I met a BJP sympathiser and she thinks the party is secular
What I learnt from my weekend encounters in Delhi.
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I had two meetings scheduled this weekend - one with an INC party member and social media activist, and the other with a BJP supporter and IT professional.
A lunch that wasn't... appetising
“We’re working hard to catch up with the changing trends. However, our party’s ideology and principles won’t ever change. We can’t stoop to the level of the BJP and…”
“Go do charity, then!” I blurted out.
“Yeah, go do charity. There’s no morality in politics. Your party isn’t taking right decisions. There’s a decisiveness deficit at the top, don’t you agree?”
My pro-Congress friend, a complex elitist snob, wasn’t impressed with my critical analysis of her party’s style of working, especially their social media team that has of late been making news for gaffes and trolling. Her eyes beamed pure anger at me by the time we finished our conversation.
Chilli paneer and toxic talks
My second meeting for the weekend was scheduled with a specimen of the most interesting political kind - a woman supporter of the BJP whom I often engage with on Twitter. She had recently published a couple of articles on OpIndia.com and wanted me to help her connect to some editors.
I had booked a table at a restaurant and had almost finished my tenderloin soup and a news article on my phone when I was interrupted;
"Hey Anand," a lady in a western dress stood next to the table and extended her arm for a handshake.
"Hi," I said, as I recognised her in the process. Make-ups and profile pictures can be deceptive, you see.
"Shall we order something? I’m really hungry," she said in a convent educated accent.
"Oh yes, please. What would you like to have?" I asked.
She opted for Chinese and ordered chilli paneer. I went with Mughlai and chicken.
“So, what’s trending?” she asked.
For those who don’t already know, a BJP sympathiser is typically a confused Indian brought up on a diet of bigoted WhatsApp forwards and a persecution complex that leads to varying degrees of victimhood.
In journalistic odds and Twitter trends they trust. They have fewer conversations - instead they have confrontations.
"#GauriLankeshMurder is trending," I replied.
"Oh, okay. Karnataka government failure, you see."
"Possible. Do you condemn the murder?" I asked.
"You see, all 'these' murders happened in Congress-ruled states. And all these murdered people were Naxal sympathisers hurting the feelings of the majority community on purpose. By the way, do you condemn killings of RSS workers in Kerala?"
"Are you equating these rationalists with RSS workers in Kerala? And Of course, I condemn all political killings, including the murders of the RSS and CPM workers in Kerala," I replied.
"Okay," she replied. "I am not justifying. I am just saying people of all hues are being murdered and we shouldn’t really make an issue out of one. And why blame the Hindutva forces for these murders? Where’s the evidence?"
"Well, did you know that a Karnataka BJP MLA stated the other day that Lankesh would be alive if she hadn’t spoken against the RSS?"
"Still, that wouldn’t prove the BJP/RSS had anything to do with it," she shot back.
"I wish they served beef fry here," I said, as I was getting annoyed with her apologist position.
"Yuck! Why do you Keralites eat beef? Is it only to irritate the Hindus who worship the cow?" she asked.
"Er... It’s the Hindus who eat beef as much as anyone else in Kerala," I replied.
She was dissecting the paneer cubes into small-sized bites using a knife and a fork. I dug my fingers into my plate, Indian style.
I was tempted to ask if the paneer she was having could be classified as vegetarian, but it was time to move to other topics.
“What’s your opinion of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen?” I asked.
“Oh, I am reading Salman Rushdie currently,” she replied and continued. “I admire them - brave writers. It’s a shame that Indian mullahs pass fatal fatwas against them. I condemn the death threats against them. So much for FOE.”
"How were these murdered Indian rationalists different from them?" I asked.
"Oh Come on! There’s no ground for comparison…"
“There is. Five minutes ago, you accused the murdered rationalists of hurting Hindu sentiments. Don’t you think they had the same FOE as Rushdie and Taslima?"
“But what’s the evidence they were killed for their opinions?"
"Don’t you think the statement of the Karnataka BJP MLA points to something?"
“I guess he never meant that. Or he must be the equivalent of Sakshi Maharaj in Karnataka. Ravishankar Prasad has refuted all charges levelled against the BJP."
"What evidence was his denial based on?"
She took a break to sip some diet coke. I took a sip from my glass of Jacob’s Creek.
“How’s your writing going on? Are you a proficient-conversant in your mother tongue?” she asked - a diversionary.
"Of course. I can read and write Malayalam as well as anyone else."
