INTERVIEW

The social service wings of RSS played a big role in BJP's rise to power: Yale professor

But the more visible, dramatic, and violent tactics associated with Hindu nationalism has received more attention, feels Tariq Thachil.

Tariq Thachil, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, has the rare quality of making dry theory come alive with living, breathing examples from the always rich treasury of Indian politics. His first book, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, explores the reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s success among marginalised Indians. Thachil backs his research with empirical data to show how and why the BJP’s strategy worked. And perhaps because he grew up in India, his feel for the subject is natural and instinctive.

Thachil was born in Delhi and after finishing high school from Vasant Valley in the capital, he completed his bachelor’s degree in economics at Stanford, followed by a master’s and doctorate in government at Cornell. His PhD dissertation won three awards. Last week, Thachil spoke at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington on the churn in Indian politics – the decline of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP and regional parties.

Your book shows how the BJP may have come up with the ultimate winning strategy for political parties: how to appeal to Dalits and Adivasis without sacrificing upper caste elites. What was the genesis of the strategy?
The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have sought to reach out to marginalised groups for decades through a variety of strategies, most of which have delivered very limited successes. The party has always been highly aware of its reputation as a “Brahmin-Bania” party, and therefore the necessity of expanding its appeal among non-elite voters. In the book, I emphasise one particular strategy’s efficacy in improving the BJP’s performance among lower castes: the provision of basic social services by “seva [service] wings” of the Sangh Parivar.

Of course, the Sangh has a long history of social service, but many of its earlier efforts were episodic, specifically relief efforts for natural (cyclones and earthquakes) and man-made disasters (the violence around Partition). The groups I focus on – Sewa Bharati and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram – are involved in providing everyday service to marginalised communities. Both wings were established many decades ago, but their organisational footprint was quite small. It was only in the 1990s that they proliferated substantially. In the book, I argue that this expansion was a key part of the BJP’s expanding support among Dalits and Adivasis in central India. Equally important, I show why the strategy failed to produce similar successes in other Indian states.

Did party stalwarts debate the issue at length and arrive at the idea of providing services to the marginalised and winning hearts and minds? Or was it something that emerged and was noticed as a strategy worth pursuing on a wider scale?
In the early 1990s, Hindu nationalists tried a number of strategies to expand the profile of their party and movement, only one of which was the expansion of service. The most famous and well-studied strategy was the use of communal agitations, which came to national attention with the so-called Ram Janmabhoomi movement. There was hope that agitations against perceived Muslim aggressions would serve to unite Hindus across castes divisions, and bring lower castes into the fold. LK Advani’s rath yatra even made symbolic gestures towards Dalits, such as choosing a Dalit citizen to lay the foundation stone for the Ram temple.

But the limitations of this approach became clear in the state assembly elections of 1993. The party lost badly across five states in which it had expected to do well. A senior BJP leader confessed to me that the party was so confident of victory they hadn’t chalked out a strategy for defeat. These setbacks made clear that the mandir agitations had failed to resonate with most lower caste voters.

KN Govindacharya, another senior party leader at the time, told me that it was at that time that many within the BJP realised the participation of lower castes in the Ayodhya movement had been merely ceremonial, because the strategy provided no tangible material gains for these disadvantaged communities.

In response, the BJP tried other tactics, most notably “social engineering” – that is, promoting candidates from marginalised communities such as Bangaru Laxman and Uma Bharti. But this approach was hard to sustain because it was too threatening to upper castes. It also wasn’t popular with the RSS because it was a strategy that acknowledged caste divisions between Hindus. The Sangh dislikes explicitly politicking on caste identities, because this is seen as a betrayal of Hindutva’s central message of Hindu unity.

So the BJP faced a real dilemma: how to recruit lower castes while retaining upper castes? And how to balance the electoral needs of democratic competition with the ideological needs of its Sangh partners. Service, I argue in my book, helped balance these demands.

First, a service strategy provided tangible benefits to the poor. Yet it didn’t involve changing candidate lists or the official party platform in ways that threatened upper caste interests. At the same time, “seva” was very amenable to the RSS because it was framed as a counter to Christian missionaries and their conversion efforts. Yet despite its importance, this strategy has received far less scholarly and public attention than the more visible, dramatic, and violent tactics associated with Hindu nationalism.

While the strategy worked this time around and seems like the best of both worlds, is it sustainable over the long term? How long before the Dalits and Adivasis begin to demand real representation in terms of seats?
The heyday of these organisations may have already passed. First, service organisations were more useful in helping the BJP win office than retain it. Now the BJP is entrenched as an incumbent in many states and in the central government. As an incumbent, voters will judge you based on what you have done in government. Consequently, the successful BJP units are those that used the breakthroughs enabled by service work to implement policies that broaden the party’s appeal. For example, in Chhattisgarh, where service groups have been very active, Raman Singh has now consolidated support by expanding or improving particular government schemes for the poor.

Second, the tenuous coalition that service helped build is riddled with internal tensions. In particular, service networks have helped incorporate more Dalits and Adivasis within movement and party, but many of these personnel have greater political ambitions – to serve as candidates and political leaders.

These demands are tricky for the BJP to meet, especially outside of reserved constituencies where my analysis found the party still rarely fields Dalit and Adivasi candidates. Some of these tensions were articulated to me by the first Adivasi state president of the BJP. According to him, senior leaders wanted him to be a rubber stamp, and when he refused to be one, they asked him to step down. How the party will accommodate assertive lower caste and tribal leaders remains to be seen.

Since you are one of the few academics to study the BJP phenomenon, how do you see Narendra Modi, his rise, his seeming control over the party apparatus, his detractors…?
As someone who has studied the BJP, let me focus on two points regarding the implications of Modi’s rise for his own party.

First, Modi’s rise to becoming a candidate for prime ministership within the BJP was far from inevitable. In fact, the first impressive feature of his ascent was how he sidelined other contenders and dissenters within his own party. Remember, the BJP had a number of successful state-level leaders, including multiple-term incumbent chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Further, there were real concerns about Modi’s viability in a national campaign, even within his own party.

Following the BJP’s 2004 defeat, there was talk that the 2002 violence in Gujarat, and Modi’s polarising stewardship at the time, had hurt the party’s image nationally. From that moment, Modi’s ability to manouevre into pole position was impressive. In large part, his success stemmed from the support of rank and file for him at party conclaves. His appeal for BJP karyakartas was strong enough to vault him over less polarising contenders, and even the opposition of a party giant like Advani.

Second, the implications of Modi’s rise for his own party are quite mixed. While he has delivered impressive short-term victories, the long-term consequences of his remarkable centralisation of power are less clear. I don’t think we have seen this much centralised control within either the Congress or BJP since Indira Gandhi’s tenure. Senior leaders within his own party and even members of his cabinet are completely sidelined and reduced to figureheads. Such concentration of power is not in the BJP’s best interests in the long term.

Part of the BJP’s organisational advantage came from having a broad base and a relatively deep bench, but under Modi, this bench has narrowed considerably. Such a narrowing strategy is dangerous, because it is highly reliant on the popularity of a single individual. If that individual falls from grace, the party finds itself far less equipped to recover. Once again, the Congress’ experience under Indira Gandhi should be instructive for the BJP.

You said during your talk at the Carnegie Endowment that the rise of Modi is viewed with ambivalence within the Hindutva movement. Can you elaborate?
I think that ambivalence principally has to do with his personal appeal, his cult of personality. On the one hand, the RSS – all the way up to [chief] Mohan Bhagwat – respects Modi’s grassroots popularity. They also see him as a committed swayamsevak. At the same time, Modi’s popularity is deeply personal, which is threatening to the RSS. Such direct personal appeal suggests that the BJP under Modi can succeed without RSS assistance. In this way, Modi’s reliance on a presidential-style public relations campaign that connects him directly to the voters can be seen as a threat to the RSS. After all, the RSS’ main source of leverage against the BJP has always been that without our organisations, you cannot win elections.

Modi’s cult of personality has helped the BJP to a historic victory. But what are its long-term implications, not just for the RSS, but the wider BJP party as well? What are the consequences for the party if its worker’s primary allegiance is to Modi and not the kamal [lotus]?

I was reminded of this danger when watching Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. One of his clips shows grassroots workers for the BJP declaring that they are only with the BJP because of Modi, that they are a Modi sena. How loyal will such workers be to the party beyond Modi?

Modi’s rise has also begun to shift the nature of power within the BJP and broader Sangh Parivar. It is well known that historically, the RSS had loyal and well-placed personnel within the BJP organisation. These workers would keep tabs on what was happening within the party and report back. With the rise of workers who favour Modi over the party and the movement, this dynamic is being inverted. So Modi has brought a great surge of electoral support for the BJP, but the rise of his personal cult does not only have positive implications for the party.

