It’s not a grand religious edifice, a flower, a colour, a sacred beast or any other piece of symbolism it has patented over the years. Instead, a single, bearded face has become the icon of its extreme right-wing version that goes by the name of Hindutva. The face derives its original appeal to the Hindutva brigade from Gujarat 2002, although over 12 years, there has been an attempt to project it as the face of decisive development. As Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial face of the BJP, pumps his fists, wags a finger, thunders his nasalised jingoism, the message is clear and loud as only he can get: with me or against me.
This is how Hinduism, liberal and inclusive in spirit, is being distorted by those who claim most vehemently to protect it. “The biggest drawback of our recent history is that Hindutva, which is not a religion but a way of life, has lost the image that was an ideal for the world. We have shifted to a society where Hinduism is a religion—one which has fear from other religions. That’s why we have taken to hardline Hindutva,” says a senior right-wing ideologue. And of the communal-secular binary that the forthcoming election is being seen as, RSS spokesman Ram Madhav says, “I don’t agree. Modi and the BJP are going for this election on development, terrorism, security and corruption. The communal versus secular (idea) has been imposed by some so-called secular parties.” Modi himself has declared that “secularism is an ineffective jadibooti in the hands of non-performing fronts that claim to be secular”, and that he offers “development, decisiveness, deliverability”. He downplays the Hindutva a bit, knowing that he must have wider appeal, but there’s no doubt about the Molotov cocktail on offer: development, hardline Hindutva and statist security.
Even the VHP, Bajrang Dal and other Sangh parivar outfits that Modi had alienated during the years he focused on his personalised branding of development in Gujarat are accepting him now. “When Modi speaks of development, terrorism and security, it’s understood these things have a direct link to the Hindutva. For if we pledge to do these things, it is for and through Hindutva,” says a senior party ideologue. And Champat Rai, international secretary-general of the VHP, says, “Call it Hindutva or Bharatiyatva—they are the same. I don’t want to give credit to a person or an organisation for it. This is what God wants to happen.”
So, is the agenda of the RSS, VHP and others still relevant? “Of course,” says Champat Rai. “I’m in no hurry for the Ram mandir to be built after a BJP government comes to power. But I’d like to see it done in my lifetime.” Vinay Katiyar, a militant figure of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, says, “If we get a clear majority, we’ll pass a law for the Ram mandir. Hum naaron ko bhule nahin, andar chingari abhi baaki hai.” It’s an issue on which the BJP lost credibility, a senior leader admits. “But there’s fear among Hindus about the rise of terror in the past two decades,” he says. “Hindus want a strong leader. At present, people trust Modi.” At the same time, the party itself is wary of the communal tag. Says BJP spokesman Sudhanshu Trivedi, “We’re talking development. Modiji is coming up as a development icon, but some self-proclaimed secular forces want to project him as communal.”
All along, the right Hindutva noises have been kept alive. Uma Bharati has off and on chanted ‘Ganga bachao’; the VHP keeps up its ‘Hindu jago’ refrain; the Hindu Raksha Dal keeps up the ‘Kashmir bachao’ slogan; governments in BJP-ruled states have pushed yoga and bans on cow slaughter; the party has done a repeat of the asthi kalash yatra, first done in 1991 with the ashes of those who died in the 1990 police firing in Ayodhya, and this time with the ashes of those who died in the Patna blasts before Modi’s speech.
To counter the anti-wave among the minorities, Modi has tried to project himself as their true friend—albeit one who will don all kinds of headgear but a skullcap. He flies kites with Salman Khan, meets Muslim clerics. Shahnawaz Hussain, the Muslim face of the BJP, says, “This is a boom of nationalism, though some try to project it as a boom of Hinduism. It’s not a crime to talk of Hindutva. Hinduism is intrinsic to the idea of India.”
That may be true, but no hardline Hindutva government has managed to rule India. Historian Devendra Swaroop says, “The political system given by the British doesn’t allow parties like BJP to do what they’re meant for, though they try their best. It’s high time we rethink and change the system.” The BJP-led NDA government came into being only after Atal Behari Vajpayee softened its Hindutva—hardliners were disappointed. “What did the six-year rule of NDA do for Hindus or Hindutva?” asks one. “That’s why the Sangh parivar wasn’t too enthusiastic about campaigning for Vajpayee in 2004 or Advani in 2009. They were unable to retain the trust of the community and these organisations.”
So, are voters in general and the BJP constituency in particular ready for the development-Hindutva combo? Many in the BJP think so. “I’m sure we’ll gain historically this time,” says Katiyar. Says another, “Terror attacks have created a sense of fear. Who is safe? Where? We need someone who can deal with this strongly.” The development agenda is the bonus on offer.
To that effect, the Sangh parivar has taken on the job of consolidating the Hindu vote for Modi. And since Hindutva alone can’t swing it, the development angle is being plugged to draw the votes of liberal Hindus. The face wears many masks to suit its purposes.