The landslide victory of Narendra Modi led BJP and re-election of NDA government in 2019 Lok Sabha elections is historic. Not just because it is for the first time a non-Congress government has successfully returned to power with majority. Not just because Modi has become first Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi to return with full majority. It is not merely a matter of novelty or another eventual trivia in the annals of our parliamentary democracy. It is no longer an endorsement of an abstract wish for ‘better days’ or ‘development of all, by taking everyone together’ while implicitly doing the dog whistles of fascism as happened in 2014. The 2019 campaign of BJP and Modi was an extreme concoction of jingoistic patriotism, communalism, sexism, abuse, and anti-intellectualism in general which is fulcrum of whole fascist project. Hence, its gigantic electoral success is surely a historic feet in the continuing long march of a counter-revolution that India has been witness to for many decades now. So understandably, in the wake of the results, there has been plethora of commentaries full of fear for imminent Hindu Rashtra and unraveling of our Republic and the constitution. On the other hand, there is no dearth of reports on how the opposition has failed the progressive resistance in their aims, ideas and machinery. The accusations of treachery, lack of commitment, incompetence are perhaps at their shrillest. It is in this context, I would like to make certain points to make better sense of the predicament we find ourselves in.
‘Continuing Long March of a counter-revolution’:
RSS was founded in 1925 and steadily grew its presence in Northern and Western India through the networks of conservative Brahmin & trader communities which were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the populist turn the National movement was taking under Gandhi led Congress. They were shrewd enough to recognize that the ire of Satyagraha and struggle could very well grow from anti-imperialism to anti-feudal and anti-caste struggles which were fought by Left/ radical sections and Dr. Ambedkar led Dalit movement. The Muslim question was essentially an effort to put spanner in the modern national anti-imperial struggle and its radical consummation into a secular, modern, democratic republic. The instinctive counter-revolutionary notion of upper castes- classes against the modern Indian republic found its expression and shape in the structure of RSS. To be sure, RSS was not the only representative of the right wing reaction- there were many claimants such as Hindu Mahasabha or Swatantra Party; but thanks to RSS’s adoption of Gramscian tactics of penetrating the civil society in every means possible to capture the cultural and social apparatuses to structure the national popular will (Aijaz Ahmad has elaborated on RSS’s primary interest in this ‘war of positions’ where it is not interested in short-term electoral power but long-term historical change) it outgrew everyone on its side as well as those on its opposite end of the spectrum such as communists or the socialists.
The partition riots and violence were RSS’s initial big strides in the body politic, only to be cut short abruptly by Gandhiji’s murder by Hindutva fanatic Godse. RSS and Hindutva organizations utilized curbs on their activities to operate on different plane than only the riots and direct violence- foreign policy, Kashmir and Hindu code bill were some instances where they didn’t immediately taste success. But their efforts to mobilize allies in various camps for these issues–from progressive socialists like Lohia to reactionary capitalist/trading community organizations alike bore fruits in later decades. Through the opening of ‘Anti-Congress’ ism of Lohia, and JP led Sampoorn Kranti movement, RSS was able to firmly normalize itself as part of Indian politics. (We witnessed the second act in 2011 Anna Hazare led Lokpal movement; which didn’t achieve Lokpal or eradication of corruption, but aggressively established BJP as the sole alternative to corruption of the whole political establishment)
Everyone is aware of big strides made by BJP on the back of Ramjanmbhoomi movement in 1980s and Babri demolition; but it is necessary to realize that the normalisation of RSS happened not thanks to this blitzkrieg but the other way round. It was thanks to the normalisation of its image in the minds of a steadily growing middle class (consisting of not just upper castes as earlier, but a section of lower castes which benefitted from reservation policies) that the politics of Kamandal was able to succeed. The antipathy towards parliamentary democracy, reservations, land reforms, secularism didn’t occur overnight. It took shape as a result of half-hearted operation of constitution at the hands of bourgeoisie political force which was now afraid to carry out even the moderate social democratic promises of land reforms or practice secularism or maintaining its favorite ‘law and order’ even. (hence the lament of parliamentary Left and EMS that ‘agenda of Indian Left is nothing radical, it looks radical because it is committed to carry out in practice what is promised in the Congress manifesto while Congress is happy only to pay lip service to it’). Complicity with feudal, landed interests and mercantile capital ensured that Congress regressed rapidly at the level of ideas and became equally conservative and moribund. Only the electoral compulsions kept it from formally renouncing secularism. It is this succumbing that emboldened and metamorphosed the Hindutva. It is ironic that in the classic Indian philosophical discursive fashion of poorva-paksha and uttar paksha; that one gets to hear more about Jawaharlal Nehru from the speeches of Hindutva fanatics to than from the speeches of Nehru’s party men. Perhaps it aptly sums up the reduced and exhausted state of his current rivals that Modi has had to wage a battle against the dead Prime Ministers!
