Friday 24th May 2024,
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The Modi government’s Hindu agenda

The Modi government’s Hindu agenda

Narendra Modi’s accession to power has not entirely ended the international campaign against him, witness the petition (with most signatures found to be fraudulent) to Barack Obama to cancel Modi’s planned visit to Washington. It was floated by the Coalition Against Genocide, a platform of several dozen Muslim organizations and some Communist coattails, many of them funded by the Pakistani secret service ISI. It seems to irritate them that Modi is now playing with the big boys while they themselves can only bite his ankles. Indeed, the leaders of the BRICS countries have fully embraced him as one of their own, and the US President now has to hurry to mend the relations.

So, looking from afar, all seems well. Inside the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, however, trouble is brewing. Many party workers and numerous voters are disappointed because the Hindu party they had worked for, delivering a landslide victory, turns out to be a secularist party again, a Congress B-team. Some face-saving gestures are being made to keep the Hindu electorate happy, like Minister Sushma Swaraj offering worship in a temple while on visit to Bangladesh, or the speech on communal violence by its MP Yogi Adityanath. That is of course better than the preceding Congress government with its aggressive minorityism. But in substance, this government, like its predecessor under AB Vajpayee, is not serving the Hindu cause at all and is still making every effort to please the secularists and the minorities. In this effort, donating a fortune to the Madrassas was a good beginning, Hindu schools should not hope for such a present. For many years the BJP has been doing this, e.g., the usual attendance at Iftar parties, declarations seconding the myth of Saint-Thomas bringing Christianity to India (which even Pope Benedict has denied), by-passing deserving candidates to award posts to known enemies in order to look “secular” etc., all in vain. No medium has ever reacted by describing the BJP as “the party that has shed its Hindu fanaticism to embrace secularism”.

Normal people would draw from those experiences the lesson that appeasement doesn’t work: no matter how deep the BJP crawls before the secularists, the media in India and abroad will still describe the party as “Hindu fanatics”. But no, the BJP keeps trying to play by the rules laid down by its enemies. Even after an electoral landslide victory, they insist on remaining subservient to the views upheld by their secularist critics.


The disgruntled voices in the ruling party say, first of all, that even in Gujarat, Modi did nothing specifically pro-Hindu, though he proved an excellent administrator and at least kept the enemy out of power. He did not bow down to the secularists, as by wearing the Muslim skullcap (the crown of hypocrisy) during Eid, or by taking the guilt for the post-Godhra riots upon him. That was already enough to make him insufferable to the secularists; like spoiled children, they were very indignant that someone dared to thwart them. it also made him the Hindu-Hrdaya-Samrat, “emperor of the Hindu heart”. But he did not do many pro-Hindu things.

However, he built a lot on groundwork laid by the VHP and VKA, who practically stopped conversions to Christianity in the tribal belt, a tangible result for which the BJP has taken the credit. The infighting in the family of RSS organizations goes against the image of a purpose-driven monolith which both they themselves and their secularist enemies have built so carefully, but it is a sizable phenomenon. It is fought with dirty means, and my informers even had some murky stories to tell, such as cases of blackmail and the kind of doings that make blackmail possible. It seems that the “party with a difference” is not above all-too-human tendencies. A visible result is that the lucrative BJP has grown at the expense of the more old-fashioned members of the family, esp. the mother-organization RSS.

In Modi’s Gujarati days his power was conditional and his ideological low profile understandable, especially because he constantly had to ward off the attacks by the secularists. But what turns out now that he is answerable to no one and can fully spread his wings? As yet nothing ideological has been done, there is no sign that the Leftist influence in the cultural sphere will be countered, or the missionary dominance in education, or the anti-Hindu slant in Bollywood, or the gross communal inequality in the management of places of worship at the expense of the Hindus. Everything points to a continuation of the secularist regime. The very important field of history was expected to become a cultural battlefield once more, but instead the BJP classed it as an unimportant terrain fit for hand-outs to aged servants of the Sangh.

My sources also say that Modi is surrounded by crooks, or rather, that he has surrounded himself with crooks. That Smriti Irani (to whom they attributed a rather inglorious biography) was nominated while more deserving people were not, they see as typical of the anti-ideological orientation of the new leadership. The younger generation of BJP activists has never heard of a Hindu agenda, neither the 40-demand document of that name issued in 1996 by the VHP (an organization of which they speak dismissively) nor the very concept of specific policy items of importance for the Hindus, such as bringing equality in education and temple management, or a Common Civil Code. So, don’t expect that Common Civil Code, no expulsion of Bangladeshi infiltrators, no implementation of any serious item of concern to the Hindus. According to them, this is becoming another Vajpayee government, with only some pro-Hindu make-believe gestures as difference, but at heart the same.

Its beneficiaries will, of course, invent all kinds of excuses for not changing the status-quo and merely enjoying their time in power. Thus, they will say that economic concerns now top the agenda, even falsely adding that it is the economic promises that have won them the elections (eventhough a sterling economic performance could not prevent them from losing in 2004), and that Hindu concerns will come later. Having observed the Hindu movement for 25 years now, I have heard these promises numerous times, and I know by now that they come from people who don’t mean business. In the past, it used to be said that the BJP cannot achieve anything meaningful now because it doesn’t have a majority. Well, today it has a strong PM and a strong majority, and still no BJP man of consequence is saying: “Now! The time is now!”

A few days ago, Modi gave his Independence Day speech, and some veterans of the Hindu movement complained that he hadn’t raised any Hindu concern. Of course it was the occasion for a fatherly feel-good speech uniting all communities in the nation rather than addressing some sectional interest. Then again, some national concerns are very much Hindu concerns. Thus, Modi (or any PM on that day) had to call for national unity, and everybody would applaud that. Yet, national unity also means that Kashmir is integrated with India, hence the abolition of the divisive special status of Kashmir (Art. 370). It also means that all discriminations between citizens regarding education be abolished, hence the Constitution’s Art. 30 (which discriminates against the majority) should be reinterpreted or rewritten. And in means that the management of places of worship should obey the same rules regardless of religion, and that family law should apply equally to all citizens, hence a Common Civil Code. So, a good part of the Hindu agenda could be implied in the hollow phrase “national unity”.  

Sterner stuff

The critical view of the fledgling Modi government is only one version, but one from the inside, and from people whom I’ve heard praising Modi only half a year ago. Mind you, they were praising Modi, not the BJP. Like Baba Ramdev, numerous people make that distinction. They would not have come out on election day to vote for the BJP, but now that they had a chance to bring Modi to power, they did. But what they got was not a Modi government, but a BJP government with Modi as its figurehead and otherwise the uninspiring BJP culture. Until their assessment is contradicted by new events, we’d better assume that where there’s smoke, there must be some fire. Especially since what we learn through the media does not contain any evidence for the opposite view.

Then again, we should not give up hope too soon that Modi all by himself will make a difference for the better. He has, after all, been hardened by 12 years of unprecedentedly intense hate campaign by the secularists. Mostly, the reaction of BJP leaders to the slightest whiff of secularist criticism is to buckle under, to jettison even the least association with anything Hindu, and to go out of their way to prove how secular they are. Modi has not done that. So, maybe he is made of sterner stuff, and maybe he has a secret plan for furthering the Hindu agenda sometime soon. He was groomed in the secretive RSS culture, where they like to keep ordinary people in the dark all while holding up their sleeves some very clever strategy. Well, let’s see it.

Outside New Delhi, the radiating effect of having Modi in power has been very positive. It has not only been applauded by the stock exchange, far more important is that it has filled Hindus and Hindu activists of all persuasions with more self-confidence. An activist of the group Hindu Human Rights in London reports: “I’m seeing many more Hindus active and assertive than before, when all you saw was depression and negativity.” If we look at the larger picture, so far the trend is good. It is when you focus on politics and the BJP’s functioning, and especially when you look at the details known only to insiders, that you become aware of a problem.

A historian advises not to lose hope in Modi too soon: “I believe in three principles, cultural justice (i.e. Hindutva), socio-economic justice (non-elitism, egalitarianism and some kind of “socialism”), and integrity (strict anti-corruption), and I did not think the BJP represented the second and third criteria at all.  In fact, the BJP, I felt, was as corrupt as the Congress, and as much represented powerful elitist and Westernized capitalism (America, Ambani, etc.) as the Congress did. But while I had just as much scepticism about the Hindutva of the BJP as a whole, I somehow felt that Modi at least was a committed Hindu. I do not know whether we can give up on his Hindutva as yet. After all, his unapologetical continuance of refusal to perform pseudo-secular acts such as donning fez-caps and celebrating Eid, although this is generating him much negative publicity in the secular press and media, and he has little to lose by performing them, may (although only symbolically so) still indicate an uncompromising Hindutva. And I am told he has brought missionary activity in Gujarat to a grinding halt. So I feel we should wait a while longer before giving up hope on Modi at least in the Hindutva field. Yes, his choice of people till now seems lamentable, but isn’t it early days yet?

The Hindu card

We should not build too heavily on the optimistic expectation that “it is still early days” and that “after a few years of preparation”, at the end of the rainbow, the BJP will suddenly draw its Hindu card at last. The default position for the BJP is to do nothing in this regard, and without someone seriously shaking the tree, still nothing will happen. Thus, on temple management, BJP state governments have not taken any initiatives that would differentiate them from Congress governments. From BJP-ruled states, I hear time and again that government-controlled temples are not being restored to a management board appointed by the temple community itself. The culture of excuses to justify doing nothing is in evidence there as well, e.g. the transfer of responsibility for certain temples from the erstwhile feudal rulers half a century ago is still cited as reason for not privatizing the temple management (and so, continuing to pocket the temple income). Therefore the benefit of the doubt is misplaced here. When you see the BJP do nothing in a certain respect, expect it to do nothing tomorrow either, unless forcefully shaken from its slumber.

For a brief moment, see it purely in terms that politicians understand: how to assess the BJP’s hold on power? It is not as secure as it seems. Still playing by the rules set by their enemies, they are downplaying their cultural identity and betting on societal consensus issues such as countering rape and protecting the girl child (incidentally two items already on the VHP’s Hindu Agenda back in 1996), and most of all on material “development”. As if to say: “Look what good secular boys we are, we swear by development!” Of course all these things should be done, and after the immense damage done by Nehruvian socialism, we do indeed want Modi to give India some of his development magic. And yet, they are living in a fool’s paradise if they think development will reap for them another electoral victory. (Anyway, it will be a sad day for India when mere development can win you the next election.)

Yes, Modi is a capable administrator likely to get India out of the economic slump and make us forget the UPA-pioneered “secularist rate of growth”. But remember 2004: India was shining like never before, political observers and astrologers alike predicted the BJP’s return to power, but still the voters sprang a surprise on the BJP by electing its opponents to power. In 2009, the BJP showed its most secular face, “yet” it was routed even further. In 2013, however, a man fiercely hated by the secularists was made the prime-ministerial candidate, much against the wish of the party bigwigs, who toed the secularist line. That was the signal the Hindu voters needed: they turned up in massive numbers and voted Modi into power. They did not vote for development, what they said in the voting-booth was: “Down with Nehruism!” So if the BJP now proves to be merely the party of development and not the alternative to Nehruism (which is not only socialism but especially this so-called secularism), it will lose the next election.

During Vajpayee’s rule, this was already foreseen by the late party prominent Pramod Mahajan. I am not sure he cared about Hindu principles, but at least he knew their political effect. So, when the other leaders cited the unwilling allies as a reason for not adopting specific Hindu points (Ayodhya, the status of Kashmir, a Common Civil Code) into the government programme, he insisted that these points be made an issue at least in the last year before the election. If the allies would then still be unwilling, he thought the BJP should stir up some commotion and even bring down its own government over these points. That way the Hindu agenda would be unambiguously at the centre of the next electoral campaign, and the BJP would be identified with it in spite of not having done anything for it. But the Hindu card was not played, the BJP clung to its position in power and its non-ideological programme, and naturally it lost the elections. The problem was then, and still is, that BJP folks have lapped up the secularist story that “Hinduism doesn’t pay”.
A Hindu lobby

Time is running out for the Hindus, and if the relation between the religions, presently at the disadvantage of the Hindus, doesn’t start changing now, it will never happen. Therefore a plan B must be devised.

