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January 27, 1998


Dilip D'Souza

Please Change, But Spare Us The Moans

Let's pretend for a minute that a thief broke into your home and stole a pile of goodies, traumatised your family and disappeared. Years later, he shows up; now, he is running for Parliament from your area. Naturally you are alarmed; you would probably begin warning your neighbours against this man you know as no more than a burglar.

Whereupon, he points out tearfully that he has reformed, so shouldn't he be given a chance? Of course he should, if he really has reformed. Don't you want to to see him become a productive, law-abiding member of society? Certainly you do.

But you have every right to your suspicion. You have every right to ask: "Why did he steal from me before? Has he been punished for that crime? Do I have any assurance I can trust him, that he will not steal again?" Not only do you have the right to ask these perfectly natural questions, the once-thief must also answer them to your satisfaction. Just his say-so is no guarantee of good behaviour.

I dreamed up this imaginary thief because, in these heated pre-election days, there's a new game in town. Here's all you need to do to play it: you have to moan about how the BJP is "perpetually in the dock." That's the headline that adorns a recent edit-page piece in The Times of India, but it could just as well have adorned any of a number of other writings in the last several weeks.

Their general thrust goes like this: people used to attack the BJP for behaving in a certain way. Fine, so now it is trying hard to change. But instead of welcoming the very change that had been demanded of it, instead of applauding the party for it, people still attack the BJP. Now, it is being criticised for turning its back on its ideology, such as it is.

'The party is condemned whatever it does,' laments that edit-page column.

Knowingly or otherwise, the laments miss the point altogether. Of course its critics want the BJP to change: that's just why they criticised its actions in the first place. Of course the BJP is trying to change today: it knows it has no other choice. To that extent, change is welcome.

That's why the question the BJP and its allies need to answer, if they care, is not at all: "Why are you changing your stand now?" Think about it: you're not particularly interested in finding out why the thief wants to give up his earlier ways. Instead, you want to be sure he will not indulge in them again.

Thus the real questions for the Hindutva folks are: "Why were you that warped way before?" And more important: "How will you persuade us you will not be that way again?"

The truth, whether they like it or not, is that there are many millions of Indians who are disgusted by their actions. If that wasn't so, if the Parivar didn't know it was so, if it thought the critics were just tiny voices in the wilderness that could safely be ignored, and if it didn't now want to attract the votes of those Indians -- it would not be changing its song, not be moaning about being "condemned whatever it does." It would instead still be mouthing the same stuff that caused the disgust.

Today, even if whipped on solely by political convenience, the BJP and its cousins are saying different things, desperately wanting credit for that. Which means these parties care about the votes, at any rate, of those millions of Indians.

Which is why they need to answer the questions to some level of satisfaction.

There's Bal Thackeray, for example. Going by recent events, he has turned into a great friend of Muslims and of Pakistan. Just days ago, he invited the Pakistan high commissioner home and urged his country's cricket team to come play in Bombay. On these pages last week, he told Pritish Nandy that Muslims are "citizens" of this country and "we must look after them and treat them as part of us." After all, we "cannot wish them all away."

All things, you will notice, that Balasaheb's critics have been saying through the eloquent years that he has spent hammering precisely the opposite into his supporters' minds. That might make them, and you, begin to wonder: given what he says today, why did Thackeray write this in Saamna on December 9 1992, so accusing all Indian Muslims of being loyal to another country?

* 'Pakistan need not cross the border and attack India. Two hundred and fifty million Muslims in India will stage an armed insurrection. They form one of Pakistan's seven atomic bombs.'

Why, just a few weeks later, did he say this about Indian Muslims in an interview to Time magazine that he never did deny to Time itself?

* "Kick them out!" and

* "There is nothing wrong if Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany."

Why did he order his men to damage the pitch at Bombay's Wankhede stadium to sabotage an October 1991 cricket match with "our enemy", Pakistan?

These are things, after all, that Thackeray was criticised for. So will Balasaheb tell us what has changed between then and now? As far as I can see, Pakistan is just as pesky and obstreperous a neighbour as it used to be. Muslims are still doing just the things that he used to complain about -- they occupy the streets during namaz, they use loudspeakers and disturb the neighbourhood, it's still legal for them to have four wives.

If, despite these, we should take today's Thackeray benevolence seriously, as the real, no-faking goods on sale, what do we make of the sickening things he said in the past? If he has truly changed his convictions so dramatically, what is the guarantee that he will not change them again? Which Thackeray avatar should we believe?

In much the same way as Thackeray has, other leaders from around the Hindutva cosmos are hastily cooking up electoral menus that will be more palatable to more voters in a few weeks. Vajpayee, Advani, Mahajan, all. Certainly there are hiccups and contradictions from time to time, as they trip on their own unfamiliar palatability. Certainly they risk annoying the core of their support these many years, including people who cannot see any priority for the country but a temple. Certainly it is political expediency, hypocrisy if you will, that's driving them to change.

But certainly, and Vajpayee and his pals know so best of all, that is the only route to more votes than the 23% of the electorate the ballot boxes delivered last time. In turn, more votes is the only route to power.

It's interesting -- exasperating as well, but interesting -- to watch this whole process from the sidelines; to hear these men saying the things that, had they said them in the past, would have saved much misery and thousands of Indian lives. Fine, so they are saying them now. Maybe they are finding their way, if fitfully still, into the mainstream of Indian life. Perhaps they even really believe it all.

And yes, many of the rest of us would like to believe them too, that the BJP & Co now truly want to stand for all Indians. We want this not least because we, too, are looking for alternatives to the degrading corruption, the failed secularism, the betrayed promise, of the Congress years.

But it would be stretching credulity just a bit too far to ask us to take the Parivar's attempt at a facelift at, well, face value. We remember the ugly, divisive speeches and writings too well. We remember still better the murderous riots the ugliness set off. We remember the lies, the slick rationalisations, the subterfuges.

Why did all that happen? Will it happen again? Let's have some answers, shall we? Because laments serve nobody. Least of all, the lamenters.

Dilip D'Souza

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