Through a myriad different cultural productions-drama, historical novels, TV serials, films and what not; the notions and imaginations of history were structured and shaped. The civil society apparatuses like media, social media, cultural productions, films have long been accomplice to a majoritarian project knowingly or otherwise. While the progressive ideas and ideals found a formal mention in state sanctioned textbooks in post-independence era, these ideas failed to take off at the plane of mass fantasies and cultural identities; especially after the first decade of independence. An alternative universe of altered history and apathy towards the ideals of republic has been brewing for quite a while now; and it is this long march which has ensured the barbarians at the gates to become gatekeepers. Further, in the neo-liberal times after fall of Soviet Union, strong/majoritarian leadership, obsession with Islamic terror and disregard for democratic processes to further capitalist interests became synonymous with ‘modernisation’- it has been a template followed around the world where capitalism and democracy are increasingly antithetical to each other. (Zizek calls this ‘Capitalism with Asian values) Thus, majoritarian ideas fused with ‘development’ found perfect expression in Modi’s Gujarat post 2002-despite, or precisely because of Gujarat riots. What was so far division of labor-soft ‘liberal’ face of Vajpayee and ‘Hard Hindutva’ of Advani was now no longer necessary. A new synthesis of Hard Hindutva aggressively pursuing Big Capital that was ‘cult of the personality of Modi’ was forged in early decade of 2000s was endorsed by liberal commentators enthusiastically as Reagan- like ‘modernizing instance’ for Indian economy and still continues to find traction as the ‘last hope’ for India.
Hence, the ideological blind spot or fanatic defence of bigotry of Pradnya Thakur, Adityanath etc. that one comes across in otherwise civil members of intelligentsia hasn’t happened overnight or merely after 2002 or after 2014. There is a long history of normalisation of hate, and even coating it in civil colours that makes a yesteryear’s Hindutva poster-boy Vajpayee, or Advani or Modi ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’ in due course. It is a slow and steady pushing of envelope of Sangh Parivar that has ensured celebration of Nathuram Godse from closets of Hindutva subscribers to openly in the streets and corridors of parliament. Suddenly waking up to bigoted Whatsapp groups and forwards and raising a cry over it would do little to douse the fire. The fire has been lit for quite a while-from the days of Ramayana over radio and TVs, Muslim bashings through cultural productions, chest-thumping films celebrating jingo-nationalism. Nobody can plead innocence that they were voting for ‘development’ as last 5 years have provided enough instances of what that development actually stood for. What is perhaps new is the precarious position that opposition forces to the Hindutva find themselves in now.
Once we take in to account the nature of counter-revolution and its fundamental opposition to secular modern values proposed in the Indian constitution, the impulse of rallying around the ‘idea of India’ as propounded in the constitution is quite understandable. There have been several efforts in recent past as well as earlier to forge together a front of secular, progressive forces. Time and again, the fear of RSS carrying out revisions in the constitution to declare India a Hindu Rashtra is voiced. However, these efforts have proved futile not only because of political parties’ willingness to do business with BJP or subjective lack of commitment to the cause of opposing Hindutva but the very character of ‘establishment’ (at national and regional levels alike) led by Congress and regional bourgeoisie parties: i.e. conservatism in terms of caste discrimination, patriarchy, class oppression has been quite integral to the project. Hence, in my view, this fear of formal announcement of some dictatorship or establishment of Hindu Rashtra is unfounded-why would RSS be interested in doing away with formal structure or shell or whatever remains of the constitutional framework when it has been able to continue its long march with so little impunity. What is more, it has perfected the Hindu religious practice of creating newer and newer gods and goddesses and celebrating them uncritically. This ‘performative religiosity’; coupled with Indian philosophical practice of replacing sense of time & history (i.e. rationality and commitment to objective reality) with countless myths is what provides Hindutva the practical vigour and tenacity to paper over several cracks and contradictions which we will discuss here. (hence, although Hindutva fascism is a modern project, it is deeply rooted in specific national traditions as well)
Caste is considered to be the biggest internal contradiction in the project of Hindutva and the historical battles of Mandal forces vs. Kamandal politics of BJP in Hindi heartlands of UP & Bihar during 1990s provide useful evidence supporting this thesis. However, the tactical shrewdness or art of maneuvering perfected by Sangh ensured that the subaltern turn of Hindutva itself carried a greater pull and force than social justice parties. The Bajrang Dal and its alpha male appeal, celebration of Valmiki, Ravidas, Dr. Ambedkar as new gods of respective communities, and providing one with force of a doubly collective and powerful identity: that of a caste backed with a much larger political religion. The internal contradictions of agrarian economy itself are getting subsumed into a wider crisis while practiced unity of Jat-Muslim peasantry is coming apart in Western UP in the wake of such crisis. Social engineering of non-Yadav OBCs, non-Jatav Dalits is testimony to the dialectic of fragmentation and unification practiced by Hindutva political apparatuses.
