The late Vishwanath Pratap Singh once said something about the BJP that is as accurate today as it was when he was prime minister. Singh partnered with LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee towards the end of the 1980s when they were trying to defeat Rajiv Gandhi's Congress. That was the time when the Ayodhya movement had picked up and Singh was later to discover that it would damage India and so broke off his partnership.
This also ended his government, which was dependent on 82 BJP seats, and he was able to claim he had martyred himself on the altar of secularism. Singh then spent his last years trying to cobble up various groups whose primary political objective was not, as before, stopping Congress but the defeat of the BJP. While doing this he was once informed by a reporter that Vajpayee exuded sobriety and preached unity and tolerance and so it appeared that not all of the BJP was communal.
To this Singh replied that the BJP did not need to always talk aggressively. The people to listen to were not its leaders but its supporters. What sort of language was being used on the ground? That was more important than the homilies that the most senior party men offered to the media.
On the ground, it was pure venom, he said, and the Hindutva faithful understood that this was part of the game in a country that was mostly tolerant. I was reminded of this on hearing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's fine words this week on harmony and tolerance. Modi went out of his way and attended a church function amid news that in Delhi acts of vandalism against churches were rising.
He said warm things about two Indians from Kerala elevated to sainthood, Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Euphresia. Modi said of one of them, Chavara, that "in an era when access to education was limited, he stressed that every church should have a school. He thus opened the doors of education to people from all sections of society."
Showing off his impressive knowledge of Sanskrit (which he also pronounces well), Modi reeled off several one-liners from the ancient texts which preach openness and tolerance, and explained their content. He also quoted Swami Vivekananda's famous line on Hindus believing not only in universal tolerance, but acceptance that all religions as true.
When I had interviewed Modi once many years ago and brought up this subject, specifically about intolerance among our fellow Gujaratis, the then chief minister had been guarded. He told me he did not want to speak about tolerance and insisted that we should instead look at Hindu acceptance because tolerance was a step below it. He rejected the idea that Indians had tolerance because he thought they had something different: acceptance. Of course, this insistence on acceptance brings us suspiciously close to the RSS idea that faith (being Hindu) and nation (being Indian) are the same thing.
In the speech at the Christian function, he departed from this formulation and said a few things quite clearly, which are important to recount. His words were: "We consider the freedom to have, to retain, and to adopt, a religion or belief, is a personal choice of a citizen.
My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions."
It was important that it be spelled out by the prime minister with such clarity. Modi has claimed he was offended by members of his cabinet and his party and his allies in the Sangh Parivar when they made some remarks on this subject. He did not discipline the BJP members (though we were told that some showcause notices were issued) but he did indicate that he was not aligned with their thinking.
After his talk at the Christian event, if that sort of language repeats itself from the ruling party and its ideological friends, the media will have a reference point in this speech and can hold him to account. Having put himself out so clearly indicates that Modi realises this and that he is willing to accept the responsibility of taming his team.
The speech came out of an aspect of Modi's personality that does not often reveal itself. It is his Gujarati spirit, which seeks compromise and looks at benefit rather than sticking stubbornly by ideology. Modi shows this side regularly when he deals with development issues, where he has totally undermined and dismantled the RSS economy ideology as sketched out by its writer on economics DD Upadhyay. On the other hand, Modi rarely expresses himself on matters of faith relations, and that is why this speech was unique.
We have finally heard the leader and know where he stands. We must now anticipate that the same language and the same reaching out happens from his subordinates and others in the Sangh Parivar. It is, as Singh had observed all those years ago, pointless to be told pacifying words by leaders when the followers carried out business as usual on the ground.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine