hen Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in the Indian general elections in 2014, there was no shortage of speculation about what it all meant. On the one hand, Modi put himself across as a modernizer and an economic nationalist, and made efforts to assuage the concerns of those who feared he would rule as a religious ideologue. He claimed that Hinduism was more a way of life than a religion, and that Hindu was merely another way of saying “Indian.” On the other hand, Modi’s ties to a more exclusionary vision of Hinduism were unmistakable. The BJP and its mentor organization, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), have roots in Hindutva, a brand of ethno-nationalism that arose in the 1920s and which seeks to give political organization and direction to those who follow the Hindu religion.
Today, Hindutva functions through a family of organizations called the Sangh Parivar that were set up or inspired by the secretive RSS, which calls itself a cultural organization and runs various fronts. The most prominent of these is the BJP itself. But there is also the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which advocates economic nationalism; the farmers’ organization, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS); the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which mobilizes Hindu religious leaders at home and abroad; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), one of the country’s largest trade unions; the BJP’s students’ front, known as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP); and the Bajrang Dal, a youth organization through which the VHP exerts street power. Associated with these are a constellation of other organizations of lawyers, scientists, historians, and writers who support Hindutva causes. More important, perhaps, are loosely affiliated organizations of young men who provide muscle for causes like cow protection and the prevention of Hindu-Muslim intermarriage.
In attempting to assess whether Modi’s victory and the BJP’s advance across the country reflects an expansion of Hindu ethno-nationalism in India, we need to separate the political success of the BJP from the question of Hindutva itself. Politically speaking, the BJP under Modi has been undeniably ascendant, scoring a succession of victories in state assembly elections. Yet that political success does not necessarily reflect the success of the RSS’s Hindutva nationalist agenda as such.
In democracies, election outcomes can be assessed with reference to two questions: Does the result reflect a negative vote against the record of an incumbent party? Or is it a positive one in favor of a new and more exciting alternative?
The BJP victory in 2014 was a combination of the two. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was beaten even before the elections took place. It had been hammered by a succession of scandals that mobilized a massive anti-corruption movement in Delhi led by Anna Hazare. Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate, was an uncommonly gifted politician, a mesmerizing speaker, and a relentless and hard-working campaigner. He ran a carefully calibrated campaign that stitched up caste coalitions, effectively used social media, and presented himself as a forward-looking economic reformer to appeal to the widest possible segment of the populace.
That campaign was enough to garner the BJP 282 seats out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. Even so, it only got 31.3 percent of the votes, compared to 19.5 percent for the main Opposition Congress Party, which earned 44 seats. The rest of the votes went to nearly 50 other smaller parties across the country.
The BJP’s victory could have been plausibly interpreted as an aspirational mandate for good governance and economic dynamism. But the Sangh Parivar has chosen to interpret it as an endorsement of its Hindutva agenda. The RSS views the victory as the opportunity of a lifetime. Hindutva has waxed and waned at the margins of India’s polity since the 1920s, and now its proponents find the dream of a “Hindu Rashtra,” a state with Hindu characteristics, within sight. Tellingly, the key slogan of Modi’s electoral campaigns, and one of his key political goals, is “Congress-mukt Bharat”: an India free of the Congress Party.
Modi belongs to the RSS. In much the same manner as the Communist Party, the RSS is organized around cadres deputed to front organizations. Its leader, Mohan Bhagwat, repeatedly declares that anybody living in India is a Hindu. In practice this means that minority communities, in particular Muslims, are expected to defer to the cultural and social primacy of the Hindu community, as defined by the Hindutva organizations. The RSS mission is to unite Hindus under its leadership which, of course, would provide an unassailable electoral majority for the BJP ad infinitum.The RSS mission is to unite Hindus under its leadership which, of course, would provide an unassailable electoral majority for the BJP ad infinitum.
Four years after Modi’s victory, there is reason to worry that he is steering the country to that ideological position where nationalism is defined in anti-Muslim terms, with “Pakistan” and “Muslim” being used synonymously. India under Modi has featured new social restrictions banning the slaughter of cows and eating of beef, vigilante attacks on the Muslim community on various fabricated pretexts relating to cow smuggling and cow slaughter, a foreign policy hostile to Pakistan, and a global campaign against terrorism seeking to highlight the dangers of Islamism (read: Muslims and Pakistan).
Prime Minster Modi himself has avoided taking a firm stand on cow vigilantism, aside from a few unconvincing condemnations. But he has not hesitated to attack Pakistan and Islamist terrorism at every opportunity. He has also sought to promote social reform in the Muslim community, such as outlawing the pernicious social practice of “triple talaq” whereby a Muslim woman may be divorced simply by chanting “talaq” thrice. His call this month for Muslim youth to have a computer in one hand and the Quran in the other is part of the same piece, suggesting that backwardness is a Muslim trait that needs to be dealt with. One of the key items in the Hindutva agenda has been the need for a uniform civil code for all Indian citizens, instead of separate family laws for Muslims and other minorities.
For the present, the RSS views electoral success as important. An expansion of the BJP footprint comes with other assets, such as the ability to place personnel in key educational and cultural institutions, which aids in spreading its message. For the past two years, for example, a committee set up by the Ministry of Culture has explored ways and means to insert the Hindutva agenda into historical writing in India. This ambitious agenda is complimented by a dubious research effort to support the conclusions of the RSS’s long-held, but intellectually suspect revisionist history of India.
The RSS’s stated goal to wipe out the Congress Party—a disconcerting ambition in any democracy—is clearly more than just a political slogan. It also represents a larger legacy that the RSS and BJP would like to eliminate: namely, the Nehruvian polity that gives space to all religions to function on the basis of equality and that celebrates India’s diversity by promoting a truly federal state.
All of India suffered the trauma of Partition in 1947. Since the RSS stayed out of the freedom struggle, the BJP has simply appropriated its two luminaries: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who as the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister played a major role in unifying the country, and B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalit or erstwhile “untouchable” castes, who steered the Constituent Assembly. Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who shaped modern India as a liberal republic in his 16-year rule as Prime Minister, has emerged as the principal villain in the Hindutva cosmos.
Having avoided the freedom struggle, the Sangh Parivar has since had the luxury of attacking Partition’s baleful consequences and heaping the blame on the Congress Party, which had to take the key decisions at the time. Likewise, since it was not anywhere near political power in the 1950s and 1960s, the Sangh Parivar has opposed the policies of that era’s Congress Party, which sought to heal the wounds of Partition by promoting a federal, secular polity.
Instead, the BJP has attacked the Congress Party for policies that encouraged Jammu and Kashmir to have a distinct identity within the Indian Union, or moves that gave the minorities, including Muslims, social and cultural space by permitting them to live according to their personal laws. “Muslim appeasement” has been an important rallying cry of the Hindutva nationalists. That Nehruvian policies famously prevented the radicalization of Indian Muslims, even during the high tide of Islamic radicalism that began in the 1980s, is conveniently glossed over.
What the RSS/BJP seek is a state where the fact of the Hindus being a majority community in the country is manifest, Hindutva values are cherished, laws are tweaked to reflect their primacy, and history is re-written to reflect the Sangh Parivar worldview.
Modi’s relations with the Sangh Parivar were not ideal in the years he ran Gujarat. Though Mohan Bhagwat, who became chief in 2009, supported him strongly, others like Pravin Togadia, Kesubhai Patel, Madhu Kulkarni, and Pravin Maniyar felt sidelined by Modi. One analyst characterized the dispute as a fight between the conservative wing of the RSS and Modi, who more effectively marketed their message for broader appeal.
On the other hand, these could be seen as mere personality clashes. In December 2005, Modi’s principal rival within the RSS and the party, Sanjay Joshi, had to resign from his position as General Secretary of the BJP when a CD with a sex tape allegedly featuring him surfaced at a key party meeting in Mumbai. Five years later, when the then-BJP President sought to rehabilitate Joshi, Modi, now much more powerful, objected and boycotted the meeting of the party’s national executive till the move was dropped.
In any case, after L.K. Advani’s failure in the 2009 general elections, Modi appeared to be the best option for the RSS. Since then, both have increasingly come to appreciate the mutual benefits of cooperation. In Modi, the RSS have a gifted politician who can push their agenda as no other BJP politician has managed since 1947. In turn, Modi has come to value the RSS cadres and network for the systematic groundwork they provide in an election.
