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Friday, April 20, 2018

Scything the secular

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Seema Chishti depicts old fissures in the society of Uttar Pradesh that elucidated by the book

A clean sweep of Uttar Pradesh, with a tally of 73 out of 80 seats, was a crucial factor in bringing the BJP to power at the Centre with a majority on its own, for the first time in independent India. In its last stint in office, Atal Behari Vajpayee had formed a coalition government with the help of 56 seats from UP. This time, the BJP had complete control over the state, too. The prime minister stood for election from Varanasi, giving up Vadodara. A year ago, a victory in the state polls and the imposition of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the longest-serving BJP MP from UP and Mathaadheesh of the Gorakhnath temple, made things abundantly clear.

There is another layer to the story. UP has become what Gujarat was to the BJP until 2014, the ideal state, exemplifying the party's politics and campaigning style. Adityanath has been kept busy through the year, campaigning in the Northeast, Karnataka and Kerala, to speak of what the BJP would bring to those states if voted to power. Soon, he was being regarded as the BJP's number two campaigner. After LK Advani, the Lauh Purush mascot of the Rath Yatra, and Narendra Modi, the Vikas Purush of Gujarat, it was now Adityanath's turn to speak of Gorakhpur Governance and the UP Model.

Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh tries to understand this complicated journey from Advani to Modi and then to Hindu Yuva Vahini founder Adityanath, but from below. While 'silent revolution' spoke of the deepening of democracy in another era, through Dalit populations voting politically to make a difference, the book introduces the phrase 'quiet revolution' to speak of what the RSS/BJP have wrought in India's largest state.

Connecting activities by swayamsevaks to real and sudden changes in the economy, it speaks of the new political economy of communalization which is sparked by a mix of envy, anger and competitive communalization over differential changes in economic fortunes, among other things. At a time of incredible social ferment, the authors capture quicksilver change through the meticulous assembly of interviews with UP regulars on their fieldwork, correlated with news, policy change and the utterances of leaders.

What is fulfilling, as students or practitioners of politics - or even watchful bystanders - would acknowledge, is the window provided through which to view so much of what has just happened. Scholarship on this large and terrifyingly difficult state had seen Zoya Hasan's excellent Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements and Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh, but that was in 1998. After that, perhaps Bihar excited people more. Despite the dramatic changes its people tried to usher in through political change - BJP, Limbo, SP, BSP and then SP again - UP did not inspire a look at what was happening to society, behind the news.

This book looks at micro changes and events in UP, and connects them to the national drama. Perhaps it offers the first insight beyond the rhetoric of Advani giving way to Modi giving way to Yogi as a campaigner. It digs deeper into what the different mobilizations initiated by these three leaders have meant for UP, and consequently for India.

Speaking of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the militia under Adityanath's tutelage, it argues for the acknowledgement of the everydayness of communalization. By making every traffic accident, love affair, meal or graveyard/cremation ground (shamshan/ kabristan) an us-versus-them issue, deep divisions are made more permanent in society. The book argues that this goes beyond political mobilizations and has deep social implications for a country which, for at least 40-50 years after enacting its unique Constitution, functioned under the basic principle that national identity is not hostage to how one prays.

By making everyday communalization routine, the book traces in detail the inability of secular parties to preach common sense effectively. It explores how the RSS and the BJP served to make communal politics more durable and seed it more firmly into how lives are lived. "Politics is the downstream of culture," argued right-wing journalist Andrew Breitbart, inspiring what firms like the controversial Cambridge Analytica try to do virtually. What is being attempted successfully through the everyday poisoning of wells in UP is no different, fixing culture so that the secular ideal is no longer common sense, and it seems plausible to aggressively argue for separation instead.

However, the book is not able to take a position on whether this trend will continue, and if it is irreversible. Also, how replicable is this method in southern states like Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, with substantial minority populations? But perhaps that is a question that will be answered by the electorate, rather than the authors, in times to come.

The reviewer is a journalist.The write-up has appeared on www.indianexpress.com

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