Whose culture is it anyway?
The 12 percent rise in the BJP’s vote share between the 2009 and 2014 general elections showed that a fairly large section of those who did not constitute the party’s traditional support base had voted for it. The reason for their support was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of rapid economic growth.
Two questions are relevant here. One is how many of those who chose the BJP, probably for the first time, have remained with it? The other is whether the party’s traditional supporters, who seemingly have less interest in the economy and development than in a pro-Hindu outlook, are influencing the party’s agenda.
According to a recent survey, Modi’s approval rating remains high. However, it is a curious feature of present-day politics that support for the prime minister does not directly translate into support for his party. This strange outlook of the voters was highlighted by the Delhi assembly elections where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was badly mauled.
But, otherwise, the party was able to hold its own in states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand and even made inroads in Jammu and Kashmir. The outcome of the civic elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka, among others has also underlined the BJP’s continuing influence.
Although the party appears to be well-entrenched, there is at least a section of its non-traditional supporters who may have become uneasy about some aspects of the government’s policies. To be fair, such disillusionment is normal in any democracy where no ruling party can boast of 100 percent support.
While they will be hoping that it will pursue the promised economic reforms, they will also wonder whether an increasingly prosperous India will also not harbour intolerant sectarian elements.
What is more, these may not be driven by anti-Muslim sentiments alone as at the time of the BJP’s emergence from the margins of politics to centre-stage in the 1990s. Experts argue that such fears are driven by attitudes involving minorities other than the Muslims, which can also open up a divide between sections of the Hindus themselves, such as between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
It is not surprising that Mumbai, with its cosmopolitan mix of communities, should be a focal point of such competitive parochialism and varying dietary preferences. The ruling party is lining up to placate compulsively vegetarian Jains with a ban on the consumption of meat during one of their festivals. However, this move has been countered by the Shiv Sena and Navnirman Sena, who oppose the prohibition.
However, a judicial directive allowing the sale of meat has largely defused the controversy. The uproar has shown how the BJP’s record is under strain by the various divisive impulses that are coming to the fore.
Mercifully, the apprehensions of communal acrimony have subsided because the government has apparently compelled the saffron hotheads to cool down. The attacks on churches have stopped though not the killing of rationalists.
But other issues that should have been allowed to remain very much in the background have raised their heads. Vegetarianism is one of them and the promotion of Hindi another. An RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya, has argued that English should be “chased away” and Hindi encouraged “to become an organ of Bharat’s self-respect, progress and pride”.
Although the Panchjanya remembers the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu, the magazine tries to circumvent the episode. It says that “conspiracies were hatched to organise other Indian languages against Hindi” without advancing any credible evidence of such sinister plots.
Probably, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will ask the newly-appointed saffron apparatchiki in the Indian Council of Historical Research to unearth such proof. As a member of the Hindutva lobby has noted in the context of the saying that history is written by victors, “the so-called Hindu Right is the victor, and a history will get a new coat of paint and varnish and also numerous designer alterations”.
If such observations are regarded as not representative of the official view, this cannot be said of Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s controversial statements on imposing a ban on the sale of meat during the nine-day Navratri festival, making Hindi compulsory in schools and including Ramayana and Mahabharata in the school curriculum, and not the Bible and Quran, since these do not reflect India’s “soul”.
His most quotable quote, however, was the observation that the former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was a nationalist “despite being a Muslim”. Carrying on from where the culture minister had left off, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has ordered that all files should be signed in Hindi.
It is yet to be seen whether these diktats are floaters intended to test the public mood. But the non-saffron supporters of Modi cannot but be concerned about the articulations of important people in the government which contravene the country’s pluralist norms.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal)