The Limits of Militant Hindutva

It is not without irony that barely days after the long-pending Ayodhya verdict was delivered by the Supreme Court that the Shiv Sena broke its alliance with the BJP. The Sena-BJP tie-up, after all, is the original Hindutva alliance, forged in the high noon of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s. It was hugely mutually beneficial: the BJP emerged from the debris of the 1984 election rout to ride on a rath yatra to power in Delhi while the Shiv Sena positioned itself in the aftermath of the post-Ayodhya riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 as the ‘protectors’ of Hindus. Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray, in fact, had boasted after the Babri demolition that he was ‘proud of his boys’ and openly identified his party with the destruction. Without the criminal act of demolishing the Babri Masjid and the violence that ensued, it is highly likely that neither party would have been a serious contender for power in Delhi or Mumbai.

So does the messy break up mark the end of militant Hindutva politics as a sharp instrument for political benefit, or does it simply re-affirm ‘opportunism’ as the most durable ideological ‘ism’ in politics? Barely six months ago, the BJP won a massive mandate in the general election, relying on prime minister Modi’s appeal and a ‘trishul’ of muscular nationalism, barely concealed majoritarianism and well-targeted welfarism. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Sena alliance won 41 of the 48 seats and was leading in as many as 230 assembly segments. If they couldn’t repeat their success in the Vidhan Sabha, it only shows that local issues often trump a pan-Indian agenda in a state election.

Take for example the contentious temple-mosque dispute in Ayodhya: it may have galvanized the BJP’s cote voter but its resonance was always both socially and geographically limited, and to an extent time-barred too. It initially made the BJP a ‘20 per cent plus’ party in India’s increasingly fragmented polity but the great leap to becoming the dominant national party has only happened in the last five years. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 18 per cent of the popular vote. That its vote percentage has doubled to over 37 per cent in a decade is a reflection of both, the decline in the Congress and the ascent of Modi as India’s neta number one. The incremental vote to the BJP didn’t come from its allegiance to Ram Mandir, Article 370, or uniform civil code but from the hope and trust generated in Modi’s leadership and the growing frustration with the national alternatives.

In the Modi era, the BJP has attempted to ride both chariots: one that builds on the narrative of growth and development and the other that retains an unapologetic commitment to the core issues of Hindutva. Where a Vajpayee sought to build a consensus on sharply ideological issues, Modi and his key lieutenant, Amit Shah have felt no such compunctions. Within six months of Modi 2, the government has effectively scrapped Article 370, obtained court sanction to build a Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya and criminalised triple talaq as a possible step towards implementing a broader uniform civil code. An amended Citizenship Act that discriminates between communities and effectively validates the two nation theory is also firmly on its agenda. With a saffron-robed monk firmly in charge in India’s most populous state and state power used for promoting overt religosity and even settling food habits, the Modi-Shah-led BJP have sent out an unambiguous message: India’s Hindu identity is now effectively mainstreamed at all levels and is no longer a fringe phenomenon.

And yet, while the chariot of ‘majoritarian nationalism’ strides forward remorselessly, the other chariot of ‘growth-development’ is now beginning to stall and sputter. The 5 trillion dollar economy dream that was spun just months ago is now being pitted against the reality of a faltering growth engine, a serious job crisis, a stressed banking system and a general lack of confidence in the investor community. Rather than admit to the scale of the problem, the Modi government has chosen to treat the economy much in the manner it does with its political agenda: a cavalier disregard for institutional checks and balances. So when a ‘leaked’ National Statistical Office (NSO) report reveals troubling data on consumer spending and falling rural demand, the instinctive reaction is to junk the data altogether. This repeated practice of either fudging figures or hiding them suggests that the government is deeply insecure when shown the mirror.

Which is also perhaps why the Modi government seeks refuge in its political calculus rather than get tied to the more arduous task of getting the economy back on track. Politics affords the luxury of astute headline management, quite apart from keeping the citizen in a thrall of constant emotional engagement. Article 370 one day, Ayodhya the next, the Modi government’s image managers remain hopeful that the voter is in a state of permanent excitement over issues that maybe polarizing but are also appealing. If government sources are to be believed, the build-up to a ‘grand’ Ram Temple will be just as impressive. A shilanyas is planned around Ram Navmi next year, followed by a series of programmes to encourage public participation in the ‘holy’ task of temple-building, culminating in the actual construction of the temple, possibly just ahead of the 2022 UP elections. The belief seems to be that the voter will be so engrossed in Ram bhakti that the concerns over ‘Roti’ will matter less. And if that doesn’t work, there is always the sangh parivar affiliate, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to step up its demands for ‘liberating’ Kashi and Mathura next.

Only this brand of populist politics driven by the fervor of religious nationalism has its limits. The recent events in Kashmir have damaged the Modi government’s global image with searching questions being raised over the government’s commitment to democratic rights. The Shiv Sena’s revolt, howsoever opportunistic it may be, has confirmed that Hindutva alone is no longer a glue that binds. And the economic crisis can no longer be hidden and masked by clever slogans and catchwords. In the circumstances, the Modi government may soon need a new formula to attract both its allies and the floating voter.

Post-script: On the very first day of the winter session of Parliament, the Shiv Sena staged a walk-out over the issue of farmer distress. A Sena back-bencher MP quipped: 'Pehle kisan, Phir Bhagwan Ram!' Clearly, the times have changed.

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