Saffron Power under a microscope


Zia Haq

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s political arc now firmly conjoins two remarkable eras: the one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy, LK Advani, and the other by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. These two phases, however, are not conjoined twins. They are neither defined by a similar set of policies, whether economic or political, nor by a similar brand of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, the bedrock of the BJP’s ideology.

There’s abundant scholarship on politics and government during the Vajpayee years (for instance, Hindu Nationalism and Governance, edited by John McGuire et al). There’s a good deal of literature too on the evolution of the Hindu right itself (The Saffron Wave, Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India by Thomas Blom Hansen and the classic text Hindu Nationalism, A Reader edited by Christophe Jaffrelot).

Hindu nationalism may have arrived formally in 1998, when the BJP first won a national election, but it is in 2014 that the party found its watershed vote, under the Modi-Shah duo. It is not merely about why the BJP won and the Congress lost, as Suhas Palshikar, Sanjay Kumar and Sanjay Lodha aptly argue in their book Electoral Politics in India: The Resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is about how the two parties, respectively, won and lost – on a scale not seen in decades. Another notable work is India’s 2014 Elections: A Modi-led BJP Sweep by Paul Wallace, which tries to explain why no party has won “so many seats with so few votes in the past” (the BJP won 52 per cent of parliamentary seats with 31 per cent of votes, which actually negates the possibility of a vertical wave).

So post-2014, many authors have naturally attempted to explain this great political spectacle. Some of it is rigorous academic work, like the ones cited above. Then, there are some books by journalists who have sought to explain the tidal wave through a non-formal, reportage-based approach, often with useful first-hand insights from campaign trails. Many of these books fall short in putting ‘2014’ within a neat theoretical framework that can help to understand what appears to be a new, mutated form of Hindu nationalism under the Modi-Shah duo.

Political theory helps to stitch a formal supposition of seminal events at a conceptual level. We would not have grasped ‘political hegemony’ without Antonio Gramsci’s gripping theorisation of the subject. Nor would the world have understood governmental power, its nature, and where and how it is applied without the theories of Michel Foucault.

As the Modi era continues to transform Indian society, making it lurch firmly to the right, another new book adds to the scholarship of what might be the underlying reasons.

Rise of Saffron Power, Reflections on Indian Politics edited by Mujibur Rehman is a collection of semi-academic essays that look at the Modi-Shah juggernaut. In understanding the BJP under Modi-Shah, there are a few normative questions that beg scholarly answers from as diverse a pool of observers as possible.

For instance, the traditional fault line between Hindus and Muslims, colonial rule, and India’s social structure have abetted the Hindu right throughout its evolution. Hindu majoritarianism has presented itself as a reactionary foil to Muslim separatism. But why has Hindu nationalism gained much more political salience and social depth under Modi-Shah than at any other time?

What are the new cognitive symbols, tools and movements that have drilled Hindu nationalism down, achieving what appears to be an enduring transformation? Moreover, how did the Modi-Shah combine bridge the caste divide, garnering votes from most backward castes, with the exception of Jatavs?

Rise of Saffron Power looks at the impact of the 2014 elections on states, parties and the larger political and ideological discourse of India. Love jihad, ghar wapsi and the cow have been the most potent cognitive tools of Hindu nationalism of late. A movement to stop alleged conversion of Hindu women to Islam by Muslim men through deceitful marriages, the ‘love jihad’ campaign also rails against independent agency of modern women. ‘Ghar wapsi’ is a movement to reconvert people from Christianity and Islam and therefore manifestly contains an anti-Semitic messaging. In ‘Allegories of ‘love jihad and ghar wapsi: interlocking the socioreligious with the political’, Charu Gupta writes that these two novel campaigns fuse the social and the religious with the political. They brought women to the centre of a new majoritarian discourse, which however was paternalist and masculine. ‘Love jihad’ therefore was a novel cognitive tool to mobilise Hindus and sharpen the divide with Muslims using established social structures, such as mahapanchayats.

Authors of the essay entitled ‘Understanding the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh’, Sudha Pai and her co-author Avinash Kumar argue that Modi redefined Hindutva, which was responsible for forging a broad-based social coalition. This redefined ideology tried to present an inclusive signalling, while being divisive at the same time. Communal mobilisation was combined with a discourse of development for all.

In ‘Collapse of the Congress Party’, Zoya Hasan, a long-time scholar of the Congress warns that if the party attempts to reshape itself as “pale saffron”, it will help legitimise right wing discourse. Yet, the Congress seems to have taken this path. This has helped to salvage lost territory, as we saw in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In 2014, not only was there a leadership crisis, there was also an ideological drift which meant complete devastation in the face of the “BJP’s slick campaign, bankrolled by corporate India”, in Hasan’s words.

Now, as the country faces a general election in two months, fresh questions abound. The broad caste coalition that helped the BJP win strongly in 2014 has begun to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, just like the breakdown of the social coalition forged by the Jayaprakash Narayan-Ram Manohar Lohia agitation.

Hinduism has, for millennia, been a way of life. It does not have one central text or idea or the rigid iron frame of Semitic religions like Islam and Judaism. What the Hindu right has successfully done, during the Modi-Shah reign, is to create a template for Hinduism, defining its new borders and earmarking its place in politics. Others might find this difficult to ignore.

Rise of Saffron Power may not present us with an overarching theory for the dawn of a new era of Hindu nationalism. However, that should not distract from the new scholarship that some of the individual essays bring to a salient topic of our time.

(HT Media)