How do you assess the overall communal situation in India since Modi became prime minister? Is the equilibrium (if one can call it that) in danger of being disturbed to a degree that it cannot return to the way things were – not perfect, but not erupting with a frightening regularity?
I should preface these comments by saying that my intensive study of the BJP ended in 2014, and so many of these comments are made as an engaged observer rather than through deep scholarship. As an Indian citizen, I am of course extremely concerned with the normalisation of high levels of intolerance and violence within our country, especially towards minority and marginalized communities. It signals an acceptance of violence – by the state or by private citizens – as an appropriate response to difference, be they in cultural customs, religious rituals, dietary habits, and perhaps most perniciously, in political opinions. Such vicious majoritarian bullying is a sign of democratic dysfunction, not of vitality.

As a social scientist, I believe it is important to understand the relationship between this “frighteningly regular” violence and our elected government. In 2014, it was fashionable to interpret Modi’s campaign as purely development-oriented, and to suggest that the new government’s reign would be marked by a laser-like focus on implementing economic reforms and infrastructural improvement. The implication was that communal violence would be forced to the sidelines by Modi’s “technocratic” BJP.

This interpretation felt somewhat simplified at that time, as the 2014 campaign tactics used by the BJP varied significantly across states and even districts. Casteist and communal rhetoric was far more central in the Amit Shah-led campaign in western Uttar Pradesh than in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. Beyond the campaign, many of us remained concerned with the wider implications of how a Modi victory would embolden Hindutva hardliners. We worried that hardliners would read his victory as validation of their views and perspectives, and as proof that they could act with impunity. I believe the past two years have largely justified these concerns. Much of the majoritarian violence we have witnessed since 2014 has to be read in that light.

It is also critical for us to ask why our prime minister has remained silent against such majoritarian violence? For all the talk of his “reinvention” from a hardline RSS activist to a development-oriented PM, his reluctance to admonish intolerance and violence against minorities has remained remarkably consistent over the past several years.

There are two explanations that have been offered for Modi’s reluctance to speak out. The first is that his silence is being forced upon him by hardliners within the BJP-RSS nexus. This argument fails to explain how a prime minister who was seen as all-powerful in delivering a 2014 victory is now suddenly so enfeebled and constrained within his organisations. The other explanation is that Modi doesn’t see any reason to speak out against majoritarianism and majoritarian violence, because he sees them as ideologically justified actions.

Silence can be seen as tacit approval, given in a way that allows his own public rhetoric to remain oriented towards a development-oriented personal brand. If true, this strategy risks further emboldening majoritarian nationalism, and in doing so possibly derailing Modi’s own rebranding efforts as a development-oriented technocrat. This approach could damage his long-term electoral ambitions. After all, available survey evidence suggests the BJP’s support in 2014 had little to do with support for Hindu nationalism among most voters, especially new supporters.

What was your experience dealing with the BJP hierarchy and workers in the field as someone with a Muslim name? Were they puzzled or professional enough to deal with you as an academic?
I am an atheist and a son of atheists. Coming from a secular background, my parents, who are academics, gave me a Muslim name as a gesture to the inclusive potential of Indian secularism. And because they liked the name.

Yet, of course, in a practical sense, my name marks me as a Muslim. I cannot immediately offer an explanation of how I got my name to everyone I talk with, and nor is such an explanation always readily understandable to all of them.

Senior party leaders, who are very busy people, tended not to care very much about my personal background. But of course I received questions about my background from many people I interviewed. Most often, I was regarded as a curiosity. A couple of times I did get questions that veered towards hostility. I remember one occasion where I was repeatedly asked by a party worker in Raipur, “Why aren’t you doing your field work in Hyderabad?”

Other times, their disapproval took mildly amusing forms – one interviewee kept calling me “Tarun”. When I clarified my name was Tariq, he just smiled and said, “For me, you are Tarun.”

And of course, as with many forms of research, you have to be careful in how you approach certain conversations. But I have to say most BJP workers were very willing to talk openly and were kind about having me to their homes. Personally, I owe a great deal to them for being willing to talk to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this work if they were uniformly hostile towards someone they (at least first) perceived to be Muslim. Of course, I am also heavily protected by my economic and social privilege, and my status as a professor at a US university.

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