Past Continuous: What Lies Behind BJP’s Deification of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

On September 25, the BJP celebrated the grand finale of the year-long celebration of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s birth centenary. The birth centenary of any individual provides opportunity, depending on the person’s sphere of contribution, to comprehend and evaluate their contribution to human, societal, scientific, academic and creative development.

When the anniversary or centenary of a political leader or thinker is being celebrated, it is an occasion to appreciate her or his contribution in furthering a political ideology or organisation. A previous column has even taken note of watershed anniversaries of books that monumentally impacted development of political and economic thought.

Celebrations of Upadhyaya’s centenary had begun even a year before the Narendra Modi government came to power when most Indians had little idea of who he was. Four years down the line, comprehension among people about the extent to which Upadhyaya contributed to nation building is debatable. Yet, as a former journalist and currently a key member of the BJP’s Central Committee on Training, and Committee on Publications writes,”Deendayal has become the political brand equity for the BJP that Gandhi was for the Congress Party.”

The manufacture of brand Deen Dayal Upadhyaya began on September 25, 2013, a few days after Modi was declared the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee. He was addressing a rally at Bhopal and after L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan delivered initial speeches, Modi strode to the podium and after introductory greeting and barbs at the Congress and other opponents had been made, he invoked a long forgotten iconic leader: Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. The founding president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was recalled for what he said once: “Give me two Deen Dayals, I will change this country.” Modi was prophetic that day for he declared that “when the country will celebrate Deen Dayal Upadhyaya ji‘s birth centenary, the BJP will rule in most of the states in the country.”

Fast forward to May 2014, even before he became the prime minister. Shortly after taking his first step inside the “temple of democracy” and on accepting his election as leader of the BJP parliamentary party, Modi delivered a speech in the Central Hall of parliament, where he invoked Upadhyaya: “Antyodaya, the service of the downtrodden, was pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s mission. That is why I say our government is for the poor and deprived. The coming year is important for us all. It will be his centenary year…we have to strive to fulfil his dreams. The party and government must decide how to celebrate the event.” It was his first decision even before he became prime minister.

It has been an extended celebration for the BJP. In fact, probably the longest running birth centenary commemoration. This can no doubt be best explained by the acute shortage of iconic leaders in the party’s stable. Last week, while speaking at the birth centenary of his political mentor, Lakshmanrao Inamdar, commonly known as Vakil sahab, Modi mentioned that many do not know about the sangh’s illustrious leaders. He claimed that this did not indicate that there was a paucity of leaders in the saffron fold, only that they were not publicised by previous regimes. To offset this, the government and BJP has been celebrating Upadhyaya’s centenary for the past two year, it was flagged off in 2015 to mark the beginning of the anniversary year that was in 2016 and has continued for another year. The Outlook article cited above claims that “there is a proposal to extend by another year, the programmes and projects associated with the centenary year.”

Why the BJP is promoting Upadhyaya

Upadhyaya’s deification has been justified by the BJP and government for two reasons. Firstly, it is claimed that compared to other leaders of significance in the BJP, including Mookerjee and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Upadhyaya lived a simple life and eschewed flamboyance. Secondly, Upadhyaya is being put on the pedestal for having essayed an alternative economic vision and a new political philosophy. The decision to emphasise simplicity of the man by a regime headed by a prime minister known for his sartorial style including the much-discussed pinstripe suit with his name woven into the fabric, makes it open to scrutiny and charges of double standard.

But more significantly, there is need to examine originality, profundity and continuing relevance of his writings and speeches. Trumpeteers of Modi government’s project of Upadhyaya promotion, besides comparing him with Gandhi, have also elevated his treatise, ‘Integral Humanism’ – delivered over four lectures in Bombay in 1965 – to Karl Marx’s magnum opus: ‘Das Capital of the BJP dispensation,’ as it is has been called. Those drawing such parallels have little understanding of the extent to which Mahatma Gandhi impacted 20th century India and also have no comprehension of the sweep of Marx’s epic.

Upadhyaya joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the late 1930s when K.B. Hedgewar was still alive. His family was worried if joining politics would jeopardise his security. He wrote to his cousin that the sangh was “no way associated with the Congress (Quit India movement had been announced). Nor is it part of any political organisation. It is not involved in politics. RSS does not resort to satyagraha, or going to jail…” He was mainly driven by hatred towards Muslims and a few years later wrote to the same cousin: “Muslim hooligans can insult (any great man) in a matter of minutes. They can themselves become such great but they are members of a society that is weak and degenerate, devoid of all strength…That is why the Muslims often kidnap and abduct our mothers and sisters…Why is it so? Do Hindus lack strong men…?”

Clearly, the early goals of young Upadhyaya were not veiled.

Also read: How RSS Efforts to Prove Deen Dayal Upadhayaya’s Murder Was ‘Political’ Came Undone

In 1946, when he was 30, the RSS bosses assigned him the task of a novella for children on Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya dynasty in ancient India. Despite the book being targeted at children, Upadhyaya criticised “concerted efforts of European scholars and their blind followers among Indian historians” for attempts to delineate between folklore and history. When historians and other social scientists now call for treating mythology as history or when Modi claimed that genetic engineering made its advent of India epochs ago, they were merely following footsteps of “their Gandhi.”

