I spent Sunday evening on the terrace of Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a law firm that works out of a dainty cottage in the heart of Bangalore. A garage sale had been organised to collect funds for the LGBT Pride march that falls on November 22 in Bangalore. Everything from books to clothes to bric-a-brac was on offer. There was food and conversation. It was the kind of gathering where you hang out just to soak in the experience. I bought some stuff but I was really there to observe all these fabulous people working hard to make the event a success.
I was happy. By the time I left home for ALF, the results of the Bihar assembly elections had come in. The JD(U)-RJD Mahagathbandhan had romped home to a solid majority, leaving the BJP-led alliance with a showing poorer than any the pundits had predicted. I am not suggesting that I had a personal stake in the BJP’s loss, but after the vitriol of the past few weeks, with everything from cow to Satan being invoked by the party’s leaders, it was a relief to see them bested.
But, of course, there is a personal reason too. As a gay man, I don’t think the BJP as a party speaks to me, or will ever speak to me. It has done nothing that might indicate that it would look after my rights. Rather, its leaders have made statements that have sought to put me and people like me in the shadows. It would be perfectly convenient for the party if we just shut up or, better, disappeared into the ether.
In this season of “whataboutery”, I should hasten to add that Congress is no better on this score. The Delhi High Court judgement overturning Section 377 was overruled by the Supreme Court in 2013, when the Congress was in power. If the party had wanted, it could have brought a change to the law via the legislative route. Yet, it did not.
Even so, there is a qualitative difference between the BJP and Congress. Congress does not subscribe to a militant ideology that believes in the rule of the majority. The BJP’s Hindutva plank translates to a distrust of minorities of every stripe. While Muslims might bear the brunt of this distrust the most, other minorities – and this includes sexual minorities – cannot but feel uncomfortable with a BJP dispensation at the centre. Was I imagining things or were people on the ALF terrace celebrating more than their gayness?
Indeed, Congress has been guilty of sins of omission and commission in the past. The problem, then, with the BJP is not that certain incidents have happened under its watch, but that its leadership has been too uninterested in denouncing them. The recent debate on intolerance has got many like Anupam Kher worked up. What he fails to understand is that the criticism is not directed at why the incidents have happened but at how they have been tackled by the party top brass and, of course, the fringe.
Which is why semantics and “mahaul” matter as much as raw data. On the issue of LGBT rights, in the wake of the 2013 SC order, both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi spoke about the need to change the law and recognise the rights of sexual minorities. On the BJP’s side, no leader of repute has taken that position publicly. The hopes for a new BJP, premised on development and equality (“sabka saath, sabka vikas”), lie in tatters.
There is no denying that India could benefit from greater intellectual diversity, which the rise of BJP can engender. We have not had a robust rightwing framework that can present an alternative to the Nehruvian ideal. If the BJP’s rise had translated to a new way of imagining India, and not just economically, that would have been welcome. I would love it, for instance, if the party were to build on its “minimum government” plank to get the law outside of people’s bedrooms too, a libertarian impulse that sits perfectly with Right-wing ideology.
What we see, on the other hand, is old-style debates that focus on identity politics. To be sure, there is no escaping identity politics in India. With so many claimants for the pie, the rush to claim benefits on the basis of community is electorally understandable, if no less tragic for that. All political parties play this game, and the idea that India has a new polity that derives its sustenance from a development agenda is premature.
The problem with the BJP’s DNA is not that it follows identity politics but the nature of that politics. Its politics is majoritarian, favouring an already numerous group if we consider Hindus, or a dominant sub-group therein, if we speak of savarnas. Neither Lalu Prasad with his OBC card nor another shrill leader, Owaisi, represents a community that derives its power from this majoritarian impulse. Therefore, to a minority of any sort, the BJP’s untrammelled rise, a prospect that has now been checked with Bihar, is a grave concern.
Had BJP not suffered the Bihar defeat, its fringe element would have been further emboldened. Today, they are going after Muslims. Tomorrow they will come after the likes of me. Democracy is great so long it does not become an oppressive rule of the majority. Bihar has provided a much-needed corrective.