Welcome to my website.

Here I offer perspectives on a wide range of topics - politics, economy, current affairs and life in general.

BJP - RSS & The Rabbit-Duck Illusion | Midweek Matters 24

18-08-2021published_dt 2021-08-18T05:30:21.456Z18-08-2021 11:00:21 IST
2021-08-18T05:30:21.456Z18-08-2021 2021-08-18T05:30:21.456Z - - 18-10-2021

Hello and Welcome to

Midweek Matters.


The other day a senior volunteer of the country's dominant nationalist cultural organisation called me up. He said, Parakala, your critique of the union government is well argued. Either it should listen to you or put you behind bars. And he laughed, giving me an impression that what he said was in jest. However, if he had said it in half jest, for me, not knowing which half was said in jest could be a cause for some anxiety. 


This duality reminded me of the famous Duck-Rabbit illusion in psychology. Although published in a German humour magazine in October 1892, the picture eventually became an important object for serious psychological experimentation and philosophical meditation on human cognition. The famous philosopher Wittgenstein also leaned on it. It is a picture that can look like a duck and as well as a rabbit. For those who are not familiar with the drawing, here it is. Take a look at it. Some see a rabbit immediately. After a bit of an effort, some are able to see a duck also. Once you become aware of the duality, you tend to see a rabbit now, and a duck later. The point is, once you see the duck, you cannot un-see it. In fact, the initial quick vision of rabbit may even completely recede, yielding the dominant cognitive space to the duck. 


Today, I want to speak to you about how the duck-rabbit illusion is helpful for us to understand the current political scenario in our country. I would like to dwell on how for a large and significant section of the people the Hindu-Hindutva construct of Indian identity did not appear as an acceptable political project for a long time in our history - they could not see the duck. It was a liberal and diverse idea of India, let’s say, the rabbit. How eventually with some work the duck, that is, the Hindu identity, began to appear as acceptable; to some as the only acceptable one - they see only the duck and for them rabbit recedes from vision; and to a few as both acceptable and  non-acceptable: depending upon the situation, they see Hindu-Hindutva identity as first choice or as an acceptable alternative; and how a large proportion of the people once they see Hindu-Hindutva as a choice, are not able to un-see it as a preferred political project - even if they see flaws in it. They, from then on, are not able to think of the liberal, diverse idea of India as an alternative to it. 


Ever since the BJP's failure to capture West Bengal this year there seem to be rising hopes among the opposition parties that the ruling party at the centre is on back foot electorally. Drawing a blank in Kerala, unable to propel its ally AIADMK to power in Tamil Nadu are seen as the signs of BJP's waning influence. Covid-19 mishandling, vaccine mess, disastrous economic performance, suspicions over defence purchases, farmers' agitation, anti-CAA protests, steep hike in fuel prices, Pegasus snooping revelations are seen as enough reasons for erosion of BJP's acceptability among the electorate. In fact, each one of them is an unforced error committed by the party in power at the centre. Clearly, even half of such errors would have been sufficient to undo any government under normal circumstances. Each one of these would have made the opposition's work that much easier to unseat the incumbent government. Even before a general election, perhaps. Any other government and ruling party would have panicked by now. Remember the UPA-II. With just a few as yet unproven allegations of corruption and scam and in the face of an agitation launched by the likes of Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal & Baba Ramdev, the government was rattled. The union government as an entity sat with this agitating group as its equal to negotiate. It blinked. Its loss of nerve showed. That weakening preceded the loss of election in 2014.


The opposition today perhaps is comforting itself under the illusion that the present government is like any other previous government.



To my mind the seasoned leaders of the parties opposed to the Modi-Shah BJP and RSS are unable to size up the ruling combine's strength and its sources. They are unable to grasp the changed ground reality. At the same time they’re also unable to comprehend the enormity of the challenge they’re confronted with. If their assessment is that government's mistakes have weakened it, they could not be making a bigger error of judgement. What we have today in Delhi is not any other kind of government or ruling party. And what we are in today are far from normal circumstances. I will spend the rest of my time today to tell you why I think so. 


Both the duck and the rabbit competed for cognitive space in the Indian political imagination from the early days of our freedom struggle. One version or the other of the Hindu/Hindutva notion of Indian identity found patrons beginning from Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Arya Samajists, Prarthana Samajists, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Madan Mohan Malaviya, VD Savarkar, Hindu Mahasabha, Ramarajya Parishad of Karapatri Maharaj and a host of others. However, that notion was overshadowed by the Gandhiji version of Indian identity. And immediately after the Mahatma's passing, the Nehruvian secular-socialist scientific temper narrative of India gained hegemony. It pushed the RSS-Hindu Mahasabha-Jan Sangh construct of Hindu-Hindutva identity of India to the margins. Both electorally as well as intellectually. Let’s not forget that the ground for its rise was fertile in the wake of independence and partition. Large scale transfer of populations across the borders of India and Pakistan, communal riots in many provinces, and mutual suspicion offered the right mix for it to thrive. The champions of the Hindu-Hindutva construct were accomplished men of eminence: Savarkar, Guru Golwalkar, Karpatri Maharaj, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Balraj Madhok and several others. They were all widely respected in their own right. Hindutva could not have asked for a better line up of advocates than those personalities. Notwithstanding a propitious political climate and capable champions, the Hindutva duck could not claim enough cognitive space in the Indian political imagination. Non Hindutva secular construct, the rabbit for our purposes, was so overwhelming that even BJP at its inception declared its creed as Gandhian Socialism to claim its place in the Indian political sun. 