Modi may be uncommonly attached to power, but he has no ideological differences with the RSS.Modi may be uncommonly attached to power, but he has no ideological differences with the RSS. He would have no problems with dismantling the Nehruvian state, a major agenda of the Hindutva nationalists. As long as they support his electoral project, he is willing to give them a free hand on these so-called cultural and social issues.
Foreign and security policies don’t usually change dramatically after an election, as they are supposed to be based on national interests rather than the whims of a particular government. Accordingly, Modi largely built on his predecessors when he invited all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to attend his inauguration, doubling down on a good neighbor policy. He declared that he would now pursue an “Act East” policy where previous governments had merely promised to “Look East.” Equally, he underscored India’s growing proximity to the United States by inviting President Barack Obama to be the chief guest for India’s 2015 Republic Day celebration.
But after a brief while, the Hindutva element came to the fore. Even now, it is not clear whether this was the result of electoral calculations—namely, Modi’s belief that he needed to take a tough line on Pakistan to win the crucial Uttar Pradesh State assembly election in early 2017—or an ideological change of heart brought about by attacks by Pakistani terrorists on Pathankot and Uri in 2016.
Blockading Nepal in 2015 was seen as a means of asserting India’s primacy in the subcontinent, although it has seriously damaged Indo-Nepal relations. Tough approaches toward China have meanwhile made India more reliant on the United States, but efforts are now on to undo some of the more extreme positions taken by New Delhi in the last two years.
Israel, a country that gives primacy to Judaism and adopts a tough posture against its Arab neighbors, is much admired in Sangh Parivar circles. But given significant Indian interests in the GCC countries and Iran, Modi has taken the precaution of enhancing ties with them even while embracing Israel.
The most pernicious aspect of Hindutva nationalism is its need to assert itself in opposition to Muslims and Pakistan. Sangh Parivar outfits have obsessively focused on the theme of insecurity, seeing personal and physical dangers both from Muslims within India and from those across the border in Pakistan. It is easy in this warp to weave the weft of hard nationalism which, in the average Indian mind, is associated with a posture emphasizing national security.
The RSS and its associated outfits amplify these themes by referencing a narrative of historical grievance that begins with the Muslim conquest of India in the 13thcentury, which destroyed the “Hindu Eden.” The alleged iniquities faced by the majority Hindu community, in this view, culminated in the Partition of the country in 1947, after which the ruling Congress Party coddled Muslims for electoral gain. Contemporary BJP leaders thus find it easy to assert the foreignness of Muslims and their need to assimilate with the Hindu majority or “go to Pakistan.” (Somehow, the really malignant period where Britain ruled India is glossed over in this history.)
This kind of rhetoric has serious implications for India’s stability and security. Some 14 percent of the country’s population are Muslims. They are set to grow to 18 percent and number some 300 million by 2050. This is not a population that can be easily dismissed or marginalized, and any attempt to do so will be fraught.
There are questions, too, about the electoral project of the BJP. The Hindus have never seen themselves as belonging to a unified faith. They are famously diverse, comprised of numerous sects and castes, which often translate into electoral divisions. In this sense, the RSS/BJP combination is some distance away from being able to rally the Hindus qua Hindus, under the banner of its moot Hindutva ideology.
Despite being an organization that seeks to build “character” as a path toward nation-building, the RSS has no hesitation in compromising on high principle when it comes to pushing the BJP’s electoral agenda. To that end, the BJP has accommodated defectors from other parties and consorted with politicians of dubious virtue. It has overlooked its commitment to ban beef when it comes to election activity in states where beef-eating is common.
But if Modi is afflicted by electoral or policy setbacks, the RSS may not be so accommodating. It will not hesitate to dump him in favor of its own Hindutva agenda. This could set up a clash between the two. Despite formally being a pracharak or full-time volunteer of the outfit and subject to its discipline, it’s clear that Modi sees himself as being above its disciplinary rules, where the Sarsanghchalak or head of the organization reigns supreme.
Recent election trends do not reflect the kind of dominance the Sangh Parivar has come to expect after its sterling election performance in the 2014 general elections and the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Assam, and Tripura. In Delhi and Bihar, the party underperformed; indeed it was badly trounced in the national capital.
