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Blog site of iVarta.com » Hinduism, India, Islam, Politics » Temples, Toilets & Minority Politics

Temples, Toilets & Minority Politics

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We as a people have a weakness in that we look for idols in our leaders and put them on a pedestal. An idol’s word is gospel; his actions are above reproach. After all, ‘A Caesar can do no wrong!’ An idol’s actions never, ever come under scrutiny. His actions are always explained away with altruistic motives. Calling an idol’s actions into question is blasphemy.   

When a society treats a leader as an idol, all criticism is blanked out. The feedback mechanism is disabled. A leader who is blindly worshipped becomes blind to public opinion. It is not in the public interest. A leader’s belief in his infallibility gives way to a certain conceit. As the leader comes to dislike criticism, his followers automatically screen it from him. It lays the path to dictatorship and the leader’s eventual downfall. This was what happened in the case of Gandhi. His beliefs or actions were never called into question. He became a benign dictator. His unchallenged autocracy may have had some unwanted but far reaching consequences for the nation. The same thing happened with Nehru and Indira but as they wielded direct political power unlike Gandhi, their actions had left our newborn democracy in greater disrepair.  

The United States has such a vibrant democracy because it has a free, fair – and irreverent – media. It does not try to gloss over the follies of its politicians and paint them as infallible, godlike creatures. Here is a tidbit about the American media that should make us ponder: ‘of the about two thousand journalists accredited to the White House, half are from the American media. The American media persons wake up each morning with the firm conviction that the White House is going to lie to them at least once before sundown.’ However the American media’s scepticism and irreverence are not confined to the ruling party. All politicians and indeed all public figures come under the lens.  

The most important function of the media, like the opposition in parliamentary democracy, is to provide checks and balances to civic leadership. The ‘Opposition’ may not be able to force its views on the government of the day but it can certainly voice its dissent and suggest alternative views. Similarly it is not for the media to sing paeans to political parties. They have their own mechanisms for it. One might say the media has a duty to the society to keep political parties on their toes; to prevent their leadership from degenerating into autocracy. In order to discharge this duty, a journalist should cultivate two traits: a measure of healthy scepticism and irreverence: a measure of scepticism to question the motive behind every action (or assertion) and irreverence not to treat a politician or public figure however popular the figure may be, as infallible.  

What was that preamble about? It is in the context of the debate on ‘temples and toilets’. A natural corollary question that troubles rational thinkers would be ‘are temples and toilets mutually exclusive?’ (The phrase ‘rational thinkers’ is advisedly used here.) Consider the following questions:

Should India send a team to the Olympics only after poverty and hunger are completely alleviated?

Is spending on R & D in science and technology a waste, a developing nation (or an undeveloped nation) can ill afford?

Should India rather not have blue jeans and fast motorcycles; mobile phones and high definition television; computers and internet connectivity; advanced arms and ammunition and any other implements considered features of the developed world, till every citizen is fed, clothed and housed?

Our left-liberal intellectuals would answer all such questions with ‘ayes’ as if the alternatives suggested in them are mutually exclusive. Similarly they oppose mining or infrastructure development in the tribal areas for fear of displacing the tribal populations. Their concern is unexceptionable, but is development possible without infrastructure and mining?The ‘Cadillac Communists’ would rather that the ore remained in the earth and the ‘Comrades’ in Niyamgiri and Dantewada remain in their forest hovels.

The temple vs. toilet debate first voiced by Jairam Ramesh bespoke the same mindset. But it went beyond that. Its subtext was to propitiate the minority vote bank in a specific context. It is like the alleged historian Ramachandra Guha’s suggestion that a hospital should be built at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Guha’s suggestion is quite unexceptionable if all churches, mosques and temples (note the order in which they occur in the dictionary) in the country could be transformed into modern civic amenities.

No one disputes Narendra Modi’s concern for sanitation and health when he made his ‘sauchaalaya before devaalaya’ spiel. But to repeat, are they mutually exclusive? And one naturally wonders whether he was also reaching out to the same minority vote bank as Jairam Ramesh. There are whispers that he had a secret meeting with the Muslim community leaders in which he assured them that the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya would be shelved.

In its earlier NDA avatar the BJP fooled its core constituency by ‘putting the temple movement on the backburner’. Is Narendra Modi planning a repetition? Will he fool his followers who identified him as the ‘Hindu hrudya samraat’ this time round?

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