The latest PEW research survey on Indians and religiosity has made headlines and sparked much debate. Can it teach us something about our politics?
So far, the discussion has remained mostly in the parameters of sociology: How religious Indians of various faiths are, how respectfully they see others, their views on neighbours, nationalism and food. But does it answer questions like, how do you win an election in India? More specifically, what do you tell the voter, and in which language, so that they buy into your message and proposition?
Narendra Modi and his BJP know the answers. So, the questions are not for them, but others who’ve been wracking their brains and banging their heads against the titanium wall of his electoral proposition. They also know it is possible to defeat the BJP when Modi himself is not on the ticket. West Bengal being the latest example.
The big prize, however, is the Centre. Why have they failed to offer him even a reasonable challenge?
If you were an aspirant from the opposition, you’d ask, with good reason, just why does his vote percentage keep rising? Why aren’t people listening to me?
Does secularism mean nothing to them? Has my country changed so radically in the past seven years? How come even the pull of caste fails now? Case in point, the 2019 SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh.
And if people are so brainwashed that it is so impossible to make them understand something else, what can I do?
People of India, we know, are busy. They don’t have time to listen to all comers, to decipher their words, intentions, read their minds. You have to give them the message they want to hear. You can also make them want to hear that message. But, you can only do it if you talk to them in the language they understand and also respect. You know by now that just a count of Modi’s “flaws” doesn’t impress them.
What should that language be? We find many answers in the data from this PEW survey as we search beyond the headline points. Many of these answers, in fact, lie in the contradictions it throws up. And please perish the lazy argument that this is just a survey of 30,000 people. If the methodology is robust, a survey does not need the numbers of a referendum. Psephologist Sanjay Kumar tells us in a series of tweets that the survey by his Lokniti-CSDS had also produced similar numbers in 2015. Perish also the lazy thought then that Modi’s rise has so Hinduised India, others have no future.
Let’s list the most important and instructive contradictions.
First, almost all Indians are deeply religious, yet equally tolerant of other faiths.
Second, they see religion as the central pillar of their identity, but do not expect that it also define nationalism for others.
Third, they believe it is an essential calling of their faith, and a responsibility of their nationalism, to respect followers of other faiths and yet one-third of them do not want a neighbour from another religion.
Fourth, even 97 per cent of those who vote for the Left are believers.
And fifth, while they love their fellow citizens of other faiths, adore India’s diversity and share equally the feeling of patriotism, they mostly don’t want anybody from amongst them marrying outside the flock. This aversion to marrying “outside” extends strongly to caste as well.
Here are the five political takeaways from these data points. One, Indians are deeply secular, not in spite of their religiosity, but because of it. Second, they do not believe the canard that somehow people of another faith, or a particular faith, are not loyal to the country. Because if they were, they won’t respect them. Third, I’d prefer my neighbour to be from my faith because, stretching from culture, rituals, festivals, to most importantly food, it gives me a sense of community. It is instructive that the community most averse to a neighbour from another faith are the Jains (61 per cent). They have particularly distinctive, vegetarian choices. Fourth, I may vote for the Left, but I have no time for their God-less ideology. This could be why the Left is shrinking in India instead of growing despite the deep inequalities. And last, of course I love a fellow Indian of any faith, but inter-marrying is going too far.
To sum all of these up: I adore my country’s diversity. But I like my own diverse identity as well. Don’t toss me up in a homogeniser with others. Unity is not uniformity. Anybody who pushes it, will provoke my hyper-sensitive immune system.
How does Narendra Modi’s BJP get around it? They appeal sharply and unhesitatingly to the Hindu-Indian identity. They’ve already discounted the minority, especially Muslim voters. They won’t ever vote for us, you see, so dear Hindus, will more of you vote for us, or will you rather give a minority a veto on who rules India? It is a language voters understand. In most states, if they win more than half the Hindu vote, they are home. In West Bengal, the need was steeper, more like 60-65 per cent, so they failed.
It follows that because Muslims mostly vote against the BJP, it is painted as a vote against the Hindus. Eighty-one versus 15 is game, set and match before the ball is served. Barring in states where other determinants of identity are more dominant. As in Tamil Nadu.
People are not listening to Modi’s rivals because they are speaking a language they neither like, nor understand. You lecture them on secularism, people wonder if you are suggesting they are bigoted. You promise them socialism, but so does everyone else. Indian politics has invented the largest number of variants of socialism. You attack Modi for economic performance, and the answer is, a voter doesn’t live by roti-dal alone.
Over the decades, in the confusion of the agnostic, rational, inherited Nehruvian secularism — drummed into the heads of generations by intellectuals of the Left — Congress, and many other parties, especially in the heartland, have ceded religion to the BJP. India will never be secular because people put their religious identity aside. India will remain secular because it is deeply religious and its people have internalised poet Iqbal’s message: Mazhab nahin sikhata, aapas mein bair rakhna (religion doesn’t teach us to hate each other). You irritate me when you sermonise me. Take my secularism for granted, or I see it as a dog whistle to the minorities (Muslims) to vote for you.
This confusion between who’s a Hindu voter and who a secular one is one of the main reasons why Modi’s rivals have failed to mount a challenge to him. If the BJP wins by getting Hindu voters to consolidate, its opponents can’t beat it by bundling together the Muslims and some of the “others”, mostly specific caste groups. A credible challenger would need to bring Hindus and Muslims together, while they live in their own respective skins, neighbourhoods and kinships. That’s the political idiom and language the findings of this PEW survey commend.