What has Gandhi got to do with the recently concluded elections in Delhi? On the face of it nothing. But at another level, the election process, its campaign and its results – all invite us to revisit Gandhi’s stupendous moral-political project of cementing the Hindu-Muslim division with his own blood and his heroic failure. He could not prevent the Partition and ultimately fell to the bullets of a fanatic Hindu nationalist of the kind who are in power today.
I remember Gandhi today because gung-ho secularists (the political community that I inhabit, if very uncomfortably) are once again at their favourite occupation of daring Arvind Kejriwal and AAP to ‘prove’ their ‘anti-communal stance’ and all that it can mean today – as though they alone have the talisman to fight communalism. I am reminded of Gandhi because his was by far the most audacious attempt to fight the communal menace but he too had no readymade answers to it.
Secular warrriors have been basically daring Kejriwal and AAP to do and say things that he had been avoiding doing or saying all these days. Just two instances – of the quotes below from two dear friends – should suffice to indicate what I mean. The first is from Apoorvanand, writing in the Business Standard,
‘Voters in Delhi were confident that the AAP victory in the assembly elections wouldn’t so much as serve as an irritant to the BJP, let alone rock its boat, as the saffron outfit was firmly and safely ensconced in power. An efficient delivery boy is all the electorate wanted. In the Delhi voters mindset, an ideology-agnostic party that does not impede the BJP’s nationalist drive is tolerable.’
In somewhat similar vein, Satish Deshpande writes in The Hindu
‘The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fought the election as though it was about municipal matters such as water and electricity and nothing else…
In fact, AAP often seemed as if it was playing a different kind of dog whistle politics that was saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, we have no problem with communal politics, but please don’t ask us to say it openly.”’
We may be permitted to ask: (i) how seriously has the hard-secular line (say of the Left parties’ variety or the soft-secular one (of the Congress variety) ‘rocked the BJP’s boat’? And (ii) as long as the Congress made the right noises against the BJP/RSS, was it fine for them to simply be ‘good delivery boys’ for crony capitalists of all sorts (for instance, raising the price of electricity and natural gas at their whim, the Radia tapes affair and so on)? I will return to this matter of ‘municpal matters’ later in this piece.
Let us deal with the secular/communal question first. In relation to (i) above, it can easily be said that not only did the secular discourse not rock the BJP’s boat, as the going became tough, it revealed itself to be more and more soft Hindutva. Most recently, it even fought the Madhya Pradesh elections on gowshalas and cow protection. More importantly, this ‘right’ rhetoric actually provided the smokescreen behind which the innumerable Hashimpuras and Malianas (and the anti-Sikh pogroms) were executed. Equally importantly – and this is where point (ii) above comes in as well, that secular discourse provided steady grist to the Hindutva mill and contributed to its rise in at least two ways: first, by what the RSS calls ‘vote bank politics’, it functioned throughout like a protection racket, always keeping the Muslims in fear of the RSS/BJP coming to power but never ever addressing issues of Muslim education or employment. The Sachar Committee report showed very clearly, that there was steady decline in public employment of Muslims, especially in the bureaucracy and the police. Secondly, the Congress variety of secularism (and as is now clear, the CPI(M) variety in Bengal as well), cared two hoots what happened to Muslims and actually perfected, over the decades, the art of keeping some thekedars (contractors) within the community happy, to be utilized to mobilize votes during elections. In Bengal, at least they managed to keep social and communal peace, but in Congress-ruled states, even that was not true. What Satish Deshpande derisively calls ‘municipal issues’ has as much to do with actually improving the lot of the Muslims, as it has to do with other urban poor in general – and those are issues of critical importance. To call it ‘dog-whistle politics’ is nothing more than an act of wilful misrepresentation.
Since both Apoorvanand and Satish Deshpande imply that AAP’s avoidance of the secular-communal turf is a sign of the fact that ‘we don’t have any problem with communal politics’, let us imagine the opposite scenario. Since they acknowledge that the BJP’s was by far the most vicious campaign, portraying Kejriwal as not only ‘linked to Pakistan’, ‘being a terrorist’, and even ‘sponsoring Shaheen Bagh’, I do not have to thankfully have to labour to produce evidence on this score. However, what I read both Apoorvanand and Satish saying is that Kejriwal should have done exactly what the BJP in fact wanted him to do! So let us say, Kejriwal landed up first in Jamia, then in JNU, then in Daryagnj and then finally in Shaheen Bagh and made muscular statements in defense of secularism, of Muslims (and opposed the CAA in their and my language as being anti-Muslim), we would have had the perfect scenario for BJP’s victory. Recall here the municipal corporation elections in Delhi in 2017, just after the Uttar Pradesh elections and the 2019 parliament elections, where too the BJP swept all across Delhi. So this is not a fantastic scenario for a party that has even now polled about 38 percent of the total votes. Had that been the result, we would have seen five years of mayhem in Delhi, starting now.
Apoorvanand accepts that ‘it was in itself commendable’ that ‘the electorate of Delhi refused to get swayed by the saffron party’s virulent anti-Muslim tirade’ but does not think AAP has contributed anything to it. On the contrary, he blames AAP for not having done enough to stop the polarization. One can only conclude from this that he believes that the only way to prevent polarization was to polarize the situation further, with Kejriwal following the line laid down by secularists. A similar implication is there in Satish’s piece, for he seems to be arguing that by not taking the communal propaganda by the horns – and doing what secularists do – Kejriwal secretly sent out the message to the BJP that he had no problem with it.
Both these arguments actually beg the question: why was the BJP so desperate that Kejriwal and AAP do precisely what they are suggesting he should have done? Answer: they [the BJP] knew that was their turf; they knew this is where they have repeatedly defeated the secularists and pitted the putative ’80 percent Hindus’ against the demonized Muslims. The Modi-Shah duo were terribly uncomfortable with the continuous return to actual issues that affected people’s lives. The supposedly ‘municipal issues’ are, to my mind, the ground for a new kind of ‘politics of the commons’, where the battle is being fought to make education and health part of an imagined modern commons rather utilities to be than be handed over to private predators. This idea of reducing AAP’s politics to ‘service-delivery’ is interestingly repeated by Apoorvanand, Satish and Yogendra Yadav in a common refrain, with Yadav even claiming that this model was put in place by Modi himself. It is therefore necessary to emphasize that this the very first time that any government has had the guts to challenge the neoliberal logic of privatization – not just of health and education but also of water and electricity – and show that there is no shortage of money. It is for the first time that a government has had an outlay of a quarter of its budget for education and reduced costs for ordinary people without increasing taxes. The perennial neoliberal refrain of ‘where will the money come from?’ when it comes to ordinary people was simply demonstrated in practice to be a load of nonsense. But let us return to the secularism issue.
The harsh and brutal fact is that most of the members of my secular community cannot convince ten right wiing Hindus and bring them over to their point of view – whether it is on demonetization, Pulwama/Balakot or CAA/NRC. They are therefore most comfortable taking a radical stand on everything on earth within their own comfort zones. AAP on the other hand was playing the high-risk game of approaching the mass of right-wing, even anti-Muslim voters, engaging them in a conversation by shifting the ground. This is actually the thin edge of the wedge. This is what politics is all about – of drawing in people from the adversary’s camp into a position where they can begin to see things from a different perspective. Let me also make this very clear, at the cost of annoying my friends and community: We haven’t yet grasped the most fundamental truth that people’s beliefs cannot be ‘demolished’ or changed by giving them ‘facts’ (as opposed to their myths). Never does this kind of change of hearts happen in mass politics. Not certainly in this ‘post-truth’ age of fake-news, which takes this logic to an entirely different level. The only way in which you can do it is by changing the terms of the narrative itself – and ‘narrative’ doesn’t mean just the stories that you tell but the common experience that you make others partake of as well. That is what opens up possibillities of shifting the terrain by making available a position from where the picture suddenly begins to make sense in a radically different way.
