Friday, May 22, 2009

BJP at the crossroads

India's recent federal elections saw the victory of the Congress Party and the startling defeat of The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, a group connected with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has the "goal [of] 'Hindutva,' a Hindu state in which minorities must assimilate to the majority culture and language, revere the Hindu religion, and glorify Hindu race and culture" (Religious Freedom in the World, 199). Of course, this platform does not assimilate well with India's secular constitution, which describes the country as "a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic" (198).

The BJP began rule of the federal government in 1998 before being defeated by the Congress Party in 2004. According to Religious Freedom in the World, the BJP garnered their popularity by exploiting the religious tension in the country following the destruction of a mosque in December 1992 by members of groups connected with the RSS while police looked on. Many Hindus believed the mosque was built on the site where a commemorative Hindu temple once stood above the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

In August 2008, anti-Christian violence broke out in Orissa state after World Hindu Council (VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was murdered. Militant Hindus blamed Christians for the crime even though Maoists accepted responsibility. For weeks, VOMC received reports of Christians being attacked, forced from their homes, raped, and killed. We continue to hear about Christians in relief camps being threatened by militant Hindus. The BJP openly supported the attacks.

Exploiting religious tension to gain victory may have worked for the BJP in 1998, but has backfired for the party in recent months. The Times of India put it well: "This is a new century, where destroying a mosque in order to establish a temple at the same spot hardly makes policy sense. India has changed dramatically between 1992 and 2009. The old ploy of provoking communal riots in order to polarize the electorate, a formula that BJP appears to have stuck to as late as 2008 in case of anti-Christian riots in Orissa, is subject to diminishing returns at the ballot box."

Blind Spot, a book I'm currently reading through which examines how the news media interprets and reports on stories with religious elements, acknowledges that "religion contains an immense capacity to define and mobilize people within and across state boundaries, both for good and for ill." By promoting attacks on religious minorities, the BJP seeks to incite religious fervor for their own gain. As proven by the election results, however, such a strategy does not always yield victory.

Members of the BJP reportedly met informally on May 17 to question whether a more moderate tone would have been more advantageous. Many speculate that the party is now at a crossroads. A recent report by Compass Direct aptly summarized the party's situation, saying "[its] defeat at the national level is expected to compel the party to decide whether it turns to moderation in its ideology or more extremism in desperation." During his swearing in ceremony in 2004, Prime Minister Singh himself urged "strengthening the secular foundation of our republic." But as Blind Spot notes, "one root of 'religious terrorism' is a growing rift between leaders trying to create a secular state, and the deepening religious commitments of the majority of their people." While India is a secular state, approximately 80% of its population is Hindu.

While Christians are, of course, hoping for a movement into moderation, only time will tell which direction BJP and their supporters will take from these crossroads and how their choices will affect the religious minorities in the nation.

1 comment:

Glenn Penner said...

What is interesting to note is that after their defeat in the federal elections a few years ago, it was felt by the BJP leadership that their defeat was due to having become too moderate while in power and that a need to return to its more militant, Hindutva roots was necessary. Now, they are seeking to go back yet again to a more moderate stance. I can only hope that this is sign that Indians are just plain tired of the BJP in any incarnation.