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Does the BJP deserve another chance?

Garhwal Post
13 February 2007

With the state assembly polls growing ever closer, all indications point to a stronger presence of the BJP in the new assembly. While the party might not form the government, they will still play a pivotal role in state politics, thus the pressing need for greater scrutiny of their agenda.

Interestingly, early indications evoke an overwhelming sense of déjà vu from both the BJP’s banal and provocative policy announcements as presented last week in the release of their campaign agenda. A cursory glance through their platform finds the familiar populist platitudes of more accountable governance, more employment opportunities, and lower prices (when has a party not promised these things?). What they will actually do to assure a different economic outcome than Congress and even their disappointing first run at government can only be guessed given the laundry list of priorities.

More jarring is the prominence placed on Hindutva ideology in a region where upper caste Hindu dominance is nowhere threatened. Even the ban on cow slaughter seems odd, when cows are suffering everyday from motor traffic, air pollution, and the ingestion of plastic rubbish, as opposed to the extremely rare instance of beef consumption. Likewise for the ban on forced conversions, which may have been prompted by an isolated incident, rather than a pervasive phenomenon. As for making Sanskrit the second language in the state, it would be like making Latin the second language of any European country or the US! It also ignores the government’s responsibility to preserve and promote the actual vernacular languages of the state, i.e., Garhwali and Kumaoni (followed by Punjabi, Nepali, Bengali, etc. that are actually used and spoken by hundreds of thousands of people).

Given this disconnect, applying an alien Hindutva sheen to the same development model as that of Congress may not be enough. While the BJP must pay attention to its grassroots that have joined the party as a viable alternative to Congress neoliberal policies, it must also work very hard to earn the trust of the most vulnerable in society. This is especially true of minorities who have every right to fear the party’s majoritarian proclivities. As such, the BJP should realize that nowhere do Hindutva’s main preoccupations rank in the priorities of average citizens and that communal harmony is greatly appreciated in a state where people are personally pious but few have exclusionary fundamentalist beliefs.

This is not to say that religious identity has no role to play in the moral regeneration of the state. However, we can reach further back than Hindutva’s very modern manifestation of exclusionary cultural nationalism, to the more ancient roots of Uttarakhandi culture for more holistic guidance. Garhwali and Kumaoni religiosity has since time immemorial sprouted organically from the very land itself. In the deification of mountains, rivers, and forest groves, the Devbhumi has been the object of devotion as a physically manifest abode of the gods as opposed to an abstracted sentiment separated from its social and ecological basis. Indeed, Hindutva as performed by various groups sometimes caricatures Hinduism with its intolerance rather than spirituality and positive dharma. It also subordinates the great diversity of Hindu belief to crass partisan politics not unlike its fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, and Islamic counterparts.

The BJP’s preferred name for the state, “Uttaranchal”, is emblematic of the party’s central ideological contradiction and rough relationship with the Hindu identity. This fondness for the artificial term represents a clearly hegemonistic position that subordinates local identities to the amorphous “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.” Furthermore, their self-proclaimed role as the protector of India’s cultural heritage often extends only so far as preserving their particular vision of the nation’s historical traditions, as opposed to the great diversity of cultures and creeds that makes India so special. The fact that Uttarakhand is the proper scriptural name of an ancient land should be respected and indeed celebrated for its antiquity and spiritual significance. That it was discarded by the party during state formation for no good reason has always remained a real mystery.

Thus to gain the confidence of people, the BJP can first end once and for all their quibbling over the name of the state, and start tackling some looming issues. While they can invest in the construction of new temples and Sanskrit for employing pandits, of most immediate concern as noted by the Garhwal Post-Umeed Poll is the continuing unemployment and underdevelopment of the hills, a problem that has persisted despite the efforts of every regime that has come and gone in both the Uttar Pradesh Hill Development and “Uttaranchal” State dispensation. The BJP has not indicated what they might do differently other than tackling the issue with more alacrity. Thus the big question remains over whether they can evolve an alternative development model, or follow in the footsteps of their kin in the Congress that has replaced the License Permit Raj with a new Corporate Contractor Raj.

Moreover, the BJP should restore democratic norms that were sorely neglected over the past few years. Beyond respecting the Vidhan Sabha as the decision making body of the state, they must also move to repair the state’s public consultation process. The BJP should especially repudiate the record of the first BJP administration where callous dismissals of the concerns of the Tehri displaced partly precipitated the BJP’s 2002 electoral debacle in Garhwal.

For instance, recent public hearings for the Kotali-Bhel Phase-1 Hydroelectric Project in the Bhilangana Valley and similar such exercises demonstrate that the authorities need to be more serious about consulting local people, rather than presenting their projects as faits accomplis. Right to information is vital in these cases, with key documents made available in the vernacular language. Nor should the NHPC be allowed to pit villagers against one another in a repeat of the Tehri divide-and-rule strategy. This has poisoned inter-village relations and further fragmented highland communities, where some have lost their entire livelihoods while others have been forced by economic necessity to participate in their usurpation.

If the BJP hopes to rule for an extended period of time, they cannot ignore the grave and emerging climactic threat to the very survival of the Devbhumi. Unfortunately, within Uttarakhand itself, there still seems to be a dearth of discussion on the implications of such matters as growing air, water, and land pollution and glacier retreat on the ecological and agricultural systems of the Himalayas. Likewise, hydroelectric development is dramatically altering the geological and hydrological balance, with more research needed into the long-term impact on the region’s water tables and vegetation. Such questions cannot be left to scientists, environmental organizations, or the central government alone, but must be taken up by everyone concerned about the generations to come.

This past weekend, several social organizations of Uttarakhand released a joint people’s manifesto that sadly only the UKD embraced. The manifesto raises some key concerns around the impact of globalization, privatization, and the environmental crisis on the Himalayas. Given the convergence of the national parties with vested interests and national priorities and ideologies, the poor response from the big guns was predictable. Unfortunately, while smaller regional parties like the UKD have better ideas, they remain marginalized. Can the BJP learn from them? Can the party humbly bring them into their confidence and work with them in a bipartisan manner? This is the big question hanging over the state as it faces potentially five more years of “back to the future” with either the BJP or Congress.