Modi: The creation of a 100-year movement
Donald Trump’s defeat might seem the beginning of the end of Global Trumpism, a trend that is seen to include Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Narendra Modi. But the whimsical presidents of the United States, Brazil and Philippines all espouse politics that stem from their personalities. Modi, by contrast, is the disciplined face of a movement that has spent 100 years re-arranging society. He will be that much harder to beat.
The movement that created Modi, Hindu nationalism, was itself created 100 years ago. The spark was the introduction (by the British conceding to nationalist demands) of elections in the 1920s. The cornerstone of any definition of democracy, elections, are premised on individual equality. Every person has an equal vote. But although race and other identities have always played some role in Europe and America, the social and economic lives of Indians were entirely structured around venn diagrams of region, language, caste, and religion. Elections in India were thus a high-stakes gamble. Would democracy rewire Indians into voting as individuals with interests, rather than groups with identities?
The opposite is what happened. Instead of crystallising into individuals, India’s myriad groups now had an incentive to harden their boundaries. Perhaps the first community that understood how destabilising elections can be to traditional group identities were rich Muslim aristocrats, many of them from the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh). They saw clearly that elections would reduce Muslims to a permanent “minority”. Their response was the creation of the All India Muslim League, with the sole aim of diluting one-person-one-vote to shield Muslims from the Hindu majority.
Elections set of a different panic among early Hindu nationalists. They welcomed one-person-one-vote but focussed on creating a Hindu “vote-bank” that could dominate elections. Late 19th century Hindu thinkers had been concerned with the question: “What is Hinduism?” This was replaced by the question that VD Savarkar used as the eventual subtitle of his famous essay on Hindutva: “Who is a Hindu?” It is no coincidence that Savarkar was following the elections of the 1920s when he wrote his essay. And the first institutions of Hindu nationalism — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha —were also creatures of the 1920s.
Their challenge now remains the same as it was then: To persuade India’s 966 million Hindus to vote as one religious group.
Many of Prime Minister Modi’s policies can be traced to this focus on a religious majority that electoral individualism funnels into democratic power. Take his government’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution had enabled special laws that shielded the state’s 8.5 million Muslims from the voting might of 100 times as many Indian Hindus. Now, by simply letting more Indians from other states move to Kashmir, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes that separatist sentiments will dissolve, demographically. This is the same numbers game behind Modi’s other policy: The Citizenship (Amendment) Act. By increasing (even if feebly) the number of Hindu citizens, the BJP enhances its social majority.
Modi’s many critics imagine ways to beat him at his own game. They dream up social coalitions of Dalits (16%), tribals (8%), Other Backward Classes (roughly 42%), and Muslims (15%) to isolate the upper-castes (less than 20%) who they consider the hidden hand behind the BJP. While this mathematical equation has been memorised in university seminars and newsrooms, evidence from 40 years of elections points to a new arithmetic.
Tribals and OBCs began turning to the BJP from the 1980s. These were the fruits of decades-long branching out by the RSS and BJP, aware of the electoral limits of their upper-caste roots. Modi, from a lower-caste community of oil extractors, is the apotheosis of this self-awareness. He has done at least as much for reservations as any PM before him. This has not gone unnoticed. In the 2019 elections, Modi won over more SC, ST, and OBC voters than his rivals. The Modi vote is a bridge that spans the Hindu hierarchy.
This caste inclusion comes mixed with an advertised rebuff to Muslims. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims are a historical fault-line that Hindu nationalism did not invent. But it has fallen to Modi to emphasise these differences. He revives the memory of ancient invasions as a foil to culturally unite today’s Hindus. The glue that fuses Modi’s Hindu alloy together is as much his outreach to lower castes as a primal fear of Muslims.
These sharp edges have led some to portray the BJP as anti-democratic; fascist even. But why end elections, when it is the organising principle that shapes your politics? Hindu nationalists may be illiberal, but they are comfortable with free and fair elections, the bedrock of any democracy. It is a comfort made cosier by the fact that traditional Hinduism does not provide for a “Hindu State” that can replace democracy. Unlike the Islamic Caliphate or Christian Papal State, the Hindu State is an elected one.
The second slur hurled at the BJP is that they are “conservative reactionaries”; upper-caste men whose customary power is being threatened by the rise of the lower orders. But, apart from the fact that the lower orders seem to vote otherwise, this misses ways in which Hindu nationalism breaks from the past. While traditional Hinduism had contempt for lower castes such as Modi, his new Hinduism courts their votes. And while its older avatar made room for a range of rites, Modi’s India seeks to standardise Hinduism while fomenting suspicion of Muslims.
This radicalism — part roomy, part cramped — is what makes Modi so hard to beat. That and one hundred years of re-engineering society to harness the power of the individual vote. Settle yourself in for a long haul.
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