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BJP’s TANGO WITH OWAISI

THE BJP-OWAISI TANGO:

The immediate politics of the BJP-Owaisi tango, as a bipolar political whole, should be obvious.  In public, they are the North and South poles of a straight magnet, destined to be always poles apart.  Very few among the laity would suspect that in portraying themselves as the singular champions of their respective communities, Hindu and Muslim, they are in fact helping each other consolidate their hold over the laity, by simultaneously creating a sharply defined “enemy” for the other, and thus deeply entrenching a sectarian and communal divide between them.  Hate on both sides only grows.

BJP gains from the staged confrontation with an “arch enemy” by consolidating the Hindu vote in its favor.  Owaisi similarly gains the backing of Muslims as some one seen to contesting BJP’s effort to marginalize Muslims.  As this staged confrontation gains center-stage, Hindus and Muslims drift towards opposite poles, while the moderate middle [note I don’t call it secular middle because I am no longer sure such a thing exists] loses support.  The ultimate aim of all extreme opinion is to scorch the middle, making reconciliation impossible, and confrontation inevitable.

The advantage to Owaisi is similarly obvious.  The staged confrontation pits him as champion of the Muslims, fighting the BJP leviathan.  It helps him consolidate the Muslim vote behind him, and emerge as the sole voice of Muslims.  In a sense, BJP is “creating” the political Owaisi, in order to slot Muslims, as the permanent “other” in national politics.  This may suit Owaisi for now, but what of the future for Muslims, and that for the Indian polity?

THE GREEK TRAGEDY:

To the extent that BJP relentlessly pursues its aggressive Hindu Nationalism agenda, a backlash of sub-nationalism from minorities becomes inevitable.  So in a sense, Owaisi is playing a role that was inevitable.  If not him, it would be somebody else like him.  

So I am not writing this piece to apportion blame to X, Y or Z, but to examine the consequences of the tango for the polity as a whole, from the POV of an Indian, interested in a liberal democracy.

Firstly, it is for Modi, BJP, and RSS, to stop and think what they are doing.  A good starting point for such introspection would be the the role of the Khilafat Movement, particularly Gandhis support for it, in the rise of Muslim Nationalism on the sub-continent.

LESSON FROM KHILAFAT MOVEMENT:

Consider the irony of the situation as it existed then.  The Khilafat Movement was launched by Muslims in South Asia to save the Caliphate from dismemberment following the Ottoman defeat in WW I, and the treaty of Severes.  Very few Muslims in the sub-continent were bothered by the fate of the Caliphate in distant Turkey.  Turkey itself turned secular after the movement collapsed as Britain relaxed a few provisions of the treaty. 

The fledgling Muslim League had a hard time rousing any support for its Movement.  A beleaguered Gandhi, desperate to consolidate his own hold over the Congress party in a contest with the more Conservative wing, stepped in to back the Muslim League.  In doing so he legitimized the Muslim League, helped establish it as the authentic voice of Muslims in the sub-continent, and sowed the seeds of Muslim sub-nationalism, which did not exist before that movement was launched.

I am not arguing that Muslim nationalism would not have reared its head but for Gandhi’s support of the Khilafat Movement.  But it is also a  fact, that after he had done so, Congress could no longer fight Muslim nationalism effectively, even as it continued to claim the support of Muslims for its secular ideology.  Nationalist movement crave publicity, an atmosphere of confrontation with an adversary, – the larger the better – and a rallying cry of peril.

BJP is helping Owaisi with the wherewithal for exactly such a denouement. I repeat, it is but inevitable that RSS/BJP’s aggressive Hindu Nationalism will provoke minority sub-nationalism.  By seeking to mould it in the person of Owaisi, it might think, it will control the outcome.  Hence think back to Gandhi.  He too imagined the Muslim League would be an ally, rather than a contestant for power.  The minnow that Muslim League was then, then went on to partition India.

Contiguity, or lack of it, is over-rated.  The Muslim population was widely dispersed in pre-partitioned sub-continent, and therefor lacked one of the pre-requisites for a successful Nationalist movement:  a geographically contiguous region in which to locate the movement.  Yet it is fact, that by means fair & foul, the idea of Pakistan arose from the Nationalist movement in less than two decades, and imagination created the geographical contiguity.

