Question: What do angry Bangaloreans and the BJP’s choice of presidential candidate have in common? Answer: They are both symptoms of a dangerous, divisive trend in national politics.
Let me explain.
Why is Bengaluru angry? Well, Bengaluru likes its new metro, but doesn’t like that every time it gets on the metro, it has to see signs in Hindi.
That seems like an absurdly small irritant, right? Why, Hindi-speakers across India’s North must be asking themselves, would the citizens of Bengaluru be so incensed that their new metro has signs in Hindi as well as in Kannada and English? Surely, they’re just being petty.
Hindi fanatics in the north have in fact long argued that they are second-class citizens, behind English-speakers. Sadly, the only ideas they have in their head to fix this require all non-Hindi speakers to become third-class citizens. So Bengaluru’s reaction is not pettiness – it’s a long-delayed reaction to being a third-class citizen in India.
Indeed, one extraordinary product of the divisive and short-sighted politics of the all-conquering Sangh Parivar is that division over sub-national identities and language, once thought a thing of the past, is rapidly becoming the dominant narrative in national politics.
The Sangh Parivar with its Hindi-Hindu chauvinism, has only itself to blame. But some responsibility goes to the apparatus of Hindi supremacism that is built into the union government. The fact that the Bengaluru metro has to have signs in Hindi, for example, is a product of a December 2016 order to metros in non-Hindi speaking regions from the Union Ministry of Urban Development, following a meeting of the Joint Hindi Advisory Committee of the ministry – ironically, in Kochi.
Why, precisely, does the Urban Development Ministry have a Joint Hindi Advisory Committee at all, far less one that can send out orders to metros all across the country?
The imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speakers has a long and fraught history in India. It gave rise to parties like the DMK, for example. But anger seemed to have died out over the past decades, after a series of compromises typical of the fuzzy, middle-of-the-road, non-ideological “idea of India”.
What has happened to change this? Well, simply this: the domination of the north on our politics has now reached an apogee. North India has long believed that it is the only India. Now, suddenly, it is being treated like that by national politicians.
Which is where the BJP’s decision to pick Ram Nath Kovind, an unblemished if undistinguished leader from Uttar Pradesh, fits in.
The BJP recognises that it needs to expand beyond its base if it is to continue to dominate as it has since 2014. It should have then gone out and created a new national narrative that would appeal beyond the Sangh’s heartland in the north and the west. Instead, it is focusing, laser-like, on repeating its 2014 performance in the north, and especially UP.
Perhaps this is defensive; Narendra Modi feels like he is on the back foot since suit-boot, droughts and demonetisation. Were he feeling as strong as he was a year or more ago, his pick for president would have been an upper-caste Sangh Parivar man. Were he feeling as strong even a few months ago, he would have picked a fellow-traveller from somewhere the BJP hopes to expand, like Odisha. But today, he is defending his base. He knows he needs to keep Dalit men in UP happy: they were the component of the BJP coalition that put it over the top in 2014 and 2017. And hence the choice of Ram Nath Kovind.
It is clear after this choice that a defensive BJP and Modi will focus on their core: the north. No gestures of goodwill and inclusion are open to any other part of India.
But the problem is that feeding the north’s pride means doing things like pushing Hindi on the unwilling, banning cattle slaughter nationwide and so on. Which in turn means that the BJP will struggle to create a more inclusive message going forward.
Ask yourself: why is the BJP becoming the anti-beef party when this is an obsession only with the north and the west? How does it hope to expand into Bengal, into the North-East, into Kerala, into Tamil Nadu?
Of course, it hasn’t given up on expansion. But it will gain seats not through a positive message, but a negative one: it will target those areas where it can whip up anti-Muslim sentiment (Telangana, north Kerala/Mangalore, the border districts of Bengal) or anti-Christian anger (tribal Odisha, “missionary-ridden” coastal Andhra Pradesh).
The problem is that it has not been able to craft a message that is inclusive enough of all of India’s regions. And this is not because it is a Hindu nationalist party. It is because the brand of fundamentalist Hinduism around which it seeks to build nationalism is native to parts of India’s north and west, and has little enough space for the multiple different ways in which the religion is a lived experience in the rest of the country. (Try selling a cattle slaughter ban to devotees at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati.)
So, to return to my first question: why now? Why are these long-dormant sub-national and linguistic identities taking centre stage at this moment in time? It’s because of the BJP’s success. The BJP has succeeded in replacing the Congress as the dominant “national” pole in Indian politics. But after the many compromises of the 1950s and 1960s, Congress-style centralised nationalism ceased to be seen as a cultural threat – and this is not true of the BJP’s Hindi-Hindu chauvinist nationalism.
Get used to it. Jallikattu and #NammaMetroHindiBeda are just the beginning. The GST takes economic power away from the powerhouses of the south; the 2014 election and the presidential choice demonstrated the south and east are politically irrelevant. Over the next decade or so, the number one story in Indian politics will be an old, old one: the states versus the Delhi durbar.
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