BJP's Strategy of Pitting Hindutva as an Alternative Agenda to Development is Unravelling

Without development, Hindutva nationalism looks like an empty claim. Worse, it looks like a deliberate ploy to divert attention.

Hindutva, ironically, works as a political strategy only when developmental aspirations are high. Credit: Reuters

Conventional analysis has pitted Hindutva as an alternative agenda to development. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine have a dual strategy of development and Hindutva where failure of one is made good by the other.

In other words, if development does not deliver, then the BJP-RSS combine pushes for Hindutva politics, mobilising communal polarisation while claiming integration through development. Thus, BJP’s strategy has been one of claiming ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ through development, undermining the old kind of sectional mobilisation based on caste and religious identities, replacing it with integration through large-scale developmental process. How this strategy works on ground and what is claimed is quite different. Thus, the current impasse in BJPs electoral prospects is the result of what BJP claimed through its slogans and programme and how it has worked out on the ground.

It is now time to rethink how this strategy works on the ground. What it does is quite the opposite to conventional wisdom. In other words, there cannot be Hindutva politics without high growth rates and an expanding economy.

Hindutva, ironically, works as a political strategy only when developmental aspirations are high and are in no mood to tolerate any obstruction to its onward march. BJP’s rise to power in 2014 was precisely due to the aspirations set in by the development made possible by the Congress in its rule for ten years.

Modi was seen as an alternative who could take Indian development to a new level by taking more bold policy decisions that are necessitated by market forces, what former prime minister Manmohan Sigh had referred to, borrowing from Adam Smith, as the ‘animal spirits’ that need to be unleashed in order to actualise faster development.

It is in this context that Congress and its modes of functioning became synonymous with ‘policy paralysis’, and unable to push the process that they began with the vigour necessary to take it to the next level. Modi’s image as a leader with the ability to take bold decisions without following the niceties of procedural imperatives went in his favour.

This was actualised partly because of his campaign of the trumped up claims of the ‘Gujarat Model’ that combined high growth with high intensity communal polarisation and marginalisation of Muslims. It was a rare combination marked by the Gujarat riots. It was this combination that made up brand Modi. It was a different issue that Gujarat was an industrialised state and there was anything dramatic that Modi did other than overseeing the Gujarat riots of 2002. But in popular perception Modi delivered a combination of high growth with high intensity communalism – one supporting the other. One was acceptable only in combination with the other.

The current crisis of the BJP and the challenge they will face in 2019 is precisely a breakdown of this combinatory postulation that they had projected. In the earlier moment too, the ‘India Shining’ campaign failed after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime because the claims to development did not match the ground realities.

Modi began by claiming the ability to create two crore jobs per annum, and thus began with the slogans of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Stand up India’ as an overarching policy frame with communal polarisation as a sub-set of this developmental model. However, with the dip in the growth rates, jobless growth and sustained agrarian crisis, the developmental claims can no longer sustain and as a result Hindutva too does not work.

National integration through developmental means is considered a better alternative to sectional inclusion based on caste and religious identities. In other words, social groups, for instance Dalits in Uttar Pradesh are willing to look beyond their immediate identities if there is a promise to be included through massive developmental agenda.

This also works because it helps in economic integration and mobility and also allows groups such as the Dalits to overcome the mis-recognition and stigma attached with sectional mobilisation. Dalits then can also claim to be citizens rather than ‘merely’ Dalits. However, if the developmental agenda does not allow for such integration then these groups have no option or qualms in going back to heightened sectional identities.

BJP made similar claims with regard to Muslims in Gujarat that they were better placed in comparison with Muslims elsewhere, inspite of the criticism that the Modi regime was patently anti-minority. In such a context any talk of separate Muslim interests looks anti-national because it betrays the universal benefits that development sets in.

Thus, claims against Congress for appeasing Muslims looked more credible and also as hampering development and weakening the nation. Therefore the success of the Hindutva strategy depended on the ability of development providing more universal-national- opportunities for everyone irrespective of their specific cultural identities. Thus, communal polarisation was also a response to the way it obstructs development and therefore a resurgent nation. It is only as part of this strategy that BJP can sustain an anti-Muslim or for that matter anti-Dalit rhetoric.

Without development, Hindutva nationalism looks like an empty claim. Worse, it looks like a deliberate ploy to divert attention. Suddenly, BJP’s strategy today can be projected as a diversionary strategy rather than as a legitimate nationalist assertion.

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The problem with the current political regime under Narendra Modi is that it failed to make sense of this connection. It became a victim of its own claims. It too understood development and Hindutva as two-pronged strategy where one needs to be used in lieu of the other failing to understand one is dependent on the other.

The reason even the demand for building the Ram Mandir does not seem to hold a similar appeal is because the Ram Mandir is symbolic of a resurgent India, which means both a robust economic power and a culturally unified Hindu nation. A Hindu nation with a faltering economy, in fact, reminds Hindus of the cultural inferiority they are often reminded of by the RSS. Claims to a pure and a glorious past can work only in tandem with high end corporate growth, fast paced urbanisation, expanding infrastructure, global capital flows and increasing employment opportunities.

Since the current regime missed the link, they are faced with a political dead-end. The failure of the Modi regime to understand that the economy needs a different set of policy frame from that of cultural assertion. Modi seems to have applied his experience in raising high-pitched cultural mobilisation to that of the economy. Demonetisation is a clear stand out example of this bravado.

Arun Shourie recently rightly observed that BJPs leadership does not have the required patience or gestation that is necessary to deal with economic issues. BJP has also has much less experience in governance than street politics. Governance cannot be managed purely through electoral considerations. It needs a different set of parameters. Sometimes it requires policy decisions that need to be considered independently.

For instance, the kind of debate that went under the UPA between the Congress and the CPI(M) with regard to nuclear energy that almost brought down the government with the latter’s withdrawal of support. Modi and his team does not seem to understand much less appreciate such policy conflicts as it by the very nature of its politics did not take institutional functioning seriously. Institutions in a democracy are a more refracted way of expressing public issues, though not in a direct manner as in street mobilisation.

It is the sheer complexity of liberal democracy that institutions look to be in conflict with the democratic aspirations, while issues such as separation of powers, federalism, independence of media and judiciary, autonomy of universities are precisely modes of dealing with competitive claims in democracy that have no easy resolution.

Easy resolution is sought to be replaced with moderate accommodation of interests, and here the institutional arrangement seeks to play an important role. So the conflict between environmental concerns and livelihood needs plays out as a conflict between legislature and judiciary; or between global corporate capital and agrarian interests plays out as a conflict between Centre and the states; dissent is a way of making sense of the inherent diversity of interests and competitive claims. The current regime consistently worked against all of this in order to project a more robust and a decisive leadership to contrast itself from the previous Congress regime.

The wheel has turned a full circle. The same methods lead to a faltering economy, which in turn has made the cultural agenda and street mobilisation look more vacuous. It is perhaps too late or even next to impossible for the current regime to rework either its strategy or its image.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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