Subaltern Hindutva


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THE massive mandate in favour of the Modi led BJP1 in the 2019 election signifies a tectonic shift in the Indian socio-political landscape. While most political observers expected the return of the BJP to power, few sensed the scale of the impending victory. There were several factors responsible for this unprecedented mandate. One was the personal popularity and creditability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was seen as an incorruptible, pro-poor and decisive nationalist leader. The other reason is the formidable organizational machinery built by the party President, Amit Shah.

This election has proved that elections are ultimately won by boots on the ground and that foreign experts, professional consultants or ‘narrative setting’ using media and social media, cannot match the dedicated legions of party workers.2 A clueless and non-serious opposition also played a role in cementing 303 seats for the BJP as people refused to hand over the reins of power to an unstable coalition of warring regional satraps. But the most important reason underlying this mandate was the success of the BJP in building a grand coalition of Hindu votes on the ideological bedrock of Hindutva. This essay argues that the BJP is riding a wave of deeper socio-political changes in India, which the BJP itself helped consolidate.

The ideological framework for building this grand Hindu coalition or what is popularly called ‘United Spectrum of Hindu Votes’,3 is Hindutva. Hindutva was conceptualized by V.D. Savarkar who attempted to answer the challenge thrown by the modern world. He was of the opinion that in a world dominated by nations and nation states, the only way Hindus could survive was by becoming a modern nation themselves.4 Only a nation state built on the foundations of a Hindu nation would be capable of resisting imperialism; both western and the re-emerging Islamic imperialism. This realization had dawned upon many Hindu politicians and thinkers in the colonial period but what differentiated Hindutva was that Savarkar understood that an agrarian society, fractured by the caste system, could not become a nation. Consequently, along with advocating the embrace of industrialization and the modern world, Hindutva was also an anti-caste movement. In fact, Hindutva was among the most powerful reform movements that emerged in colonial India and aimed at eradicating caste and regional differentiations to create social unity by fostering a Hindu identity.


But a problem faced by the Hindutva movement was that it was often confused by its own supporters and organizations with the upper caste social orthodoxy of the countryside as it was from there its core membership was derived.5 Therefore, it had been largely unable to make inroads into the Dalit, tribal and OBC communities that failed to find their concerns reflected in the Hindutva movement. Also, the language of Hindutva was heavily derived from an upper caste cultural milieu of North India as reflected in the old slogan of the Jan Sangh: ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’. It also inhibited an expansion of the Hindutva ideology in the southern states. The symbolism used by the movement and its stance on issues like caste made it difficult for the Hindu masses to relate to it and from the ’80s they drifted towards a caste based mobilization as an alternative to the elitist nexus of the urban upper castes and local feudal elements as embodied by the Congress Raj.


The rise of ‘caste politics’ completely altered the rules of the game in Indian politics. Caste politics is essentially a politics of representation whereby social consolidation and political mobilization historically excluded castes trying to become ‘visible to the state.’ This would ensure the flow of state resources towards them that had historically benefited the dominant castes. The rise of parties like the SP and BSP amply demonstrated the success of this route. But the crucial point to note is that the very success of this politics created conditions for its obsolescence. The more it was able to push Dalits and OBC castes into the mainstream, counter-caste discrimination and enabled socio-economic mobility, the more it prepared the ground for the growth of Hindutva.

Here we must revisit the origin of Hindutva as an attempt to reshape Hindu society into a modern nation. But nations are created on the basis of a shared imagination and where people can relate to each other. A society, divided into numerous castes waging a permanent low intensity civil war against each other, cannot become a nation. It was for this reason that Dr Ambedkar called castes anti-national. It was industrialization and modern economic growth that created conditions for the rise of nations by breaking down the old agrarian-feudal social order, creating a shared common culture in the new urban centres where people uprooted from their parochial identities found themselves. A similar process has been underway in India since the last two centuries, which accelerated after 1947 when the post-colonial Indian state gave a new impetus to economic growth. And the economic reforms of 1991 have only accelerated the dissolution of the agrarian feudal caste social order. This has led to a huge migration of the Dalit and OBC castes from the villages to urban centres. In the case of Dalits, escaping to the cities was also an act of liberation from the oppressive countryside.


So we already have several factors working in India; modern economic growth undermining the feudal caste order due to the rise of industries and urbanization; affirmative policies of the government like reservations, enabling socio-economic mobility for subaltern castes, which coupled with the economic reforms has created a middle and lower-middle urban class from these castes, that increasingly shares the same space with the upper castes. Also, what Christophe Jaffrelot called ‘India’s Silent Revolution’6 has to a large extent undermined the old forms of caste exclusion. All this led to the emergence of a ‘new class of Hindu castes’ that increasingly shared similar experiences and aspirations. And, as the old parochial identities wane, there is a consolidation of the Hindu identity in this new urban class. And this has created a fertile ground for the expansion of the BJP on the back of the appeal of Hindutva to this new class in the urban centres.

All that the BJP had to do was to pick up the issues that appealed to this new Hindu constituency like putting an end to illegal immigration, assertion of Hindu identity in the polity, ‘vikas’ as the expression of a latent desire for Hindu modernity etc. And the BJP was successful in capitalizing on this new class since the days of the Ram Janambhoomi movement. By taking up issues that appealed to Hindus of all caste and social backgrounds, the BJP was able to position itself as the only party to which they could relate to, unlike the other Hindu parties like the Shiva Sena, rooted in parochial identities. In fact, the extent to which anti-Hindu discourse was legitimized in policy, journalism, academia and political rhetoric, during the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA rule, made the BJP look like the only party that could represent Hindu concerns and aspirations.


Even though caste has weakened in the urban areas, it remains an all-pervasive reality in the villages and small towns. And one way caste works in the Indian polity is by excluding weaker castes from access to state resources and programmes. One of the reasons why India has so spectacularly failed to achieve even basic education and healthcare is that the implementation of government policies is mediated through the local power structures that invariably depend on the social structures and first benefit the dominant castes. This is where the Modi-led government acted as a disruptor par excellence. The unprecedented delivery of public goods and services like housing, electricity or gas cylinders, expansion of the social safety nets and health services, apart from financial inclusion programmes like Mudra, Jan Dhan Yojna, were the main characteristics of Modi 1.0.

The use of technology like Aadhaar and DBT ensured that for the first time, beneficiaries and the poor got the benefits they were entitled too. More than 22 crore families benefited from government schemes. And by making the provision of these goods and services universal or dependent on a clearly defined criteria like Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011, the BJP was able to undermine the old patronage model of politics where a person would benefit only if her caste supported the party in power that created a ‘politics of unfreedom’ for the weaker castes especially the non-dominant OBC and Dalit castes. Irrespective of who was in power, they had to be dependent on the new political feudal who mostly belonged to the upper castes or the dominant OBC castes. By universal and direct provision of public goods, the BJP has caused a significant disruption on the ground, freeing non-dominant OBC and Dalit castes from the tutelage of the dominant castes. And they have, in return, thrown their weight behind the BJP.


The third point is the often ignored phenomenon of ‘Subaltern Hindutva’.7 Informed by left wing academic propaganda, the mainstream portrayal of Hindutva has been that of an upper caste conspiracy with little or no appeal among the subaltern castes. In this blinkered analysis, Hindutva, and in fact the entire Hindu polity, revolves around just Muslims. Even the 2019 verdict is being explained away as an ‘anti-Muslim’ vote. It is as if only Hindus cannot have an autonomous polity with its own dynamic and trajectory, and any analysis of Hindu politics has to be subservient to the prism of other communities. This has resulted in a hollowness of the political literature produced over decades with no serious attempt to understand the Hindu polity as an entity in its own right.

But as seen earlier, such a view misses the crucial point that Hindutva is a modern construct and one of the reform movements on the issue of caste. And the strains of radical movements like the Arya Samaj, present in Hindutva, make it particularly appealing to large numbers of the Dalit and OBC castes. They have a long history of being the backbone of Hindu causes in the colonial period like Yadavs and Gau Raksha movement,8 even before Hindutva was conceptualized, to assert their social-cultural identity and create a modern caste identity under the Hindu umbrella. In particular, Hindutva appeals to the non-dominant OBC and Dalit castes due to its promise of making them members of the powerful Hindu community as against just being a member of a socially and politically weaker caste. Unlike the dominant OBC or Dalit castes, these other OBC and Dalit castes find it difficult to create their own political parties to successfully bid for representation and power. It is far easier to search for upward mobility and a share in political power as a ‘Hindu’.


Also, unlike the echo chambers of radical university politics or firebrand activists, there is rapid Hinduization of the Dalit and OBC castes happening both socially and politically. Sanskritization has been one of the most powerful forces operating in post-independent India. The weakening of untouchability and direct caste discrimination, temple entry, socio-economic mobility, an increasing willingness of Brahmin priests to serve even Dalit households, among other social changes, are strengthening Hindu identity. And the BJP has been quick to grasp these trends. Ram Janambhoomi was perhaps the first mainstream political mobilization of several Dalit and OBC castes. It is easily forgotten than Rama was one of the main deities of the Bhakti movement, both in its Sagun and Nirgun versions, challenging social hierarchy. And even today, there are numerous Ram Bhakti sects rooted in the Dalit and OBC castes.

Also, in the case of the communal clashes with Muslims it is only the Hindutva organizations that come to their rescue. The liberal and secular outfits, and even the Dalit and OBC parties, have failed these Hindu castes when faced with Muslim aggression. They are simply dumped as stooges of the BJP-RSS ‘trying to instigate’ communal problems. They have no other option but to bandwagon with Hindutva organizations for their survival. The BJP emerged as the only Hindu party capable of protecting all Hindu castes or at least raising their issues when faced with routine Islamic belligerence wherever the demography is unfavourable to Hindus.


The ‘New Class of Hindu Castes’ in the urban areas, the delivery of public services even to the non-dominant Dalit and OBC castes and ‘Subaltern Hindutva’,9 were then wielded together by the BJP in a massive feat of social engineering. The BJP under Modi and Amit Shah has scaled up what is known as the ‘Shekhawat doctrine’,10 which first envisioned the expansion of the party’s social base beyond the traditional urban ‘Brahmin-Baniya’ constituency and advocated the localization of Hindutva. The Hindutva narrative was adapted according to the regional and caste-specific imagination.11 It incorporated the narrative of the Dalit and OBC castes too. Their desire to be visible in history; their icons and oral traditions and histories, contemptuously dismissed by the secular and left wing history writing; were mainstreamed into the Hindutva fold by the BJP and deployed for political mobilization as seen in the case of the Pasi-Bhar King Maharaja Suheldev in U.P.12


This is coupled by the diversity in the ticket distribution. The BJP, along with its ally Apna Dal, gave representation to nine Dalit castes on the 17 reserved seats in UP unlike the BSP which fielded nine candidates from Mayawati’s caste on the ten reserved seats it got in the SP-BSP alliance. The BJP has been able to play a deft game in balancing the competing caste concerns as seen on the issue of the SC/ST Act, university reservation roster issue, and 10% EWS quota. The BJP has been quick to gather feedback on dynamic social relations and volatile caste issues and take prompt balancing action, something not seen since the heyday of Congress rule.

Though the long-term socio-political trends will favour the BJP in the near future13 as India continues to industrializes and urbanize, the road forward will be tough. It is easier to create a coalition of the Hindu castes, but difficult to sustain it.14 And by trying to become an umbrella Hindu party, the BJP has also subsumed inter-caste frictions and rivalries that may destabilize its entire electoral strategy. The only way the BJP can sustain it is by giving real share in power and decision making in the party organization and government to the subaltern castes, and not just representation for electoral mobilization, which is something that has never happened in India yet, irrespective of the party in power.





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6. Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. Permanent Black, 2003.


8. Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘Sanskritization vs. Ethnicization in India: Changing Indentities and Caste Politics Before Mandal’, Asian Survey 40(5), 2000, pp. 756-766. JSTOR, www.



11. Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation. Sage, Delhi, 2009.