Mukul Kesavan


The BJP might regret trying to colonize the 25th of December. Not on account of remorse; subordinating things that aren’t Hindu to things that are is the party’s reason for being. No, the party might come to regret the petty, lying spectacle it made of itself while trying to steal Christmas.

Narendra Modi’s government marked its first Christmas in office by celebrating the nativity of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Government servants were made to work through a major gazetted holiday to help rebrand Christmas as Good Governance Day. The Central government ordered government schools to mark the day by staying open on Christmas so that students could participate in debates, plays and essay competitions on the theme of good governance.

In the face of outrage, the human resource development minister tried to brazen it out. In a series of tweets, she chided the Times of India for misreporting the government’s initiative. According to her, the government had made no attempt to keep schools open over Christmas. The only activity that had been officially recommended, according to her, was an optional online essay competition that didn’t require the physical presence of students in school on Christmas day.

The Times of India‘s reporter who had filed the story, promptly uploaded a scanned image of the original circular. This hadn’t just specified a series of activities that required students to be present in schools on Christmas day, but had ordered school authorities to document their compliance by making video recordings of students participating in these activities. Since it’s hard to film an online essay competition, Smriti Irani’s chutzpah in demanding a retraction and apology from a newspaper for a scrupulously accurate report, was shown up for what it was, pre-emptive bluster. In full retreat, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokespersons and its furious fellow travellers were reduced to muttering that it wasn’t the Modi sarkar’s fault that Jesus shared a birthday with Madan Mohan and Atal Bihari. In this, at least, they were right.

Good Governance Day was a milestone in the political career of this government though not in the way that it had intended. Its bid to steal Christmas told us something crucial about the BJP in office. The BJP, like majoritarian parties everywhere in the world, ventriloquizes the grievances of an imagined majority. Think of an alternative Gulliver’s Travels, where Gulliver is systematically unpleasant to Lilliputians because he feels put upon by them and you have the BJP and its politics of resentment.

The Christmas day initiative was revealing because of its gratuitousness. It served no policy purpose. The ghar wapsi campaign to ‘reconvert’ Muslims and Christians had, at least, the virtue of policy cunning. It stampeded the self-appointed representatives of Christians and Muslims into asking the government to intervene to stop the loudly advertised reconversion upon which the BJP sprang its trap by asking Parliament to pass an anti-conversion bill.

But the State-sponsored commemoration of December 25 had a simpler and cruder goal: the symbolic appropriation of a day associated with Christianity. To do this the Union government, steered by the BJP, organized a parallel birthday party in honour of two men associated with Hindu nationalist politics: Malaviya and Vajpayee. The Good Governance gambit is the sort of manoeuvre that begins with the thought: “So you think you own the 25th? Well, you don’t and we’ll show you why.” The BJP’s reason for being is the assertion of Hindu hegemony, and this is most satisfactorily done by showing minorities their place. In this view of the world Christmas is a piece of calendrical real-estate crying out to be squatted on because it’s a day sacred to Christians. The BJP tried to steal Christmas a) because it’s programmed to crowd out minorities and b) because it could.

In its brief term in office, the Modi government, its personnel and its ideological outriders have done and said worse things, but this crabwise move to nobble Christmas is important because there is a perverse ideological purity to it. It demonstrates the Modi sarkar’sdetermination to flex its majoritarian muscle at every available opportunity, specially in the symbolic realm.

When the BJP won a decisive majority in the general election, there was a broad difference of opinion within what passes for the ‘liberal’ commentariat in India. On the one hand were the secular dogmatists convinced that the dark side had won. On the other were more supple critics who made the nuanced case that in a democratic system, where political alternation was built into the system, it wasn’t fair to pass judgment on a government till it had done some governing.

Even charter members of the first group had to concede that in the aftermath of a famous victory, to predict doom was to sound like disgruntled losers. The second position was, rhetorically, more reasonable at the time. Six months down the line, though, you would have to be extravagantly optimistic to believe that the responsibilities of governance might yet turn the BJP into a moderate centre-right party, committed to inclusive growth.

The power to govern unfettered by the constraints of coalition politics, has, if anything, made the BJP more feral. In the course of these six months we have had one Union minister of the government of India dividing the world into ‘ Ramzaadon‘ and ‘ haramzaadon‘ while another tried to dragoon children into jumping through sarkari hoops on Christmas Day. We have had riots in Delhi where local BJP politicians have been openly partisan. Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, she of the children-of-Ram- vs-b******s distinction, made a pro-forma apology for her statement… and was promptly sent to campaign for the BJP in Trilokpuri where communal riots had occurred just a few weeks earlier. The fact that the riots had been sparked by pitched battles between Dalits and Muslims wasn’t lost on the BJP: Niranjan Jyoti is a Dalit sadhvi, tailor-made for the political polarization in that neighbourhood. We have had a BJP member of parliament, another saffron-robed sadhu, Sakshi Maharaj, make the case for elevating Nathuram Godse into the nationalist pantheon.

None of this should be the occasion for cries of startled betrayal. The empathy for Godse, the sympathy for his motives, the division of the world into Hindu virtue and non-Hindu vice, the willingness to take the ‘Hindu’ side in communal riots, the belief that India’s religious minorities are basically Hindus who have lost their way and ought to be brought home (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s chief, Mohan Bhagwat, defending ‘ ghar wapsi‘ charmingly referred to Christians and Muslims as ” apna maal“), are hardy staples of the BJP’s politics, they are its core beliefs. The fact that the BJP has aired them enthusiastically in the course of its first six months in office should surprise no one. Ideology matters: this is what the BJP was born to do. Now that it has a parliamentary majority, it can be itself in a way that wasn’t possible before.

To say this is not to say I-told-you-so, but to point out that a party’s beliefs matter. It is to argue that it was reasonable to anticipate that things like this would happen when Modi won his electoral majority given what we know about him and the BJP. To believe that there is some alchemy produced by the business of ruling that converts ideological viciousness into wise governance is to indulge the liberal’s licence to equivocate. The point of punditry is not to seem reasonable; it is, to the extent that it’s possible, to be right.

Merry Christmas and a happy, unillusioned, New Year!