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Who Says Hindu nationalism is on the decline?

by Christophe Jaffrelot, 22 March 2009

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The Times of India

Hindutva: Waning in politics, rising in society

Has the BJP already lost the elections? The party has looked shaky since 2008 when it could not win Delhi and lost Rajasthan. The setback showed
that the security plank the party had tried to use post 26/11 had misfired. Add to this the nagging headache of factionalism and allegations of corruption. It’s clear the BJP has lost for good its image of “a party with a difference”.

L K Advani, who turned 81 in November, suddenly seems to lack the qualities India expects from a leader these days. And he is definitely not in a position to play the same role as A B Vajpayee in 1999. Last but not least, the Nagpur meeting showed that the BJP was trying to revive the Ayodhya issue, whereas the India of 2009 is not likely to follow the Hindutva agenda of 1989.

Yet, the BJP has never (co)governed such a large number of states (nine) at the time of a general election, which reflects a formidable expansion of Hindu nationalism in geographical terms. Who would have anticipated five years ago that Karnataka would have a BJP government and that it would have won 10 seats in J&K? The BJP is well entrenched in many states where it can mobilize a great amount of resources and activate a robust patronage system. In states like Gujarat, it has inducted sympathizers into the police and the judiciary on an unprecedented scale.

Besides the state apparatus, the BJP can rely on pervasive Hindutva forces whose growth has continued in several directions, including among (ex-) army officers, as evident from the Malegaon case. This network is showing the same propensity to militancy as other sections influenced by the Sangh ideology. In addition to the shakha system, the RSS has embarked on new programmes of social work via Seva Bharti and an active (re)conversion politics via the VHP. How then can we say that Hindu nationalism is on the decline? It has even affected the judicial process, with the guilty of Gujarat still not brought to book, and intensified a strategy of cultural policing.

In fact, cultural policing has been a sheer extension of the anti-Muslim xenophobia of the Sangh parivar. Bajrang Dal activists ransacked M F Husain’s gallery in 1996 in Ahmedabad to punish him for depicting goddess Saraswati far too scantily clad for their taste. But Hindu artists became their main targets subsequently: in 2000 Deepa Mehta could not shoot Water in Varanasi and in 2007 a Hindu painter of MSU in Vadodara was attacked by Sangh activists for his canvas representing a goddess giving birth to a child. But artists are not the only victims of this brand of policing.

In BJP strongholds like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Sangh parivar activists “rescue” Hindu girls who have married men not of their religion or caste — as in the case of several Patel girls — even though they are above 18 years of age and even, sometimes, when their parents have approved of their marriage. In many cases, these “operations” are conducted with the tacit approval of the police and the judiciary, a clear indication that if Hindu nationalism is not at its best in the political sphere, the saffronisation of the state and society has made progress in the last 15 years: the Hindu Rashtra is in the making along the societal lines the RSS has always valued. The marginalisation of the minorities, including Muslims, is another illustration of this process.

But has Hindu nationalism declined on the political scene? In fact, the BJP may not win fewer seats than Congress, especially if the ruling party is not willing or able to form a pre-election coalition. Then, it will all depend on the tactical game of the “small parties” which may well be the real winners. The NDA looks weaker as it has lost a record number of constituents — seven — over the last six years. Does it mean that the BJP is back to the Jan Sangh years when no decent man wanted to join hands with a “communal” party? Have Gujarat and Orissa — and maybe Karnataka — at last had an impact on the BJP’s partners, which may be afraid of losing the minorities’ votes and their own credibility? Only the post-election scenario will tell, but if the BJP retains its 2004 tally, many regional leaders may be prepared to do anything for the sake of kursi.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a sociologist based in Paris and has written ‘The Hindu Nationalist Movement And Indian Politics’ and ‘BJP — The Compulsions Of Politics’.