The eagle has landed
Shades of Hinduism dominate as India’s chosen flavour of the day – while appearing immediately beneficial, its long-term consequences require introspection
The saffron eagle has spread its wings over the country, for yet another time. Barring Punjab and a few southern states, its hegemony over the land of Hindus is almost complete. Even West Bengal, traditionally known for religious tolerance, is gradually yielding to its power. Equally complete is the process of disunion of religious groups, of voters getting partitioned into isolated compartments on the basis of faith. Secularism, which was once the pride of our country and a cornerstone of our Constitution, seems to be rapidly running out of fashion.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon though. Of course, Hindu fundamentalism as a political ideology is at least as old as the nation and probably existed even before the nation was born. Its influence on people, however, was always within bounds. In post-independence India, the dominant political force was the Indian National Congress, which essentially trod a middle path, albeit with a tilt towards the left, absorbing within itself diverse ideas and views. Indeed, the Indian National Congress was more of a platform than a political party. It accommodated the ethos of a plural, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious society that was India.
Challenges did come from extremist groups but in each case, either the challenger was vanquished or for survival, it had to moderate its extremist position. Hindu fundamentalist parties like Ram Rajya Parishad, Hindu Mahasabha or Jan Sangh do not exist anymore. All India Schedule Caste Federation is extinct. DMK or Akali Dal have left their secessionist stance and moved towards a middle path. In the same vein, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party or Janata Dal, who had once united the lower castes and Muslims against upper caste Hindus, have, over the course of time, drifted to accommodate the mainstream. Even BJP, after coming to power in their first phase through the politics of Babri Masjid demolition, was not particularly keen on keeping its religious promises. There are good reasons why Indian political parties had to choose a moderate as opposed to an extreme posture.
The main reason is, of course, the multidimensionality of Indian society. In Indian society, there are at least four important cleavages: religion is one cleavage, language is another, a third divider is caste and class is a possible fourth. These cleavages have made India a plural society. Again, because of this plurality, there is no singular concept of majority among the Indian electorate. In terms of religion, Hindus are the majority; in terms of class, the poor outnumber the rich. But Hindus are not a homogeneous lot. There are upper castes and lower castes. The split between them is rather sharp. If a party tries to mobilise political support on the platform of Hinduism, a rival party can cause a rift in this platform by mobilising people along caste lines. Similarly, if a party tries to gather forces by uniting the have-nots, chances are high that some other party can dilute the results of its endeavour by organising a political platform on the basis of a common language attracting people of different classes. As a result of this multi-dimensional aspect of majority, a party, in order to survive intense political competition, has to create a sufficiently wide umbrella under which people of different identities can take shelter. In other words, plurality of the Indian society has negated extremist platforms and compelled political organisations to choose a moderate middle path. Here is the puzzle. How, in the plural Indian society, can the agenda of Hinduism cut across all other dimensions, attributes and platforms and emerge as the single dominant identity?
To make Hinduism emerge as the dominant identity it was necessary to contain the challengers. First, the Hindu platform had to be sufficiently broadened to accommodate SCs, STs and OBCs along with upper caste Hindus. In addition, one had to ensure that lower castes had no incentive to leave the platform. The second requirement was fulfilled by what happened in the past. In the past, lower castes had organised themselves under banners of different political parties to extract substantial benefits from the government and to do so, it was necessary for them to isolate themselves from the broader Hindu agenda. But, gradually, it was realised that no more benefits are to be obtained. So, it is no longer detrimental to the interest of the lower castes to come out of their narrow caste identity and join the general platform of Hinduism. That a narrow caste identity does not cut much ice any longer is clear from the debacle of the SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh in the recent polls. Moreover, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself comes from a Modh-Ganchi-Teli (Oil Presser) community, which has been recognised as an OBC by the Government of India, and President Ram Nath Kovind is a Dalit, lower castes have strong reasons to identify themselves with the variety of Hinduism that BJP is currently offering.
Apart from caste, a challenge could have come from the platform of language. The Hindu identity has associated with it a distinct north Indian culture where the dominant language is Hindi. Clearly, this is still unacceptable in southern states but has been conceded in the west. Even eastern states, including Bengal, are slowly giving in. This gives the Hindu-Hindi platform enough support to pursue its agenda.
Finally, the question of class. BJP has been universally described as a 'rightwing Hindu nationalist' party. Therefore, whatever be the claims of the last Modi government about its services to the poor, the heart of the Hindu rule lays primarily with big capital. This was amply clear from the euphoria observed in the stock market following the exit poll results. Indian National Congress, on the contrary, is evidently pro-poor, at least in a relative sense. But the announcements of future welfare measures by Rahul Gandhi, including that of his massive income transfer scheme NYAY, did not find many takers simply because they sounded incredible. Indeed, if INC had concentrated more on the economic aspects of the recent Modi rule instead of wasting time on the so-called Rafale scam, its performance in the polls would have improved.
In short, the Hindu rule in India is firmly in place. It might bring prosperity and stability to the country in the short run, but in the long run, it provides reasons to worry. Several studies, including those conducted by the Institute of Economics and Peace, show that in the present day world, a large majority of within-state conflicts has religious roots. Religious fundamentalism provokes counter religious fundamentalism and the inevitable result is unending violence leading to economic instability and misery.
(The author is Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)