Many years ago, on the eve of the 1996 general election, while flying from Lucknow to Delhi after accompanying a senior BJP leader on a hectic campaign tour, I had made bold to ask him, ?Do you think the Hindu vote will consolidate in favour of your party this time??
The question was prompted by the results of the post-December 6, 1992 elections. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had been evicted from power, as also in Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The Ayodhya magic, it would seem, had begun to wear off pretty fast. Or is it that the BJP had failed to canalise Hindu votes?
After a long silence, the BJP leader came up with his answer: ?You see, the fact is that ours is a Hindu party, but we are unable to aggressively campaign from a Hindu platform. How can we pretend to be all things to all people and yet chase the Hindu vote??
In the event, the BJP came to power for 13 days in 1996 and had to wait for another two years before it could take charge of the Union Government at the head of a disparate coalition called the National Democratic Alliance whose members had nothing in common on ideological issues but were keen to share power.
A decade after that mid-flight conversation, I think the BJP still finds itself caught in the same conundrum. If it were to aggressively canvass for Hindu votes from a Hindu platform, it would find its allies denouncing it. If it tries to tread the slippery path that it followed before and during the 2004 general election, waving certificates of endorsement from charlatans like the Shahi Imam of Delhi'sJama Masjid, it can look forward to warming the Opposition benches for years to come.
There is, however, a countervailing point of view which is linked to the question: Is there a Hindu vote for the BJP to chase? The answer is pegged to possible definitions of a Hindu vote. Is it defined by the religion of the voter? If so, then in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the Marxists? base is predominantly and overwhelmingly Hindu. Or is it defined by Hindu social, cultural and political aspirations?
If the second definition is more appropriate, which I believe it is, then perhaps we should look at the possibility of forging a nationalist vote (Nirad C Chaudhuri insisted that those born on this side of the Sindhu are ?Hindus?) and harvesting it during elections. But even if this were to be a more correct interpretation of what is referred to as the ?Hindu vote?, we cannot ignore social and political realities as they prevail today.
For instance, Hindu society is severely fractured along caste lines today as never before. To deny this would be to turn our face away from the truth. Worse, the identity politics of caste have become enmeshed with politics of regionalism. Hence, we have parties like the DMK, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Lok Janashakti Party dovetailing regionalism with casteism, and thus concocting a heady cocktail.
What has worsened the situation is the attempt by the national parties, namely the BJP and the Congress, to join the game of competitive caste politics and thus widening the fissures in Hindu society, pitting caste against caste. The OBC quota in higher education introduced by the Congress and the BJP'sunqualified support for it is an example.
What has happened, therefore, is that the ?Hindu vote? defined by Hindu aspirations has been fragmented into caste votes?the tribal vote, the Dalit vote, the OBC vote and the forward caste vote? none of which is strong enough to prop up a Government on its own, at least at the Centre. Some would suggest that this fragmentation is near-purposeful with the intention of preventing a consolidation of the larger ?Hindu vote?.
The only way of forging a unified ?Hindu vote? is by crafting a pan-Hindu agenda that will subsume caste identities and regional aspirations. In other words, there is need for an over-arching agenda that is free of identity politics in its narrowest sense.
As BJP president, Mr L.K. Advani was able to craft an over-arching agenda by bringing together three issues that defined?and perhaps still define?the core of Hindu concerns: The Ram temple dispute in Ayodhya, the need for a Uniform Civil Code and the necessity of abrogating Article 370. The results were stupendous; even Hindus who vote for the CPI(M) in West Bengal were tantalised by the possibilities of emergent Hindu political power.
But a decade and more later, Hindu concerns have shifted and it would be self-defeating to expect similar results from the same agenda. An entire generation has grown up and come of voting age since 1996 and is not necessarily charged by the ideas that motivated voters and mobilised mass support for the BJP during the height of the Ayodhya movement.
Young India, overwhelmingly Hindu and rapidly moving towards conservative values even while keeping pace with modernism, is driven by the idea of Rising India. I would posit that a new definition of the ?Hindu vote? must perforce factor in this idea whose contours are essentially, though not entirely, economic. An over-arching agenda relevant in today'scontext would, thus, necessarily have to be crafted from social, economic and political aspirations that are directly linked to the idea of Rising India.
If a ?Hindu vote? were to be forged today, it would have to be by identifying these aspirations, listing them by order of priority and crafting an agenda that promotes them unabashedly. Be it free market economics, which is being increasingly seen as beneficial for the masses, or rapid liberalisation, which is perceived to be consumer-friendly, we cannot shy away and remain tied to conventional wisdom of the past.
There are other issues, too. For instance, Young India is hungry for accelerated infrastructure and social development; it is tired of tokenism and hollow sloganeering, as it is tired of hackneyed ideas which politicians, including, and this must be stated with full emphasis, those in the BJP, believe are an easy route to votes, and thus to power.
For evidence, look at the remarkable manner in which Mr Narendra Modi has built up a huge Hindu vote-bank, representing Hindu social, cultural and political aspirations that form the foundation of the idea of Rising India, in Gujarat. He has achieved this not by pandering to crass majoritarianism, as claimed by his critics, but by focussing on development. And ensuring security without which growth and development can prove to be meaningless.
A last point. At this year'sVishwa Hindu Sangam in Prayag, three resolutions were adopted to motivate Hindu activists into working for the creation of a ?Hindu vote-bank??on the Hindu nation, Hindu unity and social harmony. The underlying theme of each of these resolutions was the need to obliterate social divisions of caste and put an end to obnoxious practices like barring Dalits from entering temples. More importantly, and remarkably so, development was linked to dignity.
Which brings us to where we began. Is there a ?Hindu vote?? I would say, yes there is a ?Hindu vote?, which, at present, is an aggregate of caste votes. Can this be forged into a larger ?Hindu vote?, and thus a ?Hindu vote-bank?? Yes, it is possible to achieve this goal but only if there is concerted action at two levels. First, a movement to unify Hindu communities?tribals, Dalits, OBCs and forward castes?through a vigorous social harmony campaign. And, second, by distilling Young India's?Hindu?, and therefore nationalist, aspirations into a political agenda.
For that, of course, we require forward-thinking, forward-moving leaders who can break free of the shackles and shibboleths of the past. Which by itself is a tall order.
(The writer is a veteran journalist, is Associate Editor of The Pioneer. He served in the PMO as an aide to the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and has headed the India Centre in Cairo.)