A new idea of India is here for everyone to see. It isn’t a harmonious one but is triumphant at the moment.
At this moment, there are protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act throughout the country and 42 people have been killed in riots in the national capital.
The last nine months – meaning, the period of time when the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi began – have seen Hindutva acquire a new sense of urgency. Even the fig leaf of development is a thing of the past.
This, indeed, is Hindutva’s true and unalloyed form, something that was hidden beneath layers of political exigencies for close to a century.
The BJP has Modi at the helm, with a close second-in-command in Union home minister Amit Shah. And a third saffron face on the political firmament is Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. While the Congress is grappling with a severe leadership crisis, the BJP has its line of succession ready.
However, there is a difference with the BJP of the past. If the previous national leadership of the BJP had former Hindutva strongman L.K. Advani complemented by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – who was in many senses admired even by liberals – the present line of succession has nothing to do with moderation.
We have Hindutva charted in a linear progression.
One look at the past of the BJP and its predecessor Jana Sangh makes the point clear. Let us make sense of the present by looking at the political history of Hindutva over the decades since independence.
In the first decade of Independence, the Jana Sangh – the political affiliate of the RSS – was born. And its successes were meagre despite Partition and its attendant anxieties. The Jana Sangh won just three seats in 1952 and four in 1957. Its pet issues were complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir – Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee died in a Kashmir jail after being arrested for crossing over without a permit – with India, promotion of Hindi and opposing cow slaughter.
But success didn’t smile on the party. Jawaharlal Nehru took charge of the Congress and steered it towards a clearly secular policy, marginalising Hindu conservative leader P.D. Tandon in the process. And in the north Indian states – where the Jana Sangh fancied its chances – the Congress had champions of Hindi as its leaders. Congress governments in some states also banned cow slaughter, putting Article 48 of the constitution, a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, into operation.
Exasperated with its failures, the Jana Sangh embarked upon a two-pronged policy. It sought to make common cause with the socialists, the Swatantra Party, etc., on a plank of anti-Congress-ism. Four Lok Sabha by-elections in north Indian states in 1963 saw joint candidates being fielded, with some success. Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia was elected to the Lok Sabha in this election.
Parallel to this anti-Congress-ism, which entailed some compromise on core Hindutva, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an RSS-affiliate founded in 1964, launched a movement asking for a constitutional amendment to enable the Centre to ban cow slaughter in all states.
The 1966 agitation turned violent and some people were killed. The 1967 Lok Sabha and assembly polls – the last time the two were held together – saw seat adjustments among opposition parties in many states and the Congress suffered reverses. The Jana Sangh became part of short-lasting Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal governments, formed as legislative arrangements, in some provinces. The party did reasonably well in Uttar Pradesh, where the cow protection movement also helped it.
By this time, moderation tactics had come to occupy a legitimacy within the party, as it had tasted some success because of them. The Jana Sangh and RSS joined the JP movement of 1974 – Indira Gandhi’s dominance in the 1971 polls despite opposition alliances had made this crucial – against corruption and an economic crisis.
The movement started in Gujarat and Bihar, and became national under Jaya Prakash Narayan. Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975 – soon after the Allahabad high court ruled that she had won her last election using unfair means and the Supreme Court did not offer her much relief – and the JP movement continued underground after the arrest of its leadership.
This was the Jana Sangh’s first tryst with civil libertarian politics. Before the 1977 elections, the Jana Sangh, the socialists, the Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Congress (O) merged to form the Janata Party and defeated the Congress. Vajpayee and Advani became ministers in the Morarji Desai government. But ideological contradictions soon made the Janata Party split, even as Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980.
This decade began badly for the BJP, founded in 1980 as the successor of the Jana Sangh. Under Vajpayee, the BJP made Gandhian socialism and the legacy of JP as its creed. Meanwhile, with Sikh militancy on the rise and Hindus in Punjab bearing the brunt of it, Indira Gandhi was able to breach the Jana Sangh’s core vote base. Her assassination in 1984 also led to a wave of sympathy towards her, despite riots in Delhi killing scores of Sikhs.
