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Weak communists open the door to Hindu nationalism in India

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has been gaining ground in former leftist strongholds

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: February 15, 2021 10:33 AM GMT

Updated: February 15, 2021 10:34 AM GMT

Weak communists open the door to Hindu nationalism in India

An artist paints an idol of the elephant-headed Hindu god Lord Ganesh ahead of the Maghi Ganesh festival in Mumbai on Feb. 13. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is gaining ground in communist strongholds. (Photo: AFP)

The downward slippery journey of Indian communists, electorally and in exerting influence on the sociopolitical mindset, has been phenomenal in the last decade.

In the regions where they are losing their grip, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is gaining. The religious minorities who should be happy about atheism losing ground are now more worried about an even worse form of political ideology gaining power.

The BJP, which is pushing to make India a nation of Hindu hegemony, came to power in Tripura by ousting its communist government in 2018. The BJP is also gaining political support in West Bengal and Kerala, two other communist strongholds.

As Kerala gets ready for state elections in April-May, the BJP’s political meetings and roadshows are getting more people than ever before. That should worry both Christians and Muslims in the state who have traditionally opposed the BJP’s pro-Hindu politics.

The BJP’s growing support base naturally means dwindling popularity for Kerala’s two traditional political alliances — one led by the Congress party and the other led by leftist parties.

The leftist parties’ ouster from power in Kerala, the only state where they now run the government, will perhaps wipe out communism from Indian politics.

The Marxist-led Left Front lost power in their one-time stronghold West Bengal in 2011 after ruling the state for 34 years at a stretch. In 2018, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) lost power in yet another small state, Tripura, which has a sizable number of native Christian tribal people.

But Kerala’s communist leader and current chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, refuses to move along the stricter communist path the comrades walked in Tripura and West Bengal.

Critics say Vijayan has already tinted the red flag of the communists with the hues of saffron, the color associated with Hindus. In other words, he has taken care not to offend Hindus with his so-called reformist and progressive communist ideas.

One example is the state dropping the idea of pressing for the entry of women of reproductive age into a popular temple against its tradition. Vijayan’s government pushed for the entry of all women to the temple following a Supreme Court order favoring it two years ago. Massive rallies, supported by the BJP, followed, forcing Vijayan to leave the issue silently.

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Vijayan is also trying to gain the support of Hindus and Christians, notwithstanding their ideological indifference to the politics of religion. The reported growth in influence of radical Islamic forces in Kerala and the government action to check it should gain some support from Hindus and Christians.

The leftists may describe this appeasing of religion as pragmatism. But pragmatism, as they say, is often a good political substitute for sheer naked opportunism. 

It was Kerala communists’ pragmatism that led them to accept democracy and to install the world’s first elected communist government in the state in 1956. From then on, communists have become part of the electoral battle in India.

As they weakened in states, they also failed to win seats in the national parliament. In the 2019 general election, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) could gain only 1.7 percent of polled votes and just three seats in the 543-seat house. In the previous election in 2014, they had nine seats, and in 2009 16 seats.

What does this gradual weakening of Indian communist forces indicate? One straight takeaway is the decline of secular ideology in the country. The communists could be anti-religion, but they have long been the real custodians of a secular polity where nearly 80 percent of its 1.3 billion people are Hindus.

The electoral data in the last 15 years — of the three national elections and numerous state elections — clearly shows not only the weakening of communists but also the rise of the BJP, particularly in states like West Bengal and Tripura. We see the same trend now in Kerala.

In other words, the weakening of communists signals more opportunities for the rise of Hindu nationalism, something that leaves religious minorities, Muslims and Christians nervous and worried.

One of the major fears among religious minorities and a section of left-liberals has been that the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi could change the constitution to discard the parliamentary system and give a major push to make India a Hindu Rashtra (nation).

Communist confusion

Will the leftists remain relevant in Indian politics? The possibility of Christians and Muslims backing communists against the BJP is ruled out. These religious communities cannot support atheism-based political outfits and the Church maintains a policy of not supporting any political party. The god-denying communists also cannot seek votes on religious lines.

The sociopolitical situation has driven them to restart negotiations with the Congress party for an alliance for the 2021 state polls in West Bengal. Here they need to fight two formidable rival parties — the BJP and a regional outfit named Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress.

"The worry is bigger as most BJP votes come from former leftists. The communist leaders do not seem to have discovered any great electoral strategy to win back their support base," says political observer Vidyarthi Kumar.

Ramakant Sanyal, a political analyst in West Bengal, says if the leftists “cannot do well this time, they face the chances of losing their very relevance. They have been out of power in the state since 2011.”

A sizable number of communist leaders in West Bengal believe that the BJP is a bigger enemy than Trinamool Congress. Thus the leftists may even work out some post-poll arrangement with Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who was instrumental in dethroning the communists in the state.

Appropriating communalism

In Kerala, Vijayan is accused of indulging religion-based tactics in his desperation to win this year’s state election. He reportedly made anti-Muslim statements trying to bolster electoral prospects among Christians and the majority Hindu base.

In a Facebook post, Vijayan said a rival Congress alliance partner, the Indian Union Muslim League, is gaining prominence in state politics. It is alleged the statement aims to get the support of Hindus and Muslims, which could lead to religious polarization in the state.

This happens at a time when the BJP is vigorously pushing radical Hinduism to make deeper penetration in Kerala.

Vijayan’s government has been slowly implementing a court order on the age-old dispute between the two Christian factions — the Orthodox and rival Jacobite. The court order asked to take over more than 1,100 churches from the numerically stronger Jacobites and hand them over to the Orthodox outfit. It is argued that not implementing the order helped the communists in the December civic body polls.

Of course, such sheer opportunism of the left is being exploited by BJP leaders, who showed an interest in helping the warring Christians find peace. They arranged for leaders of the Orthodox and Jacobite factions to meet Prime Minister Modi, seeking his intervention. Presenting Modi as a prime minister interested in the well-being of Christians could help the BJP gain ground among Kerala Christians.

The double standards of communists, who preach secularism but practice communal politics while terming it pragmatic politics, have been the reason for their destruction. The erstwhile champions of the working class, the peasants and the poor have lost track.

The Indian communists are just another political party trying to win elections, with little difference from other parties like the BJP. The only difference may be in scale.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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