A hundred years after the birth of Hindu nationalism, Narendra Modi’s victory embodies its original vision.
Hindu nationalism was born exactly 100 years ago. The colonial Government of India’s Act of 1919 allowed for direct (though limited) elections, a first in Indian history. Never before had Indians, as Indians, been able to choose their leaders. In a society composed of individuals with interests, this would have resulted in the ideal of western-style democracy. But in a society composed of groups with identities, the logic of democracy began to be seen through the prism of demographics. For the first time in Indian history, numbers could translate into power.
More than any single event, it is this introduction of one-person-one-vote in India — through the general elections of 1920, 1923 and 1926 — that created Hindu nationalism. For this was the decade in which India got its first pronouncement on Hindutva (V D Savarkar’s eponymous essay was published in 1923), its first completely Hindu party (the Hindu Mahasabha became a separate national party in the 1920s) and its most lasting Hindu organisation (the RSS was formed in 1925). Though there were other factors (such as the Malabar rebellion of 1921 and Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement), without the background of one-person-one-vote, it is impossible to understand Hindu nationalism.
This has continued in the decades since. The Jana Sangh was created for the 1951-52 elections. Deendayal Upadhyaya’s doctrine of “Integral Humanism” — the official ideology of the BJP — was an election document that presaged the Jana Sangh’s rise in the 1967 elections. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal gained prominence during the BJP’s rise to power through the 1980s, and the crop of new Hindu groups make sense only in the context of the electoral rise of Modi’s BJP. Last week’s triumph of the BJP is not just an achievement for brand Modi; it is the culmination of the original logic of his ideology.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani spent their entire careers trying to decipher the mind of the Hindu voter. It’s just that they assumed that while the cadre may want radical ideology, the average Hindu was by and large moderate. Their politics was, therefore, radical at times, but never enough to alienate the Hindu voter. Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are just as focused on what the Hindu voter wants. It’s just that they have understood that the Hindu voter of today is far more radical than during the Vajpayee-Advani era. This understanding stems from their time as grass roots workers in the Gujarat of the early 1980s. While the national BJP was portraying a secular image of “Gandhian Socialism” under Vajpayee, its Gujarat unit was dealing with a Congress attempting a “KHAM” alliance of Muslims with low-caste Hindus. Modi and Shah saw this as an attempt to split the Hindu vote. Their solution: Cater to Hindu castes microscopically while painting Muslims as the broad brushed “other”. This was the very calculation that Advani would make a decade later, when he decided to ride a Toyota chariot from Somnath to Ayodhya just one month after the acceptance of the Mandal commission’s OBC quota report. And this is the very calculation that Modi and Shah have deployed in these elections. None of these strategies make sense without the core belief that the route to Hindu power is through an electoral system that rewards Hindus for being united. As a senior BJP leader told me, “our aim is to worship God through winning elections”.
To put it differently, Modi and the 100 years of Hindu nationalism before him, do not have a conception of power other than one acquired through elections. This is partly because Hindu nationalists understood that majority groups can use democracy to their advantage. But it is also because, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued elsewhere, traditional Hinduism does not provide a clearly articulated vision of a “Hindu state” or of “Hindu politics”. “Ram Rajya” is a slogan rather than a thought-out counter to electoral democracy.
This is in telling contrast to Muslim nationalism in the Subcontinent that arose as a response to British attempts to introduce elections — beginning in 1909 and ending with the creation of Pakistan. As the scholars Farzana Shaikh and Venkat Dhulipala have shown, the Muslim League rejected the principles of one-person-one-vote, both for pragmatic reasons (Muslims would then become a demographic minority) as well as ideology. There existed within Islamic tradition, ideas of an Islamic state. This “New Medina” was legitimised by God, not elections. What is striking about the Hindu nationalism of that era was the absence of any alternative to a democratic state being articulated. There was no “New Ayodhya”.
Nor does “Hindu rashtra” mean a Hindu state. What it means is a Hindu “nation” or a “national community” that can operate successfully within an electoral democracy — as the past two elections have shown. Eighty per cent of Indians must think in terms of not their caste, region, sect, or language, but as unified Hindus. Hindu rashtra is a conception of a “Hindu vote-bank”.
This creation of a Hindu vote-bank has been a hundred-year project. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to play up (and in many cases invent) what Hindus have in common. This ranges from common cultural grammar (a taboo against beef, the uniform worship of Lord Ram and now, a common reaction to Pulwama) as well as common loathing of Muslims as the “other”.
This is not to argue that Hindu nationalism is “liberal” or even “constitutional”. But it is to say that the word democracy should not simply mean good governance or protection of minorities (plenty of non-elected dictators have provided both). All democracy means is majority rule sanctified through the process of clean elections.
Seen this way, terming Modi and Hindu nationalists as “fundamentalist” is a category error; Modi has no interest in going back to the fragmented, traditional Hinduism of the past. Terming him “fascist” is an even bigger blunder. What Modi has shown is that the best frame to understand him is through concepts such as “booth”, “vote-bank”, “majority” and “minority”. In this, Modi is very much a product of his ideology; he’s just proven better than any other Hindu nationalist before him in achieving its goals.
The election results are a victory for democracy, a victory for Hindu nationalism, and a victory for Modi — all in one. There is no Hindu rashtra down the road from here. It has already arrived, invited by democracy.
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