Rise of Hindutva lobby poses a tough question to PM

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Jan 05, 2015 23:44 IST

There are, broadly speaking, two views on why Narendra Modi led the BJP to such an overwhelming victory in last year's general election. The first is the view of some members of his party and the extended Sangh parivar. According to this view, Modi won because India's Hindu majority decided it wanted a leader who broke the secular consensus of old, and was proudly and aggressively Hindu. Modi's victory was the victory of the Hindutva agenda and a manifestation of the desire of India's Hindus to reclaim their country.

The second view is that Modi's victory had relatively little to do with aggressive Hindutva. He won on a platform of clean and good governance and because he was able to point to his development record in Gujarat. India had tired of the corruption scandals and the indecision that marked UPA 2. After having watched appalled as a weak-kneed Manmohan Singh sleep-walked through the last three years of his prime ministership, the electorate wanted a strong leader; a man who did not fear anyone, who did not take orders from party high commands and whose word was final.

All the opinion-polling evidence suggests that the second view is closer to reality. Modi could not always shake off the Hindutva baggage of his past. But equally he did little to over-emphasise Hindutva issues during the campaign, choosing instead to focus on development issues and to promise strong leadership.

But a problem has now arisen. Several months into his tenure, Modi finds that these two explanations for his victory are in conflict. So deep and intractable is this conflict that only one view can triumph. And when it does, that triumph will forever destroy the other view.

The Hindutva lobby sees Modi as its own man. It spent over a decade defending him from attacks from secular liberals in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. And when he became the BJP's prime ministerial candidate it was because the parivar's hard Hindutva core and saffron activists campaigned for him against the opposition of such old-guard leaders as LK Advani.

In their minds, therefore, Modi's victory is their victory. It gives them the right to 'reconvert' Christians and Muslims, who they believe only defected from Hinduism because of force or blandishments. It gives them the authority to act against Muslim actors who star in films that caricature such elements of the Hindu faith as godmen. (It is instructive that the anti-PK campaign has focused on Aamir Khan, not on the many Hindus who have actually written, directed and produced PK).

Those who do not approve of the victory of Hindutva forces can go to Pakistan, as one BJP leader has said. For the (largely Hindu) electorate, the choice is between the children of Ram or mere haramzaadas. And while the parivar does not necessarily approve of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (for the record, Nathuram Godse's links were with the Hindu Mahasabha; the RSS actually condemned the assassination and praised Gandhiji), many of its members believe that perhaps history has been unkind to Godse. We must also consider the inherent patriotism that drove Nathuram.

The problem with the issues that the Hindutva camp is now raising is that they put Modi exactly where he does not want to be: On the side of aggressive Hindutva. During the general election campaign, the Congress tried hard to portray Modi as a Hindu extremist. He swatted off those attacks by suggesting that this kind of secularist typecasting was the last refuge of the corrupt and inefficient. Instead of dwelling on Hindutva, why didn't the Congress confront him on issues of governance and development? As we know, this strategy worked. Try as the Congress might, Modi's pro-Hindutva record never became an issue during the campaign.

But now, it is Modi's own supporters who have raised the aggressive Hindutva issues. And he doesn't seem to know how to respond to them. Consequently the battlefield has shifted from Modi's chosen area of development to communalism, an area that he had hoped to avoid. What the Congress could not do, the parivar has now achieved.

All this also seriously impacts Modi's larger constituency, the people who voted for good governance, growth and strong leadership. Modi can claim, quite reasonably, that he needs a little more time to revive the economy. But he finds it difficult to explain why he does not shut the parivar's lunatic fringe up. We know that such communal issues as love-jihad do not win elections as the by-elections in Uttar Pradesh demonstrated. We know also that when the BJP talks of development as it did in Haryana and Maharashtra, it rises to record heights.

So why then does Modi make no effort to chastise the Sanghis who have hijacked his agenda? Why didn't he openly distance himself from the more poisonous rhetoric? It is easy - and largely non-controversial - to condemn the Godse cult or send out subtle signals by attending a screening of PK. And yet, he does very little.

And the less he does, the weaker he seems. India voted for a strong leader, one who did not meekly give in to party high commands or activists. Tolerant and liberal Hindus, who constitute the majority of Modi's electoral support base, are now saying: This is not what we voted for. Is this man not strong enough to take on the crazies who want to push India back to the medieval era?

At some stage, Modi will have a difficult choice. He will either have to throw in his lot with the Hindutva lobby, in which case he risks alienating his larger constituency. Or he will have to rein in the crazies, in which case he antagonises his original support base.

It won't be easy. But no prime minister can walk a tightrope forever.


(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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