Netas talk Section 377, but BJP's silence rings loudest

In the wake of the SC ruling, some parties opposed the decision while others equivocated, but one national party was conspicuously silent.

Lakshmi Chaudhry December 12, 2013 22:37:32 IST
Netas talk Section 377, but BJP's silence rings loudest

"Ok so now that Cong BJP AAP BJD CPI TMC have all spoken against #Sec377 can we just scrap it in parliament with no dirty politics? please?," tweeted Chetan Bhagat today, pointing to seeming multi-party unanimity on the recent Supreme Court ruling that, in essence, criminalised homosexuality again.

The list rattled off by Bhagat is technically accurate -- at least one leader of each of these parties has indeed come out against the Section 377 judgement. But it's also partial and somewhat misleading. Apart from the statement issued by Rajya Sabha MP Piyush Goyal, the BJP has remained conspicuously silent.

The Congress, as expected, initially put forward a muddled front. Speaking as the representative of the government, Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal equivocated,"It's the SC's prerogative under the constitution to test the constitutionality of a law. They are exercising their prerogative. We have the prerogative to make laws. We shall exercise our prerogative."

Netas talk Section 377 but BJPs silence rings loudest

Sonia has done her bit. Will Modi and the BJP? PTI

But other Congress leaders were freer with their words -- though they were framed again as 'unofficial' responses. "In my personal opinion,the state must not interfere in 2 consenting adults private lives," said the state Minister of Home Affairs, RPN Singh. And Milind Deora emerged as the Twitterati hero for his full throated criticism on NDTV where he declared, "Nobody should regulate someone's sexual preferences and what happens inside their homes."

But now the Home Minister P Chidambaram has finally taken the baton firmly in hand and come out fighting for the cause of gay rights in this country.

"LGBT has the right to have sex as they wish. SC has taken us back to 1860," he tells NDTV's Sunetra Choudhary, promising that the Attorney General is exploring options to bring a curative petition for matter to go to a larger bench, and that the government will also explore "legislative options." Chidamabaram also claims, "There was unanimity in GoM and cabinet against 377. We didn't repeal as HC had already read it down."

The last may be a bit disingenuous since the government long flip-flopped on the issue before finally deciding to do the right thing. But the fact remains that Chidambaram's stance represents an unexpected and rare show of resolve in a government that has long been known for its penchant for indecision -- particularly on matters that are politically explosive. That his comments were quickly followed up by Sonia Gandhi herself who called on the Parliament to "uphold Constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens" is all the more astonishing.

It is certain to earn the Congress kudos among the urban professional classes who were alienated by the UPA's handling of social issues such as the Delhi gangrape. It will also generate some much needed positive coverage from the national media which increasingly treats the ruling party as a lame duck loser.

Perhaps best of all for the UPA, this new-found progressive zeal is certain to put its rival in a very uncomfortable place. Amidst the incessant chatter over Section 377, the the loudest sound has been of deafening silence from the national opposition party. Other than Piyush Goyal, none of the usual BJP suspects, be it legal eagles like Arun Jaitley or quote-friendly pols like Sushma Swaraj or Nitin Gadkari, would say a word.

Unlike the Congress which was already pushed into picking sides when the case was kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court, the BJP long had the option to stay on the sidelines -- studiously ignoring the fact that one of the petitioners challenging the Section 377 verdict is BJP leader BP Singhal. The responses have so far been limited to unsourced quotes like these:

One senior leader said, “Persons with a natural preference of same-gender sex cannot be said to be against the order of nature, and this could have escaped being counted as an offence under Section 377.” Another leader, on the other hand, said homosexuality is something that could ideally be accommodated but “it will still not naturally fit in the psyche of the country at the moment”.

The 'say nothing' position can, at best, be interpreted as a politically expedient decision designed to keep the traditional RSS base happy without alienating its more progressive, urban educated supporters -- especially those who support Narendra Modi for his development agenda, but would be put off by a hardline socially conservative line.

But if  the BJP continues to stay mum despite the UPA's strong advocacy, the decision will read as outright cowardly. Social hot-button topics, be it homosexuality or women's safety, are no longer minor issues that have little electoral relevance -- more so for a party that is betting both on its urban appeal and its traditional Hindu base. Both will expect the BJP to speak out. Silence is no longer an option. (Nor is dissembling like Meenakshi Lekhi who claims the HC ruling would have eliminated Section 377.)

The good news, however, for the BJP is that decriminalising homosexuality may not have the broad-based support to do damage if it does toe the RSS line on this one. But such loyalty is no longer cost-free in new India.

The SC ruling is somewhat tricky for the BJP since it is being framed in terms of constitutional issues of individual freedom and equality. Even those who don't particularly approve of homosexuality in the urban middle class are increasingly uncomfortable with identity-based discrimination, especially the youngistan that adores Narendra Modi.  And it will be embarrassing for its many erudite and progressive supporters who champion its cause on Twitter -- and claim that the 'modern' BJP under Modi represents a break from the social conservatism of its past. An RSS-loyal stance on the SC ruling will also confirm what critics have long alleged about the party under Modi: that it is just old saffron in new packaging.

In many ways, Section 377 represents a long-postponed moment of reckoning for the party and its leader. In the end, both will have to jump off the fence they straddle between cultural conservatism of the RSS and the libertarian free market policies. Development brings with it the desire -- nay, demand -- for personal liberty. And Modi cannot continue to tout one while ignoring the other. After all, Modi wants to be India's Prime Minister in 2014 -- not 1914.

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