Nationalism has emerged as the new zone of controversy for the simple reason that the BJP is redefining itself as a party for all, not just Hindus. Narendra Modi would prefer to campaign around the theme of ‘sabka vikas’ — inclusive development. But BJP members find it too dry. Hence nationalism.
Obviously going away from Hindu majoritarianism to the more neutral territory of nation and nationalism is a politically shrewd move. In principle, the nation is for everyone — Hindu, Muslim and all other minorities. But the BJP members want more than just a new platform. Hence ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. We could all say ‘Jai Hind’ and no one, Muslim or Christian, could object. But the slogan Bharat Mata ki jai is like Vande Mataram, not to the liking of Muslims. This is not because they do not love India. Jai Hind or Hindustan Zindabad would be fine. But Bharat Mata ki jai honours a personalised Goddess; Islam has only one God — Allah.
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It is also an elephant trap for other parties, especially the Congress. Secularism is the calling card of the Congress with nationalism taken for granted. For the Congress, the BJP is tainted by the Hindu label. So now the BJP has turned the tables. In the Maharashtra Assembly, Congress MLAs fell into the trap and joined the BJP and Shiv Sena to insist everyone says Bharat Mata ki jai. It does not matter to the BJP what the CPM or CPI do. They want to embarrass the Congress.
As the BJP waxes, the Congress wanes. It has lost ideological sharpness over the years and just become a sure ticket to political power. No one joins the Congress to serve the nation. We can see it in its campaign for the Uttar Pradesh elections. They have chosen Prashant Kishor as their election advisor since he helped Narendra Modi and then Nitish Kumar win elections. Prashant Kishor has asked for 25 volunteers in each parliamentary constituency of UP but without success. It seems no one wants to be a volunteer; they all want a ticket. Why else would anyone join the Congress?
This year is crucial for the Congress. If it fails to retain either Assam or Kerala, the death knell will begin to sound. This is especially true for Assam, where Tarun Gogoi must be hoping for a fourth term.
Since the national leadership is for the family, no one with a serious ambition at the national level to get high up can stay in the Congress. If it fails to retain power at the state level, the message will be clear to the talented Congress members: set up your own Congress Party. That steady fragmentation could be just around the corner unless the Congress can be popular again. The Congress has lost its old coalition of voters. The young are not with the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi has been developing a strategy. He shows up everywhere there is trouble and he then blames Modi. For a small opposition party, this makes a lot of sense. But there are dangers for an erstwhile national party, as we saw in the JNU event. If he has to piggyback on the CPM to win the young voters, the Congress may get locked into a narrow alleyway losing the broad coalition. The Congress may have to fashion its own brand of nationalism.