Hindutva and Politics

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HINDUTVA AND POLITICS In 1999 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed the central government at the head of a coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), consisting of twenty-four primarily regional parties. For the BJP, this was the fruition of years of careful groundwork, carried out in conjunction with organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The BJP had been making advances in the Indian electoral process, but this was the first time it was in a position to form a stable coalition government. While the BJP did not win an outright majority, enabling it to form the government alone, nor beat the Congress Party in the total number of votes garnered, it reaped the benefits of long-term planning and skillful coalition building, as well as the structural and institutional weaknesses that were plaguing the Congress Party. The BJP called for early Lok Sabha (parliamentary) polls in 2004, riding high after successful elections in a number of states. However, in a result that took most observers by surprise, the Congress Party returned to power at the head of a coalition government. The BJP won only nine seats less than the Congress, but the electoral losses of some of its key allies in the polls, coupled with the Congress' ability to form a successful alliance, put the BJP in the opposition.

The BJP represents the political face of India's Hindutva ideology, defined amorphously as Hindu cultural nationalism, or "the essence of being Hindu." Hindutva ideology demands the assertion of India's national identity as a Hindu state, but it defines Hinduism as a cultural construct rather than a religious one. As such, it demands that India's minorities—numbering about 150 million Muslims and several million Christians, among others—reconfigure their beliefs, espousing Hindu values and considering themselves part of an overarching Hindu culture. Such an ideology poses a profound threat to minorities, and to the social cohesion of the nation. The belief that India's authentic culture lies in Hinduism has bred an "antiforeign" outlook, a definition that encompasses both the Muslims and Christians of India. Since the 1980s, the BJP has gone from being a marginal political player, catering to the aspirations of a small upper caste Hindu elite, to a party that enjoys widespread popular recognition and the support of a growing segment of Indians, both at home and among India's wealthy and influential diaspora population.

The Growth of Hindutva Politics

The politics of Hindutva, as represented by India's ruling party, the BJP, cannot be separated from the larger grassroots social movement from which they stem, though the two aspects of the movement clash periodically. The BJP belongs to a family of organizations, known as the Sangh Parivar (or "Sangh Family"), which collectively represent the ideology of Hindutva in its many social and institutional forms. The primary ideological organization within the Parivar is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, supported by its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; National Volunteers Society) provides the organizational backbone of the movement, and is paramilitary in nature.

The organizational roots of Hindutva go back to 1914, to the creation of the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization founded to unite the nation against British imperial rule under the banner of Hindu culture. The Mahasabha's work was bolstered in 1925 by the creation of the RSS by Keshav Hedgewar. Hinduism is a religion that is amorphous in its teachings, open to diverse interpretations and modes of practice, and polytheistic. The Mahasabha saw these values as a weakness, since they provided few means for united mobilization, and therefore were perceived historically as offering little resistance to conquest, either by Muslim conquerors, or by European imperialist powers. The hierarchical social character of Hinduism that privileges its upper castes, coupled with India's complex regional and linguistic diversity, were further barriers to cohesion. The Hindutva movement sought to "re-create" a golden age of Hinduism—a vision best epitomized by the rule of Rāma, a human incarnation of the god Vishnu. The political goal of the Hindutva movement was the creation of a Hindu Rashtra, or nation, modeled on the golden age of Rāma. The ingredients of this golden age, and of a unified Hinduism, however, had to be created, and this has been an ongoing process for the Sangh Parivar.

The antecedents of Hindutva, or the politics of "Hinduness," as both a political and social ideology, date back to the last decades of the nineteenth century and were formulated in reaction to colonial administrative policies. Debates, focused around Hindu revivalism and reformation, dealt with the desire of upper caste Hindus to protect their traditions and values, and to renegotiate their identity in a modern and colonized context. Hindu nationalism reflects the view of high caste reformers and retains strong Brahmanical tendencies.

During the movement for independence, the Hindutva movement mobilized against the Congress Party's secular and pluralist platform. The uniting and mobilization of Muslims against the British government, through the Khilafat movement of 1919, launched with the help of Mahatma Gandhi, fed the insecurities of the Hindutva leaders. Later, the Muslim League's negotiations with the Congress to ensure rights for Muslims further strengthened those insecurities within the Hindutva fold, which from the beginning conceptualized Hinduness in very territorial terms. The Congress decision to accede to the Muslim League's demand for a separate nation of Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Pakistan were seen as betrayals of the principle of a single "united Hindu nation" (Akhand Bharat). The Congress and Mahatma Gandhi were portrayed as pseudo-secularists who were eager to pander to the Muslim minority at the cost of Hindu pride and the Hindu nation. The themes of injured Hindu pride and of victimization, at the hands of Muslims in particular, bred a "majority's minority complex" that has remained powerful within the movement. Mahatma Gandhi was also resented because of his mobilization of the lower castes in Indian society, the empowering of whom was seen as a threat to the upper caste ideological core that was defining the Hindu nation.

