Secularism and political opportunism

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has another thought-provoking piece in the Indian Express, on the idea of secularism. Important points made – of how secularism for the state cannot merely be argued on the basis of personal virtues. As Mehta concludes – the fight over secularism, fought between Rahul, Modi and Nitish are nothing much to write home about –

Between opportunist cant and ineffable virtue, the institutional foundations of the idea long disappeared. Which is why the three-cornered fight over secularism seems a contest between the shallow, the hollow and the callow

Important also, for problematising the issue of Narendra Modi (in my opinion, not necessarily what Mehta implies in his column). The point is that 2002 or 1984 are not the ultimate determinants, it is the institutions that our polity has created and in turn, the behaviour of these institutions when faced with issues that test the philosophical idea of secularism.

You might ask the question: which government has gone by its rajdharma in the face of imminent riots? Even the redoubtable Tarun Gogoi seems to have a difficult time preventing the largest internal displacement of Muslims. Here the record turns out to be mixed. The Congress’s legendary inaction for four days during the Mumbai riots, documented by the Srikrishna Commission, is up there in the abdication of rajdharma. And how can we certify that Narayan Rane or Chhagan Bhujbal’s change of heart was more genuine than that of any other lapsed secularist who professes now to be secular? Are Muslims less likely to be targeted for being who they are in terrorist investigations or riots in Congress-ruled states? The evidence from Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan suggests not. Then there is the question of how close you have to be to communal forces to vitiate your secular credentials. Why does the fact that NDA allies did not pressure Vajpayee more forcefully to act against Modi not count against them on the secular question?

The answer then is perhaps the most obvious one – the battle over secularism is just political opportunism – the battle for the moral high ground. Beyond the question of vote-banks, there is an attempt to position oneself as ideologically virtuous in the theater of national politics. Clearly, secularism was meant to be much more than just this.

A possibly controversial observation here – a partial explanation for Modi’s popularity among the urban youth and business leaders is the fatigue from this recurrent hypocrisy of the so-called secularists. But these secularists may yet have the last laugh – they know that those who actually come out to vote care enough about the personal virtues (and collective virtues of the political parties) that appear before them in 2014…


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