But dogged persistence, years of patient cultural messaging, quiet propaganda, together with hard, methodical and undramatic political work, gradually began to shine light on the hitherto overshadowed Hindutva part of the Indian political narrative. The duck started to appear. The biggest acknowledgement of its emergence from the cognitive shadows came when Rajiv Gandhi chose to launch the 1989 Congress general election campaign from Ayodhya with a promise of ushering in Rama Rajya. Since then it was difficult to un-see its presence and arrest its growth. The secular rabbit began to recede slowly but steadily from the field of vision. Hindutva duck increasingly claimed the cognitive space in the Indian public mind: exclusively of some, and as a legitimate political option of many. From then on its visibility increased rapidly. As its pace picked up, every political party jostled to lay some claim on it. Rahul Gandhi's projection as a Janyudhari going around temples, Mamata Banerjee’s recitation of Chandi Path, CPM's softening of its stance on Sabarimalai issue are nothing but an acknowledgement of the inexorable transformation of India’s political narrative that couldn’t be any longer ignored. Shouting of slogans like 'hindustan mein rahena hoga  Jai Sriram kehna hoga', 'Jab Mulle Kaate jaayenge-Ram Ram Chillayenge' on the streets of our nation's capital this week, the brazen public statements of people like Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati Maharaj about the danger of Muslim electricians, plumbers, door delivery salesmen seducing Hindu housewives are not aberrations anymore.



If political implications of this deep reconfiguration of ground reality are not grasped, electoral opposition to BJP will be of little effect.


Therefore, the challenge before the non BJP-RSS political forces is not merely electoral. It’s is cultural, political, psychological, religious, social, academic. BJP's electoral strength and political power are a culmination of the years of nurturing of religious-cultural-social identity narrative of Hindu-Hindutva. It’s in that identity that present day Modi-Shah BJP seeks legitimacy. 


The other day I saw an outstandingly articulate opposition politician calling out the government's unwillingness to discuss bills in the Parliament, the Prime Minister's  reluctance to face the House and answer questions. He told a TV channel that he wanted the young people of the country to know this. Little does he realise that calling out the BJP for the dismal state of the economy, violating the norms of governance, disrespecting parliamentary processes, undermining institutional integrity, insensitive handling of pandemic, inefficient rolling out of vaccines, maiming the country's federal structure, mowing down dissent, refusing to answer questions on Pegasus, reluctance to respond to the protesting farmers is unlikely to hurt the government and its leader's popularity. Because it’s not from these that the government and the ruling party leadership draw their legitimacy today. The 2014 promises on governance, economic development, creation of jobs, ending corruption, bringing back black money from Swiss banks, eradication of poverty are now artfully left behind. They were actually used in 2014 to fire the launch vehicle that carried the Hindutva payload into the governance sphere. Delivery on those promises is not the benchmark that the ruling dispensation allows itself to be made accountable for. Those promises now lie in a rubble. Any fire directed at those old targets will not touch the government. It’s not from performance that the present dispensation draws and renews its political legitimacy and power. It’s from an assertion of Hindu identity. From the process of othering of non Hindu identities.


If they’re serious about the idea of a liberal India that celebrates diversity, that rejects flattening or religious, linguistic and cultural identities, organised political opposition to BJP-RSS will have to introspect if they are willing and capable to put in the labour to delegitimise and exorcise the Hindu-Hindutva identity politics. In other words, to restore the preeminence of the Secular narrative, the rabbit, in the Indian political imagination. And turn the people's attention away from the Duck - the Hindutva narrative that has gained overwhelming visibility and acceptability in the last three decades. It’s not an easy task. But a political engagement that overlooks this strategic need will be futile. At the present state of play, sadly, the odds seem to be against any such full scale head on engagement. A fortuitous electoral win, if any, without such full, deep, and long term engagement will be incomplete, tenuous, and at best, short lived. 


India is truly at a cross roads. It has to soon decide whether to allow Hindu-Hindutva narrative to overwhelm the country's political discourse or to reclaim all the lost space for the idea of India as a liberal democracy that celebrates its diversity.


That’s all for this week. Will be back again next week, Wednesday 

Lunchtime at 1:00 o’clock 

Stay safe and do take good care of yourselves and all your loved ones. 

Until then, Bye.