AT THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY’S national convention in Indore this February, over 4,000 members of the party’s National Council massed inside an enormous air-cooled tent to discuss what the party considered significant issues in politics, economics, foreign policy, affirmative action, and also to witness and ratify a changing of the guard. The tenure of Rajnath Singh, a Thakur from Uttar Pradesh and the party president from 2006 to 09, was over. He was giving way to Nitin Gadkari, a Brahmin from Maharashtra.
At 11:00 am on 18 February, the entire top brass of the party leadership had taken their places before the delegates on a grand flower-bedecked dais with a backdrop of a sari-clad woman at work in a idealised agrarian idyll: the sun shining, thatched huts, children at play, a windmill. Everyone in the tent, including members of the press, had already stood to attention while the song ‘Vande Mataram’ resonated through the tent over loudspeakers. Now the departing president was speaking, in a grave, orotund Hindi, about the party’s history, its recent troubles, and its future.
The very look of the convention was an attempt by the BJP, in a time of crisis, to reconnect to its history. In its 30th year, and smarting from the reverses of the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the party had organised one of the ‘back to the basics’ gatherings it seemed to find attractive from time to time. In Indore, as it had in Bandra in Mumbai at its inaugural convention in 1980, and again in its silver jubilee year in 2005, the party had erected a massive political squatter camp at Omaxe City, a massive, 36-hectare private plot just outside Indore city limits, on the Mumbai-Agra highway. Small white tents, each with five beds, a fan, and an attached bathroom, stretched away to the left and right of the main thoroughfare as far as the eye could see. (Women delegates had a more comfortable time in a block of flats.)
When the convention began, journalists took great pleasure calling out all those of the top brass who apparently decamped to plush hotels for the night. But nostalgists of the old party dictum of ‘simple living and high thinking’ seemed to find the air of austerity and community pleasing. “Sirf kambal lane ka aur so jaane ka,” declared Surendra Lakha, a tall, suave MLA in his 50s from Baroda. “Just bring your own blanket and go off to sleep.” Prostrate on their beds behind Lakha, taking a break from the day’s exertions, were four grizzled septuagenarians from Punjab, his roomies for the convention. The characteristic Indian talent for discovering a family connection in any situation had revealed that the daughter of one of the Punjabis was working in Baroda, and now four and one had become five.
“A convention is for people to meet, get to know one another, to improve unity in the party,” said Neeraj Yagnik, a BJP worker from Indore who had been closely involved with hospitality. “But in recent years, people would come to sessions and then go back to their halls or hotels all over town. This time everyone is together, like one big family. We’ve made the convention like a village, with farms and fields alongside where fresh produce is being grown. Everything is eco-friendly: CNG cars and bullock carts to take delegates up and down, bicycles if they want to get around by themselves.” The convention organisers’ riffs on a swadeshi theme were no doubt ingenious. Security guards at the convention wore yellow kurtas and turbans and carried lathis; vendors roasted channa and bhutta and served up nimbu paani with rock salt. There was no trace of a bottled soft drink—the symbol of an easy, unthinking, and untraditional consumption—in sight. But inside the convention hall, the delegates found themselves listening to an intensely serious disquisition on Coca-Cola.
Rajnath was not willing to concede, as some had argued after the failure of Advani’s campaign in 2009, the prospect of the exhaustion of the politics of Hindutva or a rethinking of the party’s self-definition. The BJP found itself today in a predicament, declared Rajnath, similar to that faced by Coca-Cola in the 1980s, when the company found itself steadily losing market share in the cola wars with its big rival—Pepsi.
Convinced that it no longer appealed to mass taste, Coke decided, fatally, to change its original formula. The company then produced and enthusiastically advertised a new Coke similar to its competitor—with more lemon oil and less orange oil— explained Rajnath, whose research on this subject appeared to have been very thorough. But, far from winning back those who had jumped ship, the new product was a disaster in the market, and Coke fell away even more. Only when, chastened, it reverted to its original formula and kept the faith in its original identity did it eventually make up its lost ground. For Rajnath, the BJP was now in the position that Coke was in the 80s. Learning from history, it had to avoid the temptation to abandon its ‘original formula.’
That original formula was, of course, Hindutva. The conundrum of how to balance communal mobilisation with a wider, more inclusive appeal based on socio-economic themes is, of course, the central dynamic of the BJP’s history (although no illustrative example could have been more anachronistic than Rajnath’s). Over the three decades of its political life these two themes have been mixed up in different proportions at different times, often by the same personalities, such as Advani himself, responding to expedient concerns. Or else they have run in parallel, aggregating their rewards, as when personified by the figures of Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the party’s heyday in the late 90s. Now Rajnath, while acknowledging that ‘development’ was the new buzzword of Indian politics, insisted that by hitching its cart too closely to such a general idea it would be squandering its unique selling point: a politics based on an appeal , first and foremost, to a “hindutva ka vichardhaara, sanskritic vichardhaara.”
I WAS BORN IN THE SAME MONTH as the BJP: April 1980. We were both approaching 30—a life-number that in human consciousness usually represents a stability of self, a higher self-awareness. Although I could hardly claim, like Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, that my personal fortunes had oscillated on the same curve as the larger entity born at the same time as I was, it could certainly be said that my own responses to the party over the years might be seen as a barometer of my generation’s relationship to the BJP. Because of the BJP, the Hinduism of millions of people of my generation now had a definite political valency.
As I watched Advani, the party’s grand paterfamilias, now in the twilight of his career, reminisce about the party’s dramatic leap in political fortunes in the 80s, I was taken back to the Sunday morning telecasts of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on Doordarshan in the Cuttack of my childhood. No one was to be seen on the streets between 10:00 and 11:00 on those mornings; one article estimated the audience for the serial at 91 percent of those owning television sets. These broadcasts, although the work of Rajiv Gandhi’s Information & Broadcasting ministry, did much to create a pan-Indian Hindu consciousness that would work in the BJP’s favour and broaden the appeal of its own agitation on the issue of the disputed Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
I thought, too, of the day the Babri Masjid was brought down by kar sevaks and miscreants late in 1992, and the riots and reprisals, some of them the handiwork of the BJP’s ideological ally, the Shiv Sena, that followed in the Bombay where I then lived—an experience from which the city has never quite recovered. The city’s Hinduism, until then was rooted in gestures such as worship at its hundreds of temples and roadside shrines or even a bunch of grass fed to a cow at a street corner, became—as right-wing nationalism wanted it to be—more strident, demonstrative. Maha aartis in the evenings at the temple opposite my house in Santacruz attracted hundreds of people, and blocked off all traffic.
As the 90s rolled on, the BJP’s power and influence waxed as that of the Congress, rudderless without a Gandhi in charge, waned. Now it was associated not so much with the agitation of the temple movement as with government. I was a teenager when it came to power in Maharashtra for the first time in 1995 in alliance with the Sena, and then a student in Delhi when Sushma Swaraj’s government was somewhat unreasonably ousted in 1998, mainly over the rising prices of onions. When we were both 18, the party finally came to power at the centre, as the principal player of the National Democratic Alliance. Although far from being the kind of Hindu the party valorised, I found myself persuaded by the poise and intelligence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who seemed to promise a government more vigorous than that offered by the moribund Congress. When his government embarked on a set of nuclear tests at Pokhran that year and declared India a nuclear power, I was not to be numbered among the skeptics. At discussions on university lawns in Delhi and later in England, against those who argued that the party was at its very heart illiberal and communal, I argued that the BJP deserved a chance to prove its worth.
But in 2002, watching news of the genocide in Gujarat from the security of my room in Cambridge, the bubble of my youthful confidence in the party burst, and the dark underbelly of its politics, particularly its links with bloodthirsty right-wing groups, was laid bare. I was disillusioned, too, by the party high command’s equivocation over the Gujarat affair. In December 1992, in the wake of the demolition in Ayodhya, Advani had argued that the BJP was actually firmly committed to secularism, and that the party’s track record of preserving communal peace in the states where it had formed a government spoke for itself. Now that claim lay comprehensively dismantled.
Further into my 20s, as my own understanding of Indian politics and society expanded, the party’s view of Indian history and culture came to seem ever less satisfactory. Yet, through my interactions with people and on my travels, I had come to be intrigued, both as an observer of politics and as a novelist, by the narrative power exerted by the party’s founding fiction on the minds of many middle-class Indians like myself. This was the idea that Indian culture is rooted in a Hindu ethos and worldview, and that Indian Hindus, because a double-standard secularism that ignored the sentiments of the majority community, were disorganised, defensive about their faith, and therefore accomplices in the desertion of the central principle of their civilisational history. In centuries gone by, Muslim rule and British colonialism had been responsible for Hindu debilitation. But in an independent India in which their primacy has been re-established, Hindus had no one else to blame but themselves for their marginalisation. Or, as an article called ‘Angry Hindu’ published in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser in the 80s put it, “Really speaking, I am more angry about myself than about others.”
