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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

RSS’s Politics of Hindutva losing its relevance and appeal | Arun Srivastava

Saturday 20 May 2023


by Arun Srivastava

The defeat of the BJP in the Karnataka assembly election does not simply emphasize the erosion of Narendra Modi’s charisma and popularity, it bluntly questions the relevance and equanimity of RSS’s “Politics of Hindutva”, featured by Modi in the political system as the most effective device to turn India into Hindu Rashtra.

While Congress won 135 seats the BJP got only 66 seats, notwithstanding Modi’s sustained effort to use Hindutva to polarise the Hindu voters. For achieving his mission he did not hesitate to even exploit the revered image of the Hindu God Hanuman by discarding saffron’s favourite slogan ’Jai Sri Ram’. Unfortunately, this did not bail out Modi. His party met with its Waterloo. RSS’s scheme to win over the Dalits and Scheduled Tribes by using the name of Bajrang Bali also did not fructify. BJP did not win a single seat reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. Karnataka has 51 reserved constituencies, out of which 36 are for Scheduled Castes (SC) candidates and 15 for ST candidates.

While the people of Karnataka have succeeded in decoding the real meaning and implication of Hindutva, the left parties are still in a comatose state and have so far not succeeded in deciphering the real design of the RSS and BJP behind projecting Hindutva as the “ideology.” It is intriguing that the left parties perceive the slogan of Hindutva as symbolising religion and nationalism.

Hindutva has never been an ideology. It has been simply an electoral tool for RSS and Modi with the avowed aim to get the Hindu votes on the pretext of practising a modernised version of Hinduism. Nevertheless, an analysis of the characterisation of the word as a religious tool would make it explicit that it manifests the class character of the RSS and BJP. There is no ambiguity that it represents the economic and political interests and objectives of the nouveau rich, upper caste, landed gentry and upper middle class. For BJP Hindutva is a synonym for the word feudalism.

It is not that the Dalits, ST and SC of Karnataka did not have any idea of this class composition. The myth of Hindutva has been exposed. Basically, this has been the reason that they decisively voted against BJP. They registered their protest to this form of class politics of BJP and RSS. True enough Muslims could also see through Modi’s game. They refused to fall into the trap of Modi and Bhagwat. The Muslims have already been the victims of the politics of hatred and communal divisiveness. They have not forgotten the humiliation and insult inflicted on them by the BJP leaders in the recent past on the issue of the Hijab.

Quite significantly they also did not prefer to be identified as communal by voting for the two Muslim parties; the social democratic party (SDPI) and Owasis’s MIM. It is in sharp contrast to the accusation heaped on them by the BJP leaders of being communal. Interestingly the candidates of these parties forfeited their deposits. Karnataka has a 17 per cent Muslim population and the bulk voted for Congress. It was their rallying behind Congress that resulted in JD(S) losing 17 seats in the Mysore region. In 2018 it had won 37 but this time it could retain 19 only. Post-poll survey data showed a significant 10% rise in Muslim vote.

If Hindutva really imbibed the Hindu ideology, RSS and Modi certainly not have entrusted the task to propagate Hindutva to a self-styled peethadhish of the Bageshwar Dham Sarkar, a religious pilgrimage site in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, to 26-year-old Dhirendra Shastri alias Bageshwar Baba. This they have done to maintain the façade of Hindutva being an ideology. This move of RSS and Modi is their confession of Hindutva being a political instrument. They use it to garner Hindu votes.

The BJP officially adopted Hindutva as its “ideology” at its 1989 Palampur meet. The BJP claims that Hindutva represents "cultural nationalism" and "Indian nationhood". For RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat it is "India’s identity". These are lies. Feudalism always identified itself with nationalism and traditional culture. These two words were used by the RSS and BJP to expand their political bases.

Enjoying the patronage of Jay Prakash Narayan in the wake of the Bihar movement, they strived for strengthening their support base. Merely depending on the RSS cadres was not enough. It was felt BJP must have its own mass base and to achieve it, RSS and BJP used Hindutva. From the days of Jana Sangh to the formation of the BJP in 1980, the political wing of RSS had miserably failed to attract a wide section of the Hindu population. Obviously, to attain this mission it was imperative to seek to refuge behind nationalism and Hindutva.

