Bangalore voted on Sunday the 20th of April, the first round of polling. Anticipating crowds in the morning, my wife and I went to the neighbourhood booth in the afternoon. Outside, the names of the candidates were pasted on the walls. There were a dozen candidates in all but here, as in many other parts of India, the real contest was between the Congress and the BJP. ‘How can one vote for a party that harbours Narendra Modi ?’, asked my wife. ‘But how can one vote for a party which is so cravenly sycophantic towards Rahul Gandhi?’, she continued.

It would be a breach of propriety for me to reveal whom my wife finally voted for. Still, it seems clear that her dilemma was shared by millions of other voters. For, even more than booth-capturing in Bihar and Bengal, our democracy is disfigured and demeaned by the character and record of our two professedly ‘national’ parties.

Let me begin with the party in power. The problem with the BJP is that it speaks in many voices. Thus, its campaign in Karnataka (as in other states) was opened by Pravin Togadia, a man best described as the Osama of the Hindus. His meeting was held near an area dominated by Muslims and Christians. His speech threatened and taunted the minorities. After it was over, his supporters marched menacingly through the streets, brandishing their trishuls.

A few weeks later the BJP sent its star campaigner, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Here was the voice of sweet reasonableness, speaking of ‘development’ and ‘governance’ and of India’s exalted place in the world. Unfortunately, the exit polls that followed the first round of polling did not show the BJP to be doing particularly well. So, the party asked Narendra Modi to tour the parts of the state that had not yet gone to the polls. His speeches were peppered with vulgar personal remarks against the Congress President and her representatives in Karnataka. He did not specifically mention Hindus, or Muslims for that matter. But then he did not have to¬¬—his presence was enough to signal what his party thought of the respective rights of those communities.

The people in power speak of themselves as the ‘Sangh Parivar’. They are indeed a family, an Indian family, with all the diversity that this implies. In ideological terms, the members of the Parivar span the range from humanity to barbarism. Closest to the left, or human end of the scale, is Mr Vajpayee. A little to his right is Mr L. K. Advani, a little further Mr M. M. Joshi. Notably, the views of this BJP ‘trimurti’ are themselves variable. That is, they are more moderate when in power, and more extreme when out of it.

The three men I have mentioned are members of the BJP, which is a political party. But they are also all members of a mass organization that does not fight elections, namely, the RSS. It might even be that, when push comes to shove, the trio will choose the Sangh over the party. (Recall that the Prime Minister once declared, in New York no less, that he was first and foremost a ‘swayamsevak’.) In any case, the RSS as a whole is more doctrinaire than the BJP. While the latter might prevaricate on issues like cow-slaughter, Article 370, the Ram Mandir, and the ‘proper’ place of minorities, the Sangh is unswerving. In their view, the first two must go—the sooner the better—and the third must be built—pronto. As for Muslims and Christians, they must convincingly display their loyalty to Bharat Mata, by, for instance, singing Vande Matram while drinking their morning milk.

Substantially to the right of the RSS is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. If the Sangh is dogmatic and reactionary, the Parishad is fanatic and fundamentalist. The Sangh still sets store by ideology and propaganda. The Parishad believes only in threats and intimidation. It is explicit in arguing that non-Hindus can, at best, hope to be second-class citizens of India. Their model in this respect appears to be the Islamic state of Pakistan. Thus Ashok Singhal, while President of the VHP, insisted that since in Pakistan minorities voted in separate electorates, in India they must do likewise.

Still further right, at the barbaric end of the spectrum, is the Bajrang Dal. These are the stormtroopers of the Hindu right, being to the BJP and the RSS what the SS and the Hitler Youth once were to the Nazis. Their record is bloody indeed. In the pogroms in Bombay in 1992-3 and Gujarat in 2002 they played the vanguard role. Their philosophy is captured in the slogan ‘Kabristan ya Pakistan!’ If their confreres accord second-class status to the minorities, the Bajrang Dal believes that the proper place of Muslims in India is below ground, in the graveyard.

The RSS is more extreme than the BJP, the VHP more extreme than the RSS, the Bajrang Dal more extreme than the VHP. Moreover, and this is what is crucial, the BJP does not control the RSS, while the RSS does not control the VHP or the Bajrang Dal. This means, in sum, that within the Parivar itself, humanity can never vanquish barbarism.

Consider now the state of the BJP’s main national rival, the Congress. The idea that members of a single family are born to rule is deeply undemocratic. But so long as this principle operates, talented and patriotic young Indians will not join the Congress, where progress within the party depends not on ability or merit but on proximity to the ruling family.

In fairness, the problems of the Congress do not begin or end with the dynasty. There is the party’s hypocrisy, as witness its attitude to economic reforms or to nuclear bombs—both of which it opposes when in the Opposition, but supports when in power. There is its wooing of the most reactionary elements among the Muslims, in contemptuous disregard of its own secular past. Jawaharlal Nehru often said that the act he was proudest of was the reform of Hindu personal law, which gave rights to millions of Indian women. He wanted, in time, to extend those rights to Muslim women too. His wish has been stalled not by the Hindu reactionaries (who were the strongest opponents of the reform of Hindu law) but by his own party, indeed, by his own daughter and, especially, by his grandson.

The Constitution of India lists a Uniform Civil Code as one of its Directive Principles. It is truly bizarre that this principle is now supported by the BJP and opposed by the Congress—for, in the nineteen fifties, when Nehru and Ambedkar took their first, bold steps towads the reform of personal laws, it was the Jana Sangh and the RSS which most bitterly opposed them. Even now, I do not think the BJP is serious about the Uniform Civil Code—if it was, why has it not introduced it in Parliament these six years it has been in power? (The Parivar speaks of the UCC only to spite the Congress and taunt the Muslims.) If the Congress had more courage, it would ask for a national debate on the elements of a gender-sensitive code of family law that would apply to all citizens. That, I believe, would take the wind out of the BJP’s sails while restoring its own secular credentials.

Such then, are our two national parties—one parochial and communal, the other feudal and hypocritical. Which one do we choose? The dilemma of the sensitive Indian brings to mind a now forgotten but once very intense debate, which took place among the French intellegentsia during the Cold War. One side, led by Raymond Aron, chose the United States and capitalism. The other side, led by Jean-Paul Sartre, chose the Soviet Union and capitalism. Asked which side he was on, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty answered: ‘Between Soviet communism and American capitalism, I choose—Marlene Dietrich’.

Tailpiece: Since this piece is being published just before West Bengal goes to the polls, I should place on record this statutory warning: What this article says about the Congress and the BJP should on no account be read as an endorsement of the Left Front.