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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Opinion | A case for provincializing the Bharatiya Janata Party

Opinion | A case for provincializing the Bharatiya Janata Party

Even progressives have fallen for a hegemonic narrative that portrays BJP’s victory as the outcome of an all-India wave

Photograph by PTI; Graphic by Naveen Kumar SainiPremium
Photograph by PTI; Graphic by Naveen Kumar Saini

Analysts at both ends of the political spectrum have read this election as an all-India “Modi wave". Even progressives like Yogendra Yadav claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “is now on course to becoming a genuine all-India party". We ought to firmly resist this reading of the election on two grounds: one empirical and the other political.

Empirically, it is simply a fact that the BJP remains a bit player at best in India’s non-Hindi speaking states, what the Official Language Rules call “Region C" (see map). A set of 19 states comprising about 37% of India’s population and with a weighty 227 seats in the Lok Sabha, Region C runs from the mountains of the North-East to Kerala’s Arabian Sea. By itself, the BJP secured 73 of 227 seats or 32% of this region’s seats with a relatively modest average vote share of 24%. The BJP did break some ground in Region C’s Bengal, Odisha and Assam, but set this against its near-ducks in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka is the obvious outlier, but here the BJP’s caste-based roots long predate this election. In the politics of non-Hindi Region C as a whole, the BJP is an also-ran.

But we should not let facts get in the way of a good story. In the dominant framing, it’s BJP versus Congress, despite the fact that these two parties went head-to-head in only 191 seats, a mere 35% of all contests. This cricket-match framing might be good for TV ratings, but it dangerously over-amplifies the presidential warping of our parliamentary system. In this story, the BJP’s performance in Region C marks the ascendant march of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Yet, on the above evidence, we might just as easily conclude that the BJP’s performance in Region C is merely a temporary spillover from what is essentially a north-west Indian squall. The politics of representation decides which framing is chosen.

One would think that progressives would err on the side of framing things so as to provincialize the BJP, if only as a method of countering it. Ironically, we observe the opposite. Our progressive media and intellectuals seem bent on universalizing a parochial phenomenon even though their own political leanings suggest otherwise. This is arguably because progressives themselves, somewhat unreflectively, inhabit a discourse (and not infrequently, a darbar called Delhi) wherein north-west India ends up standing for the whole of India.

This is “hegemony", a framing device wherein a part claims to represent the whole. The West has mastered this art since the Enlightenment, its provincial history written up as world history. But as the people of Region C will tell you, hegemony operates at different levels within our own layered nationalism.

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It might be argued that hindutva has potency precisely because our idea of India never managed to rid itself of a latent framing of “Hindu", where “Hindu" always carried a more north-west Indian and upper-caste charge. The chief protagonist here is normally seen as Mahatma Gandhi (ironically), but we often fail to recall that Ambedkar himself was not opposed to the idea of Pakistan.

Once the sprawling, all-encompassing Congress system was dismantled, the door was opened for a more classical political machine to come along, weaponize this latency of India-as-Hindu to pitch it as the idea of India. That progressives read the election as rhyming with this pitch suggests that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP are winning this battle of ideas. By partaking in this framing willy-nilly, the emerging consensus ends up inadvertently damaging the “unity-in-diversity" idea of India. This is a spectacular own goal by progressives.

The “unity-in-diversity" vantage point would not frame variations within India as “regional" or “vernacular" (even The Hindu has a piece on the “deep South"), but simply as par for the course in a nation defined by difference. If all politics is local, then surely this is as true for the BJP as it is for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)? If, as Neelanjan Sircar (assistant professor at Ashoka University) has observed, the BJP treated the so-called “heartland" as a single state, then this election was emphatically centered on one state.

Indian Muslims are subjected to violence and institutionalized exclusion that might soon amount to formal second-class citizenship, so progressives are right to be deeply alarmed. However this alarm has the unintended consequence of keeping the “Indian" conversation on one part of India. Kerala, with more than a quarter Muslim population, shows the provinciality of hindutva. Assam and Bengal have sui generis politics that have for the moment partially overlapped with the BJP’s. As Suhas Palshikar (co-director of the Lokniti programme) has recently noted, “In its effort to represent regional interests and identities and at the same time, tame the ‘regional’, the BJP appears to have taken upon itself a very hard task". In short, the BJP is structurally maladapted for political life in Region C.

Provincializing the BJP, putting it back in its North-West Indian box, might allow us to foreground federalism as the core attribute of India. The time has surely come to finally detach the idea of India from a parochial Hinduism. “Secularism" will not do because, being the inverse of “communalism", it shares the former’s provincialism as a counter-religion. While hegemony makes “federalism" read as “regionalism", it is in fact a distinct national idea, one that is perhaps truer to India’s continental reality.

The recent comments of DMK’s MK Stalin and the furore over the draft National Education Policy show that we can now confidently assert federalism without fearing “fissiparous tendencies". Of course, those who begin to redefine India as a federation will surely be called the new “tukde tukde gang". A fitting reply to give to such trolls would be a lesson in the essentials of Indian nationalism.

Anush Kapadia is faculty member at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in the humanities and social sciences department

These are the author’s personal views

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Published: 18 Jun 2019, 11:56 PM IST
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