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.
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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 Muslims are poor). If the Muslims of Bihar and UP could be as rich as Gujarat’s, they would be able to make the Haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of orthodox Islam.
There are two fundamental ideological surprises here. First, Hindu nationalists have always opposed the Indian government’s Haj subsidy, in operation since 1973. According to them, it signifies Muslim appeasement. Second, it is a subsidy to visit the “holyland”, which is in Mecca. According to Savarkar, the emotional chords such pilgrimages incubate undermine patriotic feelings towards India. In contrast, no Hindu visiting Varanasi can feel the tension between Hinduism and India.
Another ideological departure is even more striking. On November 11, 2013, in his blog, Modi not only expressed admiration for Acharya Kripalani, which was expected, but also paid tribute to Maulana Azad, a towering Muslim leader of India’s freedom struggle and the first education minster of independent India. “There can be no greater disservice to our history than viewing these stalwarts through the narrow prism of political partisanship. It is high time we realise that these are leaders who transcended barriers of caste, community, creed or party lines. Their ideals and legacy are not for any party but for the entire nation to get inspired.”
Azad, of course, never wavered in his opposition to India’s partition, a point Modi also makes in his blog. But his commitment to Islam, or Mecca, was never in doubt. Moreover, in his legendary speech opposing Jinnah’s two-nation theory, he had argued that both Islam and Hinduism had “equal claims” on Indian culture. That goes against the basic article of Hindu nationalist faith that Indian culture is primarily Hindu. Azad never conceded Hindu primacy. He talked about religious equality.
Modi’s third departure from Hindu nationalism concerns caste. In search of coalition partners, he has openly embraced lower caste parties, such as Vaiko’s MDMK in Tamil Nadu and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP in Bihar. He has even addressed Ezhava organisations in Kerala. The significance of this is not well understood outside southern India. Historically, the Ezhavas were most shabbily treated by upper caste Hindus. In the 1910s and 1920s, under their pre-eminent leader, Sri Narayana Guru, the Ezhavas developed an alternative brand of Hinduism, opposed to Brahminism. They have never believed in the slogan of Hindu unity. Alliances with lower caste parties is yet another Vajpayee-like political move, so successfully pursued in the late-1990s, when the BJP came to power.
Has Modi undergone an ideological transformation from his 2002 days? We don’t have enough evidence to make that claim yet. The choice of Varanasi as a seat continues to throw hints of Hindu nationalism. But such symbolism has not been central to the campaign. We have a clearly recognisable strategic pattern emerging right from the fateful Reuters interview in July 2013, a pattern only briefly interrupted by Muzaffarnagar, whose association with Modi simply cannot be established. Modi appears to have concluded that ideological purity cannot bring him to power. Vajpayee-like ideological moderation and political pragmatism are necessary, at least for now.
Since Rajni Kothari’s seminal arguments in the 1960s, political scientists of India have repeatedly claimed that Indian politics is marked by what Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph called a “persistent centrism”. Ideological purity, of the left or right wing, can produce state-level victories, but to come to power in Delhi, castes, religions, tribes and linguistic groups need to be brought together.
Modi is often criticised for nurturing an all-consuming desire for power. From the perspective of political theory, that is not a damnable flaw unless it leads to the weakening of democratic institutions. We won’t know much about the latter until Modi comes to power. Indeed, given India’s realities, a single-minded pursuit of power is a virtue in campaigning. It pushes politicians away from ideological purity, heading them towards strategies aimed at the largest possible coalitions. Vajpayee understood this logic very well. Modi may not have Vajpayee’s style but, substantively, his campaign over the last few months shows roughly similar traits.
The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of the Indian Express