A sympathetic case for Hindu Nationalism


The death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first non-Congress Indian Prime Minister who served a full term (the incumbent, Narendra Modi, is likely to become the second), occasioned a wave of sympathetic reflection, even from those who disagreed politically, about the charm, wisdom and integrity of the old man. Scorned in his lifetime as the 'civilised mask' of the Hindu Nationalists, Vajpayee appeared - in his death - a different breed of a politician, particularly in contrast to his successor,  approachable, consensual and incorruptible. Though he would always have the dubious distinction of being a lifelong Hindu warrior, stretching from the collaboration with the British government in the pre-Independence years to active sponsorship of sectarian politics in the 80s which led to the horrors of religious riots from Bhagalpur to Bombay, Vajpayee came to represent the reasonable case for Hindu Nationalism in India. His death and the outpouring of respect, demand a re-examination if there is indeed a reasonable case for Hinduwta, even if our divided and angry perspective does not allow it a fair hearing.

However, before we indulge, it is worth pointing out the foundational assumptions of Hindu nationalism of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): That India is the land of the Hindus, that Hindus are an unified political community and that the other communities in India, its more than 200 million Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other religionists are either invaders or descendants of Hindus who converted to other religions. 

These assumptions are essentially false: There was no unified Hindu India ever in history, the way one could say the Chinese empire existed; the closest Indian landmass came to unification was under a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, in third century BCE, and then again not until the Sixteenth century, under emperors of Central Asian heritage.

Hindu religion and culture emerged in India, but to claim that it is the only religion of India would be to deny India its rightful distinction as a great fountain of religious and philosophical thought - Jainism, Buddhism, specific varieties of Islam, a uniquely secular devotional religion and Sikhism all arose in the land we know as India - and impose an unduly narrow narrative. 

Also, the caste divisions are unavoidable parts of the Hindu religion, negating the possibility of a unified Hindu political community. Besides, Hindus traditionally treated a large number of people as 'outside castes', untouchables, counting them out for all purposes and intents, and only counting them in while claiming the majority in a modern democratic India. The caste Hindus are over-represented among the privileged classes - more than 60% of the college graduates come from higher caste Hindus, approximately 15% of the Indian population - and that may make one think India is a Hindu majority country. However, the truth remains that, in India, everyone belongs to a minority.

In reality, then, the case for defining India as a Hindu country, a case Vajpayee made with all his wit and charm, rests on accepting what the Hindu Nationalists themselves would call a false assumption,
that India was always the land of two nations, Hindus and Muslims, and that the Muslims of India have now been given their separate, and rightful, homeland - Pakistan - leaving India as the land of the Hindus.

But this does not explain why over 200 million Muslims stayed in India after the partition, clinging to the land of their fathers and not falling for the allure of a 'land of the pure', a strange loyalty that will fail the theory of Hindu nationalism. Neither can Sikhs be fully accommodated into this two-nation idea - some of their most sacred places falling within the land of Muslims - nor various minorities of Central India, the North-east and of the Mountain regions. The various Bhakti movements, which opened its door to all comers, can not also be fully reconciled with this brand of Hinduism.

How should we then explain the reasonable case, one that Vajpayee made, for the unreasonable and the unfounded? The point is to understand that this debate is not really about the past, but of the present and for the future. Understanding this is the central challenge of those in India who treat the Hindu nationalists a bunch of uneducated rabble-rousers, who want to cling to the past. There is nothing uneducated or unsophisticated about the case Vajpayee made: Rather, it is as intelligent and sophisticated a political argument that there can be! He was never clinging to the past, manufacturing it to fit the agenda he laid down for the future. It may appear anachronistic, but when Vajpayee and Hindu Nationalist colleagues faced off their direct ideological competitors, the Indian Communists, it is they that stood for a revolution, making up a past that never existed to make their promised land look familiar, whereas the latter, claiming to be the harbinger of an as-yet-unknown future, looked to the past searching for answers. 

Sophisticated this certainly was! It is not accidental that BJP's political rise coincided with India's economic liberalisation, unprecedented growth of its urban centres and rise of a technically educated and geographically mobile professional class. It was its direct consequence: The melting pot of India's new workplaces, built around a lopsided microcosm of the Indian population, enabling a new Indian identity conducive to the appeal of Vajpayee and his kind. The new ambition was perfectly at ease with the Hindu revolution that Vajpayee and his party promised. It was a revolution of privilege - India was indeed shining, at least in its cities!

At this point, reasons and historical facts didn't matter any more. Vajpayee's case rested on aspiration. His appeal, and that of others like APJ Abdul Kalam, a President he helped to elect, was of one of the possibility of building an India for its middle classes. It was a limited vision of a demagogue, which stopped short of pointing out and resolving any of the fundamental structural challenges that India faced. Rather, they focused on othering the minorities, but its appeal of simplicity is undeniable. It allowed the rootless professionals to feel at home - the more partisan the belonging, the better - and to feel less guilty about their own privilege. Vajpayee's ideas did not need expensive efforts to expand education, reform the courts or improve healthcare, but needed a profitable mobilisation of enterprise, impose a uniform, 'Hindu', law and encouragement to privately financed infrastructure building. While the other parties squabbled about the particulars of history, they lost the arguments about the future.

Today, Vajpayee's ideas have come a full circle, with a new nexus of privilege, a billionaire Raj, being established in India, enabled by a muscular form of Hindu nationalism of his successors. It has grown fast in the void of fragmentation of Indian polity along the regional lines, and a strange inability of Congress, the main Opposition party, to understand the contradiction between pluralism, which it professes, and personal loyalty, which it practises. India's revolution of the privileged is no longer exceptional, as the new technological media has made possible connecting the connected, replacing 'vote bank' with 'vote-book'. The reason why Vajpayee's politics looks transformational is that it has now become mainstream: the Indian Republic is now as partisan and personality driven as it has ever been, with the narrative of economic growth and voodoo of entrepreneurialism trumping social justice concerns once and for all. In appearing benign in his death, Vajpayee indeed has won the debate.  

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