Many of us suffer from the “broad-brush syndrome” in the study of history. Our convictions are like plaster of Paris, moulding and hardening instantaneously. Characters, personalities, events and ideas often remain unexplored in their truest forms simply because we refuse to “deconstruct and double read”. All of us are – at the end- entitled to form our opinions, and subscribe to our versions of truth. But preceding that, we ought to necessarily engage with multiple viewpoints. Vinay Sitapati, the author of Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi affords us this opportunity to understand the emergence and establishment of the juggernaut of Hindu Nationalism from an interestingly new vantage point.
Vinay’s writing plays out captivatingly and is uncannily reminiscent of Guha’s style of prose. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani are the protagonists and the author weaves the history around these two towering figures. One was “a Nehruvian liberal masquerading as Hindu nationalist” and other “a Sindhi cosmopolitan radicalised by partition”. If Raj Babbar described Vajpayee as “the right man in the wrong party”, Advani was the one to accord a tearful adieu to Pakistani High Commissioner in 2001. This demonstrates the layered personalities the two actually had.
The story started in 1920s. Vajpayee, Advani and the Hindu Nationalism were born together. The ground had been already rendered fertile by Savarkar, followed by Hedgewar and Golwalkar. Contrary to popular assumption, there was a lack of consensus within the Hindu Nationalist camp. Savarkar–the beef eating atheist–was concerned about Hindus (as ethnic group), not Hinduism. Hedgewar on the other hand felt the need of a social organisation, not political agitation. When in 1942, Hindu Mahasabha sought political help from Golwalkar, he bluntly declined. The response of Savarkar was, “What will you organise all these people for. Will you make achaar (pickle) with them?”.
From that moment of dissidence to the present, when Hindu Nationalism has transformed itself into a political superpower within India, a thriller registered itself as history–with it own ups and downs, twists and turns.
Hindu Nationalism is a result of modern representative democracy, the one-person-one-vote system. It was constituted by elections. No wonder that there is a demographic obsession with numbers. If there is ambivalence about economic and social equality within Hindu Nationalism, it is at ease with political equality. For these reasons (as Vinay Sitapati argues) dubbing it as Fascist is wrong.
Hindu Nationalism is characterised by certain idiosyncrasies–so are its proponents. There is a popular belief that it has something to do with classical or traditional Hinduism. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The RSS (along with its sister concerns) redefined Hinduism as Hindutva. It was a radical departure from the past. What marks its consciously anti-Muslim character is its fixation on a certain interpretation of history. This interpretation is in turn the “fevicol” that keeps its flock together. One of the “watersheds” in Hindutva’s perspective is the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), and this explains the nostalgia about the Maratha Empire among the Hindu Nationalists.
It is said about this battle that “too many generals” and factionalism native to Hindu society led to Ahmad Shah Durrani carrying the day. The Sangh Parivar, therefore, has been brought up with profound indoctrinations regarding the need for unity among Hindus. And this realisation is a dominant factor in distinguishing Hindu Nationalism from other political forces in India. Now while other camps are notorious for internal bickering and ego tussles, the Sangh Parivar and its political paraphernalia, including BJP, never publicly broadcast their quarrels. This was true for Vajpayee-Advani era as much as it is for the Modi-Shah era.
What the Hindu Nationalism could be commended for is its perseverance, resilience and ideological coherence, right from the Jana Sangh days. The affiliated organisations had to grapple with multiple bans, and it is to Vajpayee’s and Advani’s credit that Hindu Nationalism was successfully able to navigate these challenges, including the “3Ms”, i e. Mandal, Mandir and Market. But there were times when RSS was disillusioned with BJP, especially its “frenemy” Vajpayee, and supported Congress instead e.g. in the aftermath of the Operation Blue Star. This explains the oft peddled soft-Hindutva image by the Congress.
According to Vinay Sitapati, Hindu Nationalists stirred passions and unleashed forces in the country which at the end refused to play by the script, and went berserk. Riding a tiger generated paranoia, sometimes leading to windfall political gains and sometimes unintended consequences. The alleged culpability of the RSS, Advani and Modi in the assassination of Gandhi, the demolition of Babri Mosque and the Gujarat riots respectively can be seen in this context. What is obvious though is that there is a transition in terms of nuance, versatility and statesmanship as far as the handling of power-ideology dichotomy goes. And it brings us to the question whether power could moderate the Hindu Nationalism or not.
It did during Vajpayee-Advani tenure, primarily due to “coalition dharma”. But then came Gujarat–the laboratory of novel virulent strain of Hindu politics. Hindu nationalism was always known for converting Hindu anxiety into votes, but this became a fine art in the hands of Modi and Shah. Both mastered the strategy of uniting high and low caste Hindus by using Muslims as scapegoats. This meant “consciously underplaying caste and overplaying Islamophobia”. As per Sitapati, Modi-Shah are ruthless to political opponents because, having educated in Gujarat School of Politics rather than Delhi School of Politics, they have not been trained in appealing to the diversity of India as represented by the Parliament–as say Vajpayee who became Prime Minster only after four decades of parliamentary experience.
So where are we heading now? Before exploring this, imagine where we would have been if S.P. Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhay, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Pramod Mahajan wouldn’t have died untimely. These are surely ifs and buts of history, but India may or may not have treaded along a different direction altogether. To get a sense of how far we have come, imagine the forces that pumped three bullets into Gandhi’s chest in 1948 reenacting the act today. Would the people of India respond the way they did then, and more so, would those forces turn untouchables overnight?
That is enough food for thought.