By Swapan Dasgupta
There have been three occasions when the Bharatiya Janata Party or its earlier incarnations have been in power at the Centre. The first time was in the government of Morarji Desai between 1977 and 1979 when it was an important, but minority, partner with Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani holding important portfolios. The second occasion was the Vajpayee government of 1998-2004 when it was the senior partner of the National Democratic Alliance. The government led by Narendra Modi that assumed charge in May 2014 was also nominally an NDA government but this time the BJP has a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha.
The thread that binds these three regimes separated by more than three decades is a curious one. On all three occasions the nature of the opposition to it has been remarkably similar. More important, the offensive has been mounted by the same gharana.
The Janata Party government came into being after the country’s bitter experience with Indira Gandhi’s 21-month experiment with full-scale authoritarianism. However, it wasn’t merely the political opposition that was stifled. The Emergency was also the culmination of the experiments with ‘progressive’ politics by the Indira-dominated Congress, ably assisted by its ideological mentors in the Communist Left. The brazen and unapologetic misuse of the state media for partisan ends, for example, began in 1969 during Indira’s battle with the Syndicate. Likewise, the thrust towards ensuring Marxist control of higher education was initiated—with the battle against “Right reaction” and Jayaprakash Narayan’s “fascist” movement providing an ideological cover. The project of rewriting history was also taken up with gusto by the then Education Minister S. Nurul Hasan.
It is hardly surprising that when the Indira regime collapsed after the 1977 election, the new government would initiate corrective measures. The erstwhile Jana Sangh didn’t control the Education Ministry: Pratap Chandra Chunder, an old-school Congress leader from West Bengal, headed it. Chunder was horrified by the attempted Left takeover, particularly of the social science departments, and tried to correct the imbalance. In a similar vein, as Information and Broadcasting Minister Advani initiated the first moves to take state-run radio and TV—there was no private sector involvement in the electronic media then—out of the day-to-day control of the government.
Both these initiatives provided the ammunition to the dejected Left and the defeated Congress to mount an offensive against the Janata Party government. A shrill campaign against the “communalisation” of history text-books and the “infiltration” of All India Radio and Doordarshan by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was initiated. In 1978, after Om Prakash Tyagi introduced a Private Member’s Bill seeking regulations to monitor religious conversions, the cry of ‘minority rights in danger’ was raised. Even Mother Teresa was persuaded to lend her voice to the campaign.
The Left being particularly skilled in the art of warfare inside campuses and seminar halls, the counter-offensive proved remarkably feeble. Consequently, those very intellectuals who were responsible for putting a ‘progressive’ gloss on authoritarian politics re-invented themselves as the champions of pluralism and the ‘scientific temper’. They created the broader ideological climate that enabled the issue of “dual membership” (and the personal ambitions of Charan Singh) to destroy the internal coherence and unity of the Desai government.
When the Vajpayee government assumed charge in 1998, Murli Manohar Joshi was entrusted with the Human Resources Development portfolio. Joshi made the battle against the intellectual Left one of his main priorities. By then, however, the Left was far more entrenched and more important—in the aftermath of the Ayodhya dispute—had entered into a unspoken strategic alliance with the liberals who had a profound aesthetic disdain for what they saw as crude Hindu religiosity. Joshi took on the “eminent historians”—Arun Shourie’s telling description of the individuals that set the tone for determining what is now referred to as the ‘Idea of India’—without inhibition. Unfortunately for him, the BJP lacked the intellectual capital to complement his endeavours. And once again the same lot that had helped unsettle the Desai government two decades earlier led the charge against ‘saffronisation’. This time the creation of a mood hostile to the government was actively aided and abetted by a media that had imbibed the advantages of being hostile to the BJP.
The Janata story was repeated in another respect too. The murder of Graham Staines, an European missionary actively engaged in saving lost souls in the deep interiors of Orissa, by the leader of a fringe Hindu militant outfit, set the tone for a renewed bout of scare mongering. This campaign gained a fillip with reports of attacks on Christian churches in the adivasi-dominated Dangs district of Gujarat. Together with the Gujarat riots of 2002, the stage was set for a sustained attack on the Vajpayee government.
Once again the efforts paid off. One of the principal reasons for the NDA’s unexpected defeat in 2004 was the near-total consolidation of India’s minorities—particularly Muslim and Christian—against it. The 2004 election campaign, particularly in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, saw inflammatory videos of the 2002 riots being played in Muslim clusters. Nor was this an initiative of local mosques: the entire scare propaganda also saw the organisational involvement of the Left.
The remarkable extent to which the old themes are being reproduced in today’s India to undermine Modi doesn’t need reiteration. Many of the older players are no longer there but their ideological progenies have picked up from where they left off. The ghar vyapasi movement has been blown up to such an extent that many Christians feel that there is a national campaign of targeted persecution; and, in a pre-emptive strike, the Left has secured the endorsement of the Indian History Congress against any attempt to address the biases in history text-books.
There is a temptation in some BJP circles to view the minuscule Left as modern-day Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. They would rather let the proverbial dogs bark while the caravan moves on. To my mind, this approach underestimates the ability of the Left and cosmopolitan liberals to punch above their weight. The Winter session of the Rajya Sabha was disrupted and attempts to pass important economic legislation thwarted. The ostensible issue was religious conversions but the real reasons lay elsewhere. The Budget session may witness a repetition of the disruption with yet more economic legislation in the pipeline awaiting parliamentary approval. Once again conversions will take the ostensible centre stage, with other examples of saffron high-handedness acting as fillers. The Opposition will naturally be players but so will many media houses with their own axe to grind.
Modi and his political managers must grasp some elementary truths. There is a method behind creating the image of the Prime Minister as a bigoted juju man. In the short term it lies in derailing the economic agenda, shifting the focus elsewhere and then attacking the government for under-performance and perverted priorities. The larger design is to create conditions that will make it impossible for Modi to function effectively. The Congress, as of now, doesn’t pose any challenge to the BJP preoccupied as it is with unresolved questions of dynastic leadership. Its place is being taken—as a purely interim measure—by an emerging extra-parliamentary alliance of the Left, the liberals, the media and the minorities.
Previous experience has taught the critics of Modi that the BJP is constricted from generating a countervailing response when it is in power. For the sake of his political efficacy Modi had better prove them wrong.
The Telegraph, January 2, 2015