A Hindutva variant of neo-liberalism

The linkage between the Hindu assertion, material prosperity and economic growth is what makes the idea of Hindutva rate of growth, as opposed to the ‘Hindu rate of growth,’ which is a derisive description of a slow economy

April 04, 2014 01:39 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

“J o Hindu hit ki baat karega, wohi desh par raj karega — only he who promotes the Hindu interests will rule the country” declared a huge poster of Mr. Narendra Modi outside the Bharatiya Janata Party’s headquarters in New Delhi in December 2007 when he won his second victory in Gujarat. That election — and not December 2012, when he won the third election — could be seen as the launch of Mr. Modi’s version of Hindu politics, which has been a distinct improvisation of its original version.

What is being tested nationally in 2014 — contrary to what political analysts are terming as the debate on development triumphing over Hindutva — is what one could call Hindutva 2.0. Many commentators have acknowledged the existence of a Modi variant of politics, but few have understood it. Going by Mr. Modi’s public pronouncements over several years, Hindutva 2.0, is a particular variant of neoliberalism that dovetails religious nationalism with economic progress.

Unfolding of Hindutva 2.0

Traditionally, the Hindu right in India has had to deal with three dilemmas that have stunted its growth. First, the conflict between the Hindu traditionalists and the middle class; second, the hierarchical caste structure that endowed leadership to the minority upper castes, something that the majority lower castes began to resent increasingly as democracy took root; and third, the organisational question of how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) should relate to its political wing (initially the Jan Sangh, and later, the BJP).

Consequently, the BJP’s growth has been geographically patchy and electorally episodic. Drawing upon this history of Hindu nationalism in India, many people predict — and some hope — that Mr. Modi may not be able to outdo his predecessors, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee and Mr. L.K. Advani in the run for prime ministership. “We defeated Vajpayee at his peak. Mr. Modi is no match to Mr Vajpayee,” says Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Congress strategist.

History is, of course, a valuable pointer to the future, but it also teaches us that there can always be a first time. What has been unfolding in the Gujarat social laboratory over the last decade as Hindutva 2.0, has in no small measure overcome the three dilemmas mentioned earlier.

Mr. Modi’s capability to mix the modern and the traditional is striking. When the small car Tata Nano project shifted from West Bengal to Gujarat, he likened it to lord Krishna, born in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, reaching Dwarka in Gujarat to grow up. In the early days of the Jan Sangh, it could not emerge as the voice either of the Hindu traditionalists or of the free market. The Swantantra Party had become the more legitimate voice of the free market.

A decade ago, Mr. Vajpayee’s free market policies were staunchly opposed by Sangh affiliates such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Mr. Modi managed to banish them all from Gujarat, making it a middle class utopia. The anti-capitalist strand in the Hindu right that repelled the modernising, pro-market middle class is now invisible and inaudible.

On the other hand, appeals for traditionalism continue. “This is the land of people who worship cows. How can you support those who support cow slaughter?” Mr. Modi asked his audience in Bihar on April 2, invoking a favourite issue of Hindu politics for more than a century. A special campaign that the RSS launched in 2010, for cow protection, has remained active since then, and the alleged stealing of cows by Muslims is often cited as a reason for communal riots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Mr. Modi’s backward caste origins, a running theme in his campaign, helped by the social context, have helped him overcome lower caste suspicion of Hindutva politics. The willingness among the upper castes to concede leadership to the lower has also helped, with Mr. Modi managing to send out a message that the political aspirations of the lower castes have enough room within Hindutva politics. This aspect has been analysed in an article in The Hindu (“In 2014, Hindutva versus caste,” March 26, 2014).

This has been a contentious issue for decades, and at the core of the debate is the question of whether the political wing should give primacy to discipline and control, or openness and adaptability. After the BJP’s debacle in 2009, the issue came to the fore yet again with people like Mr. Arun Jaitley arguing for a modern, liberal approach for the party, delinked from the RSS. Mr. Modi himself had been challenging the RSS’ authority in several ways until 2012. However, the BJP failed to find its feet and fell further into the abyss, making it the perfect setting for a return of the Sangh into its affairs. But the RSS-BJP question has been resolved in a peculiar fashion that deludes the veterans in the Sangh into believing that they are in control; but what they are doing is merely bidding for Mr. Modi.

But things are as they used to be between the BJP and the Sangh, says Mr. Ram Madhav, a senior Sangh functionary. “There are two areas of cooperation. First, the common ideology that we believe in; second, the sharing of human resources. On both these counts, the Sangh and the BJP continue to maintain their traditional linkages,” he says. As for the projection of Mr. Modi as the sole leader of the current campaign, Mr. Madhav says it is not unprecedented. “The RSS is not against the projection of an individual leader. In fact, it is necessary. People are forgetting that in 2009, the slogan was ‘Advani for Prime Minister.’ He was also the face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Therefore, the projection of Mr. Modi is not unprecedented or uncharacteristic,” he says.

The RSS’ writ runs in the BJP nowadays to ensure that Mr. Modi’s writ runs, and not to enforce any ideological regimen. The RSS no longer holds the right to veto, but has an obligation to play along with the agenda set by Mr. Modi.

The Hindutva rate of growth

There is a viewpoint that equates the economic policies of the Congress and the BJP, but it overlooks several distinguishing characteristics. In fact, the most distinguishing feature of Hindutva 2.0 is the model of economic progress that it promotes, in which Hindu assertion is featured as a prerequisite for economic growth and prosperity.

Gujarat is one State that is fighting a case in the Supreme Court to oppose scholarships for Muslims, and Mr. Modi has derided welfare schemes as being “dole politics.” He said that the Food Security Act was merely a piece of paper. The indifference of this politics to welfare apart, the emphasis is on how Hindu resurgence brings in material progress. In December 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and in an article in Outlook , pro-Modi commentator Swapan Dasgupta said that it was a necessary prelude to the economic prosperity that followed in India: “Finally, the Ayodhya years coincided with the gravest crisis of the ideological consensus forged by Jawaharlal Nehru. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islamism in the neighbourhood and the failure of the ‘socialistic’ way to deliver economic growth led to old shibboleths being questioned. Coming in the midst of this uncertainty, Ayodhya pushed the old order over the cliff. Later on, India moved tentatively towards market economics, material prosperity and a more pragmatic relationship with the world.”

For those who deconstruct Mr. Modi’s speeches, a similar linkage is discernible. The cut-off point where Gujarat takes off for Mr. Modi is 2002. All comparisons are before and after 2002. ‘So many schools and so many irrigation projects until 2002; and so many after,’ his 2007 speeches in Gujarat would go. And for riots — ‘there were so many until 2002, when it was settled once and for all. And after 2002, there are nil.’

This linkage between the Hindu assertion, material prosperity and economic growth is what makes the idea of Hindutva rate of growth, as opposed to the “Hindu rate of growth,” which is a derisive description of a slow economy. That was due to the Hindu timidity in this imagination; something that the Indian middle class fears the country may slip back into. This is what makes the core of Hindutva 2.0 and what is helping Hindu nationalist politics to overcome its several traditional weaknesses.


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