Hindutva — the idea that Hindus should be politically united in a Hindu nation-state — manifests itself in two complementary forms. One is Hindutva as agenda, and second is Hindutva as electoral politics. If you are Marxist, you might say it’s the difference between theory and praxis.
Here’s an example of Hindutva as agenda: triple talaq. Declaring the practice illegal (through the Supreme Court) and further criminalising it did not yield much electoral dividend for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, never mind the amusing propaganda to the contrary. Yet it was a Hindutva agenda. Choosing a weak point (women’s rights), the BJP-RSS struck the first blow to the idea that Muslims are free to decide their own family laws (like Hindus are).
Hindutva as electoral politics spreads primarily through polarisation. Here’s an early example. M.S. Golwalkar, the influential second chief of the RSS, told Amul’s Verghese Kurien that the cow protection issue was for him a means of uniting the people. It was politics, not faith.
The idea of polarisation is to take an issue and make it the central political agenda. Every person must decide whether they are for that issue or against it. Even if you are against the issue, you are helping it, because you are inevitably discussing the issue. That’s how the agenda is set. Golwalkar wanted to put Jawaharlal Nehru on the mat: are you for cow protection or not? If you are for cow protection, Golwalkar wins. If you are against it, Golwalkar still wins, because then he’s shown Nehru to be anti-Hindu.
The BJP rose to electoral prominence through polarisation: either you were for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya or against it. When the BJP floundered electorally, it revived itself through another polarisation in 2014: either you were for Narendra Modi or against it. The violence in 2002 in Gujarat had similarly helped Modi establish himself as a national Hindutva icon.
The use of polarisation as political strategy is so entrenched in Indian politics today that you will meet BJP-RSS workers in north Indian villages casually refer to it in shuddh Hindi — dhruvikaran.
Agenda succeeds, polarisation fails
Gradually over the last six years, India has become a de facto Hindu Rashtra. The Hindutva agenda has succeeded at a speed no one could have predicted. Future historians will say 2019 was the year India became a Hindu state.
Indian secularism was a guarantee against discrimination on grounds of religion by the state. That guarantee no longer holds. This year has seen Hindus First replace India First.
You see this in the difference between how the Modi government treats Muslim customs in the case of triple talaq, versus Hindu customs in the case of Sabarimala. You see this on Ram Mandir, where a temple is ordered on the site of a demolished mosque, the injustice declared as closure. You see this in Kashmir, where India’s only Muslim-majority state is humiliated into submission. With the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the Modi government is brazenly making religion a basis for citizenship, and only Muslims are excluded. And the government says it will identify all the illegal immigrants in the country, but the BJP adds that the so-called illegal immigrants don’t have to worry if they are Hindu.
And yet, for all this ideological success, Hindutva as electoral politics is not doing well. Since the opposition has stopped opposing Hindutva, it has lost its ability to polarise. The blade has become blunt.
The 2014 election was about whether we want Modi or not, and his opponents did not want him for his Hindutva credentials. The 2019 election was not won through polarisation. It was won through sheer dominance, as reflected in the TINA factor: Aur hai kaun? There Is No Alternative.
Meanwhile, one state election after another is seeing the absence of Hindutva polarisation on the ground. The BJP lost its bastions in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to Congress’ promised of farm loan waivers. Uttar Pradesh in 2017 was won primarily through caste politics and the cult of Modi, not Hindutva polarisation. Whether it was Gujarat in 2017 or Karnataka in 2018, we see Hindutva polarisation lose its potency in electoral politics.
Raising the bar for polarisation
The classic electoral polarisation trick was the Hindu-Muslim riots. There was a time when a riot was only to be expected before an election, like Muzaffarnagar in west UP before 2014. But the BJP in power can’t afford to be seen as fomenting riots.
Polarisation is no longer working because the opposition has surrendered before Hindutva. When the Congress supports a Shiv Sena government, when the opposition welcomes the Ram Mandir, when the opposition goes silent on Kashmir, how do you polarise? Polarisation by definition needs both poles. It’s good news for Hindutva that everyone welcomes Ram Mandir, but bad news for electoral polarisation.
And hence the BJP has been forced to raise the bar of polarisation. You don’t oppose this, ok fine, but how will you not oppose this? That’s how we get the mix of National Register of Citizens. Those opposing it will now be declared supporters of illegal immigrants. Everyone will have to decide whether they support the NRC or oppose it. And the only ones who need to fear the NRC are Muslims, since they don’t get a back-door entry through the amended Citizenship Act.
No copyright on polarisation
Countering polarisation is a two-step process.
- Don’t take the bait. Don’t oppose Hindutva day in and day out.
- Create a counter polarisation. That will change the subject from Hindutva to something else. The classic case was in the early 1990s, when our socialist leaders came up with the Mandal Commission to make a push for backward class politics. Mandal countered Mandir. Caste justice was the answer to religion. We saw this briefly again in Bihar in 2015 when Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav created a Backward versus Forward polarisation.
The opposition at large has learnt to assiduously follow step 1. They don’t oppose Hindutva. They give a perfunctory statement, and go silent on Hindutva issues.
The mistake the opposition is making is in not carrying out the second step. Going silent on Hindutva is pointless unless the opposition can create a counter-polarisation. For that, the opposition will have to come up with a positive agenda. It will have to demand something radical. Maybe it’s caste, maybe it’s unemployment, maybe it’s poverty, but it has to be something and it can’t wait until the next election.
Maybe it’s a minimum income programme. A prolonged Congress campaign on NYAY today, amidst a deep economic slowdown, will be far more successful than it was before the election. It must polarise people: either you are for NYAY or against it. Rather than harp on SPG privileges.
The BJP does not have copyright over polarisation. Indira Gandhi used to polarise: either you were against poverty or against Indira Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi used to polarise: either you were a Swadeshi or a supporter of British oppression.
Modi has already turned India into a Hindu Rashtra. If there’s anything left to save, it will need the opposition to find its own points of polarising the people.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.