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You can’t both be Right

The BJP can’t establish itself as a credible center-right party unless it severs links with its extremist fringe, like the Republican party has done.

Written by Vinaysitapati |
September 25, 2008 11:37:46 pm

“They [Bajrang Dal] are, it seems… working against this government”, the Karnataka home minister V.S. Acharya responded, when asked to comment on the attacks on Christians in Karnataka. It is a curiously banal statement: imagine, as analogy, Shivraj Patil responding to the recent blasts in Jaipur, Gujarat and Delhi with the insight that Indian Mujahideen is acting against the interests of the government. In the past week, there have been 20 instances of arson and violence against Christian property in Karnataka, seriously injuring 12 people; and the Bajrang Dal has taken responsibility for most. Apart from stating the obvious, Acharya’s Freudian slip highlights a larger problem: the inability of the BJP to permanently disassociate itself from its far-right fringe.

The origin of the crisis is murky. An evangelical organisation, New Life seems to have indulged in conversions. Under this pretext, the Bajrang Dal has targeted Catholic, Protestant, as well as evangelical institutions, spreading panic amongst Christians in Karnataka. The debate on conversions is superfluous: even if the conversions are ‘forced’, that is a matter for the law enforcement agencies, not armed militias with an agenda of their own. Equally culpable is the Nero-like BJP state government, whose reluctance to act has emboldened the Bajrang Dal and other right-wing militias to take the law into their own hands. It is no coincidence that Orissa — the other state where minorities have been targeted — is ruled by a BJP-supported coalition. While the central government’s symbolic advisory to these states under Article 355 smacks of politics, it demostrates the BJP’s uncut umbilical cord with its right-wing militias.

In attempting to denounce this fringe and fashion itself as a legitimate center-right party, the Republican Party in the United States offers an instructive comparison to the BJP. The Republican Party of the 1960s was hard-edged — containing an overtly white supremacist fringe. In his acceptance speech as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, Barry Goldwater thundered “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice… moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The Republican Party was reactionary — feeding into Southern white rage against desegregation, and a rural suspicion of Jewish-controlled urban capitalism. But in the 1980s, William Buckley, and a generation of neo-conservatives that he nurtured, were able to purge the American conservative movement of Catholic-hating, anti-Semitic, and overtly racist elements. Buckley’s admirer and disciple Ronald Reagan was also able to use the middle class obsession with ‘law and order’ to crack down on armed private militias such as the Ku Klux Klan — using a new conservative mantra to neutralise an old one.Certainly, white supremacist elements still bubble under the Republican Party’s surface; but it has publicly broken away from the far-right fringe of American politics. Even today, when public wariness with the conservative movement is at an all time high, even its harshest critics don’t accuse the Republican Party of obvious racism, or of nurturing extra-judicial militias.

Unfortunately, the BJP is unable to fashion itself as a genuine centre-right party, with violent elements uncomfortably entwined with more moderate pragmatists within the BJP. This is also why the BJP seems to speak in so many different voices, and convey such a variety of images. Under pressure, the Karnataka government has finally acted, arresting the Karnataka Bajrang Dal head, and reaching out to the Catholic Church. But unless the BJP decisively denounces the Bajrang Dal, acts against it, and establishes itself as a center-right alternative, it , and India, will see many more Karnatakas.

If Acharya’s response symbolises a disquieting malaise within the BJP, even more distressing is the Bangalore Archbishop’s plea to the Karnataka chief minister on September 22: “What will you do if one of your temple’s sanctum sanctorums is destroyed”? The argument against the burning of churches is based on a liberal democracy’s obligation to protect its minorities, not on the avuncular benevolence of a Hindu-majority state. If even the archbishop buys into this myth, then he plays into the hands of those who believe that minorities in India must live under the protection of the majority, and that guard-dogs like the Bajrang Dal will enforce that contract.

vinay.sitapati@expressindia.com

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