15. A party of shopkeepers

 

         The BJP eagerly wants to be friends with everyone who counts as respectable.  The best predictor of their positions in upcoming political issues is: what will the opinion-making establishment say?  When new fads appear on the public scene, whether it is the Ambedkar cult or reservations for women in Parliament, the BJP is sure to pick them up in due course.[1]  Instead of radicalism, the record of its manifestoes, resolutions, interven­tions in par­liament, and public statements, shows a goody-goody approach to all the forces which are animated by a declared and unyielding hatred of the BJP.  This may have something to do with the party's castewise roots.

        

         It is often alleged that the BJP is an upper-caste party out to preserve the privileges of the upper castes.  The grain of truth in this is that the BJP, like the Congress and the Communist Party, was founded by Brahmins.  But like these other parties, it goes along with the general shift from upper to middle and lower castes as the most numerous actors on the political scene.  Sig­nificant­ly, the radicalizat­ion of the party during the period of inten­sified Hindu-Muslim confrontation over the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute was led by lower-caste BJP leaders like Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar and Kalyan Singh (BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1991-92, political­ly responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid).

 

         Still, the BJP is often called a "party of Brahmins and Banias", and its political style justifies this label to an extent.  While Brahmins provide the Sanskritic (transregi­onal, culture-centred) outlook, it is the Bania merchants whose influence seems predominant in shaping the image and the psychology of the party.[2]  When a Leftist commentator tries to explain BJP policy decisions, he usually blames the economic achievem­ents and problems of the "urban traders" who seek to build themselves a cultural identity and use the BJP to that end.  It is even said that they, as aspiring capital­ists, use the RSS-BJP to reform Hinduism into a monolithic "Semitic" religion, supposedly more fit as a cultural framework for capitalist development.[3] 

 

         The grain of truth in this Marxist reduction of the BJP programme to a mercantile strategy is that at least psychologica­lly, the BJP can best be understood as "a party of shopkeepers".  The BJP is not the party of the rich, who always tend to be on the side of power, i.e., the anti-BJP establishment (as is evident from the media they own, and which are either mildly or virulently anti-BJP).  But in large measure the BJP has become the party of the aspiring middle and lower middle classes.  Partly this is because the last ten years or so, it had profiled itself as the least socialist and most pro-entrepreneur­ial party.  For the truly big business houses, this wasn't that important, because they had established their own arrangements with the corrupt Nehruvian state; the stifling effect of Nehruvian socialism was felt most acutely by smaller and newly-started businesses.  To an even larger extent, the success of the BJP is due to its promise of stopping the disintegration of India and main­taining stability, a prerequisite for economic progress.

 

         After its 1996 failure to win a confidence vote for its 13-day government, the BJP has accepted that its only chance lies in gaining an absolute majority.  Fortunately for the party, few Hindutva-minded voters are fully informed about the week-kneed positions taken by its inner circle; most go by its general Hindu image, and by the allegations of Hindu extremism spread by its opponents.  On the other hand, BJP strategists have a point when they calculate that many middle-of-the-road voters need the assurance of moderation given by leaders like Vajpayee before they can cross the threshold to voting for the BJP.  In the heart of the mainstream Hindu voter, the combative Hindu feeling goes underground as long as it is not provoked, and the  moderate shopkeeper-type predominates, so that in peace time (as in May 1996), he does not mind a shopkeeper mentality in the party he'll vote for.  But the relative quietness on the communal front may not last, and in troubled regions, Hindus tend to set up more radical organizations, modelled on (and often named after) Mumbai's Shiv Sena.  The BJP had best prepare a contingency plan for the inevitable next round of confrontation, or it will be pushed aside once more by impatient youngsters as it was on 6 December 1992.

 

         The signature of the trader mentality is visible in the entire BJP approach to politics.  Good traders treat trade as a win-win situation: the seller makes a profit, the buyer acquires a desired product, both making gains without forcing losses on their trading-partners.  In humdrum peace time, of course, this is the right attitude to politics.  But in times of serious political confrontation, they have difficulty in understanding that achieving one's own goal implies inflicting defeat on a second party.  Shopkeepers try to curry favour with everyone, and avoid straightforward ("divisive") ideological stances and debates in order not to alienate potential business partners.  Their idea of combattiveness is to outwit buyers and com­petitors; they fancy they can catch a much-desired prize on the cheap, without confron­tation.

 

         This mentality was conspicuous during the Ayodhya affair, when the BJP fostered the illusion that Hindu gain could be gotten without Muslim loss, that Muslims could be talked into abandoning their claim to the disputed site, that confrontation was avoidable.  The BJP was formally right, in that the disputed building was no longer a mosque as idols had been worshipped in there since 1949.  But in real terms, the Muslim leadership certainly felt deprived of something very important: the Quran-based right to trample on non-Muslims, e.g. by usurping their sacred sites.  Even though the BJP's White Paper on Ayodhya and the Rama Temple Movement (1993) is a well-written and generally complete document, certainly the best chronology of the whole Ayodhya dispute, it leaves out a discussion of the one historical fact that justifies and lends importance to the Ayodhya movement, viz. that the demolition of the medieval Rama temple at the site was by no means an isolated event, but a necessary consequence of Islamic doctrine. 

 

         Not to antagonize Muslim and secularist opinion, the BJP avoided going into the question why the Rama temple in Ayodhya, along with thousands of others, had been demolished by Muslim invaders and rulers,-- a question pregnant with doctrinal confrontation between idolatrous Hinduism and iconocla­stic Islam.  Or rather, it gave a pseudo-explanation in terms of "foreign invaders" and "national humiliation", hoping to trick the Indian Muslims into affirming that they too are part of the Indian nation (as they always imply when they reject any identification of India with Hinduism) and therefore feel equally strongly about the "national honour" embodied in the Rama temple-to-be.

 

         So far, so good: if they could resolve the controversy with superficial and syrupy rhetoric, without raking up old history, that might have been defensible.  But the point is that, first of all, this accomodating attitude was not rewarded or even acknowledged in any way by the secularists (who falsely maintained that the BJP was attacking Islam), and secondly, the BJP spokesmen did rake up old history, though not in the anti-Islamic sense alleged by their enemies.  When BJP spokesmen mentioned history in the Ayodhya context, it was mostly to deny a fact inconvenient to their opponents (whom they were trying to get into a positive mood), viz. the fact that iconoclasm and intolerance are intrinsic elements of Islamic doctrine, and not aberrations from it.[4]

 

         Sangh Parivar spokesmen have claimed that far from encouraging the annihilation of idol cults, Islam actually prohibits the demolition of idol temples, and that the Prophet Mohammed had a mosque demolis­hed when he found that it had been built in forcible replace­ment of a temple.  This was a convenient fiction: the Islamic temple demolishers in India and elsewhere had always done their thing with full backing from com­petent religious authoriti­es, because Mohammed himself had all non-Islamic places of worship in Arabia either demolished or turned into mosques, and his model behaviour has an unfailing force of precedent in Islamic law.  These facts are in conflict with the alluring BJP plea that nothing in Islam prohibits the Muslims from accepting the conversion of a mosque into an idol-house.  The BJP shopkeepers calculated that a white lie might make the desired Muslim abandonment of any claim to the Ayodhya site cheaper in terms of blood and sweat expended.  Of course, the Muslim leaders were not fooled into believing that Islam allows the replacement of a mosque with an idol-house.

 

         People who try to deceive others, thinking they are very clever, usually end up deceiving only themselves and being disbelieved by others even when they do speak the truth.  The BJP is not convincing anyone when it claims that its prime concern in the Common Civil Code issue is the well-being of Muslim women, or when it claims that it has no problems with Islam and Christiani­ty as such, or when it pleads that "genuine Islam" exhorts Muslims to abandon the Ayodhya mosque.  These positions fail to mollify the adversary, but they are very effective in confusing the BJP rank and file, Hindu militants at heart but forced to defend secularist positions as a matter of party-line.

 

 


 

           [1]  In a TV debate on caste issues (ca. 1995), Ram Vilas Paswan attacked Dronacharya, the teacher of the Pandavas, for refusing to teach the tribal boy Ekalavya.  The reply to this could have been that Drona's decision had nothing to do with caste considerations: he simply did the job he was paid for, viz. to make the Pandavas the best archers in the land, not to teach his skills to any others whatever their caste.  Instead, VHP spokesman Giriraj Kishore disowned Drona, saying that "we do not recognize him as an acharya".  This way, Hindutva leaders disown everything which the secularists attack.

           [2]  A long chapter could be written about the role of caste history and caste psychology as determinants of politics in India.  One example: in the British and post-colonial periods, the position of the Thakur (landlord) steadily deteriorited, while that of the Bania changed for the better: he became a modern entrepren­eur, taking full advantage of moder­nization and ur­banizati­on.  The envy of successful Banias felt by im­poverished Thakurs and Rajas is certainly one of the reasons why the latter are so at­tracted to socialist-populist parties like the Janata Dal, typical examples being the former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar and V.P. Singh.

           [3]  This is argued in all seriousness by Romila Thapar (in  S. Gopal, ed.: Anatomy of a Confrontation, p.159) and parroted by numerous columnists.

           [4]  At this point, there is a difference between the BJP, which tried to be as superficial about the basic issue as possible, and the VHP, which developed a sharper position after accepting Chandra Shekhar's invitation to mandate scholars to discuss the historical evidence concerning the disputed site with a Babri Masjid Action Committee delegation (which withdrew from the talks when it found it had no chance of winning).  However, even in VHP ranks it is not uncommon to hear preachers praise Mohammed and abuse Muslims for "misunderstanding" the Quran's true message.

 

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