It is widely known how L K Advani made it an emotional issue and even rode on the rath to accomplish the mission. It is really pathetic that Congress and all other secular parties, even more precisely the left parties could not comprehend the fallout of this design of RSS and BJP. The Left especially CPI(M) under Prakash Karat endeavoured for enhancing its revolutionary image by opposing Dr Manmohan Singh’s efforts to ink the nuclear deal with USA. Though the Singh government survived, it witnessed the systematic decline of the Congress. There were other reasons too responsible for the fall.

The Congress earned the reputation of being the patron of corrupt politicians. The middle class which had rallied behind Congress and rejected the slogan of Shinning India of the Atal Behari government, turned apprehensive of Congress’s move and voted for BJP in 2014. For the first time, the Congress was faced with the worst dilemma since its birth. While the self-seeker perceived Rahul Gandhi’s tearing of the Ordinance as a threat to its economic interest, the poor turned sceptic of its move. With the CPI(M) already on the mission to denigrate Congress, they looked at Congress as the friend of the rich.

For BJP, which has been experimenting with Hindutva politics, this was the right opportunity to entice and attract this huge mass of the middle class. The hard-line nationalist view emphasising Hindu superiority, which never found a place in India got an opportunity to dictate the political events. BJP got a majority in parliament in 2014. After coming to power BJP under the guidance of RSS fanned ethnic divisions during the 2019 election. How the BJP won the 2019 Lok Sabha election is no more a secret. The edifice of the victory was built on the sacrifices of the soldiers.

Resorting to Hindutva and use of the nationalism phrase in the post-Pulwama scenario helped the BJP to anchor deeply. Modi and RSS continued with the mission. The compulsion to remain in power made them use the Hindutva as an electoral tool. Obviously to accomplish their mission they had to abandon Muslims. For them, the consolidation of Hindus was a sure passport to continue in power forever.

To conceal its real intentions and consolidate its electoral gains, Modi promised heaven which was purely a populist design. He assured to implement a political programme, to improve economic prospects, create job opportunities, to bring back black money stacked in foreign banks. What was most ridiculous and deplorable was the inability of the Left to decode and realise the nature of these assurances. They behaved like gullible fools.

Till the Karnataka election, RSS and Modi were sure that this would work wonders in the elections in the other five states. But the defeat the party met with has raised the big question inside BJP and RSS whether Modi’s core Hindutva nationalist agenda will be endorsed by the voters of these states. In fact, the leadership, especially Modi, may worry about the future of Hindutva for the 2024 elections.

The defining credo of the BJP since 1989 has been "Hindutva," a political device which adds to the "value" of the Hindu religion as being the cornerstone of Indian society and culture. But now it appears that it has failed to catch the imagination of the people. There is no denying the fact Hindutva has emerged as the major threat to the Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism. Hindutva under the tutelage of RSS and BJP has surfaced as the commercial face of the religion. The BJP’s electoral resurgence of late has once more brought an alternative nationalism to the fore.

Karnataka is the second state that the Congress has snatched from the Bharatiya Janata Party in just five months. In December 2022 the Congress dealt a severe blow to the RSS-BJP combine in Himachal Pradesh. Significantly at that time, Rahul Gandhi was busy with his Bharat Jodo Yatra as such he did not campaign. Even in that election Modi campaigned intensively, took out road shows, and projected the election as a battle between him and Congress. In Himachal, he had projected the Hindutva as the aspiration of Hindus. But like Karnataka, the people of Himachal rejected his appeal and image.

There is no denying that Modi has perceived the futility of making Hindutva an integral device for winning the election. But he had no other alternative. Hindutva has lost the emotive value for the Hindus of Karnataka, except for the non-Kannad employees and workers attached to the corporate houses or IT sector. No doubt it managed to secure the votes of the upper castes, especially the Brahmins. Its grabbing the name of Bajrang Bali and equating him with the Bajrang Dal, whose members have been associated with several violent crimes, cost it dearly. This underlined the utter lack of political and religious understanding of Hinduism.

The politics of Hindutva demeans many groups and individuals, and those who champion Hindutva often resort to violence to achieve their aims. Muslims are always their target. Many human rights groups have documented a rise in anti-Muslim violence since 2014 when the BJP came to national power in India. It has even been chronicled and mentioned by international human rights groups and commissions.