It should also be underlined that the stance adopted by AAP does not come out of any predetermined ideological understanding of political behaviour but out of the concrete experience on the gound; from the need to win over ordinary Hindus qua citizens to its politics. In contrast, people of my radical-secular community are so convinced about the correctness of their ideological beliefs that they will brook no difference with regard to their mode of doing politics. It is amusing to witness their supreme self-confidence. Where exactly does it come from? Even if we do not go very far back, at least from 1989 (that is from the time of the very first Rath Yatra to which VP Singh’s government heroically fell), I have witnessed this bravado in bewilderment. We were being so rapidly marginalized and were reduced to utter irrelevnce within a matter of a few years but the bravado from the sidelines continued. And it continues, even though from the demolition of Babri Masjid on secularists were forced to cede more and more spaces to the Hindu right, till at one point the Modi-Shah dispensation was foisted on us. But they still think theirs alone is the ‘correct politics’ and nothing prompts them to rethink anything. It all comes down to a strange moral discourse about how everyone is compromised and compromising. The conclusion then is that we should be even more gung-ho about our commitments.
I want to go back to Gandhi and the history of our freedom struggle briefly. There were basically two political tendencies that tried, in their own way, to heroically bridge the Hindu-Muslim divide which had become the biggest faultline of Indian society in the colonial period. They were the communists and Gandhi. The communists tried from an atheistic/secular position to do what Gandhi tried by adopting a practising Hindu ‘sanatani‘ position. The communist position was predicated upon a the enunciation of a class identity that would cut across religious identity and where communists from respective community backgrounds would critique the communalism of their own community. Except in areas where a strong peasants’ or workers’ struggle made communist expansion possible, in most others places this brand of politics remained a non-starter. It was at best a cultural phenomenon that drew in writers, artists and intellectuals but had practically no impact on actual politics.
The real challenge to the politics of religious identity and Hindu nationalism came from Gandhi. It was Gandhi and Gandhi alone who posed a challenge to the Hindu nationalists and, as long as he lived, carried the majority of Hindus with him. Gandhi was as convinced that this was a battle for the soul of India as he was that the battle could not be won in the politcal arena. His disagreed with Nehru and others who thought freedom would guarantee Hindu-Muslim unity and insisted that this had to be accomplished on another terrain before India became independent or else, that freedom too would be jeopardised. Events however took over and Gandhi’s project met with a spectacular failure as all of India was plunged into one of the world’s biggest blood baths. Gandhi himsef succumbed to an assassin’s bullet soon thereafter. But the relevant point here is that this was the only half-way successful attempt at resisting the politics of hate at the level of mass politics. Others did not even count where it came to mass politics. The point is to recognize that this is a predicment that we are caught in; that we therefore, do not have any tried and tested method or style or approach of doing anti-communal politics and that the only one that ever had any kind of mass impact failed.
Where then does the self confidence of our secular ideology-warriors about the correctness of their own position come from? I suspect it comes from the marginality that they have become so used to living in; it comes ironically, from the fact that they don’t matter. They can be ‘correct’ one hundred percent in all ways because the stances they take affect no one. In the end, if tomorrow there is communal violence in Delhi, we will all hold a march in Jantar Mantar and condemn it without being able to move one more ordinary person againt this politics of hate. Sometimes I feel we have the luxury of being more radical-than-thou or more secular-than-thou because someone else is dirtying their hands to provide you with that space – in this case, a non-BJP government that has in fact made a paradigm shift in Indian politics.
In an irritated jibe at MN Roy, who had gone to meet the Chinese Communist leaders as a Comintern representative in the late 1920s, Mao once recalled: “Roy stood to the Left of Stalin but his problem was that he simply stood’! Maybe Mao was being uncharitable but when one thinks of our secular ideology-warriors, having long been one of them and seen our daily irrelevance, I cannot help saying that though our secularists stand at the right place, their problem is that they simply stand.