The BJP's bumbling on Taslima Nasreen's visa reflects its broader lack of vision

On secularism, as on much else, the BJP seems to have no overall strategic plan.

On July 31, exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen tweeted in anger that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had cancelled her residence permit. The new government decided to replace her permit, which had been issued to her by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, with a temporary two-month visa. The official reason for the cancellation was that the Home Ministry needed to verify some details, though Nasreen claimed she had not been informed what exactly these were.

This set off a cycle of outrage. Ironically, Hindu right wingers and Left-liberals were on the same side: both wanted the writer to get her residence papers.

The outrage worked. In just a couple of days, Nasreen met with the Home Minster, Rajnath Singh. Miraculously, by the time of the meeting, it seemed that the government had completed its verification exercise and the home minister informed her that her permit was all but assured.

Of course, Nasreen is no stranger to controversy. Her book Lajja (Shame) published in 1993 described the plight of Bangladeshi Hindus in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, causing an uproar in Bangladesh. As a result, she had to flee the country, living in exile in Europe and North America for ten years. In 2004, the UPA government granted her a residence permit and she moved to Kolkata, choosing to stay in West Bengal since the East would no longer have her.

Soon, however, Muslim groups in India started to agitate against her, ostensibly provoked by passages from her book Dwikhondito. Things came to a head in November 2007 with widespread disturbances in Kolkata led by Muslim groups that required the army to be called out. Giving in to reactionary Muslim opinion, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, banned the writer from West Bengal.

After the assembly elections in 2011, the new Bengal government headed by Mamata Banerjee, maintained the CPI(M)’s position. It was a disappointing if unsurprising decision, given the tokenism towards Muslim hardliners  that the Trinamool Congress has displayed during its rule.

An unusual reaction

What was surprising was the hesitation of the BJP – the party that invented the term “pseudo-secularism” – in renewing Nasreen’s residency permit. However, this wasn’t the first time that that the BJP has waffled on its minority policy. When it was in the opposition benches, the party sharply attacked the Congress for allegedly appeasing Muslims. But now that it is in power, the BJP has not effected a sharp U turn on so-called Muslim issues. It seems simply to have continued with the UPA’s policies, disappointing both its critics and supporters.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, for example, Narendra Modi sharply opposed the UPA government’s pre-matric scholarship scheme for minorities, describing it as discriminatory. His government even fought a long drawn-out legal battle to oppose its implementation in Gujarat (which he eventually lost). In his first budget as Prime Minister, however, not only did Modi retain the scheme but increased its budget by 16% over the previous year.  On other matters such as the Haj subsidy, Modi has chosen to lay aside decades of rhetoric and quietly go along with the UPA’s policies.

That said, Modi did break a long-standing Delhi tradition, that of the iftar party – banquets to break the fast during Ramzan. Instituted by Indira Gandhi to repair her image among Muslims, it is probably the apogee of Muslim political tokenism. In fact, it is so blatant  that even the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, a poster boy of Muslim tokenism, wanted them done away with.

No overall strategy 

This exception aside, overall, the Modi government’s refusal to break with the UPA’s minority politics mirrors its overall approach where there are, as commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, “a series of small tactics but no overall strategy”. Mostly, Modi’s lack of an overarching vision means that the UPA’s policies carry on with small changes here and there.

In the case of Taslima Nasreen, this lack of action even more inexplicable given that the BJP is now a major player in Bengal. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it gained a respectable 17% of the vote, nearly tripling its 2009 numbers. This surge was partly because of the Modi’s popularity but also partly in response to the Trinamool Congress’s extravagant gestures towards Muslims. In a bid to secure the Muslim vote, Mamata Banerjee even declared a bhata (stipend) for imams and muezzins (struck down by the courts as unconstitutional) and cosied up to the radical Jamaat-e-Islami.

In the context of Bengal politics, it would have made sense for the BJP to offer Nasreen protection, both as a strategy to differentiate itself from the TMC but also to make a moral point about its commitment to free expression. However, the BJP first floundered, then, stung by criticism, tried to make amends. Even those amends were made sloppily, with no clear or direct communication. In fact, no BJP leader even deigned to issue a statement on the issue, preferring to let Nasreen’s tweets speak for them.

In only its third month in power, the BJP government seems to have settled into the risk-averse and status-quoist style that characterised so much of the UPA-II’s term. As the Taslima Nasreen affair shows, the BJP’s campaign dynamism, especially its ability to communicate with its electorate, seems to have vanished in a puff of air after assuming government.

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