Whatever happened to Hindutva?


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EVERY election produces its share of politicians angry with opinion polls. Following his party’s ignominious defeat in Delhi, the BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana rued the fact that he had to fight two battles simultaneously – one against the Congress and the other against a media that was being led by the opinion polls. In Rajasthan, where the BJP coasted to a famous victory, its leader Vasundhara Raje had a similar complaint. So intense is the anger at flawed opinion polls and wildly misleading media assessments that one BJP Cabinet minister has actually suggested a public audit of the media.

Infallibility being at the heart of its public image, the fourth estate is unlikely to oblige. Having misread the overall trend in the assembly elections of December 2003, the editorial classes have expediently shifted tack. Since both the Congress and the BJP contested the elections on the development-governance theme, there is now a clamour to discover the ‘respectable’ face of saffron. It is being suggested that the triumph of the so-called Vajpayee line will witness the eclipse of the party’s Hindutva orientation. Like the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which has been reduced to a meaningless shibboleth for Marxist parties, Hindutva, it is argued, may soon assume a purely decorative role in the BJP.

It is not merely the absence of any overt Hindutva issues in the 2003 assembly elections – despite the Congress bid to make it an issue in Madhya Pradesh – that prompts interest in the BJP’s strategic shift. If Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s assertion that what took place in Gujarat in 2002 was an ‘aberration’ is accepted, there are reasons to believe that the BJP has been consciously diluting its Hindutva plank since the election of 1996.

Unlike the Lok Sabha election of 1989 and 1991 and the five assembly elections of 1993 when the Ram temple issue was the primary focus, the BJP has been increasingly fighting elections on traditional issues. In 1998 and 1999, Hindutva was largely absent from its campaign and the secular-communal debate was raised only by the secular camp. Post-1999, Hindu activist bodies like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have accused the BJP of sacrificing Hindutva at the altar of political power. Cries of ‘betrayal’ have been repeatedly heard from the lips of both Ashok Singhal and Vishnu Hari Dalmia, stalwarts of the VHP. At times, the RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan has come close to endorsing the charges of treachery.

Has experience in government and the taste of political power induced a process of secularisation in the BJP? Or is this shift purely expedient and entirely a function of the coalition game that the party has developed into a fine art? Before examining the pulls and pressures within the party and the entire Sangh parivar, it may be instructive to look at the way Hindutva has figured in the party’s internal debates.



The BJP was established in 1980 as a direct consequence of the dual-membership controversy within the Janata Party. Since the stalwarts of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) were not prepared to sever their ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), they chose to walk out of a dejected, divided and defeated Janata Party and establish the BJP. Unlike the BJS which was set up by Shyamaprasad Mookerjee as a Hindu nationalist alternative to the Congress and which the RSS encouraged its members to join, the BJP’s RSS pedigree was more direct.

Paradoxically, the BJP chose to not showcase this umbilical cord that tied it to the RSS. In its early days, particularly till 1985, the BJP projected itself as a more wholesome version of the Janata Party that was established by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1977. Despite the misgivings of people like Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, the original hardliner, the BJP embraced woolly notions like Gandhian socialism and broadly steered away of the secular-communal conflict. It attempted to forge a national alliance with Charan Singh’s Lok Dal and participated in N.T. Rama Rao’s movement against the Congress in Andhra Pradesh. Of course it was castigated by the Left and the socialists for its RSS links, but these were secondary to the larger project of forging a viable anti-Congress front.



The decimation of the BJP in the 1984 election proved a turning point. As the party confronted the grim reality of just two seats in the Lok Sabha (and one of them was courtesy the Telugu Desam), it realised that the Congress had successfully played the Hindu nationalist card in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. (In an open letter, Nanaji Deshmukh more or less suggested that the RSS cadres should vote for the Congress.) The post-election issue of Organiser had an evocative illustration of the Congress symbol with the BJP lotus prominently etched on the palm.

The conclusion the BJP drew from the 1984 election was simple and direct – never again would it permit the Congress to upstage it on its Hindu credentials.

