Hindutva’s return from Vanavas
The BJP might be projecting Modi’s development plank as its chief electoral ploy, but the Sangh Parivar’s tenets still inform and influence its approaches to winning 2014
Pralay Kanungo Leiden
After a decade of vanavas, Hindutva is poised to make a determined bid to reclaim Delhi in 2014. While the loss in 2004 came as a shock for the BJP, the predictable defeat in 2009 wrecked the leadership, organization and cadre, making it politically disoriented and vulnerable. However, the Congress-led UPA’s blunders seem to have favoured the BJP’s fortunes. Plagued with mega scandals and mal-governance, a poor economy and policy paralysis, the UPA government’s legitimacy has been dipping constantly. The Prime Minister, known for his impeccable integrity, looked helpless and defenceless when charged with shielding the corrupt; never before had we witnessed such an erosion of the dignity of the office of the Prime Minister. Coalition compulsions and dual power centres in the Congress had brought it to such a pass. Much before the end of its term, a self-destructive Congress had started sending signals of its imminent demise. This was an opportune moment for the BJP to peddle itself as a viable alternative, but its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), decided to take matters in its own hands.
In fact, the RSS-BJP equation had taken a new turn much earlier, perhaps soon after the exit of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Despite taking the RSS line on many occasions, Vajpayee could still assert himself in matters of governance. With his decline, the RSS, under then Sarsanghchalak KS Sudarshan’s directives, started meddling in the affairs of the BJP—from admonishing party stalwarts to amending the party Constitution. Perhaps Lal Krishna Advani, Vajpayee’s successor, could have put a check on the RSS, but the Jinnah episode paved the way for his ouster as party president, while legitimizing the RSS’ control of the BJP. When Advani aired his grouses with the RSS publicly, it was too little and too late.
With Advani caged, the rest of the party fell in line. Except for one leader: Narendra Modi. To the utter discomfort of the Sangh Parivar, Modi was acquiring a larger-than-life image and would not follow its diktat. The Parivar’s efforts to control him through a Sanjay Joshi or a Pravin Togadia or a Keshubhai Patel were futile. Increasingly, the RSS looked helpless as Modi had not only emerged as the most popular leader of Gujarat but also the most powerful icon of Hindutva. Moreover, the brand image of Modi—‘Moditva’—resonated beyond Gujarat and attempts to challenge him, directly or otherwise, were counter-productive. Thus, in the 2007 Gujarat elections, the RSS decided to stay aloof.
Modi won handsomely, in spite of the RSS; his opponents in the Parivar silenced, a truce was worked out between the RSS and Modi. While the former acknowledged Modi’s growing popularity among the cadre, Modi knew his national ambitions would go nowhere without the Parivar’s blessings. His hat-trick in Gujarat, in 2012, elevated him as the sole choice for the BJP’s Prime Ministerial nominee for 2014.
With 2014 being pitched as a do-or-die battle, the RSS has made sure Advani’s feeble opposition is crushed under Modi’s prime ministerial juggernaut. Modi has already launched his acerbic campaign in his inimitable style: a well-crafted melodrama with punch lines full of emotion, aggression, slander and sarcasm, tearing apart the Congress and its leadership. Modi is a mesmerizing orator—captivating and insinuating at the same time; he plays to the galleries effortlessly! Armed with such rhetoric, Modi prances like a gladiator, fiendishly looking for opponents. In the absence of a challenger and being carried away by an imaginary walkover, an over-confident Modi does make mistakes. Critics point to his ignorance and obfuscation of Indian history in his speeches. However, for Hindutva, it must be remembered, myth is more sacrosanct than history. Hence, Modi cannot be faulted for his training. But, more important, how many people come to a political rally to learn lessons in history? For many, hysteria and histrionics rather than history matter the most and Modi does not disappoint at all.
Modi’s one-point agenda has been to expose the misdemeanour of the Congress, while entertaining the crowd with jibes at Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Truly, it is all about what the Congress has not delivered, and never anything about what he has to offer. Besides platitudes about the Gujarat model of development and good governance, his speeches are full of rhetoric and devoid of substance. There are many who counter that Modi wants to project himself as an icon of development and not Hindutva. But his silence on being a Hindutva icon does not mean he is not one. Hindutva is Modi’s primary identity, part of his persona and will always remain so; all other avatars are secondary.
It’s true that although he refused to wear a (Muslim) skull cap earlier, Modi is now occasionally given to wearing a pink jacket or a Pathan suit, perhaps heeding the advice of his spin doctors. He has refrained from making communal utterances so far, but a close look at his speeches will reveal the embedded communal message. The repeated reference to Rahul Gandhi as shehzada certainly goes beyond the usual criticism of dynasty politics. By magnifying the Nehru-Patel differences out of context and proportion, he intends to hit at Nehru’s secularism.
The Hindutva strategists, it seems, have worked out the division of labour for 2014. While Modi will swear by development and governance, acolytes of the Parivar such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) will be responsible for the Hindutva causes. While Muslim men and women are being brought to Modi’s political rallies, showcasing his politics of inclusion, his confidant, Amit Shah, is charged with going to Ayodhya to plot newer strategies of communal polarization. So, while the BJP’s central brigade vociferously attacks the Samajwadi Party (SP) government for the communal riots in Uttar Pradesh, its local leadership incites Jats and Muslims to violence in Muzaffarnagar.
Why does the RSS adopt such a tentative strategy? Why does it hesitate to keep Hindutva up front? Obviously, it realizes that Hindutva as an ideology has run out of steam and would not be able to garner votes on its own. The golden era of the 1990s is now history; the lukewarm response to its pilot project Panchakosi Parikrama around Ayodhya is evidence of its plight in UP, once the Hindutva heartland. Though constituency-wise, Hindutva is still massive, it remains divided and disillusioned. Frequent use or misuse of Hindu symbols for political gain, personality clashes among leaders and intra-Parivar power struggles have demoralized this constituency. The RSS faces a serious ideological and political crunch from different sections. Ideologically, Hindutva needs a reinterpretation; the Golwalkarian paradigm needs to be dismantled to fit into the contemporary milieu. Politically, the explosion of identity politics has been a great obstacle to the construction of a cohesive Hindu identity; the Samarasta (social harmony) experiment needs a thrust in a new direction. However, the immediate challenge is to put an end to the ugly competition among some affiliates within the BJP to share the spoils of power.
For almost a decade now, the RSS has been battling these questions. Initiating a kind of limited perestroika, the RSS started promoting collective leadership in its highest decision-making body. No doubt, Mohan Bhagwat remains the supreme leader, but major decisions are taken collectively by a core group in the executive committee. The RSS executive has incorporated a team of relatively young and dynamic pracharaks to make this experiment effective. These pracharaks are struggling to work on a new treatise of Hindutva, but Modi’s choice as the prime ministerial candidate has their approval.
The choice of Modi was not easy, however. Hindutva does not favour personality cults and Modi’s ego, arrogance and disdain for the collective are certainly anathema to the functioning of the Sangh. Modi’s record of disregard for the Sangh’s acolytes was another obstacle. But such has been his rise that the Sangh knows no one else can rouse Hindutva from its stupor. But the real wedge in Modi’s ambition will come from the regional satraps. The RSS has taken a calculated risk; it knew Advani’s scope for attracting allies but was sceptical of his ability to get the numbers. Even if the BJP-NDA does not get a majority, it will still have reached the critical mass to demolish the anti-Modi cluster in the non-Congress and non-Left camps, thereby ending Hindutva’s vanavas in 2014. Be that as it may, the outcome of an Indian general election still remains a seemingly unpredictable one.