Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks downplaying religious divides and foregrounding a national identity were made to an audience – RSS’s Muslim Rashtriya Manch – that perhaps got what it wanted to hear. But the RSS chief’s observations that the “DNA of all Indians is the same, irrespective of religion,” his critique of incidents of lynching, and his emphasis on the primacy of the rule of law are nonetheless important – because of two reasons.
First, his speech comes at a time when costs of division and social strife are becoming even more as the economy struggles to recover from two Covid waves. If you are any kind of proud Indian you should know that the source of national power and prestige is economic growth, size of the economy and living standards. On all these, India has been long underperforming. Meanwhile, public energies are wasted on CAA, various state interfaith marriage laws, frivolous sedition and UAPA cases, and Centre-state conflicts. Preoccupation with the polarised, long-winded Bengal elections that distracted national attention from a gathering second Covid wave should have been a wakeup call. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Bhagwat’s speech is a useful contribution to this discussion.
Second, the RSS chief’s soothing words can be read in the context of electoral political challenges for BJP. To get back to Bengal, the result was particularly unsettling for BJP because the Muslim vote deserted Congress and CPM en masse and consolidated behind TMC. Fast forward to UP. What happens if in assembly elections in that crucial state next year, UP’s 19% Muslim population rallies behind only one opposition party? Such a tactical mobilisation, combined with all challenges incumbency brings, can be worrisome for BJP. The less collectively angry Muslims feel towards BJP, the less the chance of en bloc tactical voting. Nationally, too, BJP would prefer the Muslim vote to be diffused. Post-poll surveys in 2019 indicated that minority support for BJP hasn’t increased and there was greater Muslim vote consolidation favouring the leading opposition party in each state.
Bhagwat’s speech was welcome. But read it in the context of evolving strategies of India’s most sharply election-focussed party.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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