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India: Has Modi Moderated ?

by Irfan Engineer, 3 April 2014

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Ashutosh Varshney in his article in Indian Express (Modi the Moderate) writes that Modi may not have Vajpayee’s style but, substantively, his campaign over the last few months shows roughly similar traits.” Varshney gives instances of Modi paying tribute to Maulana Azad in one of his election speeches; stitching alliances with the dalit parties, including with those who fought against him and finally, Modi pointed out in one of election speeches that Haj quota from Gujarat was full whereas quotas from Bihar and UP could not be filled as Muslims were backward as compared to Gujarat. In all the three instances cited, Varshney claims that Modi’s campaign has departed wholly or very substantially from the tenets of Hindu nationalism. There are two issues here – whether the three instances cited amounts to departing from Hindu nationalist position; and second, if it does, is it merely an election strategy or a substantial ideological repositioning on part of Modi?

A section of liberals hope that responsibility of governing a nation as diverse as India would require the Hindu nationalist party to moderate its stand and politically shift towards the centre without which it cannot be governed. Varshney implies that compulsions of running a coalition government moderated Vajpayee and the BJP. However, others debunk such hopes as Hindu nationalists’ approach towards state is instrumentalist – using the state apparatus to reconstitute and re-imagine India and the Hindus as a homogenous nation, gradually obliterating the cultural diversity and liberal democratic values and in the process reconstitute the state itself as an authoritarian-cultural state – Hindu Rashtra. To achieve the goal of homogeneity in a highly diverse society with entrenched caste hierarchies; religious, ethnic, linguistic and regional diversities, it is necessary to reconstruct and inculcate and foster common cultural patterns within the populace and reshape attitudes and inculcate conformist behavior using educational institutions, mass media and bureaucracy, particularly security forces. State power enables to wield substantial influence over all the three sectors.

Media and Educational institutions are used as soft power to achieve the objective of progressive homogenisation or cultural assimilation. Intolerance of diversity and use (or rather misuse) of security forces and authoritarian non-state actors to attack manifestations of diversity constitutes hard power. Minorities being most vulnerable get attacked more violently and frequently as they are most likely to resist homogenization on the turf of family laws, their dietary habits, celebrations of their religious festivals, etc. Diversity located within the religious minorities is presented as instance of existence of separatist mentality within them posing a security threat to the “Hindu nation”. The soft power (media and educational institutions) and hard power (security forces and the bureaucracy) is further deployed to stigmatize the minorities as baby boomers, illegal immigrants (or rather, infiltrators) from Bangladesh, terrorists, temple demolishers and Hindu culture destroyers while Muslim rulers ruled India and coercive religious converters. Through soft power and hard power, they also try to legitimize the idea of seeking revenge from the present generation for the alleged misconducts of the past generation of the religious minorities.

However, it is not only the religious minorities that resist homogenization. Resistance to homogenization can be located in various sections, including among people belonging to lower and middle castes, people from backward and marginalized regions, women, adivasis, sexual minorities, and other dissenting sections.

Vajpayee’s political compulsions:

Due to coalition compulsions, during Vajpayee’s regime, the BJP thought it best not to take up some issues on which the Hindu nationalists are usually vocal like the uniform civil code and construction of Ramjanmabhoomi temple in place of demolished Babri Masjid and repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution which gives some degree of autonomy to J & K State. Not pursuing these divisive agendas was not out of change of their political programme but because they did not have the necessary numbers in the Parliament to push them. Yet they used the state to pursue their progressive homogenization project.

Murli Manohar Joshi as the HRD minister appointed J S Rajput as Director of NCERT who withdrew History books written by eminent Historians and communalized the History books, appointed Hindu nationalist cadres in various posts and distributed grants accordingly. MM Joshi introduced astrology as a subject at university level and a course to train Hindu priests. Gujarat (and Rajasthan when Vasundhara Raje was in power in her first term as a CM) text books eulogized the efficiency of Hitler’s government without mentioning about the pogrom against the Jews. It is during Vajpayee’s regime that the 2002 Gujarat riots were executed and the “liberal” Vajpayee echoed Narendra Modi’s action-reaction explanation of riots by posing the question, ‘but who burnt the s-6 compartment of Sabarmati Express in Godhra?’