Class politics in India and Communist parties practicing it were always on a weaker footing. However, Modi led Hindutva project has been extremely successful in undermining the very notion of class politics even at the displeasure of RSS backed trade unions. The conservatism within working class symbolised by BMS, or Shiv Sena backed unions has also been silenced in favour of a modern & ’aspirational middle class’ and an abstract ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ conveniently encompassing Big Bourgeoisie to tea sellers and pakora sellers. The scope of this ideological operation is quite breathtaking; and the ambition is certainly reminiscent of Louis Bonaparte and the lumpen class described by Marx. So what is this hegemonic strata? It is not defined by conventional notions of urban-rural, income levels etc. Every single cell-phone user is aspirational as a world of hitherto unknown fantasies is just a click away irrespective of civic amenities and conditions she may find herself in. Modi and his crusade against poverty is based on the premise of development, start-up, skills development, trade etc. which doesn’t bother about labor laws or rather actively discourages them as everyone is considered ‘entrepreneur’. This ideological operation is possible as over 90% of labor was already in informal economy. So the concern over unemployment, sorry state of education is not directed towards the government but the larger economic forces. The mainstream disregard for working class and strikes is not exclusive to Hindutva for sure, and trade unionism itself is imagined as obstructive, elitist and privileged. Neo-liberalism kickstarted under Congress certainly had many of these features; but they had never reached the zealous heights of discarding notion of unemployment itself.
Another issue is agricultural distress and farm crisis which led to fall of NDA government in 2004 was eulogized in many progressive circles and a repeat of the same was hoped for; however, things have not turned out quite the way expected. What is more, the major agitations for reservations by Maratha, Jat, Patel communities have ended up in consolidation of non-peasant communities in favour of BJP. Further, the deepening of ‘virtual urbanization’ through network of cellphones and social media has ensured undermining of traditional power structures in villages and urban Hindutva leadership has been a perfect enabler for this. If Shiv Sena played this role in Marathwada region of Maharashtra during 1980s and 1990s (Anti-Dalit riots and Ramjanmbhoomi agitation); BJP-RSS has played the same role in past 5 years to make deep inroads in Western Maharashtra, erstwhile bastion of Congress in Maharashtra.
It is also necessary to bear in mind that complete disregard to providing alternative development framework has been a major reason why the Left and socialist parties find themselves completely on the margins as ‘capitalism with human face’ of UPA gets replaced with ‘capitalism with Hindutva’ (or Congress plus cow).
Language/region was earlier considered a major barrier to Hindutva project. However, BJP’s expansion into Northeast and Bengal as well as Karnataka over the years has already proved the futility of such formulation. ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ might be at the core of Hindutva, but its expansion is testimony to its ability to fuse itself to diverse ritualistic practices of Hindu religion practiced across the country. Those who are taking great pride in Tamil Nadu and Kerala resisting the BJP in elections this time need to bear this in mind. Kerala has long witnessed RSS activities and recent Sabarimala agitation which eventually benefitted the UDF is proof of the same. Again, RSS project is not contingent on electoral success alone as it is just a part of it. Tamil Nadu also already has AIADMK parroting the language of Hindutva and Rajnikanth waits in the wings to make his entry at opportune moment. So it will be better to shed such illusions.
Secularism and its failure to rally the Congress itself has been quite evident in the manner in which Congress has opted for ‘Soft Hindutva’. Digvijaya Singh, who was supposedly fighting an ideological battle against Pragya Thakur, performed several yagnas and visited temples. It is clear that such approach cuts little ice. The ‘Big Other’ role has been officially taken over by Hindutva forces which ensure the more Congress or others seek to assume a tolerant Hindu identity; the more they stand accused of being soft on Muslims and sympathetic to anti-nationals anyway. What is more, the conservative and exploitative character of Congress elites in rural parts was hardly distinct from what BJP had to offer-so there was quite an overlap between the two anyway. Open support of characters like Sambhaji Bhide by Congress, NCP leaders over the years had already ensured normalisation of communal politics.
