India a split polity, but is still secular

Vajpayee served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2004 when the Congress came to power with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister.

For the last 50 years, India’s democracy has functioned as a split polity. Democracy rests on the consent of the governed and on a national consensus on the fundamentals of the polity. It is not enough that all political parties swear by the Constitution of India. It is imperative also that they share the ideology on which the state was founded. That has all but evaporated since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014.

India was long governed by what is called a Nehruvian Consensus till his daughter, imperious to the core, split the ruling Congress in 1969. The excluded Congress faction made common cause with the Opposition parties. In the 1971 general election, she won handsomely and ruled autocratically till she was defeated in 1977.

However, in the united front of Opposition parties which defeated her in 1977, the RSS political wing, the Jan Sangh, acquired an important role. The erstwhile pariah now became “respectable”. It left the united front, the Janata Party, to form the Jan Sangh’s successor, the BJP, which is in power today — but with a difference. Having won only two seats in the 1984 elections, its second-in-command, Lal Krishna Advani, effectively sidelined the moderate Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Vajpayee served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2004 when the Congress came to power with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. He lost to the BJP in 2014 but with a huge difference. L.K. Advani was eliminated by his erstwhile protégé Narendra Modi on whose watch, as chief minister of Gujarat, a pogrom of Muslims was staged in 2002. Advani foiled Vajpayee’s efforts to get Modi to resign as chief minister in 2003 only to be eliminated by Modi from the BJP leadership when he became Prime Minister in 2014.

India’s polity, which had been split on ideological lines, once the BJP began its campaign for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1989, now sharpened its ideological credo of Hindutva. Modi went one better. He openly became a staunch Hindutvaite and openly anti-Muslim.

The Congress Party is attacked as being pro-Muslim although its leaders Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul, ostentatiously visit Hindu temples. Modi and his cohorts attack critics as being pro-Pakistan and freely impugn their patriotism. That is the quality of political debate.

What Arthur Balfour sagaciously wrote so many years ago is being realised by people now “Should anyone be inclined to regard this [his list of tests for a democracy] as an overstatement, let him seriously consider these last qualifications for Cabinet government; namely, if the divisions between parties are too numerous or too profound. Multiplicity of political parties is not the only vice that can impair democracy.”

“Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for Cabinet government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure.” That would be enough to wreck parliamentary democracy.

A silver lining has appeared on the horizon in recent weeks to tell us that India’s secularism is very much alive. It is the protests by students, cutting across the religious and political divide, against Modi’s communal law amending the Citizenship Act. Students of the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi did not lag behind. Police outrages on them drew universal support. Modi is not invincible.

By arrangement with Dawn

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