The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi won a record 415 seats in the 1984 elections and Vajpayee’s BJP was reduced to two. This marked a temporary eclipse of Vajpayee and Advani soon succeeded him as the party president. The VHP, meanwhile, began the Ram temple movement with a series of yatras.
Rajiv Gandhi tried to appease both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalisms by reversing the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgement through legislation, on the one hand, and facilitating the opening of the locks of Ram Janmabhoomi, on the other. He was also hit hard by the Bofors scam. The newly-founded Janata Dal of VP Singh, supported from outside by the BJP and the left parties, came to power. The BJP alone won 85 seats.
Advani turned to hard Hindutva, making statements in support of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. V.P. Singh announced implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations and, apparently in counter to that, Advani started the Ram Rath Yatra, drawing huge crowds but also polarising society enough for riots to take place. The BJP withdrew support to the V.P. Singh government after Lalu Prasad as Bihar chief minister got Advani arrested in Samastipur.
The BJP grew from strength to strength amid polarisation. It won 120 seats in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, which saw the Congress coming back to power under Narasimha Rao. In 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished.
The BJP’s rise, however, had its limits. The party was powerful only in northern, central and western India and was weak in the south, the east and the north-east. It now needed alliances to convert its improved tallies into a majority.
In 1995-96, Vajpayee, the moderate face, returned as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. In 1996, the BJP tasted power for 13 days, but could not win the trust vote. In 1998, the BJP with a coalition government under Vajpayee tasted power for 13 months. And in 1999, the Vajpayee government came to power with a coalition of more than 20 parties for a full five-year term.
Lessons from the BJP’s rise
The BJP could convert its Hindutva surge under Advani into an NDA majority only under Vajpayee. The reason: allies having Muslim voters needed a moderate face to rationalise their support for the BJP, made largely for power.
This led to the BJP acquiring a two-pronged leadership: Vajpayee as the acceptable face and Advani as the hardliner. But the acceptable face alone could bring it to power. In other words, Hindutva’s surge also, paradoxically, meant its dilution.
Advani could not fit into Vajpayee’s shoes despite attempts at moderation and the BJP could not return to power under him in 2009. Now, the Congress seemed to be well-placed, with two consecutive victories under Sonia Gandhi in 2004 and 2009.
However, the UPA was hit by corruption charges in its second term. Social activist Anna Hazare led public protests in the capital, undermining the legitimacy of the central government. Adverse CAG reports did the same, and the media stayed critical of the government.
The vacuum and Modi’s rise
The vacuum thus created had to be filled by someone. In this case, it was filled not by the BJP but one man, Narendra Modi, whose public oratory and PR machinery made him seem like a saviour when everything was chaotic. His Hindutva image acquired a new layer – the transformative, no-nonsense leader.
This new BJP rode to power on the populist promise of a new India and all moderation was a thing of the past. Regional parties were willing to work with a BJP with no moderate face in a position of prominence. The 2019 victory was a re-affirmation that public mood now demanded hyper-nationalist rhetoric with Muslims as the thinly-veiled other.
It is this shift that has brought Hindutva to the core like never before. The second Modi government is all about a hard line on Kashmir and about the CAA, which many see as discriminatory towards Muslims.
Protests in every corner of India have been in news over the past few months. And Delhi has now seen the worst riots since 1984, as mobs attacked Muslim localities after a provocative speech by BJP leader Kapil Mishra. The police are being seen as lax in containing the violence, which has led to about 40 deaths till now and global bad press.
This is the high-point of Hindutva, where cultural polarisation is the politics of the day. There is no alternative voice within the BJP for any other shade of national opinion.
The project of Hindutva never had it so good. Unfortunately, harmony never had it so bad.
Dr. Vikas Pathak, who has a PhD in modern history from JNU, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.