The spectacular success of Narendra Modi and the BJP-led NDA has already generated widespread thinking and reflection.
Yes, the commentators have articulated diverse reasons for Modi’s success – his ability to project himself as the ultimate saviour of the nation, his dramaturgical skill of communicating directly with the masses to stimulate their ‘nationalist’ and ‘religious’ sentiments, and above all, the boundless energy that his techno-savvy self radiates.
Likewise, they have also spoken of the absence of a feasible alternative, the lack of direction and coherence in the weak/fragmented opposition, and its inability to combat the massive organisational power that the BJP-RSS nexus holds.
However, in this otherwise enriched debate, one notices a sense of pessimism. It is argued that the old liberal/secular idea of inclusive India is dead; and Modi is representing the idea of a ‘new India’ – muscular, technocratic, proudly conscious of ‘Hindu identity’ and aggressively unitary.
Moreover, as it is implied, Modi is speaking the language of the new generation – free from the residues of the freedom struggle, and inclined to the idea of ‘global power’ with ‘Hindu pride’.
One thing is clear. This time, the cultural question – not necessarily the economic one – has emerged as the most important question. And Modi, it appears, has become the embodiment of the assertive cultural identity that his innumerable fans and followers love to attach to India.
Is it that the opposition – or, for that matter, the secular-liberal-left discourse – has failed to come forward with a counter-hegemonic idea?
Nation: Fragments, uniformity and rhythmic unity
To begin with, let us acknowledge that the quest for ‘unity’ is not unnatural, even though India is known for its mind-boggling differences.
However, the ‘progressive’ intellectual discourse – governed by the liberal intelligentsia, and social scientists with close affinity to Marxism, Ambedkarism and postmodernism – seems to have constantly deconstructed this emphasis on the unitary Indian nation.
Instead, they have spoken of conflicts and cleavages, fragments and differences, caste hierarchies and regional disparities. For some, India is not a ‘nation’; at best, it is some sort of an ‘administrative unity’ seeking to reconcile diverse ‘nationalities’ – Bengali and Tamil, or Assamese and Kannada. And for some, caste hierarchies are so deep that the idea of ‘unity’ is a myth.
Furthermore, some postmodernists would always laugh at anything that is ‘grand’. India, for them, is merely a piece of imagination, or a Brahminical/colonial construction. And as far as the Marxists are concerned, while their economic analysis is excellent, they are not very sensitive to the cultural/religious meaning that people seek to attach to their homeland.
Yet, as I have just said, despite conflicts and differences, there has also been a quest for unity. A long history of the Indic civilisation filled with the experiences of trade, pilgrimage, and circulation of classical and folk traditions is bound to arouse the spirit of empathy and togetherness.
In recent times, this quest has acquired a new meaning for three reasons.
First, the traumatic memory of partition, and the resultant ‘fear’ of neighbouring ‘Muslim’ countries have created an environment that stimulates the search for a distinctive Indian identity with ‘Hindu’ symbols.
Second, even though it is a ‘global’ world, the spirit of nationalism has not withered away. In fact, globalisation has also caused immense psychic/cultural anxiety about one’s identity and roots. One may be ‘global’ in terms of consuming international ‘brands’; yet, one seeks to retain one’s distinctive cultural markers and symbolic heritage. Globalisation has only intensified cultural politics.
And third, in a world characterised by cross-border conflict, terrorist violence, Islamophobia and accelerated weaponisation , the idea of consolidating the ‘Hindu nation’, retaining its tight boundaries, and assuring its security has acquired a new dimension.
It is in this context that Modi seems to have succeeded in creating an inflated emotion centred on Indian nation and nationalism. While the likes of Mayawati seldom cross the boundaries of limiting caste-centric identity politics, Modi speaks of a ‘larger’ idea: a ‘Hindu’ nation reaching the ‘bahujan’ colony in Lucknow as well as the posh locality of the Malabar Hills in Mumbai.
Or for that matter, while the champions of ‘sub-nationalities’ speak of linguistic/regional/ethnic differences, Modi makes it possible to take Hindutva to the hills of the Northeast; or, as we are seeing, Bengalis are chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and young and old in Karnataka are wearing the Modi masks and dancing.
Is it then that the segmented vision of the opposition has failed to combat Modi’s ‘grand’ idea of Hindu nationalism?
But there is a problem. The discourse of nationalism that BJP’s politics popularises is dialectical in nature. Its ‘unitary’ appeal (all ‘Hindus’ must unite) is ‘therapeutic’, and it gives a mission: I am not merely a tea vendor, an auto rickshaw driver, a rural artisan; I am a ‘Hindu’, and I must ‘save’ Hindu culture.
