The Indian secular imagination has collapsed. It survives in pockets, such as some Hindi films and the politics of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But Sonia Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and the other politicians influential in the national scene have long failed to articulate any message that could enhance the secular consensus. The English-medium secularist intellectuals have failed disastrously. Hindutva is actually on the decline. It peaked in 1993. The latest election results in Uttar Pradesh show the depth of its decline. Hindutva will spike up in Gujarat now, but the national trend is deeply rooted and will not be affected by riots. What is emerging is a vacuum of national identity. This has made it impossible to consolidate the secular gains of the last decade.
During the independence movement and in the decades afterwards, secular argumentation supported Hindu social reform and nationalism. The secularist intellectuals of the last decade, who might have been expected to update secular nationalism, have instead wandered off into a rhetoric of national abnegation and Hindu abnegation. Thereby, they have made themselves irrelevant to the emerging middle class Hindus.
In the past, communal violence was largely restricted to cities because villages were closed communities. Now rioting has jumped from Ahmedabad into rural areas as villagers would not fall behind their city cousins in defending “Hindu honor” in the wake of the Godhra train massacre. Villagers are far more aware of and connected to distant events, but have gained this awareness in an era of an impoverished secular discourse. There is no clear voice persuading them to conceive of themselves in secular terms. The secular and liberal voice clearly failed to reach a couple of thousand Muslims in the town of Godhra.
In spite of the failure of the intellectuals and the mesmerizing spectacle of riots, secularism is in reality on the ascent in India. It is the mobilization of the middle castes and above all of Dalits that is the driving force. Mulayam Singh Yadav, a champion of the middle castes, has sought to win Muslim votes through a hard line against Hindutva. He appeals explicitly to Muslim religious symbolic interests. His approach did defeat the Hindutva wave in the early nineties, but has done little to support liberal Muslim ideology. Mayawati has built a coalition of Dalits, lower caste Muslims, and others by highlighting the shared economic interests of the poor majority cutting across religious lines. That she got a fourth of the seats in the UP assembly means that the largest state has moved beyond the stale communal illusions in which Gujarat remains mired. Bringing the backward communities of Muslims into political leadership on a larger scale, the BSP is enabling the rise of a more differentiated Indian Muslim identity. By this route, Indian Muslims can build a stronger liberal voice.
All parties in U.P. are maneuvering for advantage after the election. However, the only stable outcome of this election is a BSP government with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) support. The deal would be that the BSP would support the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the center in return. If the BSP joins or supports the NDA, the combine has a good chance of winning the 2004 national election. Otherwise, its chances are dim. BJP has twice before supported BSP rule for short periods. Building a workable coalition this time would require greater maturity from Mayawati than she displayed before. Open corrupt sale of state jobs would have to be curtailed, for example. Her politics have indeed matured; it is possible her administrative style has also. If a BSP-BJP coalition lasts for a year, it will signal a turning point in Indian politics. It will mark beginning of the end of upper caste hegemony. Congress and the BJP represent different strategies for preserving disproportionate political influence of the upper castes. As socially conservative parties, they also have a more clearheaded vision of capitalist development. What can come out of a coalition of the BSP, BJP, and the rest of the NDA is a move toward greater social inclusion and equality while preserving political stability. This would be an excellent outcome for secularism as well.
Indian secularism contends with different rival identities than it did in the time of Gandhi. Pan-Islamic sentiment is considerably stronger than it was five or six decades ago. Hindutva sentiment managed to jump the boundary between the upper and middle castes. Western cultural influence is much more subtle now than it was during the era of imperialism. It does not invade by force, but it is far more pervasive than before. Further, Indian society itself has changed dramatically. It was a society of nearly universal poverty and illiteracy at the end of the British rule. With the spread of development and education, a much larger part of Indian society is open to recruitment into secular or communal activism. Renewing India’s secular national identity is a far greater intellectual challenge than that which faced the independence generation.
Gandhi’s insight was that the problems of secularism, social justice, and nation-building were best solved simultaneously. Today we can recognize the need to include gender equity among those great challenges. One cannot try to solve these problems in isolation because doing so breaks the social coalitions necessary for the solutions to work. Rhetorical strategies of national abnegation will alienate those who need to be brought in. The pursuit of social or gender justice without pursuit of national strength will fall short.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.