The Bharatiya Janata Party is increasingly coming under pressure from the right-wing fringe groups within the larger Sangh Parivar, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, to embrace a robust version of Hindutva. These fellow-passengers who have in the past contributed to the BJP's ascendance during the movement for the construction of a Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid stood, are looking to find their moment in the political limelight yet again on the back of a BJP revival.
For the BJP, which has been unable thus far to distinguish itself - at the centre of Indian politics - as a party with a difference, a lurch to the right may appear to be a tempting proposition to stand out from the crowd of "secular" parties and burnish its unique selling proposition as a vehicle for the muscular assertion of a Hindu identity. After all, the party's parliamentary strength in the late 1980s and early 1990s was vastly enhanced by the unabashed embrace of the Hindutva platform.
But, in fact, this would be a losing proposition for the BJP today. For a start, Indian politics has undergone a dramatic transformation since the 1990s, ironically in response to the rise of the BJP as a potent political force. And although the BJP's own Ram temple campaign was a manifest attempt to consolidate the Hindu fold in response to the "Mandalisation" of politics - which sought to carve out the social order along caste lines - it's fair to say that the politics of caste identity has become so institutionalised over the past two decades that at some level even the BJP has had to play by those perverted rules.
In that sense, for all the momentary upsurge in the BJP's parliamentary strength following the strident Hindutva campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the party actually lost out over the long haul from the perception that it was divisive in the extreme. Images of Bajrang Dal and VHP volunteers brandishing trishuls and sabres served to intimidate not just religious minorities but even those in the centre-right who yearned for the BJP to project a forward-looking image of itself. But the ascendance of the BJP brought with it an outpouring of regressive, backward-looking ideas and postulations that severely dented the public perceptions of the party beyond the diehard right-wing constituency.
There's political a lesson from the late 1990s that the BJP would do well to bear in mind. It came to power under AB Vajpayee only after it subsumed its Hindutva identity somewhat by pushing some of the hot-button issues - the Ram temple campaign, the demand for a uniform civil code and the demand for repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution (which affords special status to Jammu and Kashmir) - onto the backburner of politics.
Instead, the NDA under Vajpayee became the face of economic reforms, taking some tough decisions that pulled the economy back from a slide and simultaneously unleashed a second burst of entrepreneurial energy in India. Politics doesn't permit of "If only" alibis, but it's a fair bet that if the Gujarat riots of 2002 had not happened, the NDA would have been returned to power in 2004 - and altered the course of India's economic history since then.
The far right constituency, of course, moans to this day that the Vajpayee years were a disaster, but that's just the frustration of having been rendered irrelevant. And even the BJP took away the wrong economic message from that loss: it has since lost its nerve on economic reforms, which is why it has today yielded ground to the Congress in the matter of the one area in which it had the chance to distinguish itself as a socially moderate centre-right party.
The supreme irony is that today, the name that is being bandied about the most as the BJP's inevitable candidate for Prime Ministership - Narendra Modi - has endeavoured over the past decade to 'rebrand' himself as representing the aspirations of a neo-middle class. In so doing, he has distanced himself from - some would say 'tamed' - the VHP and Bajrang Dal in Gujarat to the point where they were actually working alongside the Congress in the December Assembly elections and working to unseat Modi.
For all of the characterisation of Modi as a polarising figure in the context of the 2002 riots, it is just as true that today, he channels the developmental aspirations of a cross-section of middle India that feels frustrated by the UPA government's economic record of the past nine years.
The BJP should be looking to harness that aspirational sentiment, not a regressive, backward-looking, divisive Hindutva agenda that may not even work as well today as it did in an earlier time - because the Indian polity has evolved in the past two decades. If the BJP yields to the Hindutva temptation, it would walk right into the trap set by the Congress: Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's comments on "Hindu terror" were intended to muddy the waters and force the BJP to lurch to the right, and consolidate the "secular" votes around the Congress.
In fact, leaders like Shinde and the Owaisi brothers are doing a good enough job of consolidating the far-right votes for the BJP without the latter having to embrace a strident Hindutva agenda.
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