In an ostensible attempt to protect ‘national sovereignty’, but in reality to carve out a political space for itself, the Mohan Baidya-led CPN-Maoist last week threatened to ban Hindi movies from being screened in Nepal (theatres stopped screening Hindi movies from Monday) and vehicles with Indian number plates from entering the country. This is perhaps a clear attempt at political posturing and may be a bid to target a certain constituency to strengthen its electorate; however, it is a completely misplaced move not just because it is ludicrous, but also because extreme politics can barely ever flourish in the long run. Baidya would do well to look at India’s polity to understand how fundamentalist political posturing leaves you with a tag that is later hard to get rid of, as much as you may want to or as hard as you may try.
India’s principal opposition party—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—is a classic example of this. The BJP was catapulted to the centre-stage of national politics in the 1990s riding on the back of its pro-Hindutva image and communal identity. Blatant communal activities, including being at the forefront of demolishing the Babri Masjid and promises to establish a ‘Ram Rajya’, worked well for the BJP then because India of the 1990s was very different. Polarization, without going into the whys, helped garner a steady electorate that was insular and was willing to latch on to anything that was emotive.
However, with the massive economic development ushered in by the 1991 reforms and a gradual setting in of a more cohesive socio-economy, voters have become far more secure about themselves and do not need an ‘anti’ politics to grab their attention. Further, with rapid globalization and exposure to the rest of the world, most Indians aspire for much more than mere religious political agenda. In short, Hindutva has ceased to work. And the BJP has been aware of this fact for a while. Senior and influential party leaders admitted in private before the 2009 Lok Sabha election that the party will have to shed its ‘communal image’ if it is to transcend across constituencies and capture national power again. They were bang on; the BJP lost to the Congress-led UPA for the second consecutive Lok Sabha election and saw its own key base shrink.
Since, the BJP has been trying extremely hard to give itself a more ‘secular’ make-over. In its recently concluded three-day national executive meet, the party made a serious bid to dilute its hardline Hindutva image, perhaps with an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In a clear deviation from the party’s initial political strategy, both party president Nitin Gadkari and senior leader LK Advani condemned the anti-Islam film that has triggered violence across the globe.
Just about any kind of politics of extreme loses its relevance, and becomes counter-productive in new socio-political context, but the ‘extremist’ tag continues to hang around your neck.
The BJP is well aware of the numerous disadvantages of the ‘communal’ label in today’s polity. To begin with, in this era of coalition politics, this hard-line image is a severe handicap with most political parties reluctant to be seen as close to any such force, because of the fear of losing their own Muslim and secular vote-banks. Its allies like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Orissa chief minister Navin Patnaik have already expressed their uneasiness and discomfort of being associated with anything anti-secular. It lost former ally Mamata Banerjee to the Congress because she knew she couldn’t beat the Left in West Bengal without the Muslim vote. And other allies like Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK would rather support the Congress, if given a chance, than associate themselves with the BJP at this point.
And while it may be an exaggeration to say the BJP has become a ‘political untouchable’, it is certainly true that its acceptability among other political parties is far less than that of its arch rival Congress, thus giving the latter the advantage of securing allies.
Moreover, the BJP also knows the electoral limitations of a communal sticker today. This author had travelled to BJP’s bastion Ayodhya in May last year to find even the people of this region— the epicenter of BJP’s communal activities—do not buy that candy anymore. They’d rather have the party talk about development, growth, infrastructure, employment, education and so on. And this is a pro-BJP constituency we are talking about. The ‘neutral’ constituency has obviously rolled over to the other side and because of its fundamentalist brand of politics, the BJP has lost the opportunity of wooing what could have been a key electorate.
Coming to the anti-BJP voters—mainly Muslims and the ultra-‘secular’ populace, while the party may still have an iota of a chance wooing the neutral voters at some point, this is a segment that will remain hostile forever, unless something drastic transforms India’s political landscape. A staunch and significant anti-BJP voter base is something all other political parties will try to take advantage of; it works well for the BJP’s rivals to mobilize Muslim and ‘secular’ votes against it.
Though it is aware of all these limitations in today’s landscape, it is proving to be a herculean task to wipe out what now seems like a blot for the BJP, as hard as it is trying to. It has been ten years since the party showed its blatant communal side (counting from the 2002 post Godhra riots in Gujarat), but the tag still hangs around its neck and in fact, become worse with most other political parties making that extra effort to be seen as part of the ‘secular’ brand of politics.
The story of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is an equally compelling example. Technically, Modi has had everything going for him. He has won two consecutive elections after the infamous 2002 riots, transformed his image to that of a ‘development’ man, taken on the mantle of ‘good governance’, garnered the support of major industrial powers, become a formidable political force both within the BJP and outside, and yet, the prime ministerial candidature continues to elude him. And at the risk of me being proved wrong, the BJP is unlikely to showcase Modi as its prime ministerial candidate given his staunch detractors both within the party and among the allies are never going to accept him—with his communal shadow—at the helm. He may have tried every trick in the book, but his past continues to haunt him, the stain unwilling to fade.
The BJP, and Modi, are just a case in point. Any sort of politics of extreme loses its relevance, and in fact, becomes counter-productive in an altered socio-political context, but the ‘extremist’ tag continues to hang around your neck like the proverbial albatross. If Baidya wants to flirt with being a militant force, then such extremism may work, but not if he wants his party to be a mainstream political force. While it is true that even Prachanda and the main Maoist party did try such tactics earlier, it is equally true that they had to make a huge transition to dilute their earlier brand of politics, which even now may have faded but has not been erased. And Prachanda’s credibility is questioned even today.
Baidya should know that even if his extreme political strategy works for now, it will come back to haunt him at some point in the future, making his political existence more unsustainable and lonely.