The Battle of Visions

By translating issues into actions the BJP has demonstrated its capacity to craft an idea of India at variance with the Nehruvian model
BJP logo [Image for representational purpose only]
BJP logo [Image for representational purpose only]File/ GK

During Indian freedom movement we witnessed emergence of three competing visions for independent Indian Nation-State. The mainstream vision articulated by Indian National Congress shall define India as a liberal and secular state. Second, the left political vision aiming at combination of political freedom with socio-economic freedoms. The third, charactering India as a nation determined by religious affiliation of the people aiming at crafting a Hindu nation. That, Hinduism must have a place in politics in proportion to its importance in India. The secular/liberal vision became the defining agenda after independence, powered by a new constitution and long stay in power by Nehru and his daughter. The martyrdom of M K Gandhi and accession of Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir state to India only strengthened this vision. After 2014, the view that India is predominantly Hindu is largely informing the Indian state. The Hindutva as the dominant ideological framework has pushed the liberal/secular framework in the background. How all this became possible is the subject matter of a book under review?

The “Republic of Hindutva: How the Sangh is Reshaping Indian Democracy” is a Penguin Random House publication (2021) by social scientist Badri Narayan. The author and the institution where he works are located in Uttar Pradesh which is the ideal setting to look at the unfolding of new Hindu identity. The author has deep insight into the politics of Hindi heartland and the empirical work undertaken by him has proved icing on the cake. The BJP is uniquely placed to have the support of an organisation like RSS which some claim is a nation within a nation. As I am drafting this review, Karnataka BJP general secretary Mr Arun Kumar has been repatriated to the RSS in a key move ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections. The RSS is the tip of the iceberg exercising its influence much beyond what is visible to political pundits.

After 1990 Indian politics increasingly is influenced by finance experts and technocrats working under the directions of World Bank/IMF. The politics since 1990s has been eroded of its autonomy and economic content and agenda of governance has been outsourced to NGOs and other institutions. Resultantly, politics lost its social moorings. The Hinudtva groups have found in social politics the way to connect with the people and fill up the vacuum. The ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio programme, Clean India Mission, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Parhao’ and many other schemes aim at changing the meaning of politics. The emergence of social media has led to the birth of new RSS which is making use of media, debating its ideology with opponents and doing social service to reach where state couldn’t deliver. Earlier the organisation would claim to be merely a cultural outfit and therefore apolitical. There are now around 800 NGO working under RSS nationwide creating a new template of social politics.

The techniques and tact employed by RSS to expand its social base is worth analysing as brought out by Badri Narayan. The RSS cadre is employing orality as a tool of mobilisation to reinterpret history and culture. The storytelling technique in the speeches of the volunteers which is the regular culture of their shakhas and vargas is at once pedestrian and popular. It appropriated Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya who long ago had recognized that “in every village there should be an assembly from where villagers may get religious teachings and practical suggestions. In every village there should be storytelling based on our ancient traditions. There should be a school and a wrestling ground in every village.”

By working in villages and listening to people RSS has found the route to enter in the minds of marginal groups. In many villages in UP and Bihar RSS has helped such communities in construction of temples and placing their deities in them where they assemble and sing bhajans and thereby enlarging the social space for them and recruiting them in the party. Dr Ambedkar had described village as the slaughterhouse for Dalits but the RSS in altered circumstances is reaching out to these groups to connect and bring them into the ‘Hinudtva’ fold. In order to connect them politically and milk them electorally RSS highlights Dalit role in Ram’s life story in the quest to find his wife Sita in Lanka. The organization is quite skillful at politics of appropriation. The RSS draws from Dalit history and culture to weave them into the Hinudtva construct. The target groups are Dalits, OBCs and tribals. The different heroes of these communities are glorified by them. The RSS launched a campaign to project Suheldeo as a Hindu hero because he allegedly defeated a Ghaznavid general. The BJP led NDA government even named a new superfast express train from Ghazipur to Delhi after Suheldeo. Another step towards assimilation has been to organize community meals, opening schools in Dalit areas and organizing sensitization campaign for upper castes. Equally, the ‘Sangh’ has been appropriating religious symbols and icons associated with popular sects such as the Nath Panth, Ravidassias, and the Kabir Panthis. These sects have tremendous following among Dalits, OBC, etc.

