The rise of Hindu nationalism, especially in its more virulent form has worried many analysts of Indian politics. The reasons for the growth and popularity of Hindutva are many and complex. The growth of Hindu nationalism can be understood in the context of four broad themes- the failure of the secular state in India to fulfill certain aspirations especially those of the middle classes from the post 1980 period; this then ties in with questions of religion and caste politics. At this stage with the decline of the Congress, the BJP was able to provide the middle classes with a coherent formula that appeals to them and there is a shifting of voter loyalties especially in northern India. Hence, it makes sense to look at the space created by the failure of the Congress, then the rise of the middle class, the politics of caste, and finally why the BJP would appeal to many in the middle class. This will then help us to understand whether the events of Ayodhya were an ‘elite conspiracy’ led by certain vested interests or a ‘mass movement’ from below.
The Secular State in Indian Politics
It has been argued by Sumantra Bose that the Indian ‘secular’ state must take the blame for creating the space for Hindu nationalism to emerge. Secularism in India could have two definitions- that the Indian state is either indifferent to religion or professes equal respect for all religions and that appeals to religion and community as tools of mobilisation should be eschewed. However, this has rarely been the case, and as examples from the tenures of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi will show, the ‘secular’ state has either misinterpreted its mandate vis-à-vis religion, or occasionally supported majoritarian tendencies. If one views these trends in the light of declining Congress hegemony and the rise of an affluent middle class that is increasingly frustrated by the unpredictability and flux in the multi party system, the political context for the BJP’s bid for power becomes clearer.
The secular character of the Congress has often been overstated. If one measures secular credentials merely by numbers and membership then even during the national movement, the Congress especially at the local levels, remained an overwhelmingly Hindu organisation. It found it difficult even after independence to reach out to poor and average Muslims and tried to reach them either through social influence or the religious leadership but was rarely able to engage with them in day-to-day organizational and party activities.
In terms of the Congress culpability for the rise of Hindu nationalism, two factors can be thus identified. First, its over centralizing tendencies especially under Indira Gandhi, allowed many localised grievances to be later exploited for communal purposes, by those who argued that demands for self determination were reflections of both Congress failure and signs that certain religious communities (the Sikhs in the Punjab and the Muslims in Kashmir) were determined to tear apart the integrity of the country. Hence, both these movements, which were not religious in nature, were given a religious and communal tinge. The second factor was the covert, and sometimes not so covert support that the Congress provided to majoritarian sentiments. This was visible both during the rules of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.
There is evidence that the rule of Indira Gandhi saw some of the worst communal riots in India’s history especially in north India. Allahabad, Moradabad, Godhra and Hyderabad to name a few cities, witnessed incidents of communal rioting. The Nehruvian secular consensus, however flawed, that had been built up was systematically destroyed. As the Congress found its vote share in northern India steadily declining, it resorted to alternative strategies of mobilisation and appeal, and these did not preclude religious appeals. Indira Gandhi refused to blame the police for their role in the riots and went so far as to say that it was up to the minorities to ‘adjust’ in India. Her stance on the minorities led to many in the RSS to support and even managed to drive a political wedge between the RSS and the BJP. Many of the top leaders of the former, now encouraged fellow members to vote for the Congress rather than the BJP. It was Indira’s handling of the Sikh situation and Congress complicity in the riots following her assassination that was proof that the party had abandoned its secular ideals. The Khalistan issue, like the Kashmir one, was cleverly exploited by the BJP to present the Congress as inept and incapable of holding the country together. As shall be seen later, this kind of rhetoric found resonance among the middle classes.
This communal rhetoric was further fostered by Rajiv Gandhi, exemplified by his stance on two issues. First, his decision in the Shah Bano case pandered to the most obscurantist of Muslim sentiments and was detrimental to the cause of all Muslim women. But he made the mistake that all earlier PMs had made- he treated the Muslim community as a monolith, with a common interests that could be addressed through uniform policies as well allowing the top religious leaders (many of whose views were fundamentalist and not representative of the community at large) to speak for the Muslims of the nation. This action again, allowed the space for the BJP to later claim that the Indian state was ‘pampering minorities’ and appeasing them.
Next, his actions or lack of them over the Ramjanambhoomi issue further added to growing communal sentiments in the country. In September 1989 the ram shila puja was allowed to be held and marked the beginning of a series of carefully constructed campaigns across north India by the VHP. It is interesting to note that the brick campaign was persistently dogged by riots across the country with some of the worst riots occurring in Bhagalpur in November 1989.
