His campaign rhetoric so far has defied ideological templates.
For several months, I have been hearing Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches quite regularly, paying attention to his themes, rhetoric and imagery. As expected, he has vigorously attacked key political opponents — the Nehru-Gandhi family, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav. But a systematic silence has also marked his campaign. Quite remarkably, Hindu nationalism has been absent from his speeches.
Anyone who has read the basic texts of Hindu nationalism knows that three ideas constitute the thematic core of Hindu nationalist ideology. First, Hindus are the primary, or exclusive, owners of the Indian nation. India is a Hindu rashtra (nation). Second, two minorities — the Christians and especially the Muslims — have a profoundly ambivalent relationship with India. As Savarkar wrote in Hindutva, a classic text of Hindu nationalism, Muslims and Christians can call India their “pitribhumi (fatherland)”, but India is not their “punyabhumi (holyland)”.
As a result, their love for India is “divided”. They need to demonstrate their fidelity to India, or must be made into Indians; Indian loyalties cannot be assumed to exist. This is not a problem for some other minorities such as the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, for all of these religions, says Savarkar, were born in India, not in the Middle East. Their emotions, as a result, have no internal conflict. Third, caste divisions within Hinduism and caste-based politics need to be minimised, for they undermine Hindu unity. The incorporation of lower castes into the Hindu family should be premised upon their Sanskritisation. The lower castes should follow the Brahminical model of Hinduism.
Modi’s campaign has departed, wholly or very substantially, from all three Hindu nationalist tenets. Only in Assam, a state faced with long-standing Muslim migration from Bangladesh, did he talk about the need for making Hindus secure. Otherwise, the theme has not been overtly present in his speeches.
Governance and development have been the overarching ideas. The overall campaign has been quite in contrast to “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain (say with pride we are Hindus)”, a running theme of Lal Krishna Advani’s campaign in the late-1980s and early-1990s. In the late-1990s, this theme was dropped. That is when the BJP-based NDA came to power, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Modi’s most striking rhetorical tropes, however, are about India’s Muslims. In Bihar as well as Uttar Pradesh, he has made arguments truly unexpected from a Hindu nationalist viewpoint. He has said that the Haj quota of Bihar and UP is rarely filled, whereas Gujarat’s quota is always oversubscribed. What is the reason? Gujarati musalman samriddh hain, lekin Bihar aur UP ke musalman garib hain (Gujarati Muslims are prosperous, but Bihar and UP continued…