For long certain tribal zones of India have remained under the influence of either Christian missionaries or Naxalites who support their rights. The RSS has been working hard to reshape and attract them in their fold by representing tribal identity as the vanvasi identity as opposed to the Adivasi identity. The RSS has set up free schools with hostel facilities in remote areas where state facilities have not yet reached. Free textbooks based upon RSS pedagogy are being distributed among tribal children. Further, setting up temples of Hanuman or Statues of other Hindu gods is also part of the RSS’s outreach project. An effort is made to reconstruct tribal culture whereby tribal deities are placed inside the Hindu temples to forge a Hindu-tribal synergy.

The author has analysed what he calls ‘Saffron Slums’. According to 2011 census around 17.36 percent of India’s urban population lives in the slums of various cities, towns and districts. These slums are fertile ground for flourishing of Hinudtva politics. The RSS is working in the slums with their strategies of Seva and Sahyog (cooperation) and efforts are underway to transform slum dwellers into proud Hindus. Interestingly RSS has trained its cadres not to speak like politicians but to listen to these groups with empathy and compassion. In UP around 66 communities are mentioned as SC communities. More than fifty Dalit communities are suffering because they are not at the forefront of the Dalit castes. The RSS prepares a mental make-up of these communities which helps the BJP forge a political relationship with them.

Although RSS to Badri Narayan is not supportive of communal riots as it hampers the growth of organization and tarnishes its credibility, however, on the practical plane we see after 1990 economic liberalization, communal consciousness, and riots spreading out to rural areas. The politically ambitious outfits that have emerged after the BJP’s rise to power have started to mobilize people around religious identities by creating small incidents of conflict. In UP alone police records show that over 600 communal incidents or small religious conflicts took place since the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. The Hindutva organizations have pitted the Dalits and the Muslims against each other. Additionally building of statue of unity in Gujarat helped BJP to attract OBC communities towards the party. The BJP made the farmers to donate old farming implements made of iron as a tribute to Sardar Patel who belonged to the backward caste thus projecting the Sardar Patel as their hero and appropriating him as their icon. The RSS is an election-winning machinery. As a feedback platform, booth management mechanism and election campaign instrument the RSS plays significant role in the electoral politics of BJP. The RSS was also engaged in collecting feedback on the impact of Narendra Modi’s 2014 elections. In November, 2013, Badri Narayan writes about his visit to Bahraich with a research team to study a rally organized by the BJP and addressed by Narendra Modi: “As the rally ended, we noticed a group of fifty people with recording devices taking feedback from the audience about Modi’s speech”. In the 2014 elections nearly one lakh RSS group leaders and six lakh cadres from 42,000 units spread across the country were working full-time to ensure the BJP’s victory. In 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, highly skilled professionals, mostly graduates in professional courses from reputed colleges and universities in India and USA using technological tools masterminded various aspects of the campaign.

The Hindutva groups have also developed the craft of narrative building to shape the political discourse both at state and national level. Multiple mechanisms like propaganda, media management, and political rallies are being used to shape a particular narrative .For the elections of 2014 BJP had the narrative of development and for 2019 it was ‘National Security’ which became the dominant narrative to win the elections. After winning the 2019 Lok Sabha elections the BJP took out all issues for implementation which were part of its manifestos and political programmes. The Muslim Women Protection of Rights on Marriage Bill was aimed at ending the triple talaq. The Art 370 which provided special status to Jammu and Kashmir was modified on August 5, 2019. The long running Ram Janambhoomi /Babri Masjid dispute reached to a judicial settlement. The Citizenship (Amendment ) Act was passed by the parliament on December 11, 2019.

The BJP by translating issues into actions has demonstrated its capacity of being a party with a difference and also crafting an idea of India at variance with the Nehruvian model. How marginal categories from within Muslim and Christian communities are stitched into BJP’s ‘integrated Hindutva’ is a worth watching future scenario in Indian politics, and the book is silent on that vital question? The book is an essential read for students of Indian politics but they need to remember that they will never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit them.

Prof Gull Wani is Kashmir based Political Scientist

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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