The oped pages of Indian Express carried an interesting debate on the question of hyphenated identities, their scope and their incorporation within the idea of India. Many left-liberals like Ashutosh Varshney had repeatedly pronounced that the Gujarat chief minister Shri Narendra Modi was incompatible with their idea of India, and this was the trigger for this very interesting debate. Shri Harsh Gupta and Shri Rajiv Mantri articulated their position (‘One versus group’, IE, 13th Feb) in support of a state which would treat all it’s citizens as individuals while remaining blind to their group identities. This view was later challenged (‘Why India must allow hyphens’, IE, 13th Feb’) by Prof. Varshney who advocated a state which would recognize the group identities of minorities and treat them distinctly and favourably. Typical of any debates between a left-liberal and someone with a centre-right orientation, this debate too hi-lited the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between these schools of thought viz.a.viz state-citizen relations and on the minority question.

A week after the debate broke out, Smt Nirmala Seetharaman, the national spokesperson of the BJP, made an intervention (‘The tyranny of hyphens’, IE, 20th Feb) and joined issue with Prof Varshney on the the question of hyphenation. Even though her arguments eventually seem come down against the left-liberal charges against Narendra Modi, she failed to distinguish her opinion and view with that of Prof Varshney at a very fundamental level. Smt Seetharaman is an extremely articulate speaker; she is soft-spoken but extremely well spoken. She has been widely appreciated for formidably defending the party in studios and press conferences. She is certainly one of the must-watch persons from the opposition ranks. Even though not frontally, she is the only one from the BJP to even come close to criticsing the NREGA till date; Yashwant Sinha has only gotten as far as saying, “Government must cut down it’s revenue expenditure”. Hence, it is doubly disappointing to note the lack of clarity and the confused posture adopted by her in this oped, and it invariably brings up the question of whether it is symbolic of the lack of internal debate and vision within the BJP itself.

She begins her article by voicing concern against identity politics and it’s undesirable effect on citizenship rights. But the article soon degenerates into an exercise of showcasing Muslim support for BJP – a symptom of identity politics itself. Perhaps, she was compelled to place these facts on public record to counter the allegations made by the likes of Varshney against Modi and BJP alike. However, she placed the following fact on the table to underscore the track record of BJP is protecting and furthering the sectional interests of Muslims

Gujarat has consistently received “good” status under the PM’s 15 Point Programme for minorities.

Source : Indian Express, 20th Feb 2013

This one seemingly minor assertion by the author brings up many fundamental and political questions – including the one raised and addressed by Smt. Nirmala Seetharaman and other participants of this very debate to the fore. It is unthinkable that someone could begin an article by voicing concern against identity politics and end it by citing the excellent performance of one’s party in furthering the very cause of identity politics among Muslims. I am quite certain that Smt. Seetharaman isn’t ignorant of what the PM’s 15 point programme for minorities entails. The official press release from the GOI on the PM’s 15 point programme says

15 Point Programme is an overarching programme covering many schemes of other Ministries with an aim to ensure that the benefits of various government schemes for the under privileged reach the minority communities. In order to ensure that the benefits of these schemes flow equitably to the minorities, the new programme envisages location of a certain proportion of development projects in minority concentration areas. It also provides that, wherever possible, 15% of targets and outlays under various schemes should be earmarked for the minorities. The schemes of Ministry of Minority Affairs covered under this Programme are meant exclusively for minorities.

Source : Press Information Bureau (PIB) press release

Now, re-read the last line of the above definition which makes it absolutely clear that this scheme is meant exclusively for minorities at the cost of the tax payer. Isn’t this an advanced case of identity politics which Nirmala Seetharaman began by lamenting ? This is partitioning tax payer money along religious lines, can identity politics get anymore in-your-face ?

Even if we decide to look past the incompatibility of this point with the central concern of the article the glaring question of intra-party principles and decisions remains. The Gujarat State government – Yes, the same govt that apparently got a “good” in implementing the PM’s 15 point minority programme; has been fighting a tightly contested legal battle over it’s refusal to implement a minority-only scholarship programme launched under the flagship PM’s 15 point programme.

Pre-matric Scholarship Scheme was started in 2008-09 and a cumulative total of over 1.22 crore scholarships have been awarded till 31.3.2012. Pre-matric Scholarship Scheme is one of the three scholarship schemes of the Ministry of Minority Affairs included under the Prime Minister’s New 15 Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities.

Source : Press Information Bureau (PIB) press release

The state government had challenged the constitutional basis of such a minority-only scholarship programme in the Gujarat High Court. Very recently a 5 judge bench of the Gujarat high court upheld the scheme as constitutional in a 3-2 judgment. The state government is expected to go in appeal to the Supreme court on this critical question.

The 12th 5 year plan envisages to route 15% of all expenditures into minority causes. The creation of Muslim universities is a big ticket spend under this head. Karnataka – another BJP ruled state, has witnessed quite a lot of heated political exchange between the Union minister for Minority Affairs Rehman Khan and the state BJP unit over the question of a minority university named after Tipu Sultan in the state during the last couple of months. So we have the “good” state government of Gujarat waging a public legal battle against a divisive programme of the UPA on one hand and we have the state unit of BJP up in arms against a union minister over a proposal made with similar minority-only frameworks; and the national spokesperson of the party uses this very scheme to add shine to the party’s image !

This exposes the crumbling moral core of the BJP at the national stage. If the party had an effective national leadership they could have taken one collective decision on something as critical an issue as this and fought this communal scheme comprehensively; instead, we now have a spectacle where one state unit is waging a legal battle, another a verbal battle against the union minister and the other state govt”s I assume are quietly implementing it. The extraordinary timidity of the BJP’s national leadership to take a clear and categoric stand on such political issues has meant that it has fallen upon individual bloggers like RealityCheck to do the heavy lifting against such devious schemes of the UPA. If a national political party like the BJP is going to react in such an ad-hoc manner to burning political issues, why should anyone – the media, the public or even the Muslims take them seriously ? Or, has the party been so consumed by this apolitical idea of “Good Governance” that they have totally stopped thinking about the political issues of the day ?

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Manohar Seetharam

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