Fancy dress competitions were a high point in our lives as children. We dressed up as washermen and gypsies, postmen and politicians. The hit parade was brides and grooms of India. The Madrasi couple wore opaque spectacles, the Bengalis had a harmonium and the Malayali couple carried placards. We spoke with silly accents and the audience (our parents) clapped. When it was all over, we ate club sandwiches and cutlets with fresh French fries and drank Coca Cola while our parents played badminton and tennis, bridge and billiards.
In the context of the Indian elections I was editing my copy on secularism, its origins in France, the legal separation of the Church and the State and why between law and life, living and learning, Europe, my second home, is a Christian continent. I have been overtaken by events, as burlesque as they are bilious unfurling in India. A few minutes before the world’s largest democratic exercise gets going where 900 million Indians decide who will lead the world’s largest democracy for the next five years, our politicians are chasing wardrobes and wigs for votes.
Here’s the glamour. Hema Malini, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker has serious competition from Urmila Matondkar, the Congress party’s candidate seeking office for the first time. The former is politically vacuous, married to a bigamist (who allegedly converted to Islam because his first wife wouldn’t grant a divorce) and her breathless photo-ops in Bollywood finery in Indian villages bear her nonsense out. Matondkar, a Congress quick fix has literally walked out of a Bollywood dance sequence to hit the streets of Mumbai to drums et al. She’s heaped controversy on herself by calling Hinduism the world’s most violent religion in her dash to win, stopping only to ask voters to send Prime Minister Narendra Modi packing after having shared a platform with him on a campaign to educate Indian girls.
And here’s the lie. Secularism is not a fancy dress competition no more than it is an accent or food. When stalwarts of the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) Chandrababu Naidu and Lalu Prasad Yadav wear a skull cap and a keffiyeh and when Mamata Banerjee bans certain rights of passage for Hindu festivals raising her hand in obeisance to Allah win votes they are not being secular – they are insulting Islam. When Mayawati who wants to be Prime Minister asks Muslims to vote for her, it is fanning fear dressed up as secularism.
In an election season when Rahul Gandhi who also wants to be Prime Minister says he has always been a janeo dhari Hindu referring to the sacred thread Hindus wear he is not being secular – he is insulting Hindus and displaying his ignorance. When his sister Priyanka Gandhi publicly turns to extoling her Hindu and Parsi roots on their new year, Indians wonder why this call to our maker suddenly appears as poll bugles sound. When MK Stalin says Hindu fire ceremonies are obscene he is referring to his own. There are many more examples of this cut and paste secularism.
By prostrating himself at the alter of Hindu Gods and sharing a meal with poor people does not endear BJP’s Sambit Patra to voters no more than bishops and priests extolling Christian voters to vote for the Congress party. You do not become more secular by wearing religious symbols on your body or carrying it on your head and changing them as you travel from state to state in a brides and grooms of India competition. A true person of faith does not need to put on an act for the cameras during an election. If you believe, you are. Period. Those who say there’s growing religious intolerance in India ignore that every ticket to contest a political office in India has been given based on a religious calculation.
What most fancy dress artists ignore is they are static in an evolving environment. The environment is young, ambitious and all of them have a cell-phone. That makes them a click away from finding out what is in front of them. India is not where language binds as it does in the United States (US). Nor is it London where language and arrogance has disunited the United Kingdom (UK) from the Continent.
We are a young democracy, just 70 years old, trying to make our way in a dynamic world where old orders are falling and new ones are yet to emerge. We speak hundreds of tongues and thousands of dialects. There is no country on earth where such vast numbers of people from different faiths and practices, persuasions and enquiry live.
India has always been a violent country. At the base of what now appears as random violence and amply exploited by politicians is a simple question few pose. How can fewer and fewer people continue to control India’s public goods and services and even the spectrum, make obscene amounts of money, pretend they are the voice of the country, walk around with impunity and arrogance while telling over a billion Indians to wait?
How can three people sitting in gated communities in posh Delhi dictate what secularism and tolerance mean? How can quick - change artists that our politicians are tell us what we should think, do and aspire to? How can international experts and their incredible technologies that could neither predict Brexit nor a Donald Trump victory tell us who will lead India next. More people vote in our country than there are people in the US and UK.
I have been around long enough to know how bloody Indian elections used to, beginning with booth capturing and beheadings, bribes in booths and bathrooms in polling stations. Families cut off thumbs and index fingers and preserved them for when fingers voted, unchecked, on paper. Now, this mammoth exercise passes without violence – that is a slap for people who say with remarkable stupidity that India is somehow newly and freshly violent from 2014.
India is asking questions as it must and it will vote for answers. I am a patriot and I have faith in my country and my country including fancy dress secularists. The biggest danger to Indian democracy is not Narendra Modi. The biggest danger is the absence of a strong opposition that was never allowed to grow and prosper. Indians know why. I keep the faith.
Vote India vote. Your future is now.
(The views and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article needn't reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)