Looking at the number of seats that are stacked on the side of the BJP-led NDA government, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister, anxieties are running high. While there is some substance to the view that the RSS-backed BJP government may communalise society, the argument that we are likely to see more inter-community conflicts is not convincing. This is not because the centrist pulls in the Indian polity will compel Modi to act as a “moderate” but because the BJP understands, better than most, that the ammunition lying in the barracks of the secular can be used effectively to pursue its ideological agenda. One can be strongly secular without being multicultural, and this can place disproportionate burden upon the minorities.
The possibility of invoking the badge of secularism to polarise society may seem absurd to many. We have been schooled to pit the secular against the communal and treat these as opposing categories. But in actuality, the relationship between the secular and the communal is a complicated one. One has only to pause momentarily to see that, in India, parties claiming to be secular raise religious issues and they mobilise people along community lines; communal violence has also occurred under different ideological regimes, so the lines between the secular and the communal are more blurred than is ordinarily assumed.
One could be secular by distancing oneself from all religious communities and supporting no religious activity of any group directly or indirectly; or, one could be neutral by supporting certain activities of all religious communities; or, one could make no distinction between different religious communities and treat all of them in a like manner.
Clearly, no political party in India has followed the first path. All are willing to support some activities, for instance, educational work or the observance of certain religious practices and festivities, of different religious groups. What is perhaps even more striking is that political parties that are tagged as secular adhere neither to the first nor last of these options; that is, they neither separate themselves from all matters ecclesiastical nor treat all religions in exactly the same manner. Most of the time they support selectively some activities of a few groups within some religious communities, and the nature and extent of support they extend also varies from place to place. Eventually, it all comes down to informal networks of clientialism and patronage. The important thing is that neither are all sects within a community treated alike nor are all communities treated in an identical manner. Governments make distinctions all the time, and some of these are backed by a multicultural logic.
Indian democracy has, almost since its inception, worked implicitly with what might be called a majority-minority framework. Governments with undisputed secular credentials have functioned with the continued…