"Great! I regret not being proficient in Bengali, my mother tongue. We are so departed from our culture and values. There’s a progressive denial of Indian-ness and westernisation has hijacked our values and traditions. Observing a foreign festival is cool, but keeping a fast is regressive?" She went on and on...
"It’s your problem if you can’t read or write in your mother tongue," I replied.
"There are certain trade-offs many of us make. If it were not for your liberal education, do you think you would be working in this MNC with a huge pay packet?"
She didn’t reply. She seemed to be in deep thought. I concentrated on the food, which I am always particular about.
"How was Onam?" she asked, breaking the long pause.
"Nothing remarkable. I was unwell and spent the day at home."
"I came to know that Onam isn’t bound by religions and is celebrated by everyone in Kerala. How nice."
"Yes," I replied. "And that’s exactly what your BJP/RSS guys are trying to ruin by trying to hijack it and limiting it to a festival for Hindus."
“Oh really? Mamata Banerjee is using the same tricks of your Commie and Congressi folks by trying to convert Hindu festivals like Durga and Saraswati Pujo into Sharad and Vasant Utsav in Bengal."
“See, Mamata Banerjee may have some political agenda, not that am I aware of these things, but Onam being a secular festival has nothing to do with the Communists or Congress. It has been so even before Independence."
"So you accept Mamata has an agenda." She instantly latched on to it.
"Well, I think her brand of secular politics is actually helping the BJP grow in Bengal. I think the Left government was much more secular compared to Mamata."
"Haha. The Left isn’t secular either." She replied.
"So tell me, who is secular then? The BJP?" I asked rhetorically.
“The BJP is more secular than the pseudo-secular parties like Congress and the CPI."
I was quite taken aback. "Well, if you think overt communalism is better than political opportunism of certain parties, I have nothing to say. I can only sympathise with you. Just look at your state. Children are dying in hundreds and what is your Yogi government doing about it? Didn’t Modi promise 'vikas' and then place Yogi on the CM’s chair?"
"Yogiji is doing his best," She replied. "You can’t change the ground realities in six months. These are legacy issues."
"So, you support Yogi Adityanath though you don’t approve of Sakshi Maharaj?" I asked.
"There is absolutely no comparison. Yogiji is a five-time MP and the mahant of the Gorakhpur math. As a practising Hindu, I have only respect and admiration for him," she replied. "Why do you hate the BJP so much?"
"Because I so love the idea of India."
"Are Indian minorities facing any ethnic cleansing like Myanmar here? You are just biased and prejudiced."
By then I realised the futility of carrying on with the discussion. It was quite a conversation though.
The crisis wasn't over
There was one more item on my itinerary for the weekend in Delhi - a talk that I was to attend at Brookings India. Viral Acharya, the RBI deputy governor, was the speaker and I was looking forward to it after reading the newspaper reports of his lecture in Mumbai at the Indian Institute of Banking and Finance, the previous day. Although I was slightly late for the 6pm event, it hadn’t started by then. Acharya made it around 6.40pm with a backpack and cracked a joke about coming late.
His talk was centred on bank recapitalisation where he drew a parallel between the banks in GIPS (Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) countries and the public sector banks in India.
He clearly made a case for quick recapitalisation of the PSBs as it was the single biggest factor standing between a higher growth trajectory with most macro indicators showing good health. He explained "zombie lending" (akin to the ever greening of NPAs of PSBs since 2012 in India) that actually pulls growth down as it ensures that these loans wouldn’t go to healthy credit seekers.
He was quite forthright about the need for prompt disinvestment and privatisation of certain banks as the government had failed to infuse capital and lacks the resources (or will) to do so. He also warned about merging healthy banks with weak banks as that could destabilise the merged entity and pointed to the Bank of America Merryl Lynch merger.
As the Q&A began, I raised my hand a dozen times only for the moderator to ignore me and offer chances to people on my either side and at my front and back row. Thankfully, I got an opportunity to pick the brains of Acharya right after the talk ended.
Unlike Urijit Patel, Acharya is quite forthright and articulate, though he used the caveat that his opinions were not necessarily that of the RBI.
When I asked him if India should have emulated the US by going for bank recapitalisation at the initial stage itself, he seemed to agree. (Back then, our policy-makers used to brag about the health of our banks and how they weren’t leveraged like banks elsewhere.)
It would have ensured that India wouldn’t have been staring at the kind of crisis it is today.