The contest over Indian secularism is in the front pages again. Every other day something or the other is said or written about Indian secularism. Was this remark secular or communal? Will Modi be bad for secularism? One columnist has already declared in a provocatively titled article, "Secularism is dead!"

Secularism isn't dead. The Indian state and its institutions are far more secular than Indian society. Secularism, like free speech and the weather, is a daily battle. You win some, you lose some. You can see how secularism survives when the Election Commission bans Amit Shah and Azam Khan from addressing election rallies for religious hate speech. That's an example of state institutions living up to India's claim of being a secular country. There are times the claim is belied – such as how the police acts in communal violence. But these are daily battles. The big war hasn't been lost yet. It is still being fought.

The problem with secularism is not the idea. The idea is still so strong that even the Bhartiya Janata Party and its supporters don't claim that India must discard secularism. Instead, their rise has been marked by an attack on the word "secularism", its meaning and practice. The unfortunate truth is that the BJP has managed to make the word "secular" not only one that is contested but also meaningless. What it signifies still flourishes, but the signifier is dead. To save secularism, we need a new word to signify it.

In the debates over Gujarat 2002 vs Delhi 1984, the date that is lost is December 6, 1992. The fall of the Babri Masjid was a more definitive event than the pogroms of 2002 or 1984. The Ayodhya was the biggest symbolic blow that Indian secularism has been dealt. The falling domes were a victory for the rhetoric propagated by the BJP and its chief ideologue, Lal Krishna Advani. That rhetoric did not claim that India needed to be a Hindu state. It said instead that the Congress party wasn't secular but was “pseudo-secular”. (It is only the Modi age of online Hindutva abuse that has done away with the term, “pseudo-secular”. The word “sickular” is shorter and hence more suited to Twitter.)

The BJP rhetoric had a few talking points that it repeated endlessly in the 1990s: the uniform civil code, Shah Bano, Salman Rushdie, Kashmiri Pandits, Babri Masjid. This rhetoric was strengthened by the actions of the Congress and other so-called secular parties. The Congress in those days acted as a party that would do anything to stay in power, opening the gates of the Babri Masjid and losing Muslim votes, legislating to prevent Shah Bano from getting compensation for divorce and thus losing Hindu votes by seeming to be appeasing Muslims. The phrase “minority appeasement” became part of the lexicon of Indian secularism, though nobody objected to the Congress attempts at Hindu appeasement.

Similarly, secular regional parties are secular only to the extent that they need Muslim votes. It is a myth to say that India is secular because the Hindu majority likes it that way. It is the north Indian Muslim who has become the custodian of Indian secularism through its vote. By smartly allying with dalits and the middle castes of the Hindu order, Muslims make sure they are on the winning side and the party they vote to power cannot discriminate against them.

In a sense nobody is wrong here: everyone, the Indian Muslim, the upper caste Hindu, the Congress and “secular” regional parties, all act in their own self-interest. Their particular self-interests, however, clash, and that clash is a central fault-line of Indian politics.

What secularism needs is a new language that seeks to separate it from electoral politics. If secularism was undermined by the use of language, it is language that can save secularism. That new language can come only from a new party that is trying to avoid the communal-secular, BJP-Congress binary.

A new deal

Right now that opportunity has been given to the Aam Aadmi Party. Right from its inception, the AAP has refused to be restricted to one side of the binary. In doing so, it has invited the wrath of the left and the right alike. What do you think of Narendra Modi, an interviewer once asked Arvind Kejriwal. Why should I comment on one person? asked Kejriwal. The same Kejriwal is today taking on Narendra Modi, but again on issues of governance, development and corruption.

This tightrope walk is important because a new party has to set the terms of the debate if it is to be relevant. The AAP has done just that by seeking to take on the Congress and the BJP with equal vigour, presenting decentralisation of power and getting rid of corruption as the two most important things India needs.

The AAP cannot succeed in any which way if it slips on the secular-communal binary. Two things indicate that the AAP hasn't got this right yet. Of course it needs to reach out to Muslims, and all indications are that many Muslims have found the AAP attractive because it addresses them as voters and not as members of a religious minority group. Yet the party will have to contend with the difficult issues and take sides, such as the incidents of innocent Muslim youth being put in jail for years on charges of terrorism. The Congress party enacted the law that allows this to happen – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Hypocritically, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and even Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde have spoken against such arrests of Muslim youth. This has invited remarks from the BJP that Muslims are being singled out for speedy justice. Why should Muslims get quicker trials in a country that has so many people languishing in jail for years with trial or bail, including some accused of Hindutva terrorism, the party has asked. This, it says, proves the Congress is out to appease the minorities.

What position does the AAP take on this? Their manifesto says, “We will ensure that the practice of police harassment and filing false cases against Muslim youth is put to an end. Police officials found guilty of harassment will be prosecuted. Judicial reforms to ensure that cases are decided within six months. Swift dispensation of justice for Muslim youth arrested on charges of terrorist activity. Strict action will be taken against those found guilty. We will make sure that the innocent are not jailed on false charges.”

How is this any different from what Digvijaya Singh and Sushilkumar Shinde have been saying? The AAP could instead have promised to rethink the Draconian laws that make it possible to keep people in jail for long periods without them being convicted. The resulting reform would benefit everybody: Muslims, Hindus and others.

Another example is of a video secretly leaked on YouTube which shows Shazia Ilmi of the AAP telling Muslim leaders that Muslims are too secular, they must think of their self-interest and be a little communal. What she means is that instead of voting for the Congress they should vote for the AAP because she is Muslim. The AAP was forced to distance itself from the remark.

Like any political movement or party, the AAP's rise has given new words and symbols to Indian political discourse. Swaraj, Lokpal, Jan Lokpal, right to reject, right to recall, the broom, the re-invention of the Gandhi cap and so on. Its positions clearly show that it has chosen the secular side of the debate. But simply saying “we are not here to do the politics of mandir and masjid,” as Kejriwal did in an interview, is not enough. The AAP will have to say something about this faultline to break out of the binary. The only way it can do so is by coming up with new words and symbols that seek to rescue the word secularism from its post-Babri connotations of minority appeasement and vote-bank politics.

I have a suggestion. They should, like the provocative columnist, declare that secularism is dead. That secularism is a sham. It is vote-bank politics. That they don't believe in secularism but in something else. Something with a different name. How about "Indo-pluralism"? Or perhaps a Hindi word?