In this view, now widely shared and propagated by middle-class, upper-caste Hindus, India was really ‘our country,’ and the BJP was brave to speak the truth about the historical primacy and present inadequacy of Hindus in India, while the Congress merely flip-flopped and tried to be all things to all people. The other side of this belief, based on a longstanding and widespread animus now given the confidence to speak out, was a contempt for and pained sufferance of communities outside the Hindu fold, particularly Muslims, who were mainly imagined in the abstract and not in the particular. On many long-distance train journeys, I saw older people brought together only by the accident of adjacent seat numbers forging a bond over casual conversation, as one might discuss cricket or cinema, about the rapidly growing size of the Muslim community because of polygamy and high birth rates, or the wily conversion tactics and plots of Christian missionaries.
In one particularly sickening instance, when my train from Mumbai to Delhi stopped one evening in Godhra, a middle-aged man waiting, like me, to get out onto the platform for a stroll looked at me and said with a laugh, “Modi Nagar!” As much as our fabled tolerance or peacability, this schadenfreude, too, was part of the deep structure of our society, particularly now that travel and mass media had allowed people to think and imagine not through the lens of local categories and traditions but the global, unqualified constructs and the hollowed-out narrative and overwhelming power of words like ‘Hindu,’ ‘Muslim,’ and ‘Indian.’
These were tendencies not created by the BJP, but rather exploited by it. So there was something inevitable about its rise in a democracy only a few decades old. A charitable view of the BJP was to see it as a kind of safety valve, allowing voters to express their resentment democratically and peacefully. In this view, nationalism of the classic blood, soil and culture variety, as propagated by the BJP, inevitably contained within it the seeds of xenophobia, but could be moderated by democracy and the rule of law. A less sympathetic interpretation would note that the BJP not only channeled the agitation of a pervasive default setting in society but also stoked it, seeking to reinforce and multiply this suspicion and hostility, and, paradoxically, to boil down Hindu identity itself to a mirror image of the stereotypes of the other it generated.
At 30, then, I was more curious than ever to see and hear from up close the representatives of Hindutva, and to listen to the party in conversation with itself as an insider might. I was also curious to see first-hand how the party envisioned its own future direction after the chastening defeat at the hustings last year, and in a new time where the appeal of the colour saffron had begun to run dry. For three days I found myself wandering through the personalities, lexicon and imagery of an alternative, fully-formed universe very distant from my own: pracharaks and swayamsevaks, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, nationalism and pseudosecularism, Atalji and Advaniji, Hindutva and Bharat Mata, the cow and the Ganga, polysyllabic Hindi and Vedic advice for the 21st century, and green and saffron without the white in between.
THE CYNOSURE OF ALL EYES at the convention is not Advani or Narendra Modi, the party’s two most charismatic faces, nor Sushma Swaraj, the new leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, but an innocuous, shambling, slow-moving figure in his early 50s, dressed like a middle-level manager in a plus-size shirt and very baggy pants.
Until December 2009, when he was appointed the new party president in preference to more prominent members of the party’s second generation like Swaraj, Modi, or Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari was almost unheard of in Indian politics outside his native Maharashtra. He had never before won an election to a state or national legislative assembly; his one term in high office was as the widely praised Public Works Department minister of the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra from 1995-99.
A Brahmin from Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS, and himself an RSS swayamsevak in his youth, Gadkari enjoys the confidence of the body that serves as a pressure group and veto power on the BJP. After the electoral and internal crises of the past year, the party had sought someone who represented both the traditional values of the party’s parent body and the spirit of a new generation, and with no history in the power struggles of Delhi. This was Gadkari.
Despite his relative inexperience, the new president exhibits a certain savoir faire. The day before the convention began, he made a trip to Mhow to pay his respects at the birthplace of BR Ambedkar. During his inaugural speech, this prosperous industrialist supplied to the delegates the image of himself as a humble party worker, whose work, once upon a time, was painting walls white (“because my own handwriting was bad”) so campaign messages could be written on them, and rolling up carpets after meetings. That a person such as himself could rise to the highest post of the party, he argued, is a compliment to the party and its cadre, particularly in a political landscape where powerful families have wrested control of parties.
