India’s BJP Has a Good Week

As election season approaches, there appears to be a strange coincidence between the liberal decisions of the Supreme Court, the interests of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata government, and policy pronouncements from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP and holds extreme views on India being a Hindu nation.

The court’s restricted authentication this week of India’s Aadhaar biometric identity scheme softens the government’s intrusive image, while its decriminalization of homosexuality earlier this month has been echoed with an endorsement by Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS.

There was also Bhagwat’s talk 10 days ago about a new moderate approach by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organization that embraces the BJP and has for decades held extreme views on India being a Hindu nation. The new approach helps to moderate the BJP’s hardline Hinduvta image.

And yesterday the supreme court decided to start a long-delayed hearing on the famed Ayodhya temple dispute at the end of next month, which will please RSS activists on whom the BJP relies for support in election campaigns.

There is no evidence to suggest that these events are co-ordinated but, coming shortly before important state assembly elections and a few months before next spring’s general election, they are worth noting.

RSS and its image

The first easing of the BJP’s image came last week in an unprecedented three days of public lectures with questions and answers by Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS. Bhagwat tried to revise the hardline communal image. He said that the idea of Hindutva was not achievable without acceptance of Muslims and other minorities. He condemned lynch mobs and gangs who have pursued people, usually Muslims, transporting cows to slaughter and others accused of having beef in their homes.

“Hindu Rashtra [nation] doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims. If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusivity,” he asserted to the amazement no doubt of RSS members as well as critics. “Hindutva binds us together and our vision of Hindutva is not to oppose or demean anyone.”

Bhagwat’s remarks counter relentless criticism by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, about the RSS. Gandhi accuses the organization and the BJP of dividing India. Opinions are divided over how much Bhagwat was pursuing that political path or whether he was declaring a new RSS approach – continuing with the cause of Hindutva but softening it on the minorities and other issues. Critics see it as mere pre-election propaganda, while others believe that Bhagwat is trying to redirect the Sangh Parivar, as the family of organizations that includes the RSS and BJP is known.

Bhagwat seemed to indicate a new approach and suggest that harsh Hindutva was not in line with modern India. He said that some of the ‘bunch of thoughts” of MS Golwalkar, an early leader of the RSS that was formed in 1925, were no longer “pleasurable.” Times change, and “accordingly our thoughts transform.”

That would fit with a surprise break from tradition in June when he hosted Pranab Mukherjee, India’s former president and a senior Congress minister over four decades, to speak to an RSS youth meeting at the organization’s Nagpur headquarters.

The big test will be whether Amit Shah, the tough BJP president, modifies his anti-Muslim rhetoric, which he is currently aiming at Bangladeshi people suspected of being illegal immigrants in the north-eastern state of Assam and elsewhere. The other test will be whether the vigilante mobs modify their tactics, which seems unlikely to happen quickly.

Ajodhya temple in supreme court

Bhagwat also supported the building of a new temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on the site where Hindu activists destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque in 1992, and took a new line on gay sex, saying that homosexuals exist and that society needed to change with time.

The Supreme Court yesterday said that on October 29 it would start hearings on whether or not a temple should be built at Ayodhya on the site, which will please RSS activists on whom the BJP depends in elections.

The court laid the groundwork for Bhagwat’s gay sex line earlier this month when its decriminalized homosexuality on the grounds that it was not banned by the Indian constitution. This was an historic judgement on a subject that successive governments have avoided because of entrenched traditionalist views in virtually all political parties.

Issuing that judgment, the chief justice, Dipak Misra, who was implicitly accused in January by four fellow judges of doing the government’s bidding, showed independence by implicitly criticizing Hindu nationalists’ attitudes on Muslims and other issues. “Majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights,” he said.

Aadhaar opposition

Misra was one of the judges who ruled this week in favor of Aadhar. When it was launched by the last Congress government in 2009, the scheme faced criticism from human rights activists along with legal opposition. It was designed by a team in the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) led by Nandan Nilekani, a founder of Infosys, one of India’s largest information technology companies.

Nilekani’s stated apolitical aim was not to invade privacy but to provide people with a proof of identity that many lack, thus stemming extortion by officials from the central government down to villages. “This enhances access of the common man to public services while reducing the hassle he or she faces,” he said during a lecture on curbing corruption.

Fears have however grown under Modi’s more authoritarian government that it wanted to extend the mandatory use of the card so that it became a tool of the state. The Aadhaar system has also been hacked, allegedly allowing unauthorized printing of the cards.

Critics say the scheme provides the government with its most powerful surveillance tool and is liable to be hacked, with personal biometric details being stolen, and that thumb print registration machines in crowded and chaotically run registration centers have been rigged to retain personal information. Officials, or their private sector subcontractors, have demanded bribes to issue the cards, thus blocking access to food rations if cards are not issued. The government has also issued exaggerated claims about financial savings, for example from identifying false ration cards.

The judges’ majority verdict however said that the benefits were worth the risks. “We have come to the conclusion that Aadhaar Act is a beneficial legislation which is aimed at empowering millions of people in this country….At the same time, data protection and data safety is also to be ensured to avoid even the remote possibility of data profiling or data leakage.”

There is no evidence to suggest that these events are coordinated, but the limitations on Aadhar, the decriminalizing of homosexuality, and the talk of a new approach by the RSS do all help to soften the BJP’s image in advance of what are going to be tough elections.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia Correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.