Debating India


The BJP’s real agenda

Saturday 11 September 1999, by NOORANI*A.G.

The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India by Thomas Blom Hansen; Oxford, 1999; pages 293, Rs. 495.

THE skeletons began rattling all the more noisily for the desperate determination with which the cupboard was being shut. The Bharatiya Janata Party tried to assure its allies in the so-called National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that issues such as the Ra m temple in Ayodhya, scrapping of Article 370 on Kashmir’s autonomy, and a uniform civil code were not on its immediate agenda. But what assurance could it offer its own cadres who supported it precisely because it was committed to these issues and to Hi ndutva?

The mentors, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), can quietly be squared with. If the RSS could spread its influence when its political front, the Jan Sangh, predecessor of the BJP, was but a constituent of the Janata Party Government (1977-79), its in fluence, surely, would be far greater if the BJP is allowed to stay in power as the dominant member of a coalition. The RSS boss, Rajendra Singh, declared in an article in Organiser (May 7, 1995), entitled "Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi", that "no fr iendly interaction between the Hindus and Muslims is possible unless the latter shed their intransigence in regard to Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya."

The silence of a man of such a rabidly communal outlook during the current controversy over the BJP’s commitments vis-a-vis its pact with the allies, is as significant as that of the dog that did not bark.

First came the calculated leak. "RSS sources" told a correspondent of The Asian Age (August 18) that "there has been no dilution in the agenda and ... installation of a BJP-led coalition government at the Centre will be a step towards achieving th e implementation of the agenda."

They told him: "Our priority is to install a BJP-led government at the Centre. But that does not mean that it will be done at the cost of our agenda.... It will be the BJP alone which is going to implement our agenda." Atal Behari Vajpayee would be suppo rted to the hilt because he is the best vote-getter available. Incidentally, the issue of Organiser in which Rajendra Singh wrote as he did, also carried Vajpayee’s famous article "The Sangh is my soul".

It was left to the BJP’s general secretary, the too-clever-by-half K.N. Govindacharya, to give the game away as he tried publicly to assure the cadres. He said in New Delhi on August 22 that the BJP remained committed to the three contentious issues even though it accepted the NDA’s agenda. Why? Because "with the BJP yet to traverse some more distance to attain the steering position in Indian politics, we decided that in this interregnum of transition we should commit ourselves" to the NDA’s agen da. Kalraj Mishra, Public Works Minister in Uttar Pradesh, confirmed it in Lucknow the next day: "The party is committed to the construction of the Ram temple."

Vajpayee tried frantically to limit the damage, in Ahmedabad on August 23: He was "surprised" to read Govindacharya’s statement and said "all contentious issues should not be brought into the political arena". Govindacharya obediently issued a "clarifica tion". Having claimed on August 22 that "we work with bifocal vision", he demonstrated the next day that the BJP also speaks with a forked tongue.

If Pramod Mahajan asserted at Aurangabad on August 23 that the three issues had not been sidetracked, J.P. Mathur said the opposite on August 24. M. Venkaiah Naidu declared on August 25: "Even if tomorrow we were to fight an election on our own an d get 370 seats, we will not make Ram Mandir part of our election agenda." The very next day he denied having said so. He had said that, not to a press reporter, but on the Star News TV channel, which said his "statement was on tape and could not be refu ted" (The Indian Express, August 27).

Kalraj Mishra returned to the fray on August 25. "Even now Ram Mandir was a burning issue for us. But since there was no consensus in the NDA on this, it is not part of the joint manifesto with the NDA... there is no dilution in our stand. However there are the compulsions of coalition politics...." A Times of India report (August 27) from Nagpur said that "the RSS was completely at peace with the BJP on the Ayodhya temple issue, RSS sources claimed. The RSS realises that getting Mr. Vajpa yee back into power is much more important." Mamasaheb Ghumre, former vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), told him: "The temple has a better chance of getting built with him in the saddle for five years." Once in power with a solid majorit y of its own, the BJP will discard the flotsam and jetsam it has gathered in the NDA - and fulfil its own agenda. To paraphrase Milton, case will recant vows made under pain as unsaid and void.

On April 24, 1996, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, L.K. Advani, then BJP president, said there would be no compromise on the Ram temple and the matter was high on its agenda. The party’s 1998 election manifesto had a whole page on Hindutva, and "c ultural nationalism". It concluded with a pledge - to build the temple. The National Agenda for Governance was drawn up subsequently and published on March 18, 1998 when alliances became inescapable if power was to be won. The BJP’s decision not t o bring out its own manifesto this year is as unprecedented as it is meaningful - the 1998 document stands.

ONE must not miss the wood for these trees. The Danish scholar, Thomas Blom Hansen’s book makes a timely appearance to remind us of what is in store for us once the BJP takes us into the wood. Its sub-title captures the theme: what the BJP’s concept of H indu nationalism spells for India’s governance and its democracy. His grasp of political theory, intensive field work in Maharashtra, and familiarity with the vast literature on the subject are well reflected in the work. To what do we attribute the saff ron wave? One school of scholarship attributed it to "imaginative political strategies", another to the older "reserves of religious nationalism".

