With the Lok Sabha elections underway, it is clear that this will be no ordinary electoral contest between the BJP and the Opposition because what’s at stake is the future of our democratic republic. It is already clear that the BJP/RSS and its allied organisations are embarking on a strategic course that is far more aggressive than in 2014, seeking as it does to alter the fundamental postulates of the democratic and constitutional framework of the Indian nation if they win the next elections again. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP-led NDA government has taken decisive steps on fulfilling several of its core Hindu nationalist commitments. Its policy position on citizenship articulated in the Citizenship Amendment Bill which it has not withdrawn despite huge protests in the Northeast, on the status of Jammu and Kashmir, and its strident and public campaigns against civil society activists branding them as “urban Naxals”, are all signposts of a new political discourse that is sought to be ingrained in the public space.
Ashutosh’s recently published book the Hindu Rashtra (Context, Westland, 2019) tracks the political rupture and paradigmatic shift in the nature of state and society during BJP rule. The BJP is not an ordinary right-wing party, its uniqueness in the general configuration of right-wing parties in the world is that it is not an independent party; it is in its essence, a right-wing front of the extreme right represented by the RSS modeled on European fascist organisations. There is no analogue for this particular structure of relationship and the thinking it embodies in the right-wing parties and authoritarianism in other parts of the world. The objective of the RSS is not merely to win elections and form governments but to transform Indian society in all domains of culture, religion and civilisation, a project it has assiduously pursued for the last ninety years.
The last five years have witnessed the application of the Gujarat model to India. Gujarat model was not just an economic model; it is a political model defined by political control, exclusion ruthlessness, and suppression of dissent.
The present regime invokes an ideology of nationalism, interpreted as being synonymous with Hindutva and dismissing any criticism of the government as anti-national. At the ideological level, the conflation between Hindutva and nationalism and between Hindutva and development has been the backbone of BJP’s dominance since it came to power at the Centre. The two are intrinsically connected, BJP’s identity politics is not divorced from its development policies. All its election campaigns are a cocktail of both elements couched within a discourse of developmentalism dressed up in the political rhetoric of nationalism and threats to the nation from enemies within.
A very important issue today is the government’s capturing of the media. The media, barring a few honourable exceptions, is totally in the government camp. The task of promoting the leader and undercutting the opposition is facilitated by the media’s complicity in it. The Indian media was obsessive in its criticism of the UPA government, especially in the last two to three years of UPA-II. It’s now clear that it was a sustained campaign by the BJP through the media to discredit the Manmohan Singh government and prop up an alternative government. The critical zeal vanished the moment the BJP took power and the media is doing everything in its power to undermine the opposition.
This is linked to this government’s close proximity to the corporates. No government in post-independence India has been as close to the corporates as the BJP government, a point exemplified by Narendra Modi travelling to Delhi in Gautam Adani’s aircraft for being sworn in as Prime Minister. At no point did we have complete corporate control of the media as we have now or one corporate house funding multiple television channels.
The last five years have witnessed the weakening of institutions and experienced inroads into freedom of thought and expression. The rise of conservative religious ideologies, vigilantism, violence, narrowing scope for dissent, threat to minorities and marginalised groups has placed our democracy at risk. It has opened ideological battlefronts in many different spheres - from universities to media to movie theatres - and promoted conflicts across the board. Public universities and other publicly funded centres of learning have been under relentless attack and if they have held so far, it is because the foundations were strong. Nothing like this has happened before; no government in the past had ever shown such a disdain for reason and thought as the present government.
The key issue is the Hindutva thrust against Muslims, and the centrality of Kashmir to the Hindutva ideology and project. The last five years have witnessed the setting up of majority against minority, one segment of society against another, and equally importantly the promotion of a cult of hatred against minorities, primarily against Muslims. At the same time, it’s useful to remember that this ideology is influential in the Hindi heartland, principally in Uttar Pradesh.
After reading Ashutosh’s book on the Hindu Rashtra, we cannot say that we weren’t warned about the threats facing Indian democracy. But the idea of framing this battle for democracy as a battle between Hindutva India and Hindu India is deeply problematic. This is not a battle for Hinduism or a battle to preserve the plurality and greatness of Hinduism. It is a battle to save India’s secular, democratic Republic, it is a battle between pluralism and majoritarianism.
By positing it as a battle between two Indias - Hindu India and Hindutva India - we lose sight of the political ideology and the strong push to establish a majoritarian, one-party state. The primary fault-line of this ideology is political mobilisation along religious lines promoted by the Hindu Right which needs to be confronted. The BJP wants to win elections by harping on identity fault lines and by highlighting on the Hindu identity. By looking at it a battle between Hinduism and Hindutva, we are conceding Hindutva’s self-serving critique of the Indian secular project. The Hindutva-Hinduism battle excludes a large proportion of the Indian population. It disregards the resistance and people’s movements that have emerged across the country which have shaped the political discourse against the BJP government in the last five years. The challenge to this ideology and the effort to establish a Hindu state is coming from these myriad struggles. We cannot win this battle by positing Hinduism against Hindutva ideology; we should posit democracy and humanism against this pernicious ideology.
(The writer is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, JNU).