More persuasively than many leaders invested in ushering in a new era, Gadkari returns repeatedly to first principles, to notes of warning and self-restraint. “We should think: what kind of political culture do we want to be a part of?” he asks, enjoining delegates not to go around touching the feet of leaders, especially his own. Past mistakes should encourage reflection about the thin line between atma-vishwas (self-confidence) and ahankaar (arrogance). The party is to make a conscious effort to reach out to scheduled castes and tribes, minorities, the lower middle-classes and the poor. After all, isn’t this the true meaning of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concept of Antyodaya, or reaching out to the last man? Without actually crossing his predecessor, Gadkari was taking issue with Rajnath’s more static view of the party.
It is no doubt an oration with some real thought behind it. Its idiom, too, is consistent with its message; Gadkari’s Marathi-accented Hindi, with the occasional burst of English, much more a language of the street than the party’s more ornate and Brahminical traditional idiom. Intrigued by the new president, I sit down that night under the flickering tubelight of my cheap hotel room—despite the tents, every room in town is taken—to read Politics For Development, a curious little book Gadkari published in English last October, before his elevation to high office.
The book, easily available online as a PDF file, outlines Gadkari’s vision for Maharashtra, which at the time of writing formed the boundary of his political world, but it is also a kind of autobiography. It is written in a simple, unpretentious English, with the odd grammatical error commonly made by the Indian English-speaking tongue confirming that it is an original composition. It is devoid of rhetoric, with only the odd quote from Deen Dayal Upadhyay or John F Kennedy to garnish its plainspoken style. Remarkably, for a BJP voice, it never excoriates the Congress, preferring instead to lay out a purely constructive agenda. The only contemporary political figure it references is American president Barack Obama, who “has harnessed the concept of ‘Politics of Development’ for all-round development of the country.”
The word ‘development’ appears 112 times in this work of 86 pages, and ‘Hindu’ only once. Development, the book holds, is the primary good that must be delivered to society by politics. Politics itself “must never come in the way of development.” The book positions the writer, and by extension his party, as holding the imperative of good governance above ideology. “You have every right to decide your own political inclination,” the author writes to an imagined reader, as if to stir him or her out of a ‘let’s play it safe and vote for Congress’ reflex. “If however you observe that the party which you favour has pitched a candidate who is not seen chasing the development agenda, what’s the harm in electing a candidate who is not from the party of your choice but has the potential to drive development?”
Gadkari also demonstrates an impressive command of local conditions, jumping nimbly, almost proprietorially, from one site in Maharashtra to another (“The sewage water of Nagpur is collected at Bhandewadi. It is then recycled and supplied to the Koradi thermal power project,which is close by....Can we consider treating Mumbai’s wastewater and carrying it to Nashik via Thane in a pipeline? This water
is enough to generate 2000 MW electricity.”) Appropriately enough for a book written by a self-professed moderniser and reformer, it ends with three pages of answers given
by the writer to questions asked to him on a live Internet chat at Rediff.com—hard to imagine someone like Rajnath doing that.
There was enough seen of Gadkari at the convention to take seriously the claim made by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Gadkari’s contemporary in student politics and now the director of a training institute for BJP workers in Mumbai, that the new president was “a non-conventional politician in a conventional politics.” It remains to be seen how Gadkari handles incidents like Varun Gandhi’s indefensible speech in Pilibhit during last year’s election campaign, one that generated a further set of disingenuous equivocations among the party high command. The BJP’s own young Gandhi, while present at the convention, did not appear on stage, though posters all over town proclaimed him the Bhavishya ka agaaz, or the voice of the future. In March, Gandhi was made a secretary on Gadkari’s team of office-bearers—many of them new faces and a third of them women—as was the founder of the Bajrang Dal, Vinay Katiyar. Even so, to many kinds of watchers not enamoured of the BJP in its current avatar—whether it is the neutral observer hopeful of seeing the BJP fill the space potentially available for a broadly free-market, right-of-centre politics, or the sceptical one resigned to the BJP’s long-term presence as a revanchist force in Indian politics and wanting only its worst tendencies to be kept in check—Gadkari’s resume seems to promise a more moderate and liberal politics.
A PARTY AS FIXED ON THE PAST as the BJP—and not just a recent, historical past, but a more distant, mythical past—must continuously be idealising that past on the one hand, as if seeking a return to it, and of funneling it into the present on the other. Although it is only 30, the BJP would have us believe that in spirit it is about 2000 years old. Two such examples at the convention demonstrate the enormous archive of narrative material available to the BJP.