Hansen incorporates both the strands but goes beyond them. "My main argument is that Hindu nationalism has emerged and taken shape neither in the political system as such nor in the religious field, but in the broader realm of what we may call public culture - the public space in which a society and its constituent individuals and communities imagine, represent, and recognise themselves through political discourse, commercial and cultural expressions, and representations of state and civic organi sations" (emphasis added, throughout).

The Sangh’s credo is quintessentially paternalistic, xenophobic and authoritarian. "Many Hindu nationalists have only a skin-deep commitment to democratic procedures." But there are some latent fears, some hidden concerns, which it was able to draw upon. Hansen’s book is, in its mercilessly incisive analyses, a mirror to Indian society. "Is Hindu nationalism really revealing the dark side of the middle-class culture and social world of the ’educated sections’ who have dominated Indian public culture and the Indian state for so long - the authoritarian longings, the complacency, and the fear of the ’underdog’, the ’masses’, and the Muslims?... The recent Indian experience of Hindu nationalism should remind us that democracy also very often gives birth t o forces, desires, and imaginings of an authoritarian and anti-democratic nature, or ’majoritarian’ and moral backlashes against what is seen as ’excessive liberalism’ in the public culture."

His resume of the course of Indian politics in recent years is prefaced by a thorough discussion of the ideology of Hindu nationalism as developed in the last century and the present one by men of intellect such as Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Lala Lajpat R ai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak right down to the likes of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar.

The BJP capitalised on the policy of "soft" Hindu communalism which Indira Gandhi adopted after her return to power in 1980. But the seeds had been sown much earlier. "Radical anti-Muslim discourse had coexisted with political pragmatism within the Sangh Parivar and within the older sanghathanist tradition for almost a century. What was new in the 1980s was, in other words, not so much the employment of the idiom of Hindu communalism per se, but rather the ingenuity and scale with which this idio m was differentiated and disseminated through an array of new technologies of mass mobilisation."

Amazingly - or perhaps not - the BJP’s supporters in the "respectable" middle class do not find its techniques of mobilisation offensive. The ends justify the means. Sadhvi Rithambara and Uma Bharati were found useful. The latter was made a Union Ministe r. The author quotes one of her election speeches in 1991: "We could not teach them with words, now let us teach them with kicks... Tie up your religiosity and kindness in a bundle and throw it in the Jamuna... Any non-Hindu who lives here does so at our mercy."

Acts of violence are a natural consequence of speeches such as this. No wonder riots followed the Hindutva campaign.

The Sangh Parivar operates from a narrow electoral base and its success is far more tenuous than is imagined. It owes a lot to the erosion of centrist forces such as the Janata Dal. Regionalist parties fell in line. Its electoral constituency is limited to 25 per cent of the popular votes, a mere 15 to 16 per cent of the country’s adult population. One limitation to its expansion is that it is confined "mainly to the Hindu upper-caste and middle class milieus". It has no message for social uplift, econo mic emancipation and gender equality. The women it projects are not known for commitment to issues of gender equality, unlike, for instance, Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or Gita Mukerjee of the CPI.

The Hindutva movement has wreaked sheer havoc in the country. It claimed to have altered the political agenda in the early 1990s, only to profess to discard it at the end of the decade. "Has the Indian democracy been weakened by the BJP’s expansion over the last decade and its recent formation of the Central Government in New Delhi? Is this only the beginning of a gradual Hindu nationalist penetration of the public administration, the judiciary, the military, and the press that over time may constrict d emocratic procedures, and encourage a more heavy-handed line toward public protests, social movements and others who are critical of the government or just oppose economic and social exploitation?... Throughout this work I have presented evidence and arg uments that in many ways support the conclusion that the RSS represents a kind of ’Swadeshi fascism’ decisively vernacularised and shaped by modern Indian colonial and postcolonial history." But, the author adds, the BJP must not be viewed in isolation f rom other dark social forces in Indian society. "The advent of Hindu nationalism forces us to ask larger and more uncomfortable questions."

This is not to minimise one bit the seriousness of the sheer evil that is the Sangh Parivar: "There is little doubt that the BJP’s road to power has ridden over the dead bodies of thousands of innocent Muslims, and there is no doubt that strong forces wi thin the movement and in the BJP’s sizeable constituency among bureaucrats, commercial strata, and officers would like to see India as a much stronger, less democratic, and more repressive state that could provide security, labour, and the pleasant sides of modern life to the elite and the middle class." The Parivar must be viewed in the context of the milieu in which it has been able to prosper and attract support from some who were not suspected of being communal. There are many more closet Hindutvais ts than is commonly realised.

The battle for India’s democracy is not lost, it will not do to minimise the arduousness of the tasks that lie ahead. The future of India’s democracy and its secularism depends on the outlook Indians of all creeds come to share. Ideology matters, still.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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