Hindutva is often understood as an aggressive political ideology that came about as a fallout of the British policy of divide and rule. Indeed, like Hinduism, which it claims to represent, Hindutva acquired pan-Indian political meaning only during the phase of colonial modernity. Despite attempts by secularists to keep religion out of politics in colonial – and postcolonial – times, varieties of Hinduism were creatively and successfully deployed for political causes. None did so better than Mahatma Gandhi, so much so that while the contemporary Congress party claims to derive its ideological grounding from him, the Bharatiya Janata Party too sees potential in employing him in service of its kind of Hindu nationalist politics.

The Congress may claim to be committed to secularism and constitutional values but it is Janus-faced: led by some liberal leaders in Delhi while caste patronage constitutes its foundational apparatus in states. It is this political culture that the BJP is successfully subverting to realise its dream of aligning its variety of Hindu politics, Hindutva, with popular Hinduism and the processes of vernacular modernity.

Central to the BJP’s triumph has been its success in evoking Hindu pride as a nationalist sentiment, as opposed to caste pride. It has thus turned Hinduism into a civil religion. Such sentiment is not necessarily anti-caste or anti-hierarchy, however. In fact, it mostly conforms to the upper caste Hindu ethos of caste purity.

By deploying this nationalist Hinduism – mixing politics with religion and policies with Hindu ethics – the BJP has won election after election. In this framework, moreover, Swacch Bharat, Jan Dhan, demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax are sold to the popular imagination as “nationalist policies”. The Congress, for one, has no counter to this.

A new people

The BJP particularly benefits from a deeper understanding of vernacular modernity, which has Hindu identity at its core. The way Indians negotiate caste and religious identities while enjoying the growing consumerist culture points to the centrality of these identities in both private and public life: caste serves to consolidate the private feeling of rootedness, Hindu identity firms up the feeling of national identity and public commitment.

For the new middle classes, excluding untouchables, caste identity is not to be suppressed but valorised as a private space providing roots while Hindu religion facilitates national cosmopolitanism. Such cosmopolitanism is not necessarily inclusive of minorities such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, but is in keeping with the Hindu ethos of hierarchy and untouchability. The national Hindu community and the ethic of national sacrifice evoked by the BJP are so seductive that even a strong regional Hindutva party like the Shiv Sena is not able to resist it in favour of its own regional (Marathi) Hindu radicalism.

Cracking under the BJP’s onslaught, the Congress does not emphasise its secular or pro-minority credentials any more and is instead recasting itself as a pro-Hindu party. Prominent Congress leader Shashi Tharoor coming out with a book titled Why I am a Hindu and the party’s chief, Rahul Gandhi, leaving no stone unturned to reclaim his Hindu ancestry has to be seen in this context.

The problem is that in the “Hinduness” stakes, Narendra Modi trumps Rahul Gandhi hands down, as was evident most recently in the Gujarat Assembly election. The ethic of sacrifice invoked by Modi is also much more persuasive than the welfarist rhetoric of the Congress. Modi is presently a national political icon with unmatched charisma who successfully mixes magic with science, caste with religion, truth with untruth, peace with war and politics with Hindu spirituality.

Several academic critiques describe Modi and the BJP as fascist. Millions of their Hindu supporters may disagree. To them, the prime minister and his party may seem more as Hindu democrats, both harbouring and sorting out the anxieties of modern Hindus. At the same time, drawing on Gandhi’s idea of Hindus being non-violent, the political Hindus see themselves as polite subjects following a genuine Hindu sovereign. Moreover, they invoke the idea of karma as they advance their material aspirations – which is close to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati, or “love of fate”. Such cultural sentiments serve as a political resource for the BJP as it goes about merging religion with the ethic of sacrifice and the rhetoric of equality and justice for political mobilisation.

Recasting caste?

The BJP under Modi is a dynamic political machine, which has mastered the art of extracting maximum political benefit from cultural and religious issues. As the 2019 parliamentary election closes in, the BJP will play up the alleged victimhood of the Hindu community and seek five more years to undo the “multi-term tyranny of the Congress” against Hindus.

This is in keeping with the requirements of vernacular modernity and religious-national cosmopolitanism. The BJP is working to replace the Congress’ politics of patronage, which is increasingly vague on ideology, with an inclusive nationalist Hindu ideology. This ideology combines Gandhi, Golwalkar, King/Lord Ram and, occasionally, BR Ambedkar. Such politics is not devoid of patronage but puts the ideas of sacrifice and nationalist Hinduism at its centre. This new civil religion welcomes all those who agree to support it, even Muslims are included as long as they do not ask for dignified political representation.

To counter the BJP’s nationalist Hinduism, the Congress is actively trying to mix Hinduism with the patronage structures and Mandal and Dalit politics. In this strategy, the “other” is missing. It may not take care of national cosmopolitanism among Hindus, which is combative towards Muslims and western individualism. The BJP, in contrast, has clearly marked India’s Muslim past as its “other”, not to be eliminated but out-casted. This while creating and circulating an inclusive Hindu universe that prizes upper caste Hindu ethics. In a way, the BJP’s continued rise points to a flourishing of conservative Hindu politics in India, but also a deepening of democracy.

So, will the onslaught of the BJP’s nationalist Hinduism displace the Congress from all states? An alliance of major opposition parties could help the grand old party, but that prospect seems difficult at present. Besides, if such an alliance were to emerge, Modi would play the “Hindu martyr” and could conceivably trounce it. In the arena of electoral politics, it looks dire for Modi’s rivals.

Alternatively, thus, the BJP could be countered by social and political groups that challenge the ethic and practice of nationalist Hinduism.

Suryakant Waghmore is professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and author of Civility against Caste. Views expressed are personal.