The author is an independent political analyst and researcher
The new year opens with a fresh round of debate within the extended family of the sangh on the meaning and scope of its ideology. Just as crucial as what it does or does not mean is the issue of who will define it. This struggle within is all the more important because the party at the head of the ruling alliance for the better part of the last five years is a product and an offspring of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh family.
This makes it a conveyor belt of the views of the RSS, but also much more than just that. Unlike in the Fifties and the Sixties, when it was just one of many alternatives to the Congress, the party is now a much larger and more confident entity. The last decade of the Nineties saw it first wrest the opposition space from a host of rivals and contenders. Next, it stepped into the breach caused by the collapse of the Congress as ruling force in much of India.
The next step of the transition is the more complex and difficult one; it is to secure the party in a position of dominance. Thus far, two factors have worked to its advantage. One has been the inability of the Congress to revive itself in a significant manner at the pan-Indian level. The Hindutva party in turn has tied down the Gulliver of yesteryear with a patchwork quilt of alliances and seat-sharing arrangements that make the resurrection of any all-India entity very difficult in the near future.
But the other factor that has helped the party in no small measure is the way it has posed as a force that stands against the dominant power structure. This is where the ideology of Hindutva has been all-important. Many leaders will readily admit that the Congress was long the repository of such hopes. But the mantle passed sometime in the last two decades. Unlike the older entity, the BJP never fights shy of railing at “minorityism”. It has been doing so ever since its first incarnation, the Jana Sangh, took coherent shape.
What is new is the constellation of international events that seem to give the images of a militant Islam credence. No more does non-alignment or friendship with a bloc of non-Western nations hold much attraction for a new generation of middle-class Indians. The sangh has long seen the world as a place where civilizations are locked in perpetual do-or-die conflict. There is now the added hope that a Hindu India will not stand alone in this venture.
It is a different matter that the logic of power is compelling the party to do the opposite of what it has long believed. Contrary to the hope that all militancy would be crushed, the prime minister and his deputy are set to meet with the oldest veteran of armed secessionist uprising, T. Muivah. In Jammu and Kashmir, not only has the party supped with the National Conference, but it is also willy-nilly having to back the new People’s Democratic Party-led regime’s search for a concordat with Kashmiri nationalism.
Even more emblematic of the dilemmas of the ruling party is the power-play in Uttar Pradesh. It is unable to hold on to even a slice of the privileges of office without a helping hand from a much larger, stronger Bahujan Samaj Party. Yet, as surely as the sun rises in the east, the two parties are bound to slog it out for the position of primacy one day. No one has yet demonstrated how an electoral accord between them would work, given the deep antagonism between the Dalits and the upper castes.
A coalition also has to crack down on any repeat of the Ram temple movement. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister and L.K. Advani as deputy prime minister cannot simply stand aside and see court orders trashed in public by the misdeeds of their fellow travellers. More often than not, they have to set themselves apart in word if not deed, in form if not in fact.
The question is an inevitable one. Can power tame the tiger in Hindutva' Power after all has its own logic in a constitutional democracy. The RSS for instance is seeing several of its key economic precepts such as swadeshi being undone by forces of globalization over which it has no control. But whether this seamless blending into the democratic order applies to issues of culture and identity is not so clear. If anything, there is much evidence that suggests just the contrary.
But these distinctions now matter less after the scale of the Gujarat victory. All the sophistry of electoral analysis cannot hide the fact that in as many as 83 assembly seats, the ruling party polled over half the popular vote. A broad social bloc has come into being in the western state that is arrayed against a minority religious group. It may not last and it may not be replicable elsewhere, but that is to miss the point. Not even in the heyday of the Ram mandir movement or in its old bastions of north and central India, has the party of saffron won so convincing a victory.
In fact, for the first time since the early Nineties, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has found its voice. In central India, Uma Bharti hopes to play the role reserved for Narendra Modi in the west. Maharashtra has a ready reckoner in the form of Bal Thackeray. Unnoticed by much of the English media, Vinay Katiyar has been criss-crossing small-town Uttar Pradesh with a message of cultural nationalism. There is little doubt that the strains of stridency will be heard at a louder pitch as election day nears in the five Hindi belt assemblies. Unlike in the past, it will not be a place like Ayodhya but the spectre of terrorism that will be the ostensible target. The nationalism of culture will find its target, as Katiyar says, in all that differs from it
It is easy to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. But the capture of huge areas of the public space will reduce the leeway for any elected representative who bars the way. And this includes Vajpayee and Advani. There is a real sting in Ashok Singhal’s lament that the Ram temple yatra took the issue out of the hands of his organization and made it captive to the BJP’s electoral designs.
The prime minister’s musings gingerly stop away from calling a spade a spade. He has little option. After being the electoral mascot for his party for the better part of a decade, he may not slip away into the dark. But he has shied away from a fight as he has so many times before. After all, rather than a closet liberal, he is an inner party foil to his more strident colleagues.
The party is at a crossroads. But so too is India. The alliance that was voted into power in 1999 is undergoing a metamorphosis before our very eyes. The second rung leaders are vying with each other to be more, not less, fanatical and strident in tone. Within the sangh parivar, the gloves are coming off and there is a mood to proclaim the core ideology. Whether India will buy that is unclear, but Vajpayee looks more like a handmaiden than a hindrance in the bid to change the polity.