Let's be frank: India needs a new Hindu political party. Liberals will think that's bad news. 'Hindu' extremists will think that's good news. Actually, it's the opposite: good news for liberals, bad news for 'Hindu' extremists. Here's why.
BJP, now that it governs India, believes that it articulates the 'Hindu' voice with greater authority than ever before. That it doesn't is becoming increasingly obvious.
Most of Bharatiya Janata Party seems unable or unwilling to accept that much of the Bharatiya janata – 80%-plus of it Hindu – wants a happy plurality of personal, cultural and lifestyle choices. And this political constituency wants a party that understands this.
Hindus who voted for Narendra Modi in 2014 didn't do so because they wanted school syllabi to be 'Hinduised' or Gita to be given the status of a rigid and exclusionary religious text. Nor did they want some silly notions of 'Hindu' dress code – kurta/pajama/dhoti/vermillion for men and sari/sindoor for women – to be foisted on them, or proscriptions on what they can eat or drink and who they should love or marry.
What it means to be a Hindu is this: it's up to you. A Hindu way of life, if there's such a thing, revels in inclusiveness, in polychromatic diversity unencumbered by imagined or imposed boundaries. Its true marker is inner spirituality, not morality dictated from outside. Unsurprisingly, there's little evidence that India's Hindus are aching for a bunch of guys to tell them what it means to be 'Hindu'.
Pundits will say this in many complicated ways. But take a simple yet powerful example from Indian life that illustrates how un-Hindu India's supposedly Hindu party is. If an Indian Hindu likes, say, Italian cuisine, American films, English novels, Sufi hip hop music, and has a partner who isn't Hindu or Indian – is he or she not a true Hindu? Says who? To countless Indians born Hindu, eclectic preferences come naturally.
That holds true up and down the social-income scale. Poorer Hindus are no more massed flag-bearers of some restrictive, regressive notion of Hindu-ness than their more prosperous counterparts are. Everyone who can afford cheap denim likes to wear it. Everyone who can buy a cheap smartphone accesses a world of choices that are far from 'traditional'. Everyone lucky enough to get affordable, functional English language education grabs the opportunity.
Hindus are like this only. They don't really take well to what pundits call cultural nationalism. They are, to borrow a term from technology, an open source people. Ideas from everywhere cross-fertilize in their minds.
BJP, in contrast, appears to be a closed system. It claims its proprietary software – 'Hindu' nationalism – is what Hindus need. But that software doesn't fit into Hindus' operating system, their way of life. 'Hindu' nationalists think power yoga is a Western perversion. Many Hindus think it's cool. Just as they think indigenization of Western ideas is cool.
So, either BJP reinvents itself or Hindus could get themselves a new party that offers something other than stentorian and shallow sermonizing on religious and nationalist dos and don'ts. Such a party, offering choice, would welcome even a born-Hindu turned atheist.
Can Modi take BJP away from 'Hindu' nationalism towards liberal Hinduism? On that question, skepticism is in order. Yet, here's a man who achieved an electoral landslide with a passionately articulated promise of material betterment, not cultural nationalism.
If Modi can't – or won't – do it, someone else will. That's the dynamics of politics. There's a demand for a different kind of party for Hindus, and it appears strong enough for supply to emerge.
That's how AAP was born. As a political organization, AAP still has plenty wrong with it. But there's no denying it rose by tapping into a strong enough wish for a political formation that was for the growing urban underclass. A new liberal Hindu party may emerge in a similar fashion, squeezing out the old 'Hindu' party.
A question remains that liberals might ask. Why want a new Hindu party to supplant BJP or BJP to morph into a new Hindu party, instead of calling for a completely new and therefore 'truly' liberal party?
That question presupposes that political outfits that speak for particular social groups are necessarily illiberal. That's intellectually lazy liberalism. Christian Democrats evolved as sensible, socially liberal political actors in much of continental Europe. No one accuses them of religious extremism or theocratic fantasies. The same can't be said of some of America's Bible Belt Christian Conservatives.
In fast-globalizing aspirational India, a new Hindu outfit could go even further than Europe's Christian Democrats. Being truly open-minded, it could outmaneuver fanatics in whose lexicon change is a dirty word.
That, as we said, would be good news for liberals and bad news for extremists.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.