HOSTILE NEIGHBORS:

RSS/BJP need to seriously ponder what they are pushing the Muslims towards.  A 14% minority is not insignificant.  India is not China that the world overlooks.  India will not survive as a quasi-democracy that Modi has turned India into, much less a liberal one, if BJP/RSS continue on the present perilous course of othering Muslims, and fanning the flames of another sub-nationalist movement.

India is now surrounded by enemies, some created needlessly by Modi’s own flawed policies at home and abroad.  India needs to grow its economy as the first national priority.  It can ill-afford to divert its attention to fighting another sun-nationalist movement at home, with eager support from some of neighbors, not excluding China. 

As far as short-term politics goes, the friend-enemy marriage of BJP-Owaisi is perfect.  Both grow by feeding off each-other.  The Noora-kushti match can be a gripping spectacle.  There is little doubt that Owaisi will eventually emerge as the main spokesman of the Muslims in India, with a 14% vote share, if not now, then a decade hence.  The outcome is logically inevitable, as hate overwhelms reason, on both sides of the divide among the laity.

As I have argued before, Owaisi has no choice in the matter.  If not Owaisi, then RSS/BJP will find someone like him, to purse their “win-at-any-cost” electoral strategy.  He just happens to be available, and he is both smart enough to realize that, and articulate enough to carry off the role to perfection.

So my plea for reason is addressed more to the RSS/BJP than him.  Not that it would hurt Owaisi to pay heed.

CONGRESS MUKT BHARAT:

RSS/BJP must realize, as must the polity as a whole, that we are approaching a cross-road from which there will be no turning back.  What RSS/BJP are pursuing is not revocable, even if the party is ousted from power in a subsequent election.  Sowing the seeds of sub-nationalism is an irreversible process, that will inevitably bear bitter fruit, if not now, then in the future.  If there are any sane voices left in RSS/BJP, they must speak now.

It is not difficult to read the RSS/BJP thinking that motivates the present course.  The idea is to consecrate Owaisi as the Muslim leader, and his party as the party of Muslims.  It then becomes a party with 14% vote share, but given the lack of geographical contiguity, its dispersion ensures it will never be a challenge to BJP’s 35% to 40% vote share through out the land.  

Furthermore, Owaisi’ vote share of 14% will predominantly come out of Congress’ 20% share of the national vote, reducing the Congress to a non-entity, with sub-ten percentage share on a pan-India basis.  So Owaisi is the key to a Congress-Mukt Bharat.  That is the big prize be for Modi and RSS/BJP.  And being the gamblers they are, the prize is big enough to blind them to the inherent risks.
 

They will think the risks are contained.  Or containable.  The argument would be that 14% vote share, and its geographical dispersion, pose no immediate problems.  While they produce almost certain death of the Congress.  What could be better?  Besides, even if Owaisi merely uses the RSS/BJP to build his party, and later follows a course of his own, what can he do with his 14%?  And when does indeed turn against them, their own vote would grow from 45% of Hindu vote, to 60%, as a backlash.  So they have nothing to worry about.

MURPHY’S LAW

Gamblers lose gambles not because they are stupid, unintelligent, or even reckless.  Their fatal flaw is that they focus too much on the favorable outcome – Congress mukt-bharat – and this focus makes them minimize the risks inherent in the situation & forget Murphy’s Law:  What can go wrong, will go wrong.  

We have a long list of such gambles from Modi, whose consequences are either with us, or will weigh-in in the future:  demonetization, abrogation of 370, the Depsang fiasco with China, the resort to protectionism, the walking out of trade pacts.  Modi tends not to realize that scale almost inevitably produces outcomes in accordance with Murphy’s Law.   

And when you are surrounded by implacable adversaries, like we are, Murphy’s Law applies with redoubled vigor, because the adversaries are there to ensure that what can go wrong, is expertly exploited, to make it go wrong.  Modi must remember every action has a reaction; something he ignored when his Home Minister made empty boasts of taking back Askai Chin, in the euphoria following a needless abrogation of article 370. 

Now is not the time for reckless adventure but sober contemplation of the future.

Sonali Ranade.

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