Like a great mahatma they have little in common with, the Sangh parivar understands the power of symbolism better than any other. It chooses its battles with care; it seldom falters on its timing. Check the setting of their latest performance: Varanasi, the oldest city of Hinduism, revered by millions. Check their adversary: an avant garde filmmaker, a little controversial and dubious among the middle class for an earlier film on lesbianism. Check the issue: the same old running down of tradition and religion by the so-called urban emancipated.
If, in the process, genteel notions of culture which middle India has faithfully subscribed to for the past 50 years, whether as a liberalism-inspired activity or an alien exercise, are jettisoned, so be it. They have been here before. Discordant as it may sound, given the differences in the scale of arenas, just 10 years ago they evoked Ayodhya to set up their scaffoldings of power. They understood that politics springs from cultural spaces.
And the latest controversy over the (for now) aborted filming of Deepa Mehtas film Water has once again reaffirmed their old modus operandi: when the fight is over cultural space, its seldom only about culture.
Though Mehtas filming of Water - over which some dust has been kicked up - may be a trifle, the filmmaker herself is exactly the kind of target the Sangh would conceivably have prayed for if it had a choice to begin with. The rss-backed outfits realise they are not picking on Satyajit Ray. Mehta is easy prey.
Here is something which will strike a chord with the cadre - a filmmaker who isnt identifiably "Indian" - based outside the country, here only for the pickings and with a film on lesbianism in India already part of her repertoire. It isnt too difficult to see why the cadre may fancy its chances of having a go. Perhaps more importantly, it may also have struck a chord with the "masses". Their choice of issues is always such that they leave the people no leeway to differ. The opinion poll (see adjoining page) certainly seems to indicate that. As does the inability of many to dismiss the Sangh parivars attitude as visceral illiberalism. Different in scale, of course, from the Ram mandir agitation but perhaps the next best choice in these ideologically sparse times.
Right or wrong, the Sangh does seem to have succeeded in anointing itself as the articulator of "Hindu sentiment". A bjp general secretary explains the logic of their success: "We both understand the sentiments of the people and are strongly opposed to wanton attempts to hurt it". This, despite the fact that in Varanasi, as elsewhere, the popular mood, some believe, may not be in consonance with the views of the Sangh-sponsored organisations. As always, if there is a majority that may differ, it is silent. The vocal minority, on the other hand, is ineffectual.
Says Swati, a lecturer at the Benaras Hindu University (bhu): "Some of my colleagues met Deepa Mehta and assured her of our support, but while we were networking the leaders had their way." A group of students from the university also told Outlook, "We feel ashamed that we couldnt do a thing about the way the film crew was hounded out of Varanasi." But one them was candid enough to say that "devoted students have little time to worry about such foolish issues".
Shopkeepers in the holy city have their own take on the issue. Says grocery shop-owner Ashish Agarwal: "If a bandh is called, well down shutters. Especially if the protesters are on the same side as the government of the day. We dont want our shops and goods damaged." Agarwal, whose shop is in the busy Bhelupur area, is of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with Mehta making an attempt to highlight a social evil that did exist. "But who are we to comment in front of the big netas!"
Critics of the Sangh seize this opportunity to argue that it is precisely this apathy and disinterest among those who do not necessarily support the Sangh parivar which has enabled them to hijack the cultural space. Besides, in Varanasi, there were only "a handful of protesters" (according to the public statement of the producers of Water) who agitated against the film.
But even if this were true, and the protesting crowds were small, the Sangh and its sympathisers are obviously astute enough to interpret it in a manner favourable to their politics. J.P. Mathur, senior vice-president of the bjp, had the sophistry to say: "Thousands didnt protest not because they were not in agreement, but because a demonstration is only a representative form of protest." In other words, silence implies acquiescence.
Add to this the Sangh parivar being secure in the knowledge that the space they seek to occupy is vacant. On the ground, there is no comparable counterforce.As a result, what was, to begin with, a question of local sentiments has been transformed into an emotive issue with national and Hindu implications.
