Since the BJP’s formidable victory in the 2014 general elections, Hindutva’s stock has been steadily moving up. After securing political dominance, the Sangh parivar now aims at a repeat win in 2019, aspiring to hegemonise politics and Hindutva-ise India. Just like a booming stock market with a falling rupee does not reflect robust economic health, an upbeat Hindutva does not necessarily indicate its electoral invincibility. Moreover, Indian elections often defy arrogance and predictability, like the ones in 1977 and 2004. Interestingly, the parivar anticipated the challenge well in advance while conceiving its strategy for 2019.
In 2014, a tentative parivar, crafting an enticing electoral strategy, came to power promising development, employment, transparency and inclusive governance under a charismatic leader. Hindutva played a role, but the Muzaffarnagar-like experiments with communal violence were exceptions, while caste equations were manoeuvred in a few states as well. However, it was brand Modi that won by raising the level of aspirations in millions, who were in the midst of despair during the UPA regime’s last years. Popular support for Modi, especially from the youth, was unprecedented, cutting across caste and class. And expectations were equally high.
Modi seemed out of the box. He invited his South Asian counterparts to his oath-taking ceremony, initiated measures to remove bureaucratic hurdles for ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, introduced imaginative campaigns like ‘Swachh Bharat’ and ‘Swasth Bharat’, adopted policies to empower citizens through bank access, life and crop insurance, clean fuel and so on. Initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Startup India’, though rhetorical, looked unconventional. But instead of consolidating these initiatives, the government started treading on an exclusivist path, pursued an impulsive economic agenda and chose to be non-transparent where probity mattered. What were the compulsions and strategies behind this deviation?
First, as the RSS had groomed Narendra Modi as a pracharak and got its cadre to toil for ensuring his victory, he had to share the right to govern India with the organisation. His government appointed trusted RSS pracharaks and proteges as cabinet ministers, governors and chief ministers. The RSS deputed competent organisers in strategic party and government positions, thereby keeping the focus on Hindutva in governance, from the grassroots to the top, besides getting a free hand to decide the nation’s cultural and ideological agenda. For the parivar, this is the Hindutva government.
The RSS also began to redefine the idea of India as an exclusive Hindu nation. The ‘Demolition Nehru’ drive, rewriting of history textbooks, control over educational and cultural institutions, lynching in the name of cow protection and so on are part of that process. Modi, vowing with BJP president Amit Shah to achieve a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, returned to Hindutva jibes in order to polarise Hindus and Muslims to win state elections.
Second, Modi’s promises like ‘development for all’ generated hopes among all classes—from the corporates to the poor. He had proved to be the corporates’ darling in Gujarat, and the media projection of his backward caste origins and ‘chaiwala’ upbringing enabled him construct a pro-poor image for himself across the country. In Delhi, he continued to be corporate-friendly, while also launching many pro-poor programmes. As striking a balance between contradictory class interests was tough, he resorted to some impulsive economic decisions such as demonetisation, which hit the poor hard, and GST, which broke the back of small and medium businesses. Economic growth took a beating, unemployment boomed, inflation soared and investment slowed down. Also, some corporate biggies fled India after siphoning off public money. The RSS, which did not fully share Modi’s economic agenda, hoped Hindutva would neutralise failure and misadventure on the economic front.
Third, exclusive governance and directionless development led to authoritarian control of institutions. Institutional autonomy had been a casualty during the Emergency as well, but the onslaught under Modi was more structural, systematic and endemic. Filling institutions with one’s cadre and favourites was one thing, but subverting norms and values was ominous. Every key institution came under pressure—from the judiciary to the Election Commission, the media to the university, and the RBI to the CBI. For Hindutva to prevail, many institutions needed to be purged of the Nehruvian legacy.
Authoritarian control dismantles checks and balances, and harbours sycophancy and non-transparency. The Emergency was a clear example and the RSS was opposed to it. But in Modi’s regime, governance became increasingly opaque, and the PM’s reluctance to engage with Parliament and the media thickened this opacity further. Deals like Rafale raised doubts on government’s moral claim of transparency and brought up its connection with crony capitalists. To counter popular perception on this, Hindutva found a soft target—the corrupt past of the Congress under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Hindutva’s strategy for 2019 was, in fact, laid out soon after the 2014 results. RSS strategists realised that the BJP could get only 31 per cent of votes, at least half of which came from outside its core cadre. As the Modi regime was not likely to deliver on its development promises, they knew the next elections had to be fought by foregrounding Hindutva to consolidate and expand the core constituency. Unlike 2014, development would play a secondary role, if not abandoned altogether.
The parivar then systematically Hindutva-ised governance, enlarging the Hindutva public sphere and encompassing new target groups. Both soft and hard Hindutva flourished under the patronage of the government, the media and the corporates. Print and electronic media were relentless in disseminating Hindutva discourses on nationalism, terrorism, triple talaq, Kashmir, Pakistan and, more recently, ‘urban Naxals’. Hindutva army invaded social media with contentious propaganda and trolled with venom. Sangh-affiliated ABVP aggressively campaigned in universities against left-wing students, portraying them as anti-nationals, and enrolled new cadre with state support. Bajrang Dal unleashed a reign of terror in the name of ghar wapsi, gauraksha and countering ‘love jihad’. Fringe groups like Sanatan Sanstha went after rationalists and threatened to punish dissent. The VHP kept the Ram Mandir issue alive, and Yogi Adityanath was made CM of UP precisely because he would be ideal to lead the temple agitation before the 2019 elections. Yogi would replace Modi as Hindutva mascot, while the PM would be used sparingly and strategically. Despite failing to fulfil his development promises, Modi would continue as the mascot of development.
Modi’s failure had disenchanted many, particularly the youth, farmers and small traders, but he could still claim credit for introducing more than 100 welfare schemes, some of which had benefited the poor, OBCs, Dalits, adivasis and women. Moreover, his humble background and single status would still find many takers. Big businesses would still bet for Modi as pro-business, though with less enthusiasm this time. Modi could still sell empty promises and hollow dreams, perhaps with a bit more stretching than before.
Thus, in 2019, the Sangh parivar is back to basics with an overt preference for Hindutva, which had been underplayed in 2014. As Modi’s development agenda looks lacklustre, the parivar may use its last lethal weapon—construction of the Ram temple—to win 2019. The momentum has picked up after the RSS chief announced that the temple will be built, and sent an emergency call to the government asking for legislation to enable it. Shiv Sena and the sadhus have started camping in Ayodhya. Clearly, the battle for New Delhi in 2019 would be fierce.
(The writer is ICCR chair for the Study of Contemporary India, Leiden University, the Netherlands. The views expressed are personal.)