Eternal India (Delhi), August 2009
By Swapan Dasgupta
A simple sentence of political analysis by Perry Anderson, one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of our time, had a profound impact on me when I read it in early-2000. In his editorial in the New Left Review for the new millennium, Anderson argued that “The only starting point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of political defeat.”
Celebrating victory is exhilarating but effortless; handling defeat is far more daunting, particularly when it assaults a deep faith. For Communists nurtured on the belief that history was on their side and that the Communist Party was somehow infallible, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China’s endorsement of a market economy were traumatic. To those who remained true to the faith, the experience of both despondency and doggedness, and anger at those who discredited a noble ideal prompted a Churchillian determination to fight to the last and never surrender. The sense of realism and the frank admission of political defeat that Anderson demanded remained a minority current among activists—though, in private moments, they acknowledged its veracity.
A refusal to read the writing on the wall is not uncommon in political formations where group solidarity is paramount. In 1978, the suggestion by historian Eric Hobsbawm that the triumphant march of the labour movement was threatened by social changes and a political disconnect was disregarded by the British Labour Party. The activist-dominated organisation responded to its election defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 by lurching sharply to the left and stepping up trade union militancy. The outcome was disastrous and Labour faced three more humiliating general election defeats before Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment yielded handsome dividends.
Blair’s attempt to make his party relevant to the times involved a bitter inner-party struggle that was fought out all levels. It involved the Labour Party jettisoning Clause Four of its programme—an article of faith committing it to the public ownership of the means of production, a euphemism for nationalisation. In a speech to the party conference, three years before he became Prime Minister, Blair explained the impulses of his reformism in very simple language: “If the world changes and we don’t, then we become of no use to the world. Our principles cease being principles and ossify into dogma. We haven’t changed to forget our principles but to fulfil them. Not to lose our identity but to keep our relevance.”
Blair won three elections for his party but he was never spared repeated accusations of betraying the cause.
It is paradoxical that something resembling this touching Left irredentism is being witnessed in the Bharatiya Janata Party in the aftermath of two consecutive general election defeats. What was explained as a fluke defeat in 2004 and attributed to the unpopularity of its alliance partners in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh has, in 2009, been described as a verdict against the ramshackle Third Front, with the BJP suffering collateral damage. The outcome, it has been suggested, was not really a defeat but a disappointment in terms of the party’s own expectations. The more outlandish have even gone to the extent of pinning the relative success of the Congress on doctored Electronic Voting Machines, a theory reminiscent of the “secret ink” theory that surfaced in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s famous victory in 1971.
At a purely functional level, the underestimation of defeat can be explained by the need to shore up the sagging morale of the foot soldiers and prevent their retreat into inactivity. The problem arises when the need for a “lucid registration of political defeat” is rejected altogether and discipline becomes the fig leaf for an abrupt end to all meaningful attempts at a larger post-mortem. More than two months after the results, the discussion in the BJP about the 2009 experience has been at best perfunctory and at worst disingenuous. What began as a tactical talking-up exercise has, quite predictably, ended up as denial. The belief is that time, a bout of activity coinciding with the next round of Assembly polls and the follies of the government will re-galvanise the party and paper over uncomfortable questions thrown up by the 2009 poll.
The optimism may perhaps be warranted. However, the scale of the BJP’s defeat suggests that the erosion of support is quite significant.
· The party’s tally of 116 seats is below the 138 it won in 2004 and is even lower than what it secured in 1991 when it had no allies apart from the Shiv Sena.
· Its popular vote of 18.8 per cent was a sharp 3.4 per cent below what it secured in 2004.
· Apart from Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka where it increased its vote (and seats), there was a swing against the BJP throughout India. This included a 12.4 per cent decline in Rajasthan and a 5.5 per cent fall in Delhi and Jharkhand. The decline in support throughout India brings into question the theory that, like 2004, the 2009 verdict was an aggregation of local polls.
The loss of momentum was also felt socially. According to the post-poll analysis of the BJP performance by Lokniti and CSDS: “This election represents a stagnation or reversal… Except Karnataka, the BJP does not appear to be cultivating a new social base anywhere. In this election, the BJP’s hitherto upward trend among adivasis and Muslim voters has been reversed and its expansion among the lower OBCs halted. The BJP faces a threat in its core constituency too. Though it continues to be the first preference of upper caste Indians, the only social group where the BJP is ahead of the Congress, the party has faced a sharper than average erosion in this group. The BJP trailed the Congress among ‘middle class’ urban voters. All this confirms the picture of a party in retreat.”
It is curious that the social decline of the BJP (even among its core supporters) has been viewed as a simple case of campaign mismanagement. The presumption is that a better advertising agency, more catchy slogans and better candidates will be able to reverse this fall from grace. In other words there is no need for the party to be gripped by convulsions.
What is especially intriguing is the ease with which “ideology” has been disentangled from popular acceptance. In a recent interview, the BJP President argued that “On the ideological front, the party has never deviated in the past, nor would it do so in the future. There is unambiguous clarity in our ideology. There is absolutely no confusion… In our Hindutva ideology, everyone has a respected place—it is all-inclusive, liberal and tolerant. Had our ideology not been liberal and tolerant, it would never have been eternal (sanatan)... Not only the human beings, but also all the living creatures in the world are equally respected and taken care of in our ideology.”
Apart from its caricatured articulation, the underlying theme of this ideological drum-beating is loyalty and steadfastness. Like many in the Communist movement who are unwilling to deviate from the textual guidelines set by Lenin “himself”, the BJP appears to have been trapped by a dogma of its own making. The fault for the BJP’s defeat, it would seem, has been pinned on the incomprehension of the electorate.
Prior to 1990, Hindutva, far from being the unchanging ideological lodestar, didn’t even feature in the BJP’s packaging of cultural nationalism. The term was generally associated with Veer Savarkar who invoked it as an encapsulation of the Hindu political mission. “Hindutva is not a word”, he wrote in 1923, “but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be by being confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism but a history in full.” At the same time, Savarkar conceded that “The ideas and ideals, the systems and societies, the thoughts and sentiments which have centred round this name are so varied and rich, so powerful and so subtle, so elusive and yet so vivid that the term Hindutva defies all attempts at analysis. Forty centuries, if not more, had been at work to mould it as it is.”
Savarkar’s stress on the virtual impossibility of positing Hindutva other than as a nebulous ideal, prone to sharply conflicting interpretations, has often been overlooked. Over the years, the invocation of Hindutva has taken many forms. Some individuals have tried to reduce it to a set of principles. In an interesting interview this year, K.N. Govindacharya has argued that there are five constituents of Hindutva: respect for all modes of worship, egalitarianism, harmony with nature, special respect for women and stress on non-material values. Govindacharya’s vision of Hindutva has large areas of commonality with Swami Vivekananda’s belief that the alleviation of poverty should be at the core of Hindu activism.
As opposed to these ideas, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is said to have identified some 14 parameters for what constitutes Hindutva in today’s India: belief in Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudda Vadanti; the reconstruction of temples at Ram Janmabhoomi, Krishna Janmabhoomi and Kashi Vishwanath; promulgation of a Uniform Civil Code; the abolition of Article 370; amendments of Articles 25, 26 and 30 to remove special privileges to state-funded minority run educational institutions; honouring Shri Ram, Shri Krishna, Rana Pratap, Chattrapati Shivaji and others as national heroes; no state control of temples; abolition of Haj subsidy; revision of history curricula; restoration of ancient Hindu sites; economic policies to foster indigenous entrepreneurship; ban on cow slaughter; zero tolerance of terrorism; ban on religious conversions and bar on foreign missionaries.
It is pretty apparent that there is little common ground between Savarkar’s attempted distillation of 40 centuries of Hindu experience, the BJP president’s more elementary understanding, Govindacharya’s socialist Hindutva and the VHP’s political manifesto. That they all swear by Hindutva, as do the notorious head of the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore and the alleged perpetrators of the Malegaon bombs targeting Muslim, is revealing. Like the 57 varieties of Heinz, Hindutva has become the catch-all label for a multitude of Hindu preferences, some innocuous, some innovative and others, frankly, quite crazy. In political terms, Hindutva has suffered from an imagery of confusion and incoherence. Regardless of what was in Savarkar’s mind, the contemporary usage of Hindutva doesn’t serve as a magnetic attraction to either the political Hindu or even the religious Hindu. To a new breed of cosmopolitan Indians, Hindutva often appears as a mirror image of literalist Islam.
That a term L.K. Advani once described as the BJP’s “ideological mascot” would experience such a fall was entirely unanticipated. When Govindacharya began injecting the usage of the term into the political discourse of the 1990s, he had in mind something more than the Sonmath to Ayodhya rath yatra and the movement for the reconstruction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. At that time Hindutva became the convenient shorthand for the wider intellectual ferment centred on the meaning of Indian nationhood and the future direction of our polity. The BJP emerged as the alternative to the Congress, gaining new ground quite spectacularly, not because it resurrected historical memory but because its frontal assault on pseudo-secularism challenged the assumptions of a stagnant Nehruvian consensus. In one his more forthright interventions, Girilal Jain captured the essence of the times: “The (Babri) structure as it stood, represented an impasse between what Babur represented and what Ram represents. This ambiguity has been characteristic of the Indian state since Independence. In fact, in my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, ambiguity, indecisiveness and lack of purpose as this structure.”
Yet, despite the sublimated energies it released, Hindutva was essentially a political plank born out of a thousand years of defeat and subjugation. Hindutva kept alive the historical memory of Hindus and the country’s unwillingness to accept subordination as a permanent feature of life. It symbolised the anguish and the anger of the politically dispossessed. It fought against the countervailing currents of Hindu passivity and contrived universalism—both alternative responses to defeat. Political Hindutva never fully captured the imagination of the entire Hindu “nation”; it was always contested and remained a minority current.
