Religious Right and its political future

Harish Khare

The controversy over Sadhvi Pragnya Singh Thakur, accused of terror activities, is once again testing the depth of constitutional values in our politics.

The Religious Right has grafted for itself a new layer of ideological justification

It is making its last ditch attempt to induce young India

One of the many significant but underappreciated dimensions of the Barack Obama moment in the United States has to be the definite rebuff for the religious right. The organised religious right was at the core of the Republican ascendancy for nearly three decades. Fundamentalist preachers and evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson used the pulpit and the reach of the cable television to manufacture a new American mood, away from its post-world war liberal values; in the process, the organised religious right acquired the clout to make or unmake congressional and presidential candidates. And, it was the stupendous success of this phenomenon that provided the model and the inspiration — and, the linkages — for the Hindutva project in India. Indeed, the Ayodhya movement borrowed, rather copied, heavily the tactics and ideas from the Christian Right in America.

The Obama victory and its implied setback for the conservative Christian fundamentalism have come at a time when the Religious Right is trying to reassert itself, once again, in Indian political life. The Hindutva voices have resurrected the old proposition, first heard during the Ayodhya insurgency, that the sadhus and sants could not be subjected to the compulsions and constraints of the constitutional order. Their latest refrain is that a sadhvi, even when accused of involvement in terror activities, was entitled to be treated with kid gloves because “sadhus and sants” were a revered lot in India. The religious functionaries ipso facto could not be made answerable to the rule of law and its procedural insistences.

The assorted BJP leaders have bought into these immunity claims in this election season, partly because of the fear of falling out of the sangh parivar’s favour and partly because they think the country is in a mood to approve and applaud some kind of majoritarian vigilantism. The manner and extent to which the BJP leaders choose to kowtow to the sangh parivar’s dictates is their business; but, the claims being made by the BJP leaders of different yardsticks of investigation and interrogation for the Hindu religious functionaries are untenable.

In the months and years after “9/11” the Hindutva crowd happily embraced the George Bush-Dick Cheney-invented categories of friends and enemies, of good and bad guys; read the Washington rhetoric as a validation of its own anti-Islam theological prejudices and anti-Muslim political preferences; and, all these impulses converged during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In these last few years of the UPA rule the Religious Right in India has grafted for itself a new layer of ideological justification: because of its presumed “vote-bank politics” the Manmohan Singh government would not deploy optimally all the resources of the Indian state against the “enemy” and therefore it was up to the majority community to get even, put the fear of retaliation and revenge among the Muslims. The BJP leaders calculate – like the Republicans did in the United States – that there is a rich electoral harvest to be reaped and all that they have to do is to find an emotive enough issue to tap the Hindu “base.” The party believes that in the likes of Sadhvi Pragnya Singh Thakur and Lt. Col. Purohit it has found the icons around whom to replicate the electoral success of early 1990s. If in the earlier days of the Ayodhya “movement” the Religious Right tapped the medieval animosities, it has now convinced itself that the majority community is psychologically primed up to countenance a new idiom of violent hatred.

The old Hindutva platform brought together the aggressively nationalist, the self-styled deshbhakt, the orthodox and the traditionalist, and the “anti-foreigner”; it became a successful coalition on a national level when it could entice the liberal, centrist voters, primarily on the strength of the appeal of a “decent” Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Pokhran-II and the Kargil War consolidated the appeal of the new Vajpayee-centric coalition.

Even as the Vajpayee appeal dissipated itself, the sangh parivar remains convinced that it continues to have the monopoly of the “nationalist” constituency. This is an erroneous assumption. Pakistan no longer looms so large as the organised “enemy” state as it did a decade ago. True, the ISI and other unfriendly “intelligence” agencies in our immediate neighbourhood continue to have the capacity to stage periodic terror strikes, but Pakistan is too internally distracted by its own turmoil to constitute a “threat” in our national imagination. Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh is construed in our collective thinking as centres of imperturbable sites of implacable hostility.

Second, the BJP can no longer be deemed to enjoy the status of the sole spokesman of the middle class “nationalist” sentiment and aspirations. Its presumed monopoly was snatched away from it during the two-year-old debate on the controversial “123” nuclear-agreement with the United States. In was the CPI(M)-led Left Front that positioned itself as the uncompromising champion of the “strategic” autonomy and “independent” foreign policy. Oddly enough, that two-year-long struggle also saw the Congress pinching away the allegiance of the NRIs, a significant source of energy and resources over the years for the Hindutva crowd back in India.

While the sangh parivar is right in wanting to market the BJP as the (electoral) answer to our unanswered prayer for effective response to the terror-mongering outfits, the larger question is whether the Indian middle classes, especially the younger generation, are willing to concede space and deference to sadhus, sadhvis and sants in public policy. Mr. Obama has demonstrated that it is possible to get the better of political strategies based on divisions and compartmentalisation; in the process he seems to have inflicted an irrevocable reverse on the politics of religious right, on all those who insist on defining patriotism and nationalism in narrower terms.

The Religious Right in India is making its last ditch attempt to induce young India to put its faith in the presumed wisdom of religious functionaries. Young India is also too cynical, too self-assured, too globally-savvy, and too hooked on profit and good things in life to defer to sadhus, sants and sadhvis. Just as the voters in Jammu and Kashmir have surprised everyone with their democratic engagement, the citizens in the rest of the country too would prefer constitutional values and decencies to the allure of majoritarian vigilantism.

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