In the heady days following the BJP's rise in the 1990s propelled in part by the rath yatra of veteran leader LK Advani, whose electoral politics has just come to an end, the BJP began a long struggle to define itself " what political space can it carve out in a country whose history is so vast and complex that it defies simplistic description?
The political press and the intelligentsia, on the other hand, took sides almost at once. The position of the secular mainstream press was in line with the post WW-II liberal western thinking, as it was during the long Independence movement. But it is a mistake to begin modern India's story from the midnight of 15 August, 1947. Or from the philosophy of what can be called Nehruvianism, easily the most articulate and foundational philosophy of the modern Indian state.
It is also a mistake to exclude Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from this Nehruvianism. The differences between the first prime minister and the first home minister (of whom the BJP has made a cult figure) were in their political styles and administrative methods. The great lion roared when he disagreed, and the Kashmiri Pandit always stopped in his tracks to listen. The story of modern India actually begins with the Bengal Renaissance and its thinkers, beginning with Raja Rammohun Roy and ending with perhaps the biggest and most brilliant thinker produced during India's first encounter with modern " liberal and ill-liberal " western thought.
This young man, who brought up the rear-guard of the Renaissance was none other than Swami Vivekananda, now the poster boy for what the BJP believes are its core foundational ideologies. This is where the dichotomy in the narrative of the BJP lies. The BJP is clearly the most important political movement after the visionary prime minister VP Singh's implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which gave a suddenly thriving political space to the backward classes defined by the rise of the two Yadavs in the heartland and Kanshi Ram and Mayawati et al.
The rise of the BJP surely had something to do with the "Brahmin backlash". But as a political party, the BJP is mistaken in its belief that it is the only claimant of that mantle. Witness this simple nugget: It was "Brahmin" Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao's decision to allow shilanyas in 1991 in the first place. The jury is still out on whether it was the right decision, and if the Congress shares the blame for the waves of virulent hate that have followed that moment, but Rao created the space for this movement to take seed.
But the pressing question still remains to be answered: what indeed is the BJP's place in Indian polity? Before proceeding to examine BJP's place in the political space, it is instructive to examine the party's claim to the Swami, the party's central icon.
First, Swami Vivekananda was the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who belonged to the Puri sect of monistic monks of Bengal who are known for their adherence to the Advaitic school of thought. Advaita (literally, one without a second, as opposed to dvaita or dualism) has a very special place in Hindu thought. It reaches all the way back to the definition of Godhead as Brahman or Inexpressible, Infinite etc. The Brahmo Samajis who drove the Renaissance drew upon this vision of Hinduism to include all Indians, regardless of their religion, caste or provenance.
Second, Ramakrishna himself affirmed the Truth of all four major religions as valid paths to the Almighty. He performed "sadhana" (spiritual effort) prescribed in all religions and found them all to be valid paths to the One Undifferentiated Reality. While that may have pulled the metaphysical rug from under the BJP platform, it is undeniable that the BJP does indeed occupy a powerful, popular and hence legitimate place in the Indian political firmament and cannot be dismissed, something that the intelligentsia instinctively does.
The BJP may have risen in prominence during the 1990s after Rao's shilanyas set in motion some very powerful forces, but these forces were created by the great trauma of Partition, which inescapably marked the psyche of every inhabitant on the subcontinent. All Indians know that this cataclysmic event which claimed over a million lives in some brutal bloodletting unseen anywhere else in the world was not (as many in the West believe) a state-sponsored pogrom in any way. In fact, it was engendered and enabled by the lack of a functioning state. Hence, it is erroneous to believe that some collections of either religion were responsible for the carnage.
In Indian popular imagination, the fault lies with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, (and astoundingly enough in the Dalai Lama's mind,) Pandit Nehru. Both men were blamed by both sides for their personal ambitions. In actual fact, perhaps the fault lay at the feet of the Great Mahatma, who tried to mix religion with politics " a dangerous mixture, as the West found out after centuries in the Dark Ages. The BJP then traces its roots back to these forces, chiefly the RSS. However, whatever dangerous hue the well-read and well-bred intelligentsia may colour the RSS with, it was a product of its times. It is the politicians in the BJP who have misused the simple urge in an embattled ancient culture, threatened with annihilation, to hold on to its roots.
In India, at the very root is religion and religious belief. In this way, the BJP is no different from the Congress, which simply forms the other side of the coin: the fault lies not in the core tenets but the politicians who seek to use them to gain power. Opinions on his performance may differ, but it is beyond question that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an old RSS man, came to power with an unmatched mandate from the people of India. He has glaring failures, chiefly on the law and order front (rapes, a pervasive feeling of lawlessness) but his successes are many, chiefly on the foreign policy front. At home, he at least gets an A for effort for being the first man to dare to imagine that with its new and shining weapon of technology, India could, perhaps someday, eradicate corruption, and build toilets for all.
During a conversation I had with the senior RSS idealogue Govindacharya at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi in the late 1990s, I suggested that the BJP (in power at the time) would never build the temple at Ayodhya. This startled Govindacharya, who was shocked not at the idea, but at my unshakeable certainty. He gave me two years for the temple to be built. Twenty years later, nothing except the health of the Sarayu river has changed, for the worse, in Lord Rama's contested birthplace.
On the other hand, the Congress and the so-called, so-far aspirational Third Front, is only a twinkle in the eyes of Chandrababu Naidu and Mamata Banerjee. The Opposition's chance mainly rests with Rahul Gandhi, who has in a brilliant strategic move, pressed Priyanka into service. The BJP mocks Rahul as an "empty suit", an ill-advised euphemism used by a diplomat to describe the Congress scion to his US masters. Whether that suit fits or not will be revealed during the long and brutally hard days of campaigning, planning, quick decisions, ticket melees etc. While Rahul has shown some maturity " and definitely the ability to take humiliation and mockery, a mark of a leader " in Indian politics, it is imperative to show you are a "man" at some point. His grandmother, once described as the only "man" in the Indian cabinet will no doubt be watching. As will his mother, Sonia.
But it is beyond doubt that it is his right as an Indian, the descendant of a proud Kashmiri Pandit family to claim his own God. It is not for nothing that Rahul is trying hard to get rid of the anti-Hindu tag his party has acquired in the last three decades. Rahul's " and now Priyanka's " temple runs are a work in progress. The jury is still out on whether they are making an impact. It could turn out to be too little too late for this election. But it is starkly clear that any comeback for the Congress is predicated on reclaiming the space it so unthinkingly surrendered to the BJP since the 1980s (recall the Shah Bano case).
India's future political battles will have the BJP and its adversaries fighting for the same space, the space that is inextricable from what goes to the heart of the Indian identity. To exclude religion or culture from it is foolhardy, because it is simply driven underground to fester. And since majority appeal is the only measure of success in politics, these battles will be about the majority religious space. The BJP does not and will not have a monopoly on religion. Muslims, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists will co-mingle on this stage, as they have down the millenia in India. India's intelligentsia will have to recognise this reality. Sooner the better.
The author is a senior journalist based in Singapore