A reason for this lack of wider acceptability was the confusion over inclusiveness. When he prescribed the acceptance of India as both the fatherland and the holy land as a precondition for incorporation into the Indian nation, Savarkar was consciously advocating the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from political citizenship, a proposal horribly at odds with the Indian Constitution. It was this exclusionary politics that was a factor behind Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s decision to quit the Hindu Mahasabha and facilitate the formation of the Jana Sangh.
Within the Jana Sangh/BJP tradition there has been a long tussle between exclusionary and inclusive tendencies. There were elements in Guru Golwalkar’s writings that more or less mirrored the primacy Savarkar attached to Indic religions. At the same time, the important distinction between the RSS as a voluntary association and the BJP as a political party was sought to be maintained. In short, while the RSS could remain a family made up exclusively of Hindu volunteers, the BJP as a political party had to keep its doors open to all faiths and communities. This uneasy coexistence of two contradictory impulses persisted despite the BJP formally embracing Deendayal Upadhyaya’s principles of Integral Humanism. Unlike Savarkar’s Hindutva, Integral Humanism attached importance to the harmonisation of potential areas of conflict, notably those involving man and nature and man and man.
The tussle between these contradictory impulses came to a head during the Ayodhya movement, when Hindutva entered the BJP lexicon. The aggressive thrust towards redefining national identity yielded electoral dividends but also resulted in the BJP’s “majestic isolation”. The fallout of Ayodhya resulted in the BJP emerging as the alternative pole of Indian politics. Yet, it was also clear that there were limits to the party’s forward march as long as it wasn’t in a position to co-opt other nationalists, anti-Congress forces and some regional parties. These parties were willing to cooperate with the BJP as long as the rough edges of Hindutva were blunted. For many in the BJP too, there was a real danger that the energies unleashed by the Ayodhya movement would turn roguish. Atal Behari Vajpayee in particular saw “coalition dharma” as an instrument to check Hindu radicalism and the uncompromising advocacy of Hindutva.
Fortuitously for the BJP, the Supreme Court came to its rescue. In a landmark judgment on December 11, 1995, a three-judge bench pronounced “that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms Hindu, Hindutva and Hinduism; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage. It is also indicated that the term Hindutva is related more to the way of life of the people in the subcontinent.”
The judgment, in effect, gave the BJP an opening to defang Hindutva as am instrument of political aggression. Where the earlier emphasis had been on Hindutva as historical memory and political change, the Supreme Court reduced it to a benign “way of life”—the very description used by S. Radhakrishnan to categorise Hinduism.
In its rush to embrace the apex court judgment, the BJP, however, left an important question unanswered. If Hindutva is merely a descriptive term for a “way of life”, how does it qualify to be the defining ideology of a political party? More to the point, how does a “way of life” constitute a philosophy of governance? The sheer nebulousness of the judiciary-determined Hindutva made it possible for hundreds of interpretations of the term to coexist, without anyone being the wiser.
These issues could have been left wonderfully unaddressed had it not been for the media projection of Hindutva as the signature tune of crazy and sometime murderous fanatics. The projection may be unfair but it has cost the BJP its middle class constituency and the youth vote.
However, to blame the media for the demonization of Hindutva is unduly simplistic. Between the Ayodhya movement which encapsulated a mood for change and the 2009 polls, India has changed dramatically. First, the past decade has seen economic growth and urbanisation on a scale not witnessed since Independence. Secondly, the joint family system is no longer the defining feature of social life in urban India. Thirdly, the demographic balance has shifted quite decisively in favour of a Young India. Fourthly, India has been subjected to more global influences than ever before. A new cosmopolitanism has taken root in the country. Finally, India’s emergence as a formidable global player has led to the erosion of the mindset of defeat that was the hallmark of the Hindus in earlier times. Hindutva provided both solace and courage to a defeated people. It is perceived to be out of place for a country whose attitude to the world is couched in cockiness and self-confidence. The advocates of a neo-imperial foreign policy in particular perceive Hindutva as a huge obstacle to the spread of Indian influence in Asia.
Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum; they relate to real situations and real societies. The emergence of Hindutva as the defining feature of an earlier age was bound in a context. That context has changed, the society has changed. Unfortunately, the BJP is caught in a time-warp. Its political miscalculations and a failure to appreciate a changing India have cost it two elections. Unless there is a reality check, the future could well be even more dismal.
 Editorial in New Left Review, January-February 2000, p.18.
 Cass Sunstein, “To become an extremist, hang around with people you agree with”, The Spectator (London), July 4, 2009, pp. 12-13.
 Eric Hobsbawm, et.al, The Forward March of Labour Halted? (Verso 1981)
 The Guardian, October 5, 1994.
 The Hindu, May 26, 2009.
 Organiser, July 19, 2009, p.9.
 V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva (7th edition, Mumbai 1999) p. 2.
 Tehelka, June 27, 2009, p. 18.
 Private communication from Ashok Chowgule, June 19, 2009.
 Organiser, January 31, 1993, p.7.
 For an analysis of the conflict between Hindutva and Integral Humanism, see Chaturvedi Badrinath, Dharma, India and the World Order (Pahl-Rugenstein, Bonn, 1993), pp. 272-316.