When looking at this situation from the outside, one has to think of the remedy devised in similar situations abroad. When the “radical” Trotskyites were a force in British politics, they were nonetheless not strong enough by themselves, but the “reformist” Labour Party was. So the Trotskyites maximized their influence by devising an “entryist” policy and forming a lobby inside the Labour Party: the “Militant Tendency”. This tendency made the Labour Party, for better or for worse, embrace rather radical Leftist policies. When American conservatives were dissatisfied with the wobbly unprincipled policies of the Republicans, they formed a conservative pressure group to influence Republican policy choices or get favoured Republican politicians elected. I am of course not recommending the contents of the Trotskyite or the Tea Party’s outlook, but their political tactic of creating a channel of focused pressure may be worthy of emulation.

Since nobody inside the BJP leadership is guarding the party’s foundational principles, and since individuals are too weak to make themselves heard, a similar lobby-group will have to do it. In 1922, the Hindu Mahasabha was created as a guardian of Hindu interests. In 1951, tainted by the murder of the Mahatma by one of its members, it was replaced by the Jan Sangh, which was never tempted to stray from its Hindutva ideology by a stint in power. In 1977 it merged in the Janata Party, and in 1979, it was refounded as the BJP. For some years, the BJP was controlled to some extent by the RSS, which itself was ideologically unimaginative and stagnant, but at least somewhat principled. Because of its growth and its recruitment in modernized sections, however, the BJP moved ever farther out of the RSS ambit. By the time it came to power (1998), its ties to its mother organization had thinned sufficiently for taking initiatives that were unthinkable a few years earlier. Thus, the introduction of foreign media ownership, unwanted by the Indians in general and never countenanced by the Congress or the Left, would never have been allowed by the Swadeshi-minded RSS. The ideology of the RSS already came in for criticism in the past, and is now also quite out of date, but it has little influence anymore on the BJP.

So, there is a vacuum. The vacancy for a viable ideological spine badly needed by a party that has lost the purpose for which it was founded, is wide open. Such a lobby-group is technically easy to set up, with modern networking possibilities over the internet sharply contrasting with the person-to-person communication favoured by the RSS. But if a Hindu pressure group needs to be set up, then it has to be professional with the right type of competent and committed people, not a bunch of angry frustrated “internet Hindus” whose shrillness and shouting would only backfire and make things worse. It should be loyal to Dharma rather than to a specific organization or “family” or organizations. And it could oversee an evolution and actualization of Hindu political thought.

The RSS was founded in 1925 and its thinking has hardly evolved since then. Its “nationalism” is coloured by its genesis within an anti-colonial struggle as well as by then-popular European notions of a monolithic nation-state. It still glorifies Guru Golwalkar who died back in 1973, and has not produced any original ideologues ever since. The BJP has grown out of the Golwalkar worldview, and in theory it swears by the “integral humanism” of Deendayal Upadhyaya (ca. 1965). Of this system, the name is the most important thing, as it amounts to a modern reformulation of the word Dharma. However, the party’s undeniable evolution, while modernizing its economic views and its PR, has mostly meant its growing away from ideology altogether.

The evolution of technology and of Hindu society itself has now created the right chance to remind the party of its raison d’être, all while adapting this original sense of purpose to the conditions of the present day. The contours of this new Hindu lobby are already taking shape in the proliferation of Hindu initiatives that owe no allegiance to the Sangh Parivar. It is up to the Hindus themselves to develop the instruments ensuring that the present opportunity is not wasted by time-servers who still function within the Nehruvian paradigm even while being cabinet members in a “Hindu nationalist” government.


About The Author

Dr. Koenraad Elst : Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.

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