including skins by Hindus, consumption of ‘buff’ by Hindus, the wobbly status of the ban on cow slaughter in the scriptures, questions from animal activists about the selectiveness of this form of animal love…have flooded the public sphere. Never mind that his royal Modiness has not found the need to respond to any of these images, as haven’t hundreds of Hindu followers who have wreaked havoc in the name of the cow. They are not interested in any rational conversation, preferring high-decibel rhetoric which preferably ends in action.
The interesting question however is how the Sangh Parivar is able to sustain this level of conflict – a level so acute and endemic as to be called contradiction. How is it possible that while Mohan Bhagwat and countless upper-caste Hindutvawadis spew venom against reservations, Modi is able to throw his weight behind it just before an election? How is it that in the case of the Jains, a five-day ban on meat by the BJP dominated Mira-Bhayander municipal corporation is countered by the sale of meat by Shiv Sainiks, while Sushil Modi is able to call the Bihar election one between cow slaughterers and cow lovers? How is it that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar can be a loyal RSS-wala but become circumspect when it comes to state laws restricting diet and call consumption of beef a private matter? How can the Sanatan Sanstha ask for anti-nationals to be killed like dogs, criticise the BJP and amazingly, still not be banned while the BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Naik Wagh compares it to SIMI? How can old-time BJP loyalist Sudheendra Kulkarni be attacked by the Shiv Sainiks who brazen it out saying ink smearing is a relatively mild reaction while L.K Advani who exhorted kar sevaks to much worse action during Babri Masjid in 1992, call this a case of growing intolerance?
At one level, the political faultlines are crystal clear. The BJP, Shiv Sena, Modi, Nitish, even the Congress in its demonic moments – are all looking to capture the soft Hindutva soul. Knowing that the issue of cow slaughter is deeply felt by a section of believing Hindus; knowing further that it has been since at least the 1890’s a successful form of political mobilisation; knowing that the institutionalised riot machinery as Paul Brass calls it is available to turn the switch on; they are all scrambling to assure the majority that its views will not be violated. They need to do this in a manner however, that treads a delicate line between large-scale genocide and what is termed “appeasement” (a word that thanks to the history of communalism in this country has forever become a term of abuse). Large-scale genocide has happened already, once during Partition. Apparently it’s too violative of our sensitivities to repeat it. And “appeasement” of course is the reason the Muslims are allegedly sitting on our chests right now, waving their Sharia law, triple talaq and four wives in our faces. So they – the Parivar – tread this delicate line, taking a village or town or city at a time, side-stepping the law, passing the buck on national television, and saying they are committed to the Constitution while an Akhlaq or two – or a thousand – is simply unfortunate, accidental, coincidental, local, occasional.
Humanity and any gains of co-existence are being murdered, but in Indian style, it will happen slowly. We like the tandoor, the famous 8-hour dal makhni and the papads that take a month of drying on terraces. And like a million western commentators marvel repeatedly, we are a land of contradictions. For everything you can say about India, the opposite will also be true. That is the only way we can explain the apparent contradictions of the Parivar today. Reservations, cow-slaughter, Kashmir, Nawaz Sharif, LOC, Ram Mandir, censorship, same-sex laws, education, Make in India, Break in India….everything will happen, slowly, like our beloved dal makhni. And from time to time, there will be a course correction, because hey, Hindus are essentially tolerant.
We fall into their trap – the slow murderers – if we oppose them by harking to the sanctity of the Constitution. The Constitution never was and will be sacred. It will always be a contested document. When our current PM swears by the Constitution, from his oath-taking ceremony onwards, he never commits to which Constitution it is. If the writing on the wall is what it seems, the next four years of the NDA will be very much about the kind of Constitution that allows this slow-burn to take place. This is a battle not for this government or that, this law or that, but for the soul of the state itself, for what political scientists call sovereignty. And this battle will be fought, like everything else, through the hydra-headed, confoundingly contradictory elements of the Parivar. It will be fought one organisation at a time, one alliance at a time, one strategy at a time, until we no longer remember any secular history or identity. All that will remain is a thick, dense, slow-cooked Hindu state, one whose raw minority flavours have been decisively cooked into oblivion.