And this is the source of power for the saffron hardliners who have repeatedly been saying that they would pursue Mehta and her crew beyond state boundaries - even if doors are opened out to them with cheer by Digvijay Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar respectively.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (vhp) general secretary Pravin Togadia told Outlook: "Where there are Hindus, there will be protests. It is Hindu sentiment which is hurt." This isnt merely a "fringe" view. Mathur is rather outspoken: "The bjp supported the Varanasi citizens right to protest against the shooting of a film that hurt local feelings. Now that the film crew has left, the bjp has no view. Of course, if the protests spread - Uma Bharati has already articulated the feelings of the people of Madhya Pradesh - we may take a view as popular sentiment (elesewhere) will be hurt. And all it will lead to is Hindu consolidation."
For Digvijay, Water is just what the doctor ordered. For, apart from emphasising his secular credentials, he probably realises that he too can play the game of setting up opponents and bestowing upon them characteristics that suit his purpose. "Ill see who stops the unit from shooting in my state," he thundered in the assembly last week.He has already taken on the Bajrang Dal, by refusing them permission to hold their national convention in Bhopal on February 18 and is on record saying, "Ill fix the rss in no time."
But the saffron sanyasin, Uma Bharati, is undeterred. She seemed certain that the crew "would be stoned" if they attempted to make the film in the state. And now, Acharya Dharmendra of the vhp has announced that his organisation will not allow the film to be shot in Madhya Pradesh.
The Congress party, after deliberating over the issue for two weeks, has also decided get into action. Where its thickest, that is. Congress spokesperson Anil Shastri sought to put pressure on the ndas "secular" allies by asking them whether they approved the "ban on the filming of Water" in Varanasi. He also called the move "fascist".
Back in Varanasi, though, the debate rages on even though the Sangh is claiming complete victory. Dr Veena Pandey, a former bjp mlc and member of the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti which led the protest against the film, is exultant: "The masses were hurt and they showed it. Deepa Mehta and Shabana Azami would never have left the city if they had the peoples support." And so convincing is the argument (spin if you like) that it drowns out the saner lament of the likes of Kunwarji Aggarwal, a former teacher at the National School of Drama: "Nobody has the right to throttle creativity. The caretakers of our culture could at least have waited till the work was complete." The Sangh fraternity has made sure that a film yet to be shot will become the staple of realpolitik over the next few weeks and months. And the impetus for this is the increasingly uneasy cohabitation between mass perceptions of culture and the politics within the Sangh.
After all, hasnt the prime minister said that the rss is a "cultural organisation". The Gujarat and the Uttar Pradesh governments, both ruled by the bjp, have lifted the ban from government employees holding rss membership. This has been followed by the home minister indicating a review of the list of organisations, including the rss, membership to which is banned for Central government employees.
Indicators that the contours of the bjp-rss relationship, which had gone out of focus thanks to the jostling in the aftermath of the bjp coming to power via the coalition route, seem to be acquiring a distinct shape. After having been thwarted at every step by the avowedly liberalising Vajpayee regime in the sphere of economic policy, the rss, its front organisations, and its still significant support in the bjp, now intend to leave a lasting imprint on India. They intend to bring back into focus their politics of cultural identity that had given the bjp a toehold in the country to begin with. This is perhaps the only way to make the party, busy with the trappings of governing a disparate and diverse nation like India, realise the utmost significance of the Sangh hardliners and their politics of controlling the cultural space.
This leadership is, of course, savvy enough to recognise that its self-interest lies in the Vajpayee governments continuation. But as a political heavyweight in the bjp told Outlook: "As far as these issues (like Water) are concerned, which have mass sentiment behind them, we will take them to the people. It is something which sharpens our identity and enthuses the cadre." The speculation of a deal between the moderates in the government and the hardliners in the party - lay off governance, economic policy etc and we wont interfere in your support to mass movements - only gain credibility given the reluctance of the moderate faces of the ruling dispensation to speak up.
This is understandable because the supposedly liberal and suave component of the regime - Vajpayee, Arun Jaitley, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Brajesh Mishra - has been forced on the defensive by the streetfighting hardliners who have chosen to emphasise what was the driving force that brought the bjp to where it is and thus wrest the space they had ceded to these more acceptable faces. In fact, while Jaitley did disapprove of the agitation against the shooting, he was also careful enough to say that filmmakers ought to be sensitive to popular sentiments.
But time is running out for Vajpayee to take a stand, as he is again forced into treading a line that only spells dilemma for him - able statesman of a country like India and the leader of a party that pushes hard the politics of identity, inimical to the accepted idea of able governance. The prime minister has been there before. He ought to do the needful and not hedge. For posteritys sake, if nothing else.