This is a well-timed book coming as it does when the Bharatiya Janata Party has just won an unprecedented, and somewhat unexpected in its emphatic nature, electoral victory in India.
The Saffron Tide: The Rise of the BJP
Although it seemed certain in the run up to the 2014 general elections that the incumbent UPA coalition would lose the Centre on the basis of corruption allegations and general incompetence, the massive mandate for the BJP was foreseen by very few.
The 282 Lok Sabha seats for the BJP mark a watershed moment for the party, the religious rightwing movement and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Although most of this book was written before the BJP’s victory at the Centre, The Saffron Tide explains how the party has reached where it has — a long, painful journey which started before India’s independence and has reached a pinnacle 67 years later.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee — he whose name Narendra Modi confused with someone quite different — founded the Jana Sangh, precursor to the BJP, in 1951.
Although Mookerjee was a force to be reckoned with in his time, he has been forgotten over the years, even by those who belong to the party that he, for all practical purposes, founded.
Mookerjee, brilliant in many ways, a barrister who became vice-chancellor of Calcutta University at 33, was deeply moved by the plight of Hindus in East Bengal and later East Pakistan.
He felt their cause was being ignored. He joined the Hindu Mahasabha, but left after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination which he “condemned in no uncertain terms” says Nag.
He even became part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet. But the need to plead the Hindu cause and several run-ins with Nehru led to the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951.
Mookerjee died in 1953 — in mysterious circumstances — according to his fans and the Jana Sangh started on its lonely path to take over India.
As Nag points out, India at the time was not convinced of the Hindu majoritarian arguments of Hindu insecurity and India’s past glory.
It is important to know where the BJP came from and it is also important to know how it is very much part of the RSS’s ‘Sangh Parivar’. Mookerjee may have had his own ideas about how to deal with the RSS but those are long gone.
The Saffron Tide traces the history of the party from its inception to the present day.
It includes, as mentioned, the BJP’s win at the Centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi.
But it is the early history which is the most fascinating. As we reach Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the Janata Party, the ground becomes more familiar. One could recommend that senior BJP leaders read it, including those who do not know Mookerjee.
Any such history is also the story of politics in India and invariably of the Congress Party as well.
As Nag makes it clear, the BJP had to measure itself against the Congress at all times and often had a very strange relationship with the ideas and ideals of its chief electoral opposition.
Obviously, 247 pages cannot tell the full story but the book provides a very good foundation for students of Indian politics. The way the Hindu vote was carefully created and nurtured is a lesson in careful strategy.
At the same time, Nag posits that the BJP’s constant obsession with the Hindi language and the north Indian ethos have been detrimental to its growth. The BJP’s economic policies have been all over the place over the years but its view of “cultural nationalism” as illustrated by Nag has barely changed.
People who do not believe that the RSS controls the BJP need to read this book to find out just how deep that relationship is.
Most useful are the chapters that offer a quick look at how the BJP’s fortunes changed in India’s many states. The rivalry between Atal Bihari Vajpayee — the only BJP prime minister before Modi — and his friend Lal Krishna Advani — once Modi’s mentor — is well delineated.
The main criticism would have to be the quotes from other journalists and political observers which disrupt the flow of the narrative. In some cases, these voices appear to be there for the sake of being there: they add nothing substantial to the story being told.
But this is a minor carp. The Saffron Tide is an easy informative read and should be invaluable to anyone who is curious about this new chapter in India’s political history. Nag keeps his voice as objective as possible as he analyses the party and its main protagonists.
It would be interesting to see how Nag, who was resident editor of the Times of India in Ahmedabad (and my boss at the time!) for a period which covers Modi’s rise in Gujarat and has also written a biography of the prime minister, assesses the Modi government at the Centre.
(Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist)