Sometime in the 1970s, a troupe of urban musicians travelled through Uttar Pradesh to collect local songs about the Ramayana. Every now and then, they would perform these songs in villages where they had camped for the night. People reacted in entranced euphoria. In one village, an old man began to dance, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he sang along to a popular ditty – “Aaj mere Jeevan mein Ram prabhu aaye.” Today, Lord Ram has graced my life.
This came as a revelation to the Bengali leader of the troupe. Ram has never been a primary deity in Bengal. That place belongs to Durga-Kali, several mother-goddess cults, and to a lesser extent, Shiva and Krishna. Even in death, where people in the North chant “Ram naam satya hai”, Bengalis say “Bolo hori, hori bol”, invoking Hari or Krishna.
This is mostly true for much of the southern states, where Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan, Ayyappan, and other local deities rule the religious imagination. So, is it possible that the entire nation could be united by the idea of a Ram Mandir? Does it really “fulfil the dreams of a billion Indians” as one news channel claimed?
Even a decade ago, the answer would have been a resounding no. The limited affective response to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement outside the Hindi-belt, marked the limit to the BJP’s expansion in other states. The rise of political parties claiming to represent backward castes and Dalits in the 1990s – and their continued dominance in UP and Bihar for much of the 2000s – made a cross-caste alliance of Hindus extremely difficult.
This was not just a problem for the BJP in the field of electoral politics but also for the Sangh Parivar in cultural-ideological terms. Backward caste politics was often accompanied by an attack on the Great Tradition in Hinduism by calling it Manuvaad. As OBCs and Dalits got access to power, they promoted their own Little Traditions within Hinduism, challenging the Sangh’s version.
What changed in the past 10 years?
A new hegemony
The process was set up in the decade before that. This was the rise of finance capital in India.
As we know today, India’s illusory economic boom between 2003-’08 was mostly driven by finance. Companies raised big money from banks and the stock markets, and invested it to build capacities. Expressways, airports, mega power plants, steel and cement factories were being planned and launched every day, way beyond what domestic demand could support.
It was a valuation game. The markets rewarded companies that were expanding, without looking at their earnings potential. Analysts invented new ways to make companies with low-earnings look attractive – sum-of-the-parts, replacement cost, value-unlocking, acquisition potential. Those who understood finance became the most valuable employees in the corporate world, because they both provided finance and sourced it.
Sales and marketing also took centre stage, especially in the fast-growing telecom, durables, automobiles and consumer goods sectors. Like the finance department, people working in the sales and marketing divisions ended up with the biggest bonuses. Engineers, designers, administrators, shop-floor managers, began to tell their children that it was best to get an MBA and specialise in finance.
The rise of finance and trade had a significant impact on the hierarchy within the elite. Traditionally, mercantile groups within India’s forward castes have dominated finance. It was but natural that people belonging to these caste groups would occupy key positions in trade, finance and entrepreneurship in the post-liberalisation world. But their influence on India’s political life had been historically limited.
Mainstream political scientists have tended to ignore the savarna influence on Indian liberalism. I submit that this was a Brahmin-Kayastha vision, which developed during the Raj, privileging the pursuit of knowledge, statecraft, law, and treating trade and business with disdain.
This left constitutive traces in the way post-Independence Nehruvian-Socialism constructed the state’s ideology. This got amplified in the Indira period, especially in the 1970s, when she ideologically aligned with the Left. But this dominant national culture began to erode with the introduction of economic reforms in the mid-1980s. By the end of the 2000s, the tables had turned. The idea of entrepreneurship dominated public imagination. And with that, the culture of the traditional mercantile castes acquired hegemonic status.
I would argue that contemporary Hindutva is the ideology of these dominant caste and class groups. While it has a history that is at least a century old, this Hindutva was refashioned in the past 20 years using artefacts and signs that were already available in public discourse – Bollywood movies, TV soaps, Amar Chitra Katha, calendar art, and hagiographies of business-leaders. Like all hegemonic ideologies, this too is being adopted by other castes and classes as well.
A new social coalition
There was a parallel process taking place in the world of backward caste politics. Most political parties founded by backward caste leaders in North India had privileged single dominant OBC groups within their power structure. They even tried to build cross-caste alliances with forward castes, to avoid sharing power with other backward castes or Dalit groups.
This has completely disrupted the caste-arithmetic in states like UP and Bihar, which together account for more than one-fifth of Lok Sabha seats. The most backward castes and non-dominant Dalit groups are no longer swayed by anti-upper caste rhetoric. The BJP has been able to persuade them that it offers them a greater share in political power than the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.
Anecdotal evidence tells us there has been a renewal of ‘sanskritisation’ amongst some of these caste groups where they are reviving origin-stories which position them as ‘fallen’ Brahmins or Kshatriyas. This is a fertile ground for contemporary Hindutva.
The process through which the new Modi-Shah BJP has been able to assimilate social groups, which would have otherwise been outside the party’s fold, is obviously much more complicated. One crucial method has been to use government subsidies and schemes to directly target the poorest, who often happen to be the most backward castes and marginalised Dalits. The state has created a welfare network, on which sits new electoral alliances. For many, the Sangh Parivar’s social network has been the route to access the state.
In effect, for them, Hindutva represents – to coin a term – a “state-community”, where the state and society are indistinguishable. This process has helped the BJP win the majority of seats in UP in 2019, in spite of the formidable alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.
The deliberate communalisation of public discourse through social media – ably aided by mainstream media – has indeed played a huge role in gathering these groups together under the Hindutva umbrella. Much has been written about it. What has probably been ignored is how certain regional cultures have acquired hegemony over everyday practices, especially of the middle-class.
The status that Bengal had in producing cultural ideals is now occupied by Gujarat and Punjab. The Gujarat-model is not just an economic ideal, it is a lifestyle. Punjab is presented in popular imagination as a combination of affluent farmers and Non-Resident Indians. Bollywood cinema and Hindi soaps promote these cultures – albeit as stereotypes of wealth and prosperity.
It is telling that Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata, ahead of the 2019 elections, had garba and bhangra performances. The BJP’s show managers had clearly realised that these cultures had become aspirational for the average Calcuttan, who once treated everything non-Bengali with scorn.
It would, therefore, not be surprising if people outside the Hindi belt also feel emotionally connected to the idea of a Ram Mandir. It is also a byproduct of the overall process of the spread of Hindi, and the cultural practices associated with the language, across non-Hindi speaking states.
Citizens as children
The Modi-Shah BJP has also reimagined the relationship between the state and the people. Elections are not central to this vision. The objective is to create a community of subjects, who are no longer citizens. They owe absolute allegiance to the leader. They are children, and he is their guardian. He takes decisions for them, in their best interest. The leader’s decisions do not need the active support of the subjects. Indeed, at times, the people might even suffer for the larger goal envisioned by the leader.
This is carefully played out in the idea of the Ram Mandir, and the attendant iconography, where Modi is seen to be larger than the deity himself, holding his hand and taking him to his rightful abode. Modi, with his longer hair and almost flowing beard, is presented as a Rajarshi – a king who has attained the status of a sage. The “state-community” finds its purest representation in the Ram Mandir, where India returns to an imaginary Ram Rajya, outside the “western” idea of democracy.
This is a crucial moment in India’s politics – one that completely reverses what the liberal vision of the nation tried to establish. It is not just about secularism, it is about modern-liberal ideas of liberty, individualism and rights. That project stands defeated in this battle. The question is whether this is the end of the war.