It is during Vajpayee’s regime that attacks on Christians were mounted on a large scale since the year 1998, including in the Dangs District of Gujarat and in Jhabua Dist (Madhya Pradesh). The response was not succour and compensation to the survivors of the attack, nor bringing the guilty to justice, but Vajpayee demanding that there should be a debate on conversions. The Hindu nationalist cadres receive shot in the arm when BJP is in power, they are patronised by those in power and state resources are made available to them. They become bolder and less accountable to law. The attack on Prof. SS Thakur in Khandwa alleged by ABVP cadres, the former ABVP activist from Indore - Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s alleged involvement in planting bombs in Malegaon in 2008 and many other places, are a few examples. Getting Hindu nationalists recruited into the bureaucracy and giving them strategic postings to carry on with their agenda through the state machinery is another activity that goes on even when they cannot pursue their core agenda.

Departing from the tenets of Hindu nationalism?

After a series of election petitions before Bombay High Court which successfully challenged the election of Shiv Sena and BJP MLAs for canvassing for votes in the name of their religion and promoting ill-will animosity or hatred. These challenges were to elections held in 1995 for Maharashtra Assembly. After these challenges, the communal parties stopped publicly canvassing for votes in the name of religion or propagating hatred, ill-will or animosity through any means. No party should be judged for its communal agenda based only on election time propaganda. But their communal message is coded. The candidates, their election agents and political parties appear secular publicly. However, other organizations associated with communal parties rake up communally polarizing issues. Amit Shah was sent to UP as in-charge of the BJP. He visited Ayodhya Ramjanmabhoomi temple for media purposes and through media he conveyed to the people that he prayed for a grand Ramjanmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya. VHP then wanted to undertake chauryasikosi parikrama for politically polarizing UP. When that failed, Jat Mahapanchayat was organized and communal riots were fomented. Modi did not condemn any of these and his man Friday was directly associated with them. Can we still say that Modi has departed from the tenets of Hindu nationalism? Modi himself answered the questions by saying that he was born Hindu and he is a nationalist (and therefore a Hindu nationalist). If the appeal of Hindu nationalism was sufficient to bring BJP to power, the party would have only banked on its ideological appeal. Hindu nationalism is BJP’s core ideology and it deploys the ideology to galvanize its cadres and to appeal to the limited constituency which gets mobilized based on the ideology. BJP, as do other front organizations of the RSS, constantly work to increase the constituency and expand its influence. However, during elections it is compelled to go beyond this limited constituency and without departing, mobilize others on anti-Congressism, posturing and muscle flexing against Pakistan, and campaign on development to attract 35% young voters.

Anti-Congressism of BJP is not premised to deepen democracy and democratic institutions and increase accountability of the state. Anti-Congressism of the BJP is premised on two aspects - Italian origin of its President (constant attack on the first family of the Party on account of its charismatic appeal to the Party members) and for inclusive (though not inclusive enough) programmes for minorities, which it chooses to call minority appeasement. Anti-Congressism of the BJP is itself premised on its Hindu nationalism. Constant muscle flexing against Pakistan and demonizing it too is political programme of Hindu Nationalism. Posturing against Pakistan enables the Hindu nationalists to present the Muslim community as suspected fifth columnists and ISI agents. Let us not forget that Modi’s first election as Chief Minister of Gujarat was fought “against” Mian Musharraf!

The agenda of development is hyped through advertising techniques. It is only the corporate world and crony capitalists that see opportunities opening up for them to drastically scale up their profits without the ordinary citizen of the country benefitting, particularly the marginal peasants, workers, dalits and adivasis. There is no mention of distributive justice in the fruits of development. Therefore adding agendas during election time should not be read as departing substantively from Hindu nationalism. Tiger can never change its stripes!