BJP Must Rein In Hate Vigilantes
BJP is at crossroads and must decide whether it will become more radically rightwing or should it moderate its pitch to try and appeal to a diverse electorate
Published in The Hindu
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is at a crossroads. From a mere two MPs in 1984, it has acquired power across vast swathes of India and at all levels of the decision-making apparatus both within and outside government. Today, no State remains immune to the politics of the BJP. At the height of power, the question confronting the BJP is whether it should become more radically right wing to keep the electorate polarised or moderate its pitch to try and appeal to a diverse electorate. There are indications of both impulses in the BJP, but as the international row over the comments made against Prophet Mohammad by now-suspended members of the party shows, it will be a mistake to assume that a moderate stance can co-exist with radical rabble-rousing.
The party’s rabble-rousing
The impulse towards radicalism and polarisation is evident not just in the explosion of hate speech against minorities, as seen in Dharam Sansads where there are open calls for mass murder, the “80-20” rhetoric in the U.P. election, and on other occasions, but in the repeated attempt to force conflict with Muslims and provoke reactions through the hijab controversy in Karnataka, the namaz issue in Gurugram, and the calls to search for shivlings in mosques. These issues are irrelevant to the assertion and consolidation of the Hindu identity unless the basis of Hindu identity is not its own rich cultural ethos but in playing an antagonist to a Muslim protagonist. Serious BJP leaders and supporters try to explain this rabble-rousing in two ways: first, by trying to distance the party from the most egregious instances by labeling such persons as “fringe” or lower-level leaders who are jostling to gain visibility or an upper hand against competitors in factional battles; and second, by dismissing them as one-off crude excesses by hitherto suppressed non-elites who are now finding their voice. These explanations are unconvincing as there is no condemnation of or action against these “fringe” actors. Instead, the cadre seems to find an identity and purpose by bullying minorities under the auspices of the BJP leadership.
This strategy is misguided and needs a rethink. The explosion of hate against minorities is against not just national interest but also the BJP’s own long-term interest. Leaders trying to establish new organisations often work outside the bounds of mainstream behavior or law for various reasons such as lack of social or financial capital and increased visibility from shock value to attract committed cadres through sharp messaging, polarisation, etc. However, as organisations acquire power and influence and grow to a certain size, they seek legitimacy to further consolidate their position. In a democracy, winning elections provides legitimacy. But the pursuit of an overtly sectarian agenda delegitimises both the electoral victory and the governance record of the ruling party.
The path ahead
In the last eight years, the BJP has pushed back against any criticism as elite myopia. However, it should be evident that mainstream legitimacy cannot be gained by marginalising 15% of the country’s population. This is for two reasons. First, embarrassing excesses are not aberrations but the inevitable tendency of politicians to exaggerate cleavages. If the leadership does not set and enforce boundaries of acceptable behavior for its cadre, lower-level leaders will trend towards more obnoxious behaviour, thus moving the party outside of the present leadership’s own comfort zone. This is already visible in the criticism of the BJP leadership by a section of its supporters online for the action taken against the two BJP office bearers. Second, the conflict that is being pursued by a section of the leadership with 15% of the population will inevitably strain the rule of law and impact governance.
In the absence of an assertive national opposition, it will be a mistake to assume that repeated electoral victories are vindication of divisive politics. There is evidence around the country of people becoming weary of the constant hate and the specter of widespread violence, but they lack a national political platform to channelise this disenchantment into meaningful opposition. Moreover, the kind of politics being pursued by the BJP now will also make it difficult for it to find allies in the future to counterbalance the inevitable anti-incumbency of two terms. The only long-term viable way forward for the BJP then is through moderation — not just in rhetoric but through its politics. The strand of welfare-driven, cultural nationalism being pursued by the BJP is within the realm of mainstream politics and provides a ready template for the party of the future. How the BJP will evolve is for its leadership to decide. However, it must rein in vigilantes and make it clear that the path to advancement in the party does not lie in propagating hate.
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