Delving into Dharma: BJP’s New Political Chemistry

We are currently witnessing a spate of writings voicing misgivings about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hidden agenda, and rejoicing that the compulsions of coalition politics have forced it to shelve contentious issues, notably the construction of a new temple at Ayodhya, abolition of Article 370 conferring special status on Jammu & Kashmir, and implementation of a uniform civil code. Such writings ignore the spirit of the change underway in society, and the extent of the ground covered by the party since it assumed its present incarnation 18 years ago.

Surprisingly, even eminent political and social scientists continue to assess India’s new ruling   party in terms of the sterile yardsticks of communalism and secularism, and display an amazing ignorance of its genesis and objectives. Indeed, they betray a poor understanding of the Indian concept of political leadership in general, and this may account for the failure to properly appreciate the burgeoning assertion of the aspirations of the majority community that has been taking place under the auspices of the BJP.

Theories of nationhood and statehood shaped by our colonial experiences uphold the state as a neutral arbiter between the competing aspirations of various social groups that comprise the nation, and fail to appreciate that Indians as a people cannot conceive of the state as morally neutral. This was the reason for British unease when quitting – they knew Indians would eventually balk at the exclusion of dharma from the public sphere. It could also explain the West’s discomfort at the prospect of the culture and ethos of the Hindus occupying the national centre-stage by natural right.

Twin Concepts

In India, dharma was the basis of kingship and legitimacy, regardless of the ruler’s personal religious sectarian preferences. Learned Brahmins interpreted dharma according to the needs of the age, and bestowed legitimacy on the ruler(s). At the popular level, dharma was disseminated    through mythology, the stories of just and pious rulers, famous sages, etc. It is important to note that it was not really the Brahmin who conferred legitimacy, but dharma that did so. Dharma eternal, but it was not rigid or unchanging.

It was dharma, in the guise of Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa, the poignant fact of the name of Ram on his lips, and Nehru’s personal moral code and refined sense of justice and right, that enabled the Congress to dominate the polity in the decades after independence, even though it professed an ideology alien to the spirit of the people. I would add that his awareness of the Indian concern for state morality led Nehru to subtly project his twin concepts of socialism and secularism as the modern-day heirs of dharma, and to modify the strict neutralism enjoined by secularism to give a better deal to the Harijans (now called Dalits).

It is no secret that the intelligentsia assented to Nehru’s secularism because the trauma of Partition had shattered its confidence. What is not equally known is that the proposal for “Hindu Rashtra” failed to take off because its proponents had no clear notion of what such a nation entailed, and how different citizens, especially minorities, would fare in it.

Change in Ethos

From the dawn of freedom, the Hindus retained an indefinable sense of needing something,   and to my mind this led to the otherwise inexplicable collapse of the Congress in northern India in 1967. The search to define India’s nationhood in terms of her own cultural moorings, however, could not make meaningful headway so long as it took the form of non-Congress or anti-Congress alternatives.

Both Morarji Desai and Mr. V.P. Singh were too self-righteous to understand that the people were not merely rejecting the financial profligacy, corruption or highhandedness of a coterie or a party; they were seeking a change in the ethos of governance. Neither Desai nor Mr. Singh could comprehend the dynamics of dharma, which is not a static soulless concept, but rather a driving force for restructuring the public realm to make the state non-predacious, and make it supportive of public enterprise and responsive to public needs. Obviously failed to change or improve the system, or even ensure the longevity of their respective governments.

Ever since the BJP began to make strides in the first-past-the-post electoral system, it has become fashionable for commentators to bemoan the ‘distortions’ of the Westminster model in practice. In reality, India has merely been interpreting and adapting this model in light of her own genius. Hitherto, its negative features have revealed themselves – the emergence of caste and communal votebanks, and the possibility of electoral victory on a minority vote percentage through strategic alliances of caste and community. Now, however, the time has come for positive changes in the people’s perceptions to manifest themselves.

The BJP’s espousal of the Ram Janmabhoomi cause can be said to have triggered off a fundamental shift in the political paradigm. Outwardly, an attempt to reclaim the birthplace of Lord Rama, the movement was actually a potent force to bring dharma back into the public sphere as the central organising principle of Indian politics. Mr. L.K. Advani’s Ram rathyatra and su-raj yatra were important exercises in translating the concept of dharma from the domain of mythology and scripture to the public realm. That is why, despite the seeming reverses suffered by the BJP in the aftermath of the reclamation of the Janmabhoomi, the movement actually gathered momentum, and pushed the boundaries of aryavarta beyond the Vindhyas.

The BJP’s success in casting dharma as ideology gave it the thrust it needed to break out of its north India-Hindi heartland   mould, and acquire a presence in virtually every region and state. The early projection of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his impeccable record of rectitude and probity in public life, made it easy to identify him as a maryada purush. The leitmotif of the recent elections is undoubtedly a positive assertion of Indian nationalism, without the negative overtones that have accompanied such an effort in the past.

Ram Temple

Critics deride the BJP for “betraying” its mandate by postponing the reconstruction of a new Ram temple – an issue which brought down the V.P. Singh government and saw the defeat of the Narasimha Rao-led Congress. Their’s is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. Certainly the BJP heads a fragile coalition, but it has already, through the rigorous manipulation of public awareness over the past few years, implanted the ideal of maryada purushottam in the minds and hearts of all Indians.

Already a new political chemistry has been created, as witnessed by Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, Mr. Farooq Abdullah, Prafulla Mohanta and Mr. Om Prakash Chautala’s decision to cooperate with the new regime.

The arid arithmetic of the caste-centred, minority-based, ‘secular’ parties has also failed to add up. The rest will no doubt follow in good time.

Time of India, 6 May 1998

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