Hindutva and Hinduism are distinct. Hindutva is a narrow political ideology whereas Hinduism is a broad-based religious tradition. Hindutva is a rightist device. RSS has been using it to deflect its criticism as of being an extremist and fundamentalist organisation.

Losing the Karnataka assembly election literally has possibly been a visceral shock for Narendra Modi. He never imagines that his politics of Hindutva would lose its appeal and fail to enamour the common Kannadigas.

Ironically while Modi was moving whirlwind with his pet slogan Hindutva, a section of the state BJP leaders were sceptical of the feasibility of it in arousing the passion of the Hindu voters. Senior BJP leaders B S Yeddyurappa and Bommai nursed the feeling that Hindu voters were not too keen to respond to his Hindutva push. In places where he played the victim card and projected his Hindutva politics, the people did not appear to be quite enthusiastic to respond.

In contrast, the people responded positively to the issues of lack of jobs, economic slowdown and other issues raised by Priyanka Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi. They tried to connect themselves with the Congress and its leaders. In some places, the audience would wave signs to attract the attention of Rahul and Priyanka. Karnataka sent a clear message to Modi that Hindutva has its limits.

While the people of Karnataka disliked his Hindutva politics, they used their right to reject it at the first occasion available to them. The major factor which turned his Hindutva slogan irrelevant has been the counter-narrative of the Bharat Jodo Yatra launched by Rahul Gandhi. BJY was a momentous strategy of Rahul to neutralise the impact of Modi’s politics of hate, divisiveness and anchoring Hindutva. Congress getting an absolute majority after 18 years is testimony to it. People have come to realise the danger of the politics of Hindutva.

Senior BJP leaders nevertheless defend the use of Hindutva politics by asserting that though the BJP lost the election its share of votes had not reduced. It had got 35 per cent votes in 2018 and in 2023 too it remains the same. However, the Congress has increased its vote share by around 6% compared to the 2018 assembly elections when the grand old party got 38.1% of votes in the state. Nonetheless, one thing is absolutely clear the Hindutva plank has miserably failed to add more Hindu votes.

However, it is the failure of the politics of Hindutva that has turned the national leadership of BJP jittery. Denunciation of his Hindutva politics by the Hindu voters has forced Modi and RSS leaders to think of certain modifications in the character of the strategy. The national as well state leaders would meet soon to have a thorough dissection of the reasons for the failure of Hindutva strategy and decide whether the party continue to rely on Hindutva for future electoral success.

By and large, the leaders share the common view that it politics of Hindutva should be dumped, but a major section of the national leaders hold the opinion that it would be a major alluring factor in the five states which will go to the polls by the end of the year. For historical reasons, this political slogan of Hindutva may not help the states below the Vindhyachal region, but it is a very effective and potent slogan for the eastern and northern states. This is the major dilemma which disturbs the leadership.

There is no denying that the mandate will have a far-reaching impact on the national electoral scene. Bestowing the victory to the grass root Congress workers by the party president Mallikarjun Kharge or by Rahul Gandhi is a strong indicator that party cadres have been invigorated and that they have come out of the stupor which gripped the party at a lower level. This is not confined to Karnataka only, in fact, the Congress workers are ready to take on the BJP across the country. A rejuvenated party will play a decisive role in uniting the opposition. On their part the opposition leaders too would feel enthused, finally, the Congress has ceased to be a liability for them.

A vibrant Congress would pose a serious challenge to the concept of the centrality of Modi’s power. Though the ground-level situations during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections were quite different and could not be claimed to symbolise the political stature of Modi, a hysterical attempt was made to project him as a superman. By now the country has come to know of the contribution of the Pulwama massacre and subsequent the role of the slogan Indian nationalism, to the victory of the BJP in 2019. The Congress had handed over the victory of 2014 on a platter to Modi.

The major gain of this election has been no doubt the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a national leader who can take on Modi. So far one simple question was thrown into the public domain, who can match Modi? This question has been answered by the Karnataka election. While the BJP has been forced to have a look at the future election strategy and whether the Hindutva plank is worth it, the Congress has set a new political line where the focus of the political system would have to be on issues of livelihood and welfare of the poor. With Rahul determined to give a left-to-the-centre shift to the Congress’s politics and policy, the BJP would be hard pressed to evolve a new agenda and slogan to reach out to the people.

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