We are witnessing epoch-making changes to how democracy is working itself in India. It is often lamented as the new rise of cultural nationalism, majoritarianism and communalism. Earlier, historians had differed on how nationalism relates to communalism. Some felt nationalism itself was the product of colonialism and thereby the source of narrow identities. Therefore, one could not productively make a distinction between communalism and ‘ethno-nationalism’. Others argued that nationalism was different from communalism: the first was about the ‘making of a nation’ and inclusive, while the second was divisive and caste-Hindu in its character.
Pointer to deeper changes
Today, for all effective purposes, this distinction has collapsed with the emergence and consolidation of majoritarianism. However, the framing of the recent changes and electoral outcomes cannot be fully captured through these categories as they now refer to a new sociological reality.
The unprecedented rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) combine since the 1990s, and the simultaneous and gradual decline of the Congress cannot be understood merely as the rise of communalism or majoritarianism; even as it carries these tendencies, it has become a viable project and a part of popular politics because of deeper changes in questions of identity, emotions and representation. A relevant question to ask is whether the majoritarian-Hindutva politics is also essentially about cultural subalterns who include both traditionally dominant castes as well as the subordinate castes, and classes. Would it not be right to argue that the upsurge of Hindu nationalism has paved the way for the mainstreaming of a ‘way of life’ and modes of thinking that lay at the margins of liberal democracy?
The complexity of the current moment in Indian politics is precisely this overlap between marginalised cultural groups that are asserting their identity but through conservative social ideology. The BJP-RSS combine, especially after the neoliberal reforms, has succeeded in combining aggressive pragmatism with regressive idealism. It is simultaneously inclusive and polarised; it provides mobility yet reinstates traditional hierarchies. Unless we unpack the irony of how contradictory processes are getting combined into a seamless process, a mere moral critique of the process would be inadequate, if not irrelevant. Unpacking is a possible way to avoid the elitism of the liberal-secular critique of the current upsurge of cultural nationalism. The secular-liberal critique, in fact, further justifies the cultural nationalist project, enabling it to take on more majoritarian proportions.
In one sense, the political project of the Right, has subverted the binary distinction B.R. Ambedkar made between revolution and counter-revolution. He had observed that in Indian history, Buddhism was a revolution that privileged the shudras and provided them with dignity and equality, while a counter-revolution was forged by Brahminism and Vedic Hindu rituals to subjugate and marginalise the Shudras. What we are witnessing today is a counter-revolution that has the promise of being a revolution. It has managed to bring under-privileged castes and social groups to challenge the hegemony of caste Hindus/liberal elites over liberal, democratic institutions.
Inclusion of the marginalised
The wide gap that was created between tiny liberal elites and swathes of cultural subalterns due to the failure of the developmental state is being short-changed and subverted by muscular inclusion of the groups that lay at the margins. The resurgence of the ‘Hindu’ identity is not merely about communalism or majoritarianism but also about identities that had little hope of moving up the ladder within the limits of constitutionalism.
The BJP-RSS in this sense represent the cultural subalterns that cut across caste and class hierarchies. They are bringing with them social groups that suffered from routine inferiority and lack of mobility. The moral legitimacy of Hindutva lies in this silent change or subversion they are bringing about.
It needs to be added that this change cannot but be illiberal and is not necessarily anti-democratic as it might hold the promise of representing the majority. This change therefore cannot be captured in traditional or conventional caste and class categories; it goes beyond and cuts across the categories creating new divisions and social constituencies.
While communalism offers a sense of inclusion, majoritarianism offers a sense of mobility and the muscularity necessary to wedge open opportunities that otherwise looked closed; nationalism then offers a necessary moral antidote to exclusion and violence that are ingrained in the processes of communalism and majoritarianism. Nationalism is therefore not merely about an exalted sense of the nation, it also plays a significant and a deeper role of providing moral-emotional succour to the narrow-violent sensibility that is understood to be indispensable to set right ‘historical injury’/communalism (against Muslims) and achieve mobility/majoritarianism (against the traditional elites). Violence (found in mob lynching), mediocrity (in seeking quick mobility — for instance as found in the recent recruitments to universities), and even crime and criminality (for instance, alleged accusations against Pragya Thakur) can compromise the moral legitimacy of the project.
Moral legitimacy of any political project is to be found in notions of justice and universality, and nationalism works as a conduit that precisely fills this space. Nationalism allows the self-belief that Hindutva is not about narrow interests, or not just about ‘Hindus’ but about restoring the glory of a ‘lost civilization’. It includes everyone who resides in ‘Bharat’. This higher purpose offsets guilt and inconvenient pressures of conscience. Nationalism serves the purpose of providing ‘mobility with dignity’.
Unless one makes sense of the ‘positive’ and affirming aspect of right-wing politics, one cannot get a full sense of the surge in cultural nationalist politics.
Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU