Communalism, democracy and Indian capitalism


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EVEN well into the 1980s, most social scientists in India would continue to associate communal politics with the backwaters of small town India, viewing it as an anti-modern mentality emanating from trading and high caste communities in India’s hinterland who felt threatened by the levelling forces of modern capital and popular democracy. The demographic and geographic basis of the RSS and the Jana Sangh at the time seemed to support this analysis. So did the critique of industry, consumption and the immoral fetishization of technology one found in both contemporary ideologues and in the writings of M.S. Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya, still major ideological heroes to millions of RSS and BJP members.

Fast forward to 2014 where the BJP and ‘Moditva’ have emerged as the preferred vehicles for a new free market driven capitalist consensus, uniting small town banias, aspiring men from the lower castes, and captains of industry around the call for a strong, entrepreneurial and patriotic project India Shining, version 2.0.

How do we explain this transformation? Was the earlier analytical frame foregrounding the provincial anti-modernity of the RSS wrong? Is the BJP’s current articulation of free market capitalism and communal politics exactly what BJP and RSS have always wanted and stood for? I am wary of reverse teleology whereby we engineer the past to explain the contingencies of current outcomes. I am also skeptical of the claims that it is the turn towards liberalization which has brought about the conditions that enabled the victory of BJP’s brand of communal politics.

One should not forget that the structure and presentation of democratic politics changed quite significantly from the late 1980s and several political formations prospered, and declined, under new media and money driven conditions: the lower caste parties across North India, the BJP, regional parties, the new Congress welfare policies in the 2000s, to mention the most obvious. Let me instead explore some of the underlying tensions between Hindu majoritarian politics, popular democracy and the structure of capitalism in India.

It is well known that the RSS from the outset has had a deeply ambivalent relationship with electoral mass politics. For many decades, the wider Hindu nationalist movement tried to insulate its main project – cultural moulding of a unified Hindu ethos around upper caste ideals – from what RSS leaders saw as the potentially insidious effects of electoral politics, such as corruption, instrumental pragmatism and unsavoury tactical alliances. Those who worked in the Jana Sangh (earlier) and the BJP (now) were supposed to follow the advice of the RSS, stay clean, and never fully indulge in the rough and tumble of politics.

Although the VHP was the main vehicle of the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign, the big change since the early 1990s has been the emergence of the BJP as the predominant branch within the wider movement – such are the forces and imperatives of electoral politics in India that all political and social forces in the country are forced to reckon with. There is no ‘outside to democracy’ as an engine of generating power and forging legitimacy, howsoever short-lived and ephemeral such legitimate power may be. As a cosequence, all social and political groupings must adapt to the political environment and divine what appear to be the most potent and legitimate political languages and themes at any given point in time.

In this perspective, the political success of the Hindu nationalist movement in the 1990s was at one level a conservative reaction against all that the democratic process enabled – minority claims, commitments to multicultural secularism, lower caste politics. At another level, the same democratic process also enabled the movement’s attempts to mobilize a truly sovereign people, a Hindu log, who could claim original ownership of the nation as its natural majority.1


In terms of national politics in India, the two most significant shifts since the 1980s have been liberalization and the rise of lower caste mobilization in politics – neither of them of the BJP’s making. The BJP did, however, author the third major innovation: to make aggressive Hindu majoritarianism an acceptable part of normal politics, paving the way for a cruder and more violently charged political discourse and practice at all levels. Enabling such a ‘communal common sense’ to surface as normal and natural is one of BJPs main contributions to Indian democracy, and probably an ideological victory that will last for a long time.

However, let us not forget that it took BJP and affiliates a long time to properly embrace liberalization and caste politics. It was only at the time of the first BJP-led government at the Centre in 1998 that the RSS and others began to concede that embracing some aspects of liberalization was politically advantageous. The battle had raged within the movement throughout the 1990s. The now mostly forgotten Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, led by long-term crusader against corporate corruption, S. Gurumurthy, was supported by many RSS men throughout the 1990s. One of his main opponents within the movement was Pramod Mahajan, the suave and charismatic BJP operative in Mumbai, who until his untimely death seemed to be the natural successor to Advani in the party. Responding to accusations of entertaining a ‘five star lifestyle’, Mahajan said almost prophetically in 1995, ‘People worth billions come to me as party-chief in the state, I cannot ask them to stand in a queue… Yesterday we did not have a car. Five or ten years from now we may have helicopters and a jet for our leaders. What is wrong in that?’2

Such an adaptation to liberalization by the BJP was finally accomplished under Vajpayee’s NDA cabinet when the party began to win credibility among leading business groups that had grown and prospered in an environment entirely dominated by Congress’ playbook.


The full adaptation to caste politics and a concerted effort to appeal to the vast layers of aspiring men (though fewer women) from poor, small town and rural communities was only accomplished with Modi’s recent projection as a self-made and ordinary man from an OBC background. It was this projection, along with an intricate web of carefully targeted mobilization of aspiring leaders from smaller communities overshadowed by Chamars, Yadavs, Jats and other politically dominant communities across North India, that finally bought the BJP its electoral victory in 2014.3 The price was that only a minority of BJP MPs are affiliated or properly acquainted with the core ideological tenets of RSS. Most are brought up in environments quite removed from the typical milieu of the RSS. Yet, they are united by social aspiration, a shared Hindu majoritarian ethos and a general resentment of minority communities.


The BJP has not just embraced caste based politics as an electoral tactic, it has also accepted caste based reservations as a sine qua non for further consolidation of its popular mandate. Despite the fact that a major part of BJPs middle class and upper caste supporters feel very strongly ‘victimized’ by reservation quotas, BJP has consistently supported reservations since the 1990s. This is another effect of long-term adaptation to popular democracy and its powerful, if often deferred, promise of recognition and incorporation of communities and individuals. Modi is deliberately vague on the issue, merely suggesting that ‘when India has an economy of plenty, such problems of scarcity of opportunity will go away.’

The promise of democratic inclusion into ‘a people’ has a strong majoritarian potential. Commitments to rights and citizenship for ‘my community’ often go hand in hand with aversion to other groups – minorities, immigrants, ethnoracial categories – enjoying such rights and membership of the political community. As democracy in India has become more inclusive, it has also become more Hindu majoritarian. The parameters of acceptable public speech on minority issues have moved drastically compared to the late 1980s. It is now clear that the Ramjanmabhoomi/Babri Masjid issue fundamentally changed the conversation on the nature of what was considered ‘communal’.

The debates of the early 1990s revolved around the relationship between religious communities as an ethical problem, crucial to the survival of secularism and Indian democracy itself. Ten years later, in 2002, it was possible for Vajpayee and Modi to glibly cite ‘Hindu anger’ as the almost natural cause of mass killings of Muslims. The original problem, it was surmised, was Muslim excess and ‘closed mindsets’. The general climate after 11 September, and indeed the attacks on Mumbai in 2008, has further lent credibility to a slow transformation of the ‘communal problem’ into a social issue, clearly emanating from poor, supposedly criminal, ghettoized and backward Muslims, now a problem of management and security, a question virtually devoid of any ethical content with respect to democracy as such.


In the 1980s, only the BJP would argue that Muslims held back India’s progress as a nation. Twenty five years later, this is respectable dinner party conversation among India’s new elites. Hardly any of the recommendations in the Sachar Report of 2006 that documented in compelling detail the desperate marginalization of Muslims in all fields have been implemented. The centre and left of the political spectrum are as guilty as the BJP in letting this practical consensus emerge. The Sachar Report showed, for instance, that after thirty years of CPM rule, West Bengal’s Muslims were among the worst off in the entire nation in health, education and employment. It is also striking that Muslim representation in Lok Sabha today, and in many states, is at its lowest point since 1947, but this has not generated any public debate outside the Urdu press and activist circles. This consensus is so naturalized that it was possible for a well known TV anchor in December 2014 to scream at Asaduddin Owaisi, MP from Hyderabad, ‘But why do you have to call yourself Muslim?’ The incident was considered normal ‘frank speaking television.’


What is the relationship between this new majoritarian consensus and the private sector and economic growth? The short answer is that respectable, indirect and structural forms of exclusion and separation of communities and social categories are perfectly compatible with economic growth. The relationship between the private sector and communal mass politics concerns public order and predictability more than disciplining labour.

Protracted riots and street violence lead to damage of property, loss of production and other disruptions of economic life, including damage to the reputation of cities and the business climate as a whole. Unsurprisingly, major businesses and industries are deeply wary of political formations such as the Shiv Sena that for decades have exercised power over Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra through bandhs, street marches, strikes and other means of disruption. While the Shiv Sena initially was instrumental in breaking the power of the city’s powerful trade union movement in the 1970s, many of its leaders went on to launch maverick unions that often functioned as extortion rackets, pressuring industry to pay them to prevent strike action, while securing employment for Marathi speaking workers in secure factory jobs.

Apart from such obvious effects of communal street politics, the Hindu majoritarian consensus seems to have had a negligible impact on labour supply. Manufacture only accounts for about 15% of India’s GDP, and the vast majority of India’s industrial workers are employed in thousands of small-scale units. The labour recruited comes overwhelmingly from local communities known to the owners by kin or other relations and it is virtually impossible to talk about a real ‘labour market’ in these sectors where both ownership and labour are heavily mediated by caste and community networks.4

A somewhat more open labour market has developed in the large service sector that absorbs mainly skilled and white-collar labour. Here, the Hindu majoritarian consensus and the institutionalized exclusion of Muslims have not been real impediments to growth. Of all the major communities in the country, Muslims are the least educated, least integrated into the formal sector and least likely to gain employment in the public sector. As a consequence, Muslims are barely represented in the service and tech economy but this does not present an economic problem per se. As we know from many advanced economies, it is perfectly possible to sustain a thriving economy while accepting that 15-30% of a population is effectively excluded – that is without formal jobs, property deeds, and consumption power – whilst physically isolated in ghettoes and suburbs.


In Western Europe, the social welfare payments to such areas form the core mobilizing platform for right wing and xenophobic political forces. In the US, the inner city ghettoes are mainly viewed through the lens of security and policing and rarely as an economic potential to be realized. In a not dissimilar way, the vast majority of India’s Muslims have turned to a largely informalized economy where credit, labour, services and exchange are increasingly confined within Muslim networks and geographies across the country.

I am suggesting that a communal majoritarian consensus that excludes minorities and many other groups is entirely compatible with the deeply segmented structure of Indian capitalism. Let me mention just three features: (i) Large capital holdings are concentrated within a few communities, and the pattern of ownership is not spreading very fast. These communities own the majority of companies that operate on a national scale. (ii) There is low mobility between sectors and scales of the economy. Most small-scale operations in industry and service remain small and confined to certain regions and markets.5 (iii) The bania tradition of business means that there is a propensity towards quick accumulation and hoarding in gold or real estate. Relatively few business groups are investing in large-scale, long-term projects such as infrastructure, or production on a massive scale.


In the light of this overall thrust towards segmentation and separation, the principles of the ‘Gujarat model’ of urban development are entirely logical: Deliver infrastructure and clean, well policed public spaces within the middle income and high income neighbourhoods and effectively isolate and cordon off the poor, especially Muslims and social minorities, in designated areas, such as the old centre of the city. This ensures that everyday contact between communities is minimal and highly structured. This is not unique to Gujarat but merely an advanced version of a pattern one sees all over.

The development of a private real estate boom and the proliferation of private housing colonies has enabled the reinvention of the colonial pattern of community specific colonies and housing schemes – for Brahmins, Parsis, Jains, merely Hindu – now as vegetarian housing colonies whose governing bodies exercise full discretion in the admissions and sale process, jealously guarding the purity, social standing and cultural character of the colony.


Possibly we should not be surprised by this development in Indian cities where physical proximity to a diverse range of strangers for generations has made the urge to classify and separate even stronger than before. Anthropologist J.G. Pocock in 1960 stated in the context of Varanasi that it was ‘only in an urban context that the caste system has reached its fullest and most articulated existence.’ Several generations of urban geographers inspired by modernization thinking believed that the modern city would rearrange all social relationships along lines of class and function. Today we realize that in India urban life merely reconfigured and abstracted the meaning of caste into larger and more general categories of acche log with education, the ‘clean castes’, vegetarians, or simply Hindu, Christian, Muslim, etc.

The increased flow of capital and technology has not homogenized urban dwellers but created new ways to separate, segment and discern. It has also enabled a shrinking of the relatively few spaces that were available for use by multiple communities. Parks in affluent areas are cleaned up, sponsored by local business groups and policed by proliferating security guards; shopping malls provide a new dominant form of privatized public space with ‘right of admission reserved’; housing colonies morph into gated communities. As the scale and velocity of traffic increases, street vendors and hawkers are forced out of affluent areas and into cramped lanes and side streets.

It is perhaps no coincidence that it is inside such upper caste and middle class colonies, carefully separated from other parts of society, that one finds the deepest mistrust and resentment of popular politics, the government and democracy – generally denounced as the root of all corruption in the country and dominated by undeserving men and women who have risen above their station because of reservations rather than talent and merit. It is from these quarters that dreams of the strong, resolute leader arises where fantasies of a strong and clean India are shared, and where the rights and demands of the poor and the minorities are seen as an unnecessary burden on society.


This pattern of the modern Indian city seems to reflect how the great twin forces of capitalism and democracy are pitched against each other in contemporary India. The success of democracy with all its contradictions, including reservations and caste based political identities, has created a strong resentment against ‘the public’ as such among those with property and privilege: public space, government, electoral politics, government schools, hospitals and institutions are generally seen as the province of the ‘other half’, or three-quarters. The enthusiasm for free market solutions and ‘civil society’ among the slightly more privileged is powerfully driven by this sentiment.

The majoritarian consensus and the promise of acche din is forged on the assumption that a shared Hindu identity can generate enough patriotic enthusiasm to overcome these deep gulfs of mistrust and apprehension between social and cultural segments of Indian society. However, as long as Indian capitalism remains as deeply segmented and predatory as it is today, the only decisive redistributive force remains the promise of democratic inclusion via the vote.



1. See T.B. Hansen,The Saffron Wave. Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Princeton University Press, 1999.

2. Asian Age, 18 November 1995. Also see my ‘The Ethics of Hindutva and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in T.B. Hansen and C. Jaffrelot (eds.), BJP and the Compulsions of Politics. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996.

3. I owe this point to Harish Wankhede.

4. See B. Harriss-White, India Working. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000.

5. D. Haynes, Small Town Capitalism in Western India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012.