The above account is a reflection of how the party that was to be the vanguard of secularism in the country, abandoned that principle when it was convenient for it. But the reason it had to turn to majoritarian and communal sentiments was clearly linked to its inability to resolve what has been termed as the ‘organic crisis’ of the Indian state. At the same time, its ineptitude and its use of religious language provided the perfect opportunity for right wing organisations to pick up on this rhetoric and use it for its own purposes. The BJP had by now identified its principal vote bank as being the growing affluent middle classes of north India. The actions of the Congress provided the space for the BJP rhetoric to succeed. In this context it is imperative we examine the role of the much maligned middle classes in the rise of Hindu nationalism, by looking at what the middle class is, and why it would be attracted by such religious-nationalist doctrines in general and the BJP in particular. In order to understand the actions of both the BJP and the Congress, we need to analyse the socio-economic setting of Hindu nationalism.
The Middle Class and Hindu Nationalism
Indian politics for long had accommodated the middle classes, most of whom were upper caste. They had benefited from English education and colonial employment and were upwardly mobile. Just below them were the slightly lower ranked but urbanized upper castes- the shopkeepers, small town industrialists, the petty bourgeoisie. Over time, both these groups have come to form the support the base of the Hindu nationalists, with the latter being a more reliable vote bank for the BJP. Stuart Corbridge and Richard Harriss link the rise of the BJP to this middle class. The class is rather difficult to define, a problem that Dubey acknowledges as well. It is usually classified on the basis of income and has now been extended to include large numbers of rich peasants and farmers.
The middle classes gradually shifted their political allegiance away from the Congress. This can be understood by looking at the nature of caste politics, the inability of the Congress to tackle competing demands for scarce resources, and the changing economic profile of the middle class. The role of the middle classes in the rise of Hindu nationalism can thus be understood through three broad interconnected themes- disillusionment with the Congress, sociological factors accompanying economic change and the calculations of caste. It is also relevant that in electoral terms the BJP benefited from this shifting allegiance in those states where there was no effective opposition to the Congress, but in states like Kerala and West Bengal it was unable to make much headway.
The end of the ‘licence raj’ and the unravelling of India’s command and control economy was followed by unprecedented liberalization under P.V. Narasimha Rao. The influence of the middle classes on policy issues became palpable with increases in the exemption limits of income tax, a further narrowing of the base of direct taxes, and low taxes on consumer durables. Suman Dubey identifies a close link between this modernisation process and the rise of fundamentalism. He sees sociological factors pushing the middle classes towards religion. He argues that a proclamation of the a Hindu identity- whether through participation in rituals and congregational activities or by more visible symbols of Hindu pride, such as car stickers claiming support for the Ayodhya temple, meant a proclamation of social involvement and an opportunity to gain community acceptance. For many who had acquired economic status but not social status, religion provided the anchor by which this divide could be bridged.
In this context, it is useful to examine Thomas Blom-Hansen’s link between globalisation and nationalism, vis-à-vis its implications for the middle classes. He argues that the integration of India into the world economy revealed the failure of the bureaucratic; semi planned economic model of development and the obsolete nature of the ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. For the huge middle class and upwardly mobile social strata, this constituted a dent to national pride and contributed to a desire to move up in the imagined global hierarchy. The growing middle classes demanded higher standards of living and better education, while a still stronger middle peasantry demanded new agricultural policies and increased political influence. During the 1980s, the discrepancy between the long standing self perception of India as the natural leader of the Third World and the rapid marginalisation of India in the global economy and world politics, began to dawn on the educated middle class. It was only natural that the BJP’s rhetoric of an ‘Akhand Bharat’ that was capable of standing up to the superpowers, a nation based on a mythical Hindu past, that would claim its rightful place in the global arena, would have considerable appeal.
The motives of the middle classes were not merely prompted by such sociological factors but by caste considerations as well. The recommendations of the Mandal Commission to provide for 27.5% reservation for the OBCs was a political tinder box. While most political parties, in principle agreed to implement the recommendations, few actually dared to. When V.P. Singh announced his plans for doing so, the country erupted in upper caste/middle class fury. Accommodating newly mobile groups like the OBCs upste patronage dispensing mechanisms of the Indian state and alienated the urban and rural upper castes especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It led to a consolidation of the upper caste, middle class and lower middle class vote behind the BJP. This defection was especially visible in U.P. As upper caste and rural dominants in northern and western India decided that a weakened and indecisive Congress (which was unable to take an unequivocal stand on the Mandal issue), could not be relied on to ensure their status quo and privilege, the appeal of Hindu nationalists soared.
Anti Mandal agitations by upper caste youth and students among the middle class and lower middle classes of urbanized north India, including self- immolations by students, played into the hands of the BJP. Occasionally, caste violence would be displaced and take on communal overtures as in Gujarat in 1990. This displacement of hatred was also later visible in the Bombay riots.
In the light of the caste equations being changed, it is now imperative that we turn to our final factor in explaining the rise of Hindu nationalism- the appeal of the BJP in particular for the middle classes, and why some of the hate filled rhetoric that it spewed especially in the 1990s found such a chord among ordinary middle class Hindus. We have established so far that the 1980s saw a tremendous boom in the economic fortunes of the middle classes with widespread and rapid social mobility. The middle class remained committed to the growth of consumer capitalism and a strong state that could deal with political crises and economic discontent arising from a boom in private enterprise. Initially, this class had found a saviour in Rajiv Gandhi, but his ineptitude and the introduction of the Mandal Commission recommendations, paved the way for Hindutva with its aggressive right wing world view embodied in a seemingly coherent ideology.
The Mandal issue deeply disturbed the BJP top brass. Not only was the Congress consensus that had been complicit with upper caste domination now under strain, the heightened salience of caste over religion threatened to fragment the BJP’s constituency. While it opted to formally support the Mandal recommendations at the national level, it systematically undermined it at the local level. This was consistent with its past policies. After all, at the grass roots level, the VHP and the RSS were avowedly upper caste, and while they consistently proclaimed that they had the backing of the Dalits and the OBCs, caste hierarchies and politics, continued to be an integral part of their organisation. Thus the BJP responded by changing the national agenda and shifting attention to the Ramjanambhoomi issue. The response to Mandal was mandir.
Subsequent events bear out this link. While in 1991 the BJP won parliamentary majorities in UP as well as control over the state legislature, it was able to do so, not based on its mandir rhetoric but because of shifting caste loyalties and a desertion of the Congress by the upper caste. Once in power, it was much easier for the BJP especially in U.P., to bring the mandir issue to the forefront and exploit it. The massive popular upsurge in Jammu and Kashmir at this stage gave the proponents of Hindutva an unrivalled propaganda weapon. It was proof of Congress failure as well as the diabolical, ‘anti national’ designs of the Muslims. While the Kashmiris and the Sikhs constituted a ‘disloyal opposition’ to the Congress, the BJP was the ‘semi loyal opposition’.
Nationalist language and rhetoric
It is also imperative to examine the sort of rhetoric and language that the BJP uses and why this appeals to the middle class. This would help to explain the enthusiasm of ordinary Hindus during the Ramjanambhoomi campaign. The BJP has certain pet terms it reserves for the Congress- two of these are ‘pseudo secular’ and ‘appeasement of minorities’. Both of these resonate with middle class beliefs that the Muslims have been ‘pampered’ in modern India, that they are fundamentally disloyal to the nation, and that they will outbreed the Hindus. Ludicrous as some of these may sound, across the Hindi heartland of northern India, these beliefs have been long held, but scarcely articulated. The BJP was thus able to bring into the public domain, discourse and beliefs that had hitherto been private. In doing so, it offered the opportunity for the middle classes of the Hindi heartland to actively participate in politics, and help in restoring the glory of ‘Akhand Bharat’. The techniques used by the Sangh Parivar included mass public rituals, congregational religious activity (that would build up a sense of the Hindu community), a careful use of the media, and a painstakingly constructed multi layered and ingenious Hindu nationalist discourse. It was argued that true secularism could come not by ignoring Hindus, but by accepting the premise that they were in a majority as hence secularism would mean rule by this majority according to ‘Hindu principles’. Just as the ‘secular’ state had constructed a monolithic Muslim community with uniform interests, the nationalist discourse tried to match that with a similar monolithic version of Hinduism. ‘Hindu India’ was portrayed as being inherently tolerant and secular but was now erupting in rage over historical humiliations. Muslims were portrayed as being doctrinaire, undemocratic, intransigent, and thereby anti-modern. Islam was seen as aggressive and intolerant. The mythical construction of the sexual masculine ‘excess’ of the Muslims added to the spectre that the Muslim population would overwhelm the Hindus. Hence, the Muslims were seen as an undesirable blot, left behind by Partition, without whose removal the Hindu nation could not emerge.
It is evident that such discourse, not matter how irrational, would feed into middle class anxieties. It ties up with concern over the nation’s loss of prestige in the international arena, its economic failure and the rise of secessionist movements, and focusses all the attention on a single enemy. By providing a coherent and convenient scapegoat for the nation’s ill, the Sangh Parivar, by implication was also providing an easy solution for its regeneration. This discourse was accompanied by masterly political tactics. A good example of this would be the ram shila puja and the ram jyoti ceremonies held in Ayodhya. Ordinary middle class, predominantly north Indian Hindus were made to feel as if mundane tasks, that could be easily performed, such as blessing a brick, lighting a candle, or displaying a saffron flag, was their contribution to the advancement of Hinduism and ‘Hindu India’.
In order to understand the appeal of Hindutva, it is thus necessary to examine various parallel trends. The loss of Congress hegemony and the growth of secessionist movements, were seen as proof of the inability of the Congress to meet the needs of the nation. The increasing affluence of the middle class and their fears over reservation policy were channelised effectively into a Hindu nationalist platform that offered easy solutions to more complex issues. It is not inevitable that an affluent middle class will harbour fundamentalist beliefs, and it is in that context that the effective mobilisation strategies of the Sangh Parivar must be ‘appreciated’.