French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, leader L.K. Advani have so much more in common than we first thought—especially their penchant for mixing religion with politics and creating an unsettling cocktail that leaves their audiences both stirred and shaken.
Let’s take Sarkozy first.
At the European Union (EU) summit with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this week in the southern port city of Marseilles (France holds the EU presidency till December), Sarkozy brought up the “massacre” of Christians in India. As the press conference degenerated into accusation and counter-accusation with the Indian media (on the treatment of Sikhs in France), an embarrassed Singh was forced into acknowledging the “sporadic incidents” back home and defending India’s unshakeable secular character.
Yes, yes, replied Sarkozy hastily, calling the Prime Minister a good man and backing off just in time to recreate a semblance of the warmth necessary for a signature on the Indo-French nuclear deal in Paris barely 24 hours later.
Perhaps the French President was keenly aware of the obvious contradiction at hand: You don’t insult a guest and then promptly move on to sign a deal worth a few billion euros, especially one that will boost the French economy in these somewhat trying times.
Clearly, the French are already salivating at the idea of selling several nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel to India. Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd, or NPCIL, chairman S.K. Jain has said India is ready to buy $14 billion (Rs65,800 crore) worth of nuclear equipment, including reactors, and Areva SA, the French energy firm, has already confirmed plans to sell two third-generation pressurized reactors to NPCIL. As many as 35 French firms are scrambling to sell to India.
The French cannot try to bond with New Delhi, on the one hand, on the business front and publicly humiliate Indian leaders, on the other. Having your cake and eating it too may be an old Marie Antoinette line, but it can’t work for the Fifth Republic.
This is not to say that India must not come down strongly against the violence unleashed on its minority communities, whether against Christians in Karnataka and Orissa, or Muslims and Sikhs elsewhere.
In fact, a case can surely be made for dismissing Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal government in Orissa, an ally of the BJP, on the grounds of its repeated inability to deal with the perpetrators of violence.
Meanwhile, in Shillong, confronted by a variety of religious leaders, Advani sought to soften Orissa and Karnataka’s lack of action by criticizing events in both states (Karnataka is ruled by a BJP government). His secularism, said Advani, was forged in St Patrick’s school in Karachi. That is why he truly admired the missionary spirit.
But before his party was troubled by another debate, on the lines of the Jinnah-was-a-secular-leader, one prompted by another such nostalgia-tinged statement by Advani, the BJP leader insisted there should be no ban on religious conversion, or reconversion, since converted Hindus were only “coming home” to the mother faith.
Sarkozy’s concept of “positive secularism”, in fact, sounds very much like an Advani idea. The French, predominantly Catholic, have long stressed the separation of religion from state. Sarkozy, however, has been rapped on the knuckles for overusing the word “God”.
When the Pope came to Paris earlier in September, for example, Sarkozy and his wife were there to receive him at the airport. Sarkozy used a reception at the Elysee Palace, the home of the French President, to stress France’s Christian roots.
Given that, it isn’t surprising that Sarkozy chose to criticize the Indian Prime Minister on the Christian violence in India at the EU press conference. Especially since the Pope had already issued a similar statement in August when the first violence began in Orissa.
Certainly, the Europeans have been much more sensitive about human rights and religious violations than their American counterparts. Under George W. Bush, the criticism of India on Kashmir, for example, has virtually disappeared from the American lexicon—especially after both countries decided to sign a nuclear deal.
But back to Advani’s own vision of positive secularism. Truth is, all such moderate noises are like water off the back of the BJP’s mother organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. After the BJP’s affiliates such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal—both allegedly involved in the recent Orissa and Karnataka violence—allegedly brought the Babri Masjid down in late 1992, Advani was vociferous about his innocence. It was the worst day of his life, he said later. Of course, no one believed him.
This week’s protestations are provoking similar howls of disbelief. The I-am-a-secular-man line is widely seen to be part of Advani’s pitch for prime ministership in the coming elections.
Already, though, the ground is weakening from within. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the BJP’s new messiah of aggression, is already overtaking flip-flop Advani.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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