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May 6, 1999


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Whatever happened to Hindutva?

It now seems virtually certain that the Bharatiya Janata Party will fight the election on the basis of its record in government. It will point to such successes (or what it considers successes) as Pokhran II, the bus to Pakistan, the Budget, the Cauvery water accord and the absence of Hindu-Muslim riots. The campaign will focus on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and capitalise on his charisma. The theme will be: Vajpayee started to do a good job; give him the mandate he needs to finish that job.

It is not my intention to argue about the merits of the campaign. Some will say that the successes are bogus. Others will claim that voters are not interested in performance. Still others will question whether the campaign will convince anyone. And so on. But my point is this: if the BJP is going to fight an election on these themes, then, whatever happened to Hindutva?

You remember Hindutva, of course. It was the creation of a period when otherwise normal people greeted each other by saying Jai Shri Ram and exhorted crowds with such slogans as Garv se kaho, hum Hindu hain. (Some BJP people believed in another slogan - 'Garv se kaho, hum Hinduja hain ' -- but that's another story). During this phase, L K Advani was regarded as the BJP's most senior leader, K N Govindacharya was its think-tank, Uma Bharati was its fastest rising star and Sadhvi Rithambara was its secret weapon.

Hindutva was not, we were told, some nasty communal ideology. It was a means of awakening pan-Indian pride and providing the nation with a new confidence. And we were not to worry about the word Hindu because, after all, all Indians were Hindus. Muslims were Hindus too. So were Christians. So were Sikhs. So were animist tribals.

People -- such as my cynical self -- who claimed that Hindutva was old style communalism in brand new Toyota packaging -- were, it was said, out of tune with the times. What nonsense we talked when we said that it was pathetic for the agenda of the world's largest democracy to be phrased in terms of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's obsession with a medieval mosque. Didn't we realise that the masjid movement (oh, all right, the mandir movement or the domed structure movement if you like) was the symbol of a national revival?

When we said that no, actually we didn't realise any of these things, we were told: wait till the BJP comes to power. Then you'll know.

Well, the BJP has come and (nearly) gone.

And guess what?

We still don't know.

Enough sneering. As it is, I feel quite sorry for the Advani groupies, the Hindutva fans and the knicker-lovers these days. Sorry boys, the revolution has been cancelled. And you'll have to look for new loyalties (if you haven't found them already).

My purpose today is slightly more serious. I have a question for the BJP. In the late '80s when L K Advani launched his riot yatra, we were told that the BJP had shifted gear. The old style, "we are a democratic alternative to the Congress's position" that A B Vajpayee had evolved was now obsolete. The new BJP was an aggressive Hindu party.

But, as any fool can see, the current BJP bears no relation to Advani's Hindutva BJP. (And when there is any resemblance, its members rush around frantically trying to gag Ashok Singhal or hide Vinay Katiyar. Which reminds me: What did happen to Sadhvi Rithambara?) In fact, the BJP's campaign theme for 1999 can be paraphrased in one familiar phrase: we are a democratic alternative to the Congress.

Hence my question: was Atal right all along?

Certainly, the party that won power in the last election and which now heads into another election is very much the Vajpayee-evolved BJP of the early '80s. There is no talk of national revival, of Muslims who are really Hindus because all Indians are Hindus, of masjids that have to be demolished and of Hindus being second class citizens in their own country.

The party's agenda is one that looks forward, and not back to the Mughal period for its direction. You may disagree with the decision to go nuclear, you can argue that too much fuss is being made over Agni, you can say that, there is nothing new in Yashwant Sinha's budget and you can laugh at the bus to Pakistan.

But what you cannot deny is that these initiatives -- regardless of whether you approve of them -- represent an attempt to come to grips with the serious business of governance. Gone is the rabble-rousing. Gone is the communal agenda. Gone are the Jai Shri Ram wallahs. And gone -- thank God! -- is the Toyota rath.

Almost as significant as the change in focus is the change in leadership. After the 1984 election; much of the BJP turned on the unfortunate Vajpayee. We, in the media, may have thought that the election was decided by a Rajiv-wave, powered along by a sympathy factor: But that's not how the BJP saw it.

Many of its members decided that it was all Vajpayee's fault. By betraying their essential identity (that is, knicker-clad communalist) Vajpayee had robbed the BJP of all meaning. His wishy-washy agenda (the man had even said he believed in democratic socialism! Honestly! Socialism? Or even worse, democracy?) had led to the collapse of the party. Why, he had even lost his own seat and broken his arm! What kind of leader was he?

Out of the rubble of Vajpayee's BJP arose a new party that the knickerwallahs could love. It repackaged Muslim baiting as national pride, went for the secular jugular, created communal tension, benefited from riots and became a contender once again. Of course, there was no question of Vajpayee leading this lot. They didn't like him. And he was leery of their destructive vision of India. One instance: he warned Advani that he was riding a tiger when he went off on the riot yatra.

In his place rose his former protege L K Advani. Though my guess would be that Advani, who is essentially a decent man, now regrets it. There is no doubt that he showed an unbecoming greediness during that period by elbowing Vajpayee aside and becoming leader of the Opposition himself. The new BJP was Advani's BJP.

All this lasted till the end of 1995. It changed when it seemed likely that the BJP would come close to power. Even before hawala, Advani had recognised his limitations and proposed that Vajpayee become prime minister. And so, Vajpayee first headed the 13-day government in 1996 and then the 13-month government in 1998-9. With each passing month, he has moved the BJP further and further away from the Hindutva agenda and closer and closer to his '80s conception. When the knickerwallahs objected, he simply ignored them.

Nobody will now seriously dispute that much of the BJP's current popularity is due to Vajpayee's own charisma. In 1998 -- if not in 1996 -- the country voted for Vajpayee rather than the BJP. In 1999, the slightest suggestion that he might not lead the party into the next election causes panic at the BJP headquarters. The Sangh Parivar knows that it does not amount to much without Vajpayee.

So, was it necessary to have elbowed Vajpayee aside in the '80s? Did the party overreact to a defeat that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the wave in favour of Rajiv Gandhi?

My guess is yes.

The BJP lost direction, patience and confidence in the '80s. It did not realise that Rajiv's popularity was certain to fade and that any moderate alternative to the Congress would have gathered the protest vote if it had the confidence to wait. Instead, it vacated the middle ground and moved to the communal fringe. Because that middle ground was empty, a nationwide alternative had to emerge from within the Congress itself -- in the shape of V P Singh and the Jan Morcha.

The BJP did benefit from the Congress's decline. But it did not benefit as much as V P Singh and the new alternative. Worse still, its extremism made it a political untouchable. Certainly, it did not benefit enough to form a government. Instead, it put off many moderate Indians, acquired a reputation for mindless communalism and pushed India into the needless trauma of the Ayodhya movement. To get into power it had to abandon that extreme position and return to Vajpayee's vision.

So, would things have been different if the party had had the guts to stick by Vajpayee in the '80s? Would it have come to power much earlier? And would we have been spared the communal tension of the '90s?

Perhaps these are questions that the BJP should ask itself.

Vir Sanghvi

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