All it took was a fast by Narendra Modi to expose the crevices in India’s political landscape. Modi is chief minister of Gujarat, and, depending on your preference, is either the poster boy of developmental success or the hate child of secularism. His just concluded three-day fast evoked these sentiments again.
If the effort was to “project” Modi to the national stage, then it has to be said this won’t work: Gujarat after all is just one Indian state and not India itself. But more on this later. What these three days did was to expose the serious weaknesses in secularism as it is practised and understood in the country.
In practice, secularism often boils down to little more than ensuring that riots do not occur and minorities (often a code word for Muslim citizens) are not persecuted. This is what the Left parties did successfully for 30 years in West Bengal; Nitish Kumar is doing it in Bihar now.
Shorn of this law-and-order approach, however, there is very little content to the practice of secularism. And sooner or later it leads to a crisis of confidence: Minorities want more than mere protection from communal violence. The Left discovered this in West Bengal this year. After 30 years, Muslims moved away from it in droves largely due to the limits of this politics.
So, of late, there have been attempts to “enrich” secularism. This is being tried by a very old idea: reservation. It is unlikely to bridge the gap between what underprivileged citizens aspire to and what fiscally enfeebled states can do. In the meantime, at the level of ideas, the bankruptcy of secularism is plainly visible. If it is left at its original meaning—that of the state being equidistant to all religions—it leads to a crisis at the practical level. What next, after the riots have been stopped? If efforts are made to give it an economic link, it will boil down to statism of a very arid kind.
Modi knows these shortcomings well. Hence the appeal of his brand of “development”. During his fast, he made it a point to broadcast that he is neither for the majority nor for the minority in Gujarat. Development, he claimed, is for everyone in his state. This, of course, completely bypasses the blot on his record as chief minister: the large-scale killing of Muslims in riots in 2002 that began after Hindus were killed on a train in Godhra.
In an otherwise vibrant democracy, this should have provided enough ammunition to counter him politically. There may be many reasons why this has not been done, but the credibility of those who champion secularism is surely one reason. Somewhere, however ill-defined, that is linked to exhaustion in trying to give meaning to secularism for a 21st century India.
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
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