Tuesday, 21 March, 2023
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Gujarat has two faces of Hindutva. Rahul Gandhi is the only political opposition to it

In walking with Prashant Bhushan yesterday, Rahul Gandhi may have forgiven the handmaidens of Hindutva, all too easily and certainly all too early.

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On the very day uber civil society activist Prashant Bhushan walked into Telangana with Rahul Gandhi on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Indian National Congress came third in a bypoll in the state. It is a state created by the Congress during the bygone era of the United Progressive Alliance government. The populist regional party — Telangana Rashtra Samithi, now called Bharat Rashtra Samithi — just about prevailed over the national hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

What is missing in this picture of solidarity from the day’s yatra is that the energetic Bhushan and his allies had created the very momentum that led to the loss of electoral faith in the Congress-led UPA. We all know Rahul Gandhi believes in forgiveness, and perhaps, Bhushan is only atoning. As an observer with no skin for political penance or forgiveness, I can only squirm at this jarring image.

INC, BJP and X

A more consequential struggle shot through with bad faith is taking place west of Telangana in Gujarat where state elections have just been announced. As the primary state where Prime Minister Narendra Modi branded and moulded his Hindutva agenda, Gujarat maxes out prestige for the ruling party. The Congress fought hard and came within a whisker to form government there in 2017. The Aam Admi Party (AAP), helmed by Bhushan’s erstwhile protege Arvind Kejriwal, is the new entrant with outsized ambition and outlandish claims that has now staked a claim to the state.

The first set of voter surveys predicts a three-way contest. Initial voter polls peg Kejriwal and the AAP at the same level of 21 per cent of voter share as the Congress. What was, until very recently, a two-horse race will now be a triangular contest in Gujarat this winter. With details of the third group altering outcomes in each state or region, such a triad of the BJP, INC and X is set to be repeated across the country. Yet, it is the AAP that seeks to project itself beyond a region or even the city-state of Delhi from where it first emerged.

In seeking to insert himself in Gujarat, win, lose, or act spoiler, Kejriwal hopes to project himself as the face of opposition to Modi. What the AAP lacks in capacity, Kejriwal makes up with audacity. This may be audacious, but it is effectively dishonest — ideologically and politically. But that has not stopped anyone from winning an election.

Also read: AAP’s filling a big vacuum in Indian politics. Question is how long it can sustain without ideology

More than the Modi wave

Arvind Kejriwal fashioned his rise by heckling and rubbishing the political establishment. Casting the voter as a helpless victim, Kejriwal, in his 2012 book and manifesto Swaraj, went as far as to say: “The root cause of the problem is that in the political system of our country, we cast our votes once in five years, and for the next five, we grovel in front of the same people we voted for and chose as our representatives.” Seeking what scholars call ‘direct democracy’, Kejriwal batted with his words for active participation to close the so-called gap between the voter and voted.

The media loved Kejriwal, and it still does. Scholars breathlessly pontificated on a new and hopeful chapter in India’s democracy. Civil society activists and other do-gooders used their enormous powers of virtue signalling to mobilise and agitate against the so-called decadent prevailing order. Political power and any whiff of governance were equated with corruption.

More than the 2014 Modi wave, it was India Against Corruption that morphed into AAP that immobilised the UPA II with an endlessly charged Delhi and an adoring media. No, this is no free pass for the UPA, but note that Kejriwal changed the political language and rules of India’s democracy. Too much credit is given to Modi, I say.

By comparison, the BJP is a traditional party with an aggressive and exclusive agenda for the pursuit of identity and power. Its oldest parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is nearly 100 years old. And since its formation in 1980, the BJP has had a long slog for political ascendancy. At the extreme, it’s a century-long slog, or, at the very least, it has taken the BJP 40 years to direct India’s future. Even the harshest of critics will have to concede that the BJP’s recent hegemony has taken toil and trouble over a long time.

Only 10 years after first bursting onto the Indian political landscape, Kejriwal is setting up his stall to challenge Modi in Gujarat.

Also read: Six reasons why Bharat Jodo Yatra isn’t simply a routine political ‘tamasha’

Bad faith or Hindutva’s two faces

I have — from the get-go — believed that the AAP was not merely populist but also dishonest about its political vision for India. Now the proof is finally out there. With its demand for Hindu deities Lakshmi and Ganesh as replacements for M.K. Gandhi on currency notes, it is evident that the AAP isn’t Hindutva lite. It is merely strategic and less demanding of your passions and loyalty. After all, since at least 1990, the BJP has been asking Hindus to prove their ‘Hinduness’, initially in the name of a temple for Lord Ram, and since then, the list of loyalty tests has been endless and even exhausting.

Kejriwal does no such thing. He knows that the voter must go about their daily business or demanding job to pay bills, look after their domestic obligations, and thus must not be pressed too hard. After all, he can truthfully say he was once just like them, ordinary, or just aam. An ordinary family man who has had to neither sacrifice domestic life nor submit to the rigours of a shakha, Kejriwal has crafted his image in contrast to the invincible Modi.

The contest between Hindutva and its original political enemy, Gandhi, is currently being channelled in the expanse and growing popularity of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Just as Rahul Gandhi is breaking new and badly needed ground to counteract a ‘Hindu First’ vision of India, the AAP and Kejriwal are undercutting that political path.

This is because Hindutva today does not have one but rather two political parties. Above all, it now has not one but two faces. The Gujarat election will make this all too clear. This should give little to no solace to those opposed to Hindutva.

Kejriwal and his party are unlikely to form government in Gujarat this winter. Yet, what the AAP’s entry proves is that its presence is sufficient to prevent a real opposition to emerge against Hindutva and the BJP, precisely because it has pluralised Hindutva politics in India. Much in the same way the AAP reduced politics to civic consumerism in Delhi, Indians now will be offered multiple shades of Hindutva, starting with Gujarat.

This makes the work of real political opposition to Hindutva a lot harder. It also makes the work of appearances crucial. The yatra’s soaring popularity increasingly proves that Rahul Gandhi is the political face against Hindutva. Yet, in walking with Prashant Bhushan yesterday, he may have forgiven the handmaidens of Hindutva, all too easily and certainly all too early.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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