Opinion: Nirmala Sitharaman's Speech Redefines Secularism, Recasts Castes

The absence of populism, or 'rewdi' - as freebies are referred to these days - in Nirmala Sitharaman's interim budget speech radiated the Narendra Modi government's poise on the eve of Lok Sabha elections. The Finance Minister also used the opportunity to attempt redefining 'secularism' and recasting 'castes'.

Secularism, which has been widely accepted as the nation's ethos since freedom, tends to be a misunderstood word. The opponents of the BJP tend to unite against it on the plank of 'secularism'. This bid to aver to the BJP as being opposed to secularism was countered by the party's patriarch, Lal Krishna Advani, who coined to term "pseudo-secularism" in the 1990s to describe the attitude of non-BJP formations.

Secularism has been used as credo by the Congress and many regional parties, as well as the Left. After its 2014 rout the Congress set up a committee headed by AK Anthony, which concluded that a primary reason for the party being ousted was that it was perceived to be a 'Muslim party'- an allusion to the charge of minority appeasement.

The beleaguered INDIA bloc parties, overtly corralled on the plank of secularism, too accuse each other of minority appeasement. Mamata Banerjee's diatribe against Rahul Gandhi while his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra passed through West Bengal was that the Congress was indulging in 'Muslim appeasement'.

'Secularism' was used to sound the death knell of the first non-Congress regime in New Delhi, the Janata government, in 1979. The BJP's predecessor, Jan Sangh, refused to snap ties with the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Janata Party split.

Jan Sangh and RSS cadre had provided sinews to the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat in 1974 and the Jayaprakash Narayan-led Bihar movement. Jan Sangh had merged its identity into Janata Party after Indira Gandhi was defeated post-Emergency in 1977.

The Union Home Ministry had brought out a document in 1975 titled, "Why Emergency?" It listed the government's justification for the imposition of internal Emergency under Article 352. The most-used abbreviation in the booklet was "RSSS" (RSS was referred to as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, thus the extra 'S'). The government's analysts, who justified the suspension of the Constitution, apparently had little knowledge of the organisation which was driving the JP Movement, which was reflected in the wrong abbreviation.

(While overtly the Congress regimes were averse to the RSS, enough evidence has surfaced in recent years on the covert subterranean attempts by advisers of both Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to parley with Balasaheb Deoras, the then Sarsanghchalak, with RSS ideologue Bhaurao Deoras, acting as the fulcrum. Rahul Gandhi's 'Idea of India', the theme of his discourses against the Narendra Modi regime at home and abroad, is primarily directed at the RSS.)

At the height of the Emergency in 1976, the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution altered the original preamble and injected the words secularism and socialism. The Janata government in 1978 enacted the 44th Amendment to do away with some measures of the Emergency regime but the alteration to the Preamble was left untouched. In 1994, in its landmark SR Bommai judgment, which set many watermarks, the Supreme Court held that India had been secular since the establishment of the Republic. (Thereby underscoring the redundancy of the addition of words to the Preamble.)

Nirmala Sithraman's reference to 'secularism' in her February 1 speech has to be viewed in this context. Asserting that the government's approach to development was sarvangeen (all-round), sarvsparshi (all-pervasive) and sarsamaveshi (all-inclusive), covering "all castes and people at all levels", the Finance Minister said, "Previously social justice was mostly a political slogan. For our government, social justice is an effective and necessary governance model".

Citing "the saturation approach of covering all eligible people is the true and comprehensive achievement of social justice", Sitharaman asserted "This is secularism in action."

The emphasis of the original, pre 42nd Amendment Preamble to the Constitution of India was on "Equality of status and of opportunity". The February 1 interim budget speech elaborated on this lucidly, reflecting that empowerment and not entitlement is the talisman of the Modi regime. This 'interim' statement of the government is a watershed.

Sitharaman referred to the Prime Minister's emphasis on the need to focus on 'four major castes': Garib (poor), Mahilayen (women), Yuva (youth) and Annadata (farmer) and said the aim was to ensure that resources are distributed fairly and all, regardless of their social standing, get access to opportunities.

Listing a slew of schemes launched in the past decade with an aim to empower the poor, she said, "We focus on outcomes and not on outlays."

At a time when free electricity has become the most popular election freebie cutting across party lines, the rooftop solar programme of the Central government, which will enable one crore houses to get 300 units of free electricity every month, is a classic case of empowerment, synergised with the green policy.

Dr Manmohan Singh's 1991 budget set the tone for Modern India. Nirmala Sitharaman's 2024 interim budget has heralded the way for accelerated development, based on empowerment and 'sabka prayas', charting the road to 'Amrit Kaal' 2047.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author