Nationalism: the mantle of nationalism did benefit Congress earlier from being the leader in freedom struggle. Earlier, it was quite common to hear appeals of nationalism from Congress to fight and defeat communal forces. Over the course of time, as the cultural operation of Hindutva has succeeded, Congress itself stands accused of anti-national acts while other progressive forces are considered even more evil. And the opposition still is wrestling with this question as surgical strikes done in the wake of UP and national elections created a situation where any questions over success or need for such strikes meant political suicide.
Finally, barring the farmers agitations, and Sabarimala issue, there is little to distinguish between Congress, regional parties, social justice parties and the Left in their treatment of issues. While the unity in action is necessary, unity in imagination is resulting in either exhausted and jaded practices and rituals of opposition or acts of desperation like rooting for figures like Raj Thackeray or Arun Shourie to criticise the failures of Sangh-BJP-Modi government. Failure of distinct articulation is symptomatic of failures of both theory and praxis.
Where do we go from here?
The argument that ‘only 31% voted for BJP in 2014 and hence it was a defeat due to division of opposition’ is now past by its sell-by date. The chemistry of nationalism, communalism, and ‘cult of the personality’ has trumped the arithmetic of all kind. The harsh reality is there is hardly any clear opposition to the ideas of majoritarianism among those who didn’t vote for BJP in 2014 or 2019.
It is quite clear that we are in the ‘BJP dominant system’ era now and this system is here to stay for quite some time. It is quite tempting to fear bleak scenarios like Hindu Rashtra and suspension of democracy etc. However, not succumbing to fear and keep stock of various operative templates of authoritarianism around the world is necessary first step. As we have seen, even in this BJP system, it is still possible for Congress and other opposition parties to assume power in state elections as happened in MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh few months back. So while Modi goes on to assume a ‘supreme leader’ like stature (as with Khomeini in Iran or Putin in Russia) which is beyond any electoral opposition or challenge. The parliamentary democracy would continue to function as battle between hard and soft Hindutva of BJP and Congress. Rather, that has been the fantasy of many on the Right (which was voiced by LK Advani in previous NDA era) where they can keep winning forever!
Regional bourgeoisie parties and social justice parties have had no qualms about doing business with BJP for quite long time. It is quite possible that by becoming junior allies they can ensure their survival for the time being, for BJP’s juggernaut is not known to be too kind for its allies as well. (as Shiv Sena has learned the hard way)
The ‘emergent’ discourse of development, nationalism and Hindu pride has been quite dominant as well for quite some time. The Indian freedom struggle and its legacy of ideas, which informed the modern impulse of many parties like Congress, the Left and socialist parties has been rendered residual and exhausted. This is less to do with how modern those ideas are or were and what has been their practical consummation. The practice has proved them jaded and insufficient and incapable of combating Hindutva successfully as the latter proves its agility to fuse itself with forces of production, assuming a progressive and modernising character for itself, and is able to provide a universalising identity narrative that produces a forceful coalition. The success of such coalition cannot be just measured in terms of vote shares, or number of seats won. Rather, it has to be measured in terms of the permanent changes it brings in our ways of seeing. It is manifested in the inability of the opposition to mobilize people against demonetisation, electoral irregularities, farm distress- issues which are so glaringly obvious and capable to throwing the government into crisis. But every such issue leads to exact opposite result: the more the opposition cries foul over electoral irregularities, demonetisation, and farm distress; the more it is taken as proof of its fear, complicity in wrongdoing and guilt over failure of its governments in the past. It is not the matter with the ‘usual suspect’ propagandist media outlets alone. Such has been the supply of this narrative by the Hindutva nationalist ‘Big Other’ that it has created its own demand. It has not merely been a conspiracy or shadow operation done in the dark. This project has been unfolding before our eyes over past century- such has been the success of this ‘white magic’. India has been forerunner of this majoritarian project for some time, but the other countries in the Europe and around the world are catching up in their unraveling of post-war liberal democratic order, rise of fascism, anti-globalization rants which are aimed not at capitalism as such but against enlightenment institutions of media, education etc. The ‘banality of evil’, that Arendt found shocking in German Nazi holocaust operations has been replaced with ‘enjoyment of evil’- from lynching videos in India to mass shooting in New Zealand. There are no easy ways out and nostalgic appeals rooted in past have proved futile. What is necessary is re-imagination of ‘class’ and ‘identity’ in universal terms- annihilation of caste, climate change, education and notion of employment could be few of them to start with.
The Author is an Independent Researcher based in New Delhi