The BJP has found in hyper-nationalism a surefire winning mantra. It is clear that in all the forthcoming elections, the party will beat the patriotic drum to race ahead of its rivals. The obvious advantage of proclaiming loyalty to the motherland is that the claim cannot be effectively countered.
Any attempt to brand such chest-thumping devotion to the nation as xenophobia runs the risk of being seen as both churlish and disloyal. Moreover, as long as Pakistan remains a potent threat as a sponsor of terrorism, the BJP will always be one step ahead of its opponents as the nation’s saviour.
The same chauvinistic road to success is followed by all Right-wing parties. In Europe and America today, immigrants are the bogey men, responsible for all the ills that have befallen the native populations. Earlier, it used to be Jews although anti-Semiticism still survives while the blacks (and browns) have been the bugbears of the whites for all times.
In India, the targets of hyper-nationalism, which is pursued by only the BJP (if marginal groups like the Hindu Mahasabha are ignored) have been mainly the minorities who are seen to pose a clear and present danger not only to the country’s unity, but also to its religion and culture.
This perception is the cornerstone of the Sangh parivar’s worldview with its ideologue V.D. Savarkar arguing that the Muslims and Christians are aliens since their punyabhu (holy lands) are outside India even if their pitribhu (fatherland) is India because of the accident of birth.
Based on this perception, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which laid the foundation of the BJP’s rise, aimed at consolidating the Hindu vote by describing the Muslims as Babur ki aulad (children of the Mughal emperor Babur) who were intrinsically unpatriotic while the Christians were engaged in the “harvesting of souls” through conversions.
But the BJP is now trying to shift the focus from Muslims in general to Pakistan in particular. The reason for the switch is not a change of heart or a rejection of Savarkar’s thesis, but a realization in the ruling circles that governance will be problematic if a section of the citizens are seen as the enemy. The prime minister’s sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas pitch is a testimony to this realisation.
But basing the party’s and the government’s nationalistic agenda only on Pakistan has its own problems. Although the latter makes it easy for the Indian government to pillory it in the world forums by hosting terror groups and sending jehadis across the border into Kashmir, a state of near-permanent enmity with Pakistan can hardly be a long-term policy option.
To the rest of the world, it can seem like a stubbornness which closes all doors and carries the potential of a conflict in an area where there are three nuclear powers. At some time or the other, therefore, India will have to explore other options, especially if Pakistan seriously begins to curb its home-grown jehadis under international pressure.
Who will the saffron xenophobes pick on then? Will it be the Muslims again? Or the Liberals? Or the urban Naxalites? In any case, such over-dependence on the nationalistic card tends to show that the government is a one-trick pony, as the BJP’s estranged intellectual, Arun Shourie, once said.
While Shourie used the phrase with reference to the Hindu-Muslim “division”, the BJP’s current playing of the nationalistic card can be seen as a ploy to divert attention from other areas of governance and especially the economy.
It is the failure on this front which makes the BJP turn over and over again to the time-worn themes of Jawaharlal Nehru’s “mistakes” ranging from the truncation of Kashmir to his responsibility for Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s death to the excesses of the Emergency to the anti-Sikh riots to the rule of the naamdars (dynasts) to how all would have been well if Vallabhbhai Patel had been India’s first prime minister.
Unfortunately for the BJP, the list of all that went wrong before 2014 is accompanied by continuing mob violence which has been bemoaned even by a BJP-friendly scribe. As several incidents from across the country have shown, it is no longer safe for a Muslim to wear a skull cap in public lest he is set upon by self-appointed saffron vigilantes and beaten up even after saying, “Jai Shri Ram”, which has become a slogan, like “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, to define patriotism.
The violence against Muslims has been noted by the US state department while American secretary of state Mike Pompeo has called for safeguarding religious freedom during a visit to India. However, the BJP M.P., Pratap Chandra Sarangi, has reiterated the parivar’s longstanding position that those who refuse to say “Vande Mataram”, like the Muslims, have no right to stay in the country. Clearly, earning their vishwas will take time.