It lived up to its promise. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to orthodox Muslim opinion, reversed the Shah Bano judgment of the Supreme Court and enacted the Muslim women’s bill. With Advani at the helm, the BJP now had no inhibitions about flaunting its Hindu identity aggressively. From being a bit part of an amorphous anti-Congress cluster, the BJP assumed a distinct identity and called itself the ‘party with a difference’. Committed to the role of ideas in shaping the political agenda, Advani made terms like pseudo-secularism, minorityism and Hindutva part of the political lexicon. By the time, a pre-existing Ram Janmabhoomi movement was added to the party’s agitational focus in 1989, the BJP was on the way to redefining the national agenda.



The introduction of Hindutva into the party’s political vocabulary has an interesting story. Till 1987, Hindutva as a term did not feature in the party’s resolutions, manifestos and literature. Stalwarts like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Balraj Madhok and Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke about Bharatiyata and Indianisation but not Hindutva. Since Hindutva had been popularised in Indian politics by Veer Savarkar in 1923, it almost seemed that the BJS/BJP was consciously distancing itself from the old Hindu Mahasabha tradition. Therefore, with the growing irrelevance of the Hindu Mahasabha after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Hindutva fell into disuse. It only held sway among a small clutch of Hindu nationalist intellectuals who found the RSS and BJP insufficiently committed to Hindu resurgence.

It was Bal Thackeray who was instrumental in reviving the usage of Hindutva. In the aftermath of the Ville Parle by-election of 1986, when the Shiv Sena candidate won on an aggressive Hindutva platform, the BJP woke up to the potential of the concept. By 1987, Hindutva entered the BJP mainstream and became the plank on which Advani based his rejuvenation of the party.

The centrality of Hindutva in today’s BJP needs to be emphasised. The present leadership of the BJP has three strands. First, there are those who came into the party through a long association with the RSS in the shakhas. Second are those who entered the fold via their association with the JP movement and the struggle against the Emergency. Today they dominate the entire second rung of the party. Finally, an important section comprises those who came on board inspired by the Ayodhya movement. Interestingly, only a minority of them are from traditional Sangh backgrounds.

It is important to note that those who climbed on board after 1996, lured by the prospects of being in the ruling party, do not make up too sizeable a group within the BJP. Prime Minister Vajpayee may be setting the agenda and even calling the shots, but he does not head a separate faction or an ideological tendency. The primary commitment of those who make up the heart and soul of the BJP is to a blend of anti-Congressism and Hindutva.

This may prompt the instant conclusion that the present emphasis on governance and development is disingenuous and that behind the ‘bread and butter’ questions lurks a hidden BJP agenda for the transformation of India into a Hindu state. However, an examination of the ideological debates since 1996 suggest otherwise.



In 1991, the BJP was regarded as a political pariah, a situation that Advani was to describe as one of ‘majestic isolation’. Apart from the Shiv Sena, no other party was inclined to associate with it. For the party this was a major electoral challenge. Traditionally, Indian electoral logic had proceeded on the assumption that the Congress was a stable pole in the polity. The ability to confront the Congress, it was felt, lay in the skill of a party or formation to consolidate the anti-Congress vote. The higher the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU), the argument went, the greater the possibilities of a Congress defeat.

The 1991 election punctured this theory. Mounting a shrill and energetic campaign, the BJP pierced the IOU barrier by reinforcing its traditional support with votes from both the Janata Dal and the Congress. It won 120 seats on its own steam. Had it not been for the dislocation of the campaign following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the postponement of elections by three weeks, the BJP tally may well have touched 150.



Redefining the electoral calculus and even emerging as the single largest party was a worthwhile objective but securing power needed another great leap forward. In early 1996 (before the Jain hawala case entered the public domain), Advani made a unilateral announcement that Vajpayee was to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The decision was grounded in the belief that the BJP had reached saturation level as far as the political Hindu vote was concerned. To advance further, it needed an incremental vote.

Advani believed that his image of a hardliner – a consequence of the controversial rath yatra of 1990 and the Ayodhya demolition in 1992 – prevented a further accretion of the BJP’s votes. Consequently, it was necessary to project a more benign face that could, at the same time, enable the party to enter into alliances with regional parties.

The strategy did not work in May 1996 when the Vajpayee government fell after 13 days but the approach endured and started yielding returns as the United Front began disintegrating. In 1998, the BJP successfully crafted local alliances that enabled it to run a government for 13 months and win re-election in 1999.

In early 1998, at the first post-election meeting of the BJP National Executive in Delhi, Advani spelt out the broad parameters of the new thinking. Using the evocative expression ‘New BJP’, Advani drew on his experiences during the 1997 Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra to argue that su-raj or good governance should be the BJP ideal. He said that in the realm of governance, ideology played a very nominal role. It was a question of intelligent policy choices, dedicated commitment and superior managerial skills.

Initially, Advani’s invocation of su-raj was greeted with healthy scepticism within the party. The debate those days centred on the government’s ability to further the cause of Hindutva. Good governance remained a distant ideal, not least because untrained BJP ministers were still coming to grips with the basics of running a government. More than five years and some success stories later, good governance is rapidly becoming the BJP mantra and a part of the new look Hindu nationalism. After the success in the 2003 assembly elections, governance is going to be the central plank of the re-election campaign of 2004.



The role of Hindutva in the BJP’s list of priorities has been the subject of many passionate internal debates and the cause of friction between the party and the VHP and even the RSS. Building good roads and creating the right economic environment for rapid growth are acknowledged to be important. But, ask the sceptics, how does this distinguish the BJP from the Congress? The Congress, they suggest, could well have pursued the same policies?

That may well be true. However, in its quest to occupy the middle ground and emerge as the Great Indian Consensus, the BJP has not jettisoned Hindutva. Any leader, big or small, will gladly answer that Hindutva is part of the BJP’s ideological personality – what Advani once called the ‘ideological mascot’ – and that its relevance depends on the context. It was relevant in Gujarat 2002 when the party rallied around Narendra Modi and prevented his removal, and it may well become relevant in future.

This is not to suggest that we will in future see another repeat of the 1991 campaign centred on Ram bhakts. There is a realisation in the BJP that the ritualised invocation of Ayodhya is carrying diminishing electoral returns. In addition, the VHP with its aggressive trishul-wielding style has a serious image problem. It is being increasingly perceived as the flip side of Islamic fundamentalism and something that should be firmly relegated to the margins. Yet, the average RSS cadre is driven by Hindutva and they are the people who serve as uncomplaining foot-soldiers at election time.



Striking a balance between good governance and Hindutva, therefore, remains a political challenge for the BJP during the 2004 election, particularly since there are fears that the RSS could tacitly encourage the formation of a separate Hindu party, as happened in Jammu in 2003. Nevertheless, it is likely to deal with the issue in a quiet, unobtrusive way that permits it to focus on its primary theme of good governance and keep its coalition intact. The following steps may well be taken to ensure that a united Sangh parivar forms the backbone of the 2004 campaign.

* It is recognised that it is futile to raise the Ayodhya issue in the same way as 1991. Apart from a certain weariness there is the problem of unfulfilled expectations. The BJP is, instead, likely to focus on the question of an acceptable solution to the problem, one that permits temple construction to begin, albeit symbolically. Serious efforts are on to secure Muslim acceptance of a package that permits a temple in Ayodhya coupled with a simultaneous assurance that the disputes in Kashi and Mathura will be frozen.

* Efforts will be made to inform the RSS leadership that the presence of a sympathetic government is invaluable for the progress of projects centred on education, adivasi welfare and prevention of conversions. The cooption of RSS sympathisers and members into official positions will continue.

* The issue of cow slaughter will be raised at the state level and become a concern during state elections. This is what happened in Madhya Pradesh, where Uma Bharati, expediently blended an assurance to ban cow slaughter with promise of better roads and assured power.

* Hindutva, it will be suggested, involves the redefinition of the Indian ethos and unlearning the Nehruvian vision. This can happen through education and intellectual interventions rather than official diktat.

* The problem of J&K will remain a sore point, particularly since the government is committed to greater autonomy for the state. Dissatisfaction on this can perhaps be overcome by instilling a greater awareness of the dangers posed by jihadi terrorism. In addition, the government may well commit itself to repealing the Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal Act in Assam.

The BJP has not forsaken Hindutva. It has merely shifted its strategic role, a shift that has been entirely prompted by the context of the polls.