Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

Modi’s ambivalence

As he strikes a new balance between secular nationalism and Hindu nationalism.

Narendra Modi. (source: PTI) Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (source: PTI)

Firm judgements about the Modi government can only come later, but can we begin to assess the early signs? Two arguments can be advanced, one tentatively, the other more surefootedly.

The first argument is that a transformative economic agenda seems to be in the offing. In his Parliament speech on June 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used novel policy language for poverty alleviation. Garib kisi ke tukdon per palne ki ichcha nahin karte; unko garibi se ladne ki kshamta chahiye (the poor don’t want crumbs from the table; they need the capabilities to fight poverty). And how will these capabilities be provided? Via shiksha, swachhta and haath ka hunar (education, sanitation and skill development), and by connecting these capability-enhanced individuals to markets. This is a remarkable formulation, but we must wait for the budget next month for resolute judgements.

The second argument is about an obdurate pattern that inevitably attends the rise of the BJP in power. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governments went through it, and Modi’s administration is beginning to experience it. This is the great, undying struggle between two conceptions of India: secular nationalist and Hindu nationalist. Deriving inspiration from the freedom movement, the Indian republic and Constitution are founded on the first conception. Practitioners of the second conception have always challenged that view. But once in power, the Hindu nationalists, despite their first impulse to act ideologically, find it hard to reverse the constitutional core. This creates contradictions that BJP-led governments somehow have to manage. Modi’s administration will be no exception, as the early trends show.

The core of Hindu nationalism is that the Hindus are the primary owners of the Indian nation, and the minorities must defer to Hindu primacy. Calling this Hindu majoritarianism, secular nationalists think it undermines democracy as well as nationhood. They would give equal place to all religious communities in the national family, and seek such equality through minority rights, an idea embraced by virtually all modern-day multiethnic democracies.

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Sometimes, in India, this conception of nationhood is called a morbid Western fantasy of Nehru, imposed on the hapless Indian masses. It is often forgotten that Mahatma Gandhi, who could never be accused of harbouring an ideological lust for the West and was one with the masses, agreed with Nehru on nationhood, whatever their other differences. “If the Hindus believe”, wrote Gandhi, “that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen.”

Is the struggle between two different conceptions of India already beginning to emerge in Modi’s Delhi? Let me propose that the relationship between Modi and the RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism, is shot through with ambivalence. Many foot soldiers of Modi’s campaign came from the RSS, but with a few exceptions, his campaign avoided Hindu nationalist themes. Modi has repeatedly called India’s Constitution “the only sacred book”. As prime minister, he must follow this Constitution, but the Constitution does not represent Hindu nationalist tenets.

What are the examples of the emerging post-election ambivalence? Let us first consider Modi’s attempt at iconic inclusiveness. Political observers have long known that the invocation of names and symbols is no small exercise for ideologues of the right and left. Unlike middle-of-the-road politicians, the left and right tend to agonise about ideological purity and pollution. Iconic choice is a political act.


In his Parliament speech on June 11, Modi invoked Mahatma Gandhi a great deal more than he did Sardar Patel or Deendayal Upadhyaya. Congressman Patel is, of course, acceptable to the RSS, and Upadhyaya was undoubtedly a major Hindu nationalist. But Gandhi has always been profoundly troubling for the RSS. The greatest mass leader of the 20th century, Gandhi was a deeply religious Hindu. Yet he made Muslims an integral part of his idea of India without demanding political subsidiarity. The birth of Pakistan, for him, was a failure of the freedom movement’s project of inclusion, not an expression of Muslim infidelity to India.

Modi says he wants to gift a saaf suthra Hindustan (a clean India) to Gandhi on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2019, for swachhta (cleanliness) was a Gandhian passion. In a fast emerging trope, Modi also repeated that he would like to convert vikas (development) into a janandolan (mass movement), just as Gandhi had turned the freedom struggle into one. In Hindu nationalist politics, only Vajpayee has been able to come to terms with Gandhi’s founding relationship with modern India. Will Modi be the next? Modi’s invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in is also laden with meaning. It was a move in the national interest, not an exercise in ideological purity.

Consider now the allocation of ministerial power. The RSS tends to crave at least three ministries: home (for law and order), finance (for the project of Swadeshi —  economic nationalism) and education (for shaping educational institutions and syllabi and influencing the new generation). Home has certainly gone to someone the RSS would endorse, though he visited Muslim clerics in Lucknow before elections, suggesting a political persona more complex. Finance and human resources have decidedly not gone to the ideologues.


None of this means that Modi is burying Hindu nationalism with Machiavellian finesse. Indeed, his June 11 speech harked back to a proverbial Hindu nationalist theme: 1,200 saal ki ghulami ki maansikta Hindustaniyon ko pareshan karti rahi hai (colonial slavery of 1,200 years has weakened Indians). The reference is not to British colonialism, which only began in 1757. It is to the arrival of Muslims from abroad, and the rise of Muslim rule.

The secular nationalist view is different: colonialism did not have an unbroken rule in India for 1,200 years, only since 1757, and Islam is not singular. As Nehru put it in The Discovery of India, Akbar (and Sufi saints) Indianised Islam, but Aurangzeb “set the clock back”. In this conception, Islam in South Asia developed two forms, one immensely contributing to India, represented by Akbar and Sufism, the other badly hurting it, symbolised by the awful zealotry of Aurangzeb.

Representing unthinking ideological reflexes, the Hindi controversy is also entirely gratuitous. It takes us back to the 1950s and ’60s, when Hindi nationalism and Hindu nationalism were an inextricable couple. Only an unreconstructed Hindu nationalism of north India would be unmindful of the passions Delhi’s Hindi favouritism would trigger. In north India, Hindi speakers may have always viewed English as a sign of Western domination, but in south India, Hindi has historically epitomised north Indian domination. Isn’t the logic of inclusion clear? What appears legitimate in Lucknow, Patna, Bhopal and Jaipur is so out of place in Delhi. Indeed, as Hindu nationalists headed south and east in the 1990s, they abandoned the idea of Hindi primacy. On rational afterthought, Hindi fervour is checked for now. But if it returns, it will damage Delhi’s relationship with the south and east.

Internal tensions are not unusual in party politics. During the days of Congress hegemony, key battles were fought within the party — Nehru versus P.D. Tandon or G.B. Pant, left of centre versus right of centre. In the US Republican Party, the Tea Party is fighting it out with the moderate right today. The big difference, of course, is that except on L.K. Advani’s Pakistan speeches, the tensions between the BJP and RSS have never been openly articulated. The cultural metaphor of an Indian family has been kept to manage tensions indoors.

The RSS is not meekly going to accept a less than central role. But much depends on how ambitious Modi is. If he wants to go down as one of the greatest leaders of independent India, he will have to, much like Vajpayee, keep a politically safe distance from the RSS and embark on a project of inclusion. If he allows the RSS to dominate his agenda, he will get dedicated foot soldiers but lose popular support. Ambition requires going above 31 per cent of the popular vote, not dropping below.
Just where the balance between secular nationalism and Hindu nationalism, between memories of historical wrongs and building a strong Indian future, will be struck depends on how high Modi wishes to rise politically. Given the power Modi has today — much like Mrs Gandhi in 1971, even like 1952, when Nehru towered over the political landscape — leadership will play a critical role in the evolution of Indian politics.


The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University, Raja Ramanna Visiting Professor, National Institute of Advanced Study ( NIAS), Bangalore and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express

follow him on twitter @profvarshney

First published on: 28-06-2014 at 12:29:37 am
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