The BJP yesterday unveiled a neither-here-nor-there strategy on the issue of Varun Gandhi's hate speech, according to Indian press reports.
The BJP says that Varun Gandhi’s hate speech directed at non-Hindus represented his personal views, rather than the party's. But it also said it is not considering dumping him as a candidate, according to CNN/IBN.
The wishy-washy response to a video recording that depicts the grandson of Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru threatening to cut off the hands of Muslims reveals the larger dilemma faced by the right-wing Hindu party.
On one hand, their only way to differentiate themselves from the Congress is to trumpet their decades-old argument that "the Muslims" threaten India's Hindu majority by reproducing too quickly and secretly maintaining a treacherous loyalty to Pakistan — both claims that have been proven false again and again, incidentally.
But on the other hand, the party will never win enough parliamentary seats to form the government on its own — or at least not anytime soon — and so must maintain a moderate face to soothe the fears of potential coalition partners. (Incidentally, Varun Gandhi still maintains the video was doctored and he didn't refer specifically to Muslims, only anti-social elements. But he has stopped short of condemning such statements or avowing that Muslims are free and equal citizens of India).
Unless something dramatic happens to inspire more of the population with the jingoistic sentiments near and dear to leaders like BJP's Narendra Modi — or India's murky political scenario throws up a terrible surprise this go-around — that means that the "fear of a saffron planet" that keeps Indians awake at night probably isn't in the cards.
From 1998 to 2003, the saffron party managed to be all things to all people by presenting two, or even three, faces: the cuddly, secular-seeming Atal Behari Vajpayee, the firebrand veteran of the campaign to destroy the Babri mosque LK Advani and the even more fiery Narendra Modi.
Now, though, Vajpayee has retired and Advani — not long ago considered a deeply committed radical — is the "friendly face" of the party. And this go-around, it appears from the flight of some of the BJP's former allies that a coalition of the not-too-radical right may be a non-starter.
Perhaps I'm too hopeful. But after the Mumbai attacks failed to generate any swing toward the radical right, and instead initiated a strong backlash against Hindu radicals who themselves indulge in thuggery and terrorism, I'm beginning to entertain hopes that the era of race-baiting and hatred in Indian politics may be coming to an end.
But I have my sleepless nights, too.