In the first two months of their new term in office, the Narendra Modi government has hastened to fulfil the BJP’s core ideological vision faster than in its entire first term. The ideological lodestar of the first Modi term was the palatable, faux Gandhian Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. But in its second tenure, the Modi government is already deep in the embrace of the unabashed, aggressive Hindutva embodied by V.D. Savarkar.
It is perhaps not incidental that Savarkar has suddenly emerged as the flavour of the season, with a couple of books, a flurry of laudatory articles and a controversial bust of him installed overnight outside the Delhi University.
The BJP has stood by three core issues since its inception: instituting the Uniform Civil Code, revoking Article 370 and building the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. In its first term, the Modi government mostly steered clear of all these three issues, and let the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), through its proxies, file Public Interest Litigations (PILs) to take these issues to court. The government presented itself as primarily a pro-poor, welfare-oriented government, rather than a government with a hard-line Hindutva ideology. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s name was plastered all over the posters of government welfare schemes, peppered in key speeches of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind, and his birth centenary was officially celebrated with a lavishly funded and prolonged nation-wide campaign.
This can be explained with two reasons.
First, the Sangh Parivar understood that the 2014 mandate was at best a partial ideological victory as the country was not yet primed for fully embracing the Hindutva ideology. So, the primary concern was to consolidate the gains the BJP had made among the poorer and ‘backward caste’ sections of society, and make these a more durable electoral base. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in October 2014 had explicitly stated that the BJP and the RSS would bring in new national heroes to help the party gain acceptance across society. The egalitarian ethos of Upadhyaya’s integral humanism, encapsulated in his concept of ‘Antyodaya’ meaning the ‘rise of the last person’ was thus foregrounded as the ideological basis for a slew of poverty alleviation measures. The BJP also made constant attempts to appropriate leaders from other ideological streams such as B.R. Ambedkar, Madan Mohan Malviya and Mahatma Gandhi.
The imprint of Gandhian principles of ‘sarvodaya’, ‘swadeshi’ and ‘gram swaraj’ on Upadhyaya’s mind lent his version of Hindutva broader legitimacy, and thus made him a more suitable vehicle for transmitting the message of the Modi government in its first term. In fact, this was precisely why Upadhyaya was also foregrounded by the BharatiyaJana Sangh in the 1970s, which was to pave the way for an alliance with the more secular Janata party.
As scholar Thomas Blom Hansen writes in his book ‘The Saffron Wave’: “Deen Dayal stuck to ‘Golwalkar’s organicist thought’ but also ‘supplemented it with Gandhian discourse and articulated these in a version of Hindu nationalism that aimed at erasing the communal image of the Jana Sangh in favour of a softer, spiritual, non-aggressive image stressing social equality, ‘Indianisation’ and social harmony.”
On the eve of his birth centenary, PM Modi bracketed Upadhyaya with Gandhi and Lohia as the “three great men (who) have influenced Indian political thought in the last century”. The omission of the likes of M.S. Golwalkar and Savarkar from this line-up was deliberate. Modi even said that he was inspired by Gandhi and Upadhyaya’s thoughts when he had declared that his government will be dedicated to serving the poor after being elected as the Prime Minister in 2014.
The road to fulfilling its objectives
The second reason is that the BJP simply did not command the overwhelming political dominance to ram through sweeping ideological changes. When the BJP came to power in 2014, it had a meagre 43 Rajya Sabha MPs out of a total strength of 245. Today, that number has almost doubled to 78. Along with its allies, the BJP commands 115 Rajya Sabha MPs, just 8 short of the majority mark, and needs only the co-operation of a few smaller parties to push any of its agenda in the House. Moreover, at the beginning of the Modi government’s first term, the independent institutions of the State had not yet been bent to the will of the executive. Large sections of the media had not yet reduced themselves into propaganda wings of the government.
Now that those constraints to executive power have been lifted, a more ideologically assertive government has taken shape. The appointment of hardliner Amit Shah as home minister in place of the more compromising Rajnath Singh was the first sign of this transformation.
In scrapping Article 370, the BJP has already fulfilled one of its three core ideological objectives, and by passing the triple talaq bill, it has taken a major stride towards realising the second one — the Uniform Civil Code. The Citizenship Amendment Bill seems to be the next agenda on the anvil, and it would not be surprising if the executive pre-empts the judiciary to force through the construction of the Ram Mandir.
As Savarkar’s biographer Vaibhav Purandare recently wrote in an article titled ‘India reshaped to Savarkar’s will’, it is worth quoting him: “Who is the inspiration behind the Narendra Modi government’s audacious moves to project India as a hard Hindu State? It is undoubtedly Vinayak Damodar Savarkar….More than Modi or Amit Shah, the ghost of Savarkar is steering the Government of India”.
Savarkar was a proponent of hard power and often equated ethical concerns with weakness – something that the removal of Article 370 from Kashmir showcased.
Political scientist Rudolph Heredia contrasted Gandhi with Savarkar on their approach to ethics. While Gandhi was “uncompromising in his rejection of unethical means” no matter how lofty the objectives, in pursuing his ideological goals, Savarkar “unhesitatingly privileged the most effective means regardless of ethical concerns,” that seemed to him “mere distractions”.
Savarkar argued that “virtue and vices are relative terms” and if a particular course of action serves the interests of the Hindu society, then it automatically becomes virtuous. This led him to take morally abhorrent positions such as justifying the use of violence against women and children and even justifying the use of rape as a political tool.
Savarkar lamented that pacifist Buddhism had emaciated Hinduism and hence called for the need to “Hinduise all politics, militarize Hindudom”. The narrative of ‘revenge’ and ‘conquest’ that has permeated right-wing discourse on Kashmir also echoes the exhortation of Savarkar to the Hindu Mahasabha:
“Let us re-learn the manly lessons they taught us and our Hindu Nation shall prove again as unconquerable and conquering a race as we proved once when they led us: conquering those who dared to be aggressive against us…”.
What Savarkar’s centralisation foretells
The centralisation of Savarkar portends the deepening marginalisation of Indian Muslims and Christians from the body-politic, the immutable, subordinate ‘Other’ in Savarkar’s ideology. At a rally in Kozhikode, Modi had quoted Upadhyaya as stating that “Muslims should not be treated as different people. Do not reward them, do not rebuke them, but empower them. Muslims should not be looked down upon nor should they be seen as merely a vote bank. Consider them your own.”
However, Savarkar’s very definition of nation and Indians excludes Muslims and Christians from the consciousness of the country as their ‘punyabhoomi’ (holy place) resides outside India. As prominent scholar Tanika Sarkar puts it, Savarkar’s formulation makes “nation and Hindus synonymous” and thus “reserves citizenship for Hindus alone”.
If the ascension of Savarkar as the guiding light of India’s governance paradigm is indeed complete, the substantive citizenship rights of Muslims and Christians — like Article 370 — might well erode and become history soon.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.