One of the most significant pracharaks who was moved from the RSS to the Jana Sangh, Upadhyaya was Nagpur’s remote control device that enabled bosses to manoeuvre the new party without being formally attached to it. As author of the party’s resolution on cultural revival, Upadhyaya favoured a “revival of Sanskrit and acceptance of Devanagiri script for all languages of the country”; rewriting history on “right lines, so that it is the history of the people of India and not of those who committed aggression on her” and launch campaign among Hindus to “take up the noble task of Indianisation of general life.”

Even as a political theorist, Upadhyaya was shallow. He argued in favour of Indianising “western concepts of the nation, western secularism, western democracy” but his alternate framework was characterised by inadequacy. Upadhyaya  had earlier voiced scepticism about universal adult franchise before attaining literacy, indicating an elitist approach to democracy and education. He held the misplaced and highly dangerous view that “even dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin did not go against democratic principles.”

Contradictions between Upadhyaya’s belief and Modi’s approach

Like M.S. Golwalkar, Upadhyaya did not consider democracy an ideal political system and instead was of the view that it was the “least evil” way of running a government. He felt that the federal character did not suit India and considered that a centralised system was more appropriate. Upadhyaya sought a “unitary constitution” but how this would “decentralise our fiscal and other resources” was simply not explained. At best, Upadhyaya was a bundle of contradictions, at worst he was deliberate in his decision to obfuscate issues.

Upadhyaya is known for two main texts: The Two Plans: Promises, Performance and Prospects in 1958 and ‘Integral Humanism’ in 1965. Of the two, this government and BJP in last three years has laid greater emphasis on the latter. It has acted for more than half a century as Jana Sangh’s and now BJP’s official philosophy though there are several dissonances between it and the party’s dominant culture now. ‘Integral Humanism’ was the first attempt at articulating post-independence Hindu political philosophy.

Disregarding India’s pluralistic nature, Upadhyaya argued that the nation had a soul of chiti. “Chiti determines the direction in which the nation is to advance culturally. Whatever is in accordance with Chiti, is included in culture,” he claimed. In addition to chiti, Upadhyaya propounded the notion of virat or the power that energises the nation. The bulk of ‘Integral Humanism’ was a rehash of ideas and writings of Golwalkar and remains an obtuse text where one idea contradicts the other with little conclusion to be drawn. It remains a revered text in the BJP not because of its content but because of the position Upadhyaya held for more than a decade and half before his murder in 1968.

Also read: Deendayal Upadhyaya, the New Icon on India’s Political Horizon

The Two Plans was a critique of Nehruvian planned economy but was not drawn solely from an economic perspective and instead was interlaced with Hindu spiritual philosophy. He drew on the idea of four purusharthas: artha, kama, dharma and moksha. The conflict with the Gandhian philosophy of antyodaya, which is now wrongly credited to him by Modi and the BJP, was evident when in The Two Plans, Upadhyaya, like Golwalkar argued that artha and kama should be put inside parenthesis and sandwiched between dharma and moksha.

While the latter ideas are the ideals, the other two are not deligitimised. Pursuit of money was thus not unethical in Upadhyaya’s mind but though he argued against its excess, he did not create a theoretical framework for its check by government or ruling party. Upadhyaya advocated check and balance on distribution of wealth by moral means and not by legislative or political means but did not elaborate the moral framework.

Deendayal Upadhyaya and associates. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay – Samaksh

Deendayal Upadhyaya and associates. Credit: YouTube

There are contradictions galore between Upadhyaya’s belief and Modi’s approach to development and governance. For instance, the long deceased leader did not see large dams as “temples of modern India” and argued that it was “wrong to accept industrialisation as our ultimate objective”. He was also anti-modern, against mechanisation and did not back government efforts to revive the economy. He did not share Nehru’s enthusiasm for modernising Indian economy and had a romantic fondness for an idyllic India where man and machine moved at speeds of yore. A supporter of individual enterprise, Upadhyaya believed that “large-scale industrialisation destroys individual enterprise” indicating that his vision was restricted to the small scale industries.

Upadhyaya’s signature was evident on all election manifestos of the Jana Sangh but was most stark in 1951-52 for his single-handed effort. The village was economic hub in its imagination and “ideal of sarvodaya cannot be achieved until and unless the village is restored to its original position as the basic economic unit.” Sarvodaya was the basic idea that came to Gandhi’s mind after a reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last when he was still in South Africa. Claiming that Upadhyaya was the originator of the idea of antyodaya is the falsification of history and improper reading of Gandhi.

The manifesto also promised gramtantra or hegemony of villages. The egalitarianism that Upadhyaya is credited with, actually was more due to the influence of Balasaheb Deoras than Golwalkar, but that is another matter. What matters at the moment is that the halo constructed around Upadhyaya’s persona is a past that never was continuous. It has been merely resurrected for developing an alternative political lineage.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.

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