In an alienated world it gives some sort of ‘purpose’ of existence to the otherwise disempowered masses. In this sense, it may be even said to have a ‘subaltern’ touch.
But then, it is also negative, and primarily oriented to the ‘enemy’, be it Pakistan or the ‘problematic’ Muslim community. The fact that it arouses wild passions (‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ – a popular mantra these days does not arouse a sublime feeling love, or the spirit of honest work for the people living in India; instead, it is more about aggression, a gesture seeking to convey the message to the minorities that their days are over) and focuses on the ‘enemy’ is its appeal; its toxic mood has a maddening power.
Furthermore, its script of ‘unity’ is filled with what stigmatises the ‘other’ of the dominant Hindu community. Here, ‘unity’ is degenerated into oppressive uniformity.
Moreover, Modi reconciles this assertive Hindu nationalism with some sort of technocratic developmentalism.
In fact, in the popular imagination, he is both – a Hindu nationalist rooted in ‘culture’ as well as a techno-friendly/global moderniser. He is everywhere – from Kedarnath to bullet trains.
Yet, even in these dark times, we should not forget that there was an altogether different narrative of India. Unity was not seen as uniformity; instead, there was an attempt to experience the subtle thread of civilizational connectedness amid splendid differences.
Unity was thought as a continual process (not a finished product of militaristic uniformity) towards the fusion of horizons through love, dialogue and assimilation. Through a secular idiom, Nehru, it seems, sought to see it in his Discovery of India; Tagore felt it through poetic universalism; and most importantly, Gandhi did it through constant emphasis on syncretism, cross-religious dialogue, and a broad agenda of swaraj.
In other words, their nationalism, far from being hyper-masculinist with a slogan of ‘uniformity’, was reasonably tender, and filled with some sort of welfarist/socialist dreams.
However, this vision of India, it seems, does not appeal to a new generation intoxicated with media simulations, techno-militaristic solutions, and some sort of hyper-masculine assertion – the urge to be aggressive and demonstrate one’s might at any cost.
Or is it that the opposition parties too are not very convinced of these lost ideals? Is it that their politics – say, Akhilesh Yadav’s caste constituency, Chandababu Naidu’s regionalism, or the factionalism within the Congress – is devoid of any grand vision?
Despiritualised secularism, politicised Religion and religiosity of love
In contemporary India, no concept has created more confusion than ‘secularism’. If secularism means inherent scepticism towards religion, it fails to appeal to many in a country where religious traditions are fairly strong. But then, the alternative to the spiritually impoverished secularism is not divisive communalism.
Possibly, the alternative is spiritualised modernity – a mode of living that seeks to attach higher values to the phenomenal world: the values like love, non-injury, ecological sensitivity and compassion. While the proponents of ‘secularism’ – with the emphasis on scientism, objectivity and empiricism – have failed to satisfy man’s spiritual quest, organised religions and the associated priestcraft have added undue emphasis on the rituals and externalities of religion, and therby alienated true seekers like Kabir, Rabindrantah Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
Today we find ourselves in a strange situation. It is a world where there is neither Nehruvian/left-centric secularism, nor Gandhian spiritualised religious co-existence.
Instead, we have a discourse of loud/militant/ Hindu nationalism – promoted by all sorts of ‘sadhus’, celebrity babas and above all, the entire gang of Hindu nationalists. And it appeals to many ‘Hindus’ because it generates the feeling that Hindus have not yet been able to recover their land and culture because of the ‘pseudo-secular conspirators’ who remain silent on the damage that the ‘alien invadors’ like the Muslims have caused to the country.
In a country like ours, known for a complex relationship between these two religious communities, the psychic injuries associated with the Partition, and mere tokenism in the name of secularism rather than a sincere effort to nurture truly cross-religious understanding and relationships in everyday life, it is not difficult to play with the religious sentiment.
We are passing through a tough time. The answer, however, is not limiting identity politics (you play with religion; I play with caste), or diplomatic strategy (visiting temples as well as mosques), or mere condemnation of anything associated with religion.
Possibly, the answer is a liberating politico-economic and cultural philosophy that takes us to a broader/inclusive and cosmopolitan idea of man and society. And I have always believed that the cultivation of this aesthetically enriched radical practice requires a continual conversation with Kabir and Anbedkar, Gandhi and Tagore, and Marx and Nehru.
While Hindu militants – like the fundamentalists of any kind – have reduced religion into a sword of hatred and division, many of us as ‘secularists’ have not yet succeeded in combating it through a really enriched life-affirming worldview.
However, history teaches us that those who work ceaselessly for a better future (not just for winning the elections at any cost) even amid temporary setbacks, begin to see the possibility of a new dawn even in a terribly dark night.
Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU.