Evangelical Hindutva
  swapan dasgupta

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IN the aftermath of the NDA’s defeat in the 2004 general election, it has become routine for Hindu nationalists to attribute the electoral failure to the BJP’s insufficient commitment to Hindutva politics. From the VHP’s irascible leadership to the members of Hindu ‘chat groups’ on the internet, the emerging conventional wisdom is that the outcome could have been markedly different if the party had demonstrated its partiality to Hindu causes, most notably the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya. At the October 2004 RSS national office-bearers meeting in Hardwar, BJP president L.K. Advani and former president M. Venkiah Naidu heard swayamsevak after swayamsevak pillory the erstwhile NDA government and the BJP for its betrayal of Hindu interests. Consequently, at the national executive meeting in Ranchi in November 2004, a desperate attempt was made by the BJP to address Hindu concerns, Advani going to the extent of infusing the party with a ‘divine’ mission.

Although there are grounds to suggest that the leadership of the BJP eschewed Hindutva for ‘good governance’ to placate the secularist establishment, it is not the whole story. The reordering of political priorities between 1998 and 2004 was a consequence of the belief that there was insufficient Hindu disquiet in the country to warrant the type of aggressive mobilization that was undertaken during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation of 1989-1993.1 It was felt that Narendra Modi’s resounding triumph in the Gujarat Assembly poll of 2002 was born of exceptional circumstances and that Hindutva issues would carry diminishing returns for the party. In any case, the compulsions of coalition politics ruled out any departure from the 1999 NDA manifesto.



In hindsight, I don’t believe the political assumptions of the BJP leadership were flawed. The 2004 general election was fought as an aggregate of state elections. The BJP did well in states where local conditions favoured the party – as in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It faltered either on account of local anti-incumbency – Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the failure to enter into alliances – Assam, Bihar and Haryana – and inner-party problems – Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Nowhere was Hindutva an overriding issue.

There was, of course, an area where Hindutva played a role. The Congress and the Left successfully used the images of the post-Godhra riots to consolidate the Muslim vote against the BJP. The BJP, on the other hand, consciously shied away from any countervailing mobilization. The party leadership was horribly misled by a few Muslim intellectuals who suggested that the peace process with Pakistan would lead to a significant minority of Muslims voting for the BJP. Moreover, it was also felt that the assurance of an imminent negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute would placate the religious-minded Hindus. The VHP may have been bitter with the Vajpayee government for the harshness with which the 2003 kar seva in Ayodhya was handled, but the RSS was kept fully informed of the negotiations to resolve the Ayodhya problem.

Even before the general election got underway, the BJP had elaborate discussions with the RSS on the details of the Vision Document. At that point, the major concerns of the RSS centred on the NDA government’s enthusiastic endorsement of globalization. Hindutva was not a sticking point. The RSS did not disagree with the BJP’s belief that it was not possible to invoke the Ayodhya issue in 2004.

Defeat, unfortunately, generates a wave of post-facto rationalizations. After 13 May 2004, the BJP has become disoriented by the indignant outbursts of the faithful that failure lay in the inability to articulate the party’s ‘core’ Hindutva ideology. It has been stung by the assertion that Hindu society is in a state of ferment and that the BJP has consistently failed to provide leadership to this upsurge.



The diagnosis of ideological inadequacy is not unique. It has become customary for ideological parties, both of the Left and the Right, to attribute political failure to a lack of ideological commitment. The Labour Party in the UK was, for example, paralyzed by four successive election defeats from 1979. The activist core genuinely believed that it was the party’s departure from socialism that had de-motivated the working classes and created the space for Thatcherism. Ironically, after Labour regained power in 1996 on a completely non-socialist plank, it was the turn of the Conservatives to be similarly disoriented. An activist core clung to the belief that it was John Major’s dilution of Margaret Thatcher’s robust right-wing approach that left Middle England disenchanted.

For the BJP, the second half of 2004 has witnessed numerous attempts to try and mobilize Hindus on the strength of emotive issues that would, at the same time, cement the party’s ideological brand image. First, there was the tiranga yatra of Uma Bharati. It was followed by the agitation against the perceived insult to the Hindu Mahasabha stalwart and freedom fighter Veer Savarkar. And, finally, there was the agitation against the arrest and alleged harassment of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi by the Tamil Nadu government – an issue which serves as an important pointer to the state of Hindu nationalism in today’s India.



The three general elections from 1996 were disastrous for the Congress. In 1996, the BJP overtook the Congress as the largest party in the Lok Sabha, and this position was reaffirmed in the elections of 1998 and 1999. In 1998, the Congress won no seats in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, and in 1999 it slipped to its worst performance since Independence.

For the votaries of Hindu nationalism, there were many important lessons drawn from the three elections. One lesson in particular stood out. The post-Ayodhya Hindu backlash, it was suggested, had made it quite clear that no political party could hope to rule in India without being sensitive to Hindu interests and Hindu aspirations. Of course, caste and region remained important but simultaneously, it was felt, a distinct Hindu vote bank had been created. The conventional wisdom was that no future government could afford to repeat the craven minorityism of the late-1980s.

In short, there was a quiet confidence that events like the Meenakshipuram conversions, the overturning of the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment and the ethnic cleansing of Pundits from the Kashmir Valley were things of the past. The vicious Hindu militancy evident in the Mumbai riots of 1993 and the Gujarat riots of 2002 only reinforced the conviction that Hindus could no longer be taken for granted.



The tepid response to various attempts by the VHP to raise the Ayodhya issue during the term of the Vajpayee government did not offset the belief in Hindu assertion. BJP leaders quite correctly gauged the fact that the destruction of the Babri shrine in 1992 had removed a powerful symbol of hate. Consequently, whereas Hindus were committed to the eventual construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya, there was insufficient motivation to take the issue to the streets. What Advani called the ‘patient Hindu wait’ had replaced the agitations of the early-1990s.

Many of these assumptions should have been questioned after the NDA defeat in 2004. They were not and, instead, it was the VHP which went on the offensive claiming its insistence on uninhibited Hindu militancy had been vindicated. The RSS too joined the chorus and it was Vajpayee and Advani, the advocates of good governance, who were forced into a defensive mode.

The arrest of the Kanchi Shankaracharya Sri Jayendra Saraswati in the late hours of November 11 – it was Diwali day in South India – on a charge of murder provided an occasion for testing the theories of Hindu political behaviour. Although the Kanchi peeth was fifth in hierarchical importance, the Kanchi Shankaracharya had over the years emerged as a symbol of Hindu interests. A campaigner for Dalit rights, a fierce opponent of Christian evangelism and a champion of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Shankaracharya’s importance had grown during the Vajpayee years. He was no ordinary holy man and his arrest was no ordinary event. Indeed, there was considerable nervousness within the UPA government over the possible consequences of his arrest.

Curiously, the nervousness turned out to be unwarranted. There were protests organized by the VHP throughout the country, the BJP leadership petitioned the President of India and went on a dharna in New Delhi, and the pantheon of Hindu notables from the Shankaracharya of Puri, Pejawar Swami and Mata Amritanandamayi to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Asaram Bapu expressed their outrage. Yet, Tamil Nadu was largely unaffected and the protests in the rest of India weren’t sufficiently powerful to force the UPA government to undertake a damage limitation exercise. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did write to Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa to ensure the Shankaracharya was not ill-treated, Congress President Sonia Gandhi exercised the no-comment option. She consciously let go a wonderful opportunity to establish her Hindu credentials.



For the devotees of the Shankaracharya, worse was to follow. The Tamil Nadu police let loose a vicious campaign of vilification that was gleefully lapped up by a hungry media. Apart from suggesting that the Kanchi peeth had been transformed into a den of murderers and scoundrels, various charges of sexual misconduct were levelled against the Shankaracharya. Most of these allegations have nothing to do with the murder charge and much of the so-called evidence will not pass judicial scrutiny. That is not the point. The important thing is that a political authority felt sufficiently emboldened to completely ride roughshod over what was perceived as Hindu sentiment. Jayalalithaa, a shrewd political player, did not feel that a no-holds-barred assault on the image of a revered Hindu institution would be politically counter-productive.



The absence of any visible Hindu backlash has been sought to be explained in many ways. While the conspiracy theorists dwell at length on a plot involving Christian evangelists and the VHP blames it on the BJP’s lack of credibility as a Hindu party, others have explained the Hindu passivity on the caste dimension. The Kanchi peeth being a devout Brahmanical institution, a part of the Hindu high church, popular indifference to the Shankaracharya’s plight has been attributed to the institution’s social aloofness. Finally, Hindu passivity has been explained by the fact that in the popular imagination there is no obvious villain. Private opinion polls conducted by Hindu organizations have suggested that while there is majority disquiet over the arrest, particularly in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Chattisgarh, there is insufficient awareness of the role of either Jayalalithaa or the Central government.

While it is possible that local factors and a prevailing image of godly disrepute have played their part in letting the law take its own course, it may not be out of place to suggest that the troubles of the Shankaracharya are also indicative of the larger problems of Hindu nationalism.

For a start, there are grounds to believe that Hindu nationalism is energised when confronting an opponent. In the absence of a clear target, Hindu consciousness is invariably fragmented along caste and other lines. Unlike the Christian coalition in the US that works for a defined agenda, Hindu nationalism has not found its post-Ayodhya bearings.



Second, Hindu activists – whether in the BJP or elsewhere – have proceeded on the somewhat suspect assumption that the influence of Hindu institutions correspond to their theological pedigree. In other words, the focus of attention has followed the ritual order of the Kumbh Mela. In the absence of any defined code of precedence, it has been assumed that the four (or five) Shankaracharyas are collectively akin to the Pope in Roman Catholicism. Recent events have clearly shown that the Kanchi mutt is just another Hindu institution; it has no special status in the eyes of the vast majority of Hindus. More to the point, it suffers on account of its perceived image as an institution for the Brahmins. Despite Sri Jayendra Saraswati’s attempts to involve Dalits, the Kanchi peeth is perceived as exclusive, not inclusive.

Third, the organizations of Hindu nationalism have misread the sources of Hindu energy. Just as the influence of the abstruse Upanishads is easily overshadowed by the Puranic tradition, the real energy of contemporary Hinduism does not lie in Brahmanical institutions. What drives Hindus are either venerated temples or individual preachers and ‘living saints’. When the BJP held its dharna in Delhi, there was a thin crowd to observe Advani’s day-long fast. Yet, there was a spontaneous mobilisation of more than 20,000 people the moment the preacher Asaram Bapu came to express his solidarity.

The conclusion is obvious. There is a thriving tradition of what can loosely be called evangelical Hinduism. It comprises the likes of Asaram Bapu, Murari Bapu, Swami Ramdev, Amma, Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and many others who feature regularly on the various religious channels on TV. They are the Pat Robertsons and Billy Grahams of modern Hinduism. They are able to inspire and motivate individual Hindus far more successfully than purohits and pontiffs. The failure of organized Hindu nationalism lies in not being able to link the congregation of individual evangelists with bodies like the Hindu Acharya Sabha. Groups like the VHP have sought organizational control when the need is for loose networks that span different castes, communities and theological traditions.



It is very clear that the established Brahmanical order is incapable of rising to the challenge. The Ayodhya movement became a mass movement because it was driven and inspired by earthy evangelists like Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati and Acharya Dharmendra. There was nothing Brahmanical or ‘high Church’ about their mobilizing techniques. Yet, they created the environment for the largest Hindu mobilization in history.

The real failure of Hindu nationalism lies in its post-Ayodhya regression. Where a movement should have enhanced its social reach, it fell back on a Brahmanical order that lacks the temperament and the vision to thrive in a democratic environment. The BJP’s success in the 1990s lay in its ability to link Hindutva to the little traditions of Hinduism. The six years of NDA rule saw a return to the Pandit culture. The problem was not insufficient commitment to Hindutva but attachment to the wrong sort of Hindutva.



1. Swapan Dasgupta, ‘Whatever Happened to Hindutva?’ Seminar, 533, January 2004.