More recently, the BJP has suffered setbacks in a series of by-elections in states where it has been ruling, first in Rajasthan in 2017 and then in Uttar Pradesh in 2018. The scale of the losses suggests that there has been an erosion of support for the party in the Hindi-speaking heartland.The scale of the losses suggests that there has been an erosion of support for the party in the Hindi-speaking heartland. Just why this has happened is not easy to say.
Some argue this is an outcome of the demonetization of India’s currency that Modi ordered in November 2016, a move that had widespread consequences in derailing India’s informal cash-based economy. Others argue that the ban on cow slaughter has devastated the rural economy. Aged cows were once routinely culled in rural areas, helping farmers make extra money; now, feral cattle are let loose after they do not yield milk and have been attacking their crops. Yet another argument holds that the caste combinations that the BJP employed in its victory have now come undone, with rivals like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party forming better combinations. Perhaps the BJP’s problems in the heartland arise from a combination of these factors.
The Sangh Parivar’s ethno-nationalist agenda has its own problems, the foremost being its anti-modern edge. The SJM has long advocated national self-reliance and opposes policies seeking more foreign direct investment. Beliefs being promoted by the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates verge on the wacky and anti-scientific. Recently a BJP Union Minister, Harsh Vardhan, claimed with absolutely no evidence that the recently deceased Stephen Hawking had said that the ancient Vedas had a theory superior to Einstein’s famous mass and energy equation. Another Union Minister, Satyapal Singh, said in January that Darwin’s theory of evolution was scientifically wrong. Vardhan and Singh are no country yokels; the former is a medical doctor and the latter has been the police chief of Mumbai. Some of these beliefs are now being touted in prestigious institutions around the country. In 2015, the Indian Science Congress hosted that year by Mumbai University heard a paper claiming that interplanetary craft existed in ancient India. It is difficult to believe that such views will not hamper the policymaking of a country that is seeking to become an economic and military power.
Though the RSS worldview, with its exaggerated anti-Muslim stance, is the one that has most shaped Modi, he has sought to position himself while in office as a modernizer and social reformer. One of the first causes he took up was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission. Later he launched the Beti Bachao, Beti Phadao (“Save the Women and Educate Them”) movement. Through his monthly radio broadcast, Mann Ki Baat (“The Mind’s Voice”), he has attacked corruption and promoted the digital economy, smart cities, solar energy, water conservation, and a slew of other unexceptionable causes.
But the Hindutva influence periodically surfaces, especially during election time. Most recently it was visible in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly elections in 2017. The Gujarati Muslim population is not electorally significant, so Modi used the device of attacking Pakistan in the campaign, while throwing in some incendiary innuendo against Indian Muslims.
However, he has displayed an agile, pragmatic, and even opportunistic bent of mind, as befits a successful politician. On December 25, 2015, Modi theatrically descended on Lahore on his way back from Kabul to wish Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday. More recently, in Tripura, he halted his victory speech to allow the recitation of the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, to finish on a loud speaker adjacent to where his meeting was taking place. He did the same in Gujarat in the election campaign earlier in November.
No doubt the resourceful Modi is already thinking ahead to the 2019 general elections, which he remains the favorite to win. He could conceivably come up with new electoral strategies that are not fully aligned with the goals of the RSS; his governing record in Gujarat certainly shows a willingness to defy Sangh Parivar outfits when the political moment demands it. On the other hand, he could stick to tried-and-tested Hindutva, playing up the movement’s social and cultural priorities as a strategy to mobilize voters and win the electorally significant Hindi-speaking heartland. If so, Modi may decide to forcefully advocate for building a temple for Lord Rama in Ayodhya, at the site of a medieval mosque that was demolished by Hindutva forces in 1992. The Indian Supreme Court is in the final stages of a hearing on the issue and a verdict, for or against, could be grist for the Hindutva electoral mill.
As of now, Modi and the RSS remain happy with each other, and the symbiotic relationship is likely to last so long as it proves useful. Whatever the longer-term consequences for India, one thing is for sure: The RSS lacks any credible alternative to Modi—and Modi knows it.
The American Interest March 22, 2018