While the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS enjoyed a modicum of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist in January 1948, soon after independence, was a turning point for the movement. Gandhi's assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a former Swayamsevak (as members of the RSS are called) and a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. The immediate reason for Gandhi's assassination was his pressure on the Indian government to pay reparations to Pakistan for certain losses during partition, but this was only the last in what Godse saw as a series of betrayals. Gandhi's assassination horrified the public and created a popular uproar against the RSS and the Mahasabha. Nehru and the government clamped down on Hindutva organizations, and while the organizations continued to operate, they fell out of the larger public perception for almost four decades. The VHP was founded in 1964 to further Hindutva's ideological program. The political arm of the Sangh Parivar and the precursor to the BJP, then called the Jana Sangh, was generally a marginal presence in Parliament.

The Devolution of Politics and the Rise of Hindu Majoritarianism

Two related fractures helped to change the political arena from the 1980s onward. The first was the unraveling of the Congress Party's nationwide political hegemony, and the resulting fragmentation of Indian politics. Since the Lok Sabha elections of 1989, no party has won an outright majority in the polls, and a succession of volatile coalition governments has ruled the nation. Regionally based parties have grown in power and prominence, and in the last two national elections, the majority of votes cast were in favor of regional parties. The end of the Congress monopoly also heralded the end of Nehru's cohesive vision of India as a state united in its diversity, run in a highly centralized manner, and based on a Fabian socialist economic model. Although this opened the political field for regional parties—including the BJP, which remains more regional than national in scope, with most of its support concentrated in North India's "cow belt"—it also left an ideological vacuum, and it was this vacuum that Hindu majoritarian sentiment quickly helped to fill. In order to compete with increasingly vibrant regional parties at the state level, the Congress Party played religious politics and relied on an obliquely defined "populist Hinduism," a strategy that the Parivar emulated with far greater ideological zeal in the northern heartland of India.

The second "fracture" came in 1990, with the central government's decision to implement the Mandal Commission Reforms, an affirmative action program that created reserved seats at universities and in government jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) of India. This was the first step toward empowering lower caste politics in India, traditionally seen as a Congress "vote bank."

V. D. Savarkar is one of the principal ideologues of the Hindutva movement. This was his message on the eve of his fifty-ninth birthday, on 25 May 1941. The Hindus should henceforth test all national and international politics and policies through the Hindu point of view alone. ..Let every Hindu youth who is capable to stand the test, try his best to enter the army, navy and air force or get the training and secure employment in the ammunition factories and in all other branches connected with war crafts. Unforeseen facilities are being thrown open to you. You help no one else more than you help yourselves if you utilize these facilities and opportunities to militarize Hindudom! This done everything else shall follow: if you miss this, nothing else shall avail! This sums up the whole program and the supreme duty of the hour. Hinduize all politics and Militarize Hinduism—and the resurrection of our Hindu nation is bound to follow it as certainly as the Dawn follows the darkest hour of night!

The BJP traditionally received the bulk of its political support from upper caste urban voters. The empowerment of the lower castes created a rift in the Hindu community; with the OBCs constituting over 50 percent of India's Hindus, this was a vote bank the BJP could not afford to lose. Nor could it afford to publicly disagree with the Mandal Commission reforms without further alienating this key demographic. The issue that the Parivar chose to unite Hindu sentiment and buttress its support was that of building a temple to Rāma on the site of a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid, named after India's first Mughal emperor, Babur. The BJP claimed that the mosque stood on the site of Rāma's birth (Ram janmabhoomi), and had been built after the destruction of a much older Hindu temple at the site. The goal of building a temple to Rāma at this site has been an integral part of the Sangh Parivar's program of re-creating the history of Ayodhya to substantiate the myths of Rāma, but now an opportunity had presented itself to use the issue in a highly dramatic, politicized way. L. K. Advani embarked on a Rath Yatra (sacred pilgrimage) through North India in a "golden" chariot, much like one in which Rama might have ridden, on an ethno-religious campaign. The Sangh Parivar turned all government efforts to restrain them in their march into a highly effective cult of martyrdom, and gained a wider range of Hindu supporters in the process among the urban and rural lower middle classes, as well as among the unemployed and upper caste students whom the Mandal Commission had disadvantaged. Sangh Parivar workers eventually tore down the mosque in December 1992, unleashing a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots across the nation. The Parivar and the Supreme Court of India have been deadlocked over the fate of the land on which the Babri Masjid stood. The issue, however, has deep emotional resonance for Hindutva to this day.

Balancing Ideology and Politics

Although Hindutva gained ground as an ideology from the 1980s onward, the BJP was unable to form a lasting government at the center until 1999. More importantly, the primary factor enabling the BJP to form the central government after the 1999 elections was structural, not ideological. The regionally based appeal of politics in India today leaves the Congress Party, the BJP's main competitor, at a distinct disadvantage. The Congress Party remains national in scope, and competes directly with regional and caste-based parties in state elections. This makes it difficult for Congress to build coalitions with these parties at the center. The BJP, on the other hand, has an established electoral presence in only a handful of states, and is able to build coalitions with regional parties, who do not feel threatened by it. After the 1999 elections, the BJP was willing to make significant concessions on its ideological platform to build bridges with secular allies, and was able to form a government with twenty-three primarily regional parties, under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee's image as a moderate BJP leader, and the emphasis he placed on social and economic issues, helped to keep this coalition together.

While this has been a successful political strategy, it has caused tensions within the Parivar, most notably with the RSS and the VHP. The BJP has had to toe a fine line between alienating its governing coalition and alienating the Parivar by not following its lead on all ideological issues. It depends on both for political power and legitimacy. This tug of war between two competing needs has led to contradictory statements and policies by the BJP on a range of issues, including the dispute over Kashmir, the Babri Masjid issue, and, most recently, over the Gujarat riots. By following largely centrist policies, the BJP has been able to demonstrate that while the era of coalition politics is there to stay in India, coalitions can be relatively stable.

The increasing participation of regional and caste-based parties has added a new level of vibrancy and enfranchisement to India's democratic fabric, but the new political system also brings with it a host of new problems. Party platforms appeal to narrower needs and concerns, and there is a new degree of political opportunism. This comes at the expense of broader, more long-term national goals, most importantly the need to ensure that India's complex fabric of communities does not lose the ability to live together and share in their common burdens and opportunities. The value of secularism, which is integral to the stability of India, is in danger of being undervalued and ignored under the constraints of making a coalition government function. While the BJP put aside its ideological agenda in the interests of building its broad coalition after the 1999 elections, it remained disturbingly passive on certain key issues, such as the VHP's virulent stance against conversions of Hindus by Christian missionaries. The most serious omission of the government's constitutional duties occurred during the communal violence that broke out in Gujarat in February 2002. Anti-Muslim riots in the state, in retaliation for an attack on Hindu pilgrims returning by train from Ayodhya, remains one of the darkest moments in modern India's history. What sparked the initial attack remains controversial, but what is clear is that the BJP-run state government did little to stop the violence, leading some analysts to conclude that what occurred was a politically supported pogrom against Muslims in the state. Under pressure from the Sangh Parivar, the BJP allowed Narendra Modi to remain chief minister of Gujarat, despite the law and order breakdown in the state. While the BJP's secular allies at the center protested, they remained passive and unwilling to risk their own positions to confront the BJP. In the state elections that followed later that year, the BJP, led once again by Narendra Modi, won with a thumping majority.

The Significance of the Gujarat Elections

The BJP has consistently fared well in Gujarat polls in the early years of the 2000s. Its success was not a major upset, but its landslide proportions in the wake of the riots were a surprise. The impact of the riots was expected to make the Congress Party a stronger contender in the polls. In the months that followed the riots, however, Chief Minister Narendra Modi waged a virulently communal campaign designed to inflame Hindu sentiments and, by association, patriotic zeal. This connection between being a Hindu and being a nationalist is a central tenet of Hindutva ideology, but was used in a uniquely successful way in the Gujarat election. Pulling foreign policy and domestic politics together, Modi was also able to effectively utilize anti-Pakistan and anti-Musharraf rhetoric to garner support in the wake of a terrorist attack that had left people in Gujarat feeling particularly vulnerable. While Hindutva was not the sole or even the determining factor contributing to the BJP's success in Gujarat, it is significant and will continue to play a role at the state and national level, in conjunction with and in reaction to a range of other political drivers.

The passivity of the moderate middle, which does not espouse the Hindu fundamentalism of Hindutva ideology, and the political exigencies of secular parties have created an atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism. The BJP has been successful in keeping its allies in the NDA just weak enough to remain useful in the coalition but unable to challenge key BJP policies. The fear following the Gujarat elections was that the BJP might be tempted to move from its largely centrist policies to fully embrace in practice the ideological positions of the VHP and a new political strategy that political wags are calling "Moditva" or "Modi-ism." There is also the real fear that the increasing acceptability of religious rhetoric in the political arena is moving the terms of political debate to the right.

Indian politics remain far too complex, however, to respond to so narrow an ideological agenda. Elections in India reflect regional and community-based issues, and this was true of the Gujarat elections, as well as the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Several factors set the Gujarat elections apart. Gujarat's urban density, degree of industrialization, economic priorities, and the absence of caste politics all played in favor of the BJP. The riots played a key role, and it is noteworthy that they did not spread to any of India's other states. Gujarat's urban centers, particularly Ahmedabad, Baroda, and Godhra, have an unusually bad history of communal violence, and Modi was able to successfully capitalize on anti-Muslim sentiment unleashed by the attack in Godhra that led to the communal riots, as well as on a subsequent terrorist attack by suspected Pakistani militants on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat. Moreover, the BJP landslide was not uniform. In sixty-four constituencies in Gujarat, the BJP and the Congress were neck and neck, and the BJP won by less than 3 percent; in some areas where the margin between the two parties was larger, third parties held the balance of the votes, and strategic alliance building could have delivered a different result.

This is a lesson the Congress Party took to heart in the 2004 general elections, redoubling its efforts to build genuine partnerships with regional parties and successfully sorting out internal dissent and issues of leadership within the party.

But the Gujarat "test case" also highlighted a critical aspect of the Sangh Parivar's work as an effective grassroots social movement. The RSS and the VHP have spent years cultivating a base in Gujarat, through labor unions, social work, building schools, and focusing on backward communities, particularly tribal communities, to draw them away from their traditional Congress support. The different Sangh Parivar organizations have also reached out to the lower castes with reasonable success. If there is a message to be drawn from Gujarat, it is that the full impact of the Hindutva movement will bear fruit through its social organizing, not in the short-term political future of the BJP. Its social organizations occupy a space in civil society that cannot easily be regulated by the state, and these organizations will continue to work for their social revolution with profound consequences for the country.

The victory of the BJP in the Gujarat state elections of 2002 was bolstered by unexpected wins in the Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, and Rajasthan state elections in 2003. The BJP called for early Lok Sabha polls in 2004, expecting to ride this winning streak to another term in office. The BJP's loss in the elections was a result of several factors. Anti-incumbency is strong in Indian politics and certainly played against the BJP. The BJP's "Shining India" campaign, focused on middle class consumerist ideals, had a negative reaction amongst India's millions of rural and urban poor. The election results were also seen as a "Gujarat verdict"—a reaction by the national electorate against overt ideological politics. The BJP also suffered because many of its regional allies suffered losses at the polls, while the Congress' allies fared well.

The larger question underlying the analysis of electoral politics is the future of Hindutva and its implications for India's multireligious population. While in power, the BJP followed a policy of de-linking governance and development from its core ideological issues, and following largely centrist policies. There is a real fear that the BJP will revert to relying on its ideological rhetoric in opposition, where it will not need to balance the needs of political allies or have the responsibilities of governance. Following the elections, there has been a move in the Sangh Parivar to sideline its moderate elements, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in favor of more hard line elements who are eager to return to the BJP's "core agenda," which includes a uniform civil code for the Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent, and the ramjanmabhoomi issue.

Looking Ahead

There has been a shift toward, and cohesion of, the religious right in Indian politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but that does not trump the dynamics of regionalism and coalition building. The outcome of the national elections still depends on regional factors and the ability of parties to build alliances at the state level.

Regional and caste-based parties thus seem destined to remain the mainstays of Indian politics in the future, and much will depend on the dynamics of particular coalitions, how stable they are, the terms of the debate with the political opposition, and the quality of leaders that political parties produce.

Mandavi Mehta

See alsoBharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ; Congress Party ; Gujarat ; Hindu Nationalism ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


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