Without getting into the philosophical antecedents of secularism, at its core is the separation of religion and state. In democracies, however, the religious affiliation of voters creates problems if a vocal minority defines its political identity in religious terms, as has happened with the large Muslim community in India.
Indian Muslims are as diverse and vote as differently and along self-interest lines as other citizens do. But political parties have found it convenient to create a persona of a Muslim voter who cares less for economic opportunities available to him and his offspring to make good in the world than for such advantages as the state exclusively bestows on him as a member of a minority faith.
Of course, these advantages are ephemeral because should the parties waving the secular flag overdo their supposedly secularist credo, an apprehensive majority would either vote them out or prevent them from gaining power, which no political party wants to risk.
Thus, secularism is reduced to grand promises and symbolic gestures that achieve nothing substantive for Muslims and other minorities than a fleeting sense of being catered to. This is politics reduced to religious identity, and identity to mere slogans.
The NDA allies, such as the Janata Dal (U), will grudgingly accept Modi as PM because Nitish Kumar needs BJP support to rule in Bihar. Were he to succumb to Congress blandishments, his government may get temporary reprieve but will be forever tainted with its new association and have its personality submerged in the Congress party’s larger image, and will find itself as another regional party tied to Congress party’s apron strings.
The credibility Nitish now commands as a principled politician will be instantly lost. Talking of principles and the “rajdharma” Narendra-bhai is supposed to have not followed in 2002. It must be recognised that he was in power for only a couple of months and just beginning to get a handle on the levers of state government when the Godhra train burning sparked the anti-Muslim riots. The accusation, in the event, that he didn’t do all that he could have to stop the carnage nor show “magnanimity” towards the victims, is to lose perspective.
Secularism spouted by the Congress Party sounds offensive considering that helmed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 it oversaw the cold-blooded mass killings of the Sikhs in the Capital, with the numbers of those killed exceeding by far the numbers of dead Muslims killed in Gujarat 18 years later.
The ostensible reason for this anti-Sikh pogrom, it may be recalled, was to “teach” the Sikh community “a lesson” reflecting the spitefulness the Congress is known for. In the aftermath, its henchmen tasked for the dirty job, such as Jagdish Tytler, took the rap and, over the years, have been allowed to “twist slowly in the wind”.
The revival by the courts of the case against Tytler also highlights the differences in the two atrocities. Godhra was a horrendous event and the horrific instant reaction to it against Muslims generally, suggested a breakdown of law and order which even the strongest leader would have found hard to contain in the face of an aroused public. The Delhi massacres, on the other hand, were calculated targeting of persons of a community by the Congress-run central and state governments in an area — the Union Territory of Delhi — which size-wise is a small fraction of Gujarat. If maintenance of law and order is a function of size, then keeping order in Delhi should have been a snap.
But the goons were on the street and ran amuck because they were expressly encouraged by the ruling Congress party to wreak bloody vengeance, which they did. If Narendra Modi can so readily be pilloried for not exercising his authority, what about Rajiv Gandhi’s role in the murders of thousands of Sikhs he legitimated with his bone-chilling statement: “When a large tree falls, the earth shakes”? For the Congress party to claim secularist credentials, in the event and, further, sit on judgment of Modi, is not just rich but farcical.
It is in this milieu of moral relativism, that the JD (U) Central Committee’s deliberations last weekend must be judged. If this party is upset that Modi failed “to discharge his duty” during the riots, then it is a fairly mild response to deter the BJP from possibly anointing the Gujarat strongman as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014. It is also loose enough wording to allow JD(U) to escape the tight corner it has painted itself into.
It is in no position to do much were Rajnath Singh to explain to Nitish Modi that, like other parties, BJP will choose its prime minister after it crosses the 170-180 mark of the Lok Sabha seats. At that tipping point, the smaller parties, including JD(U) will have the choice of rallying to BJP’s standard, coalescing around the Congress Party reduced to 135-140 Members of Parliament, or forming a Third Front with outside help. With Congress more inclined to be the prop for such a regime, the smaller parties bickering among themselves with the sad sack, Mulayam Singh, in the van, will find themselves in the position Charan Singh’s government did in 1981, and will be fated to suffer the same ignominious end when the Congress kicks the support from underneath it.
The general elections that follow this fiasco will be the decisive one and there’s little doubt Modi’s BJP will be hoisted into power by a clear majority.
Facing this prospect, will the JD(U) still split from the BJP, paving the way for the return of the abominable Lalu Yadav in Patna? Nitish can posture all he wants, but JD(U) and the other parties constituting the National Democratic Alliance cannot avoid the trend that is set to make Modi stronger, not weaker, in the years to come. The December deadline, however, permits Nitish and his cohort to consider the trade-offs in staying with BJP or striking out on an unpredictable path partnering the Congress party, which will leave the JD(U) cannibalised.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com