Prominently on display at Indore, adjacent to the main convention centre, is a small cowshed with five cows. The cowshed is part of an elaborate little gau--complex: a number of small pits and storage tanks, a thatched house with a solar heater, a small field with the earth turned over, white boards with diagrams and notations about the gai ka arthashastra, or cow science, and a stand with bottles, jars, and vials of products made with cow urine.
“Nanaji Deshmukh [a Jana Sangh leader who passed away later in February] has said, ‘Do acre zameen, ek parivar, paanch govansh—two acres of land, one family, and five cows,” declared Rishi Tiwari, a local party man whose dealership in tractors and interest in energy-efficient technology had found expression in this display. “The centre of the rural household in India is the cow. It gives milk, pulls the plough, provides pollution-free transport. Even the cow’s waste products are useful. What you are seeing here is a cow-based village.”
Tiwari led me past a ‘bail motor,’ a device that, when turned round and round by a cow at an even speed, would recharge a truck battery in eight hours. Right now, though, the cows were resting, and instead, a group of five women from the local BJP unit were amusing themselves going around in circles dragging the lever. Next up was an animal-powered thresher to cut up the hay that the cows themselves eat; and a water sprayer that used power generated by the very cow pulling it through the fields.
Of course, none of these devices were commercially available yet to their potential market of 100 million buyers, but that would all happen in good time. Nor was there a wider vision yet for the urban cow, contributing nothing but cow pats to the streets where it roamed unchecked, or chewing the cud and flicking its tail at flies all day long in a tabela.
“The point of this display,” said Tiwari, “is to show how we can become a superpower through ox power.” A little over 200 years after the Industrial Revolution, it was not easy to imagine such an eventuality coming to life. But then again, every grand scheme in this world was an idea before it was reality.
That evening, I attend a two-hour session on, surprisingly enough, global warming and climate change. Anil Dave, a Rajya Sabha MP from Bhopal and a member of the Indian delegation at the recent world conference on climate change in Copenhagen, delivers a precise, clipped presentation on the subject to a rapt audience, hitherto never particularly moved by the subject of global warming. My science is a little backward, and like many others in the hall I find myself taking notes and feeling bad that I consume energy and fuel so unthoughtfully.
Dave offers pragmatic suggestions about what can be done by individuals and communities to reduce global warming, and points out how we are guilty of a selfish, short-term perspective by not factoring in environmental costs when thinking about the price of consumption. Because of the global warming crisis, the world is slowly coming around, in his view, to the Indian or Vedic way of looking at the environment holistically, through a concept such as ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ or the world as one interlinked and interdependent family. “Let us resolve,” he urges his audience, “to be the most environmentally conscious society in the world.”
It is an ambitious speech, one that gives the assembly the sense that they were at the centre of the movement against global warming, and not a group of spectators watching from the margins. Later I catch up with Dave, an RSS swayamsevak who joined the BJP six years ago, as he spoke into a delegate’s mobile phone to record a message to the children of a school about caring for the environment. I ask him how he came to specialise in an area rarely given any importance in Indian politics or civic life. “I think that properly to be a Hindu, or an Indian,” he replies, “is to always think of one’s relationship to the environment.”
ALTHOUGH THE BJP is emphatically a nationalist party, it is not, and probably cannot in its current form be, a national party. This seemed clear even at a conference of its own delegates.
The default language of the convention was Hindi, which immediately divided the assembly into insiders and outsiders, those from the centre and the north much more at ease than those from the east, the northeast and the south. Of course, language is a minefield for every pan-Indian event, and there can be only so much accommodation for diverse tongues. But not the slightest concession seemed to be granted to non-Hindi speakers. Just as every Indian is assumed by the BJP to be a part of a monolith called Indian culture, so too it seemed an assumption of the convention that every delegate possessed a working knowledge of Hindi, both oral and written. All the delegates were urged to make a tour of an exhibition hall documenting the BJP’s history, but the text of this exhibition was entirely in Hindi. A couple of speakers from the south, including the former party president Venkaiah Naidu, apologised for their poor Hindi and chose to speak in English. Some others, like Ananth Kumar of Karnataka, soldiered on bravely in a faltering, platitudinous Hindi without grace or personality.
Indeed, even on a map of the BJP’s position across Indian states, it appears that the farther the state from Hindi, the farther it is too from the attractions of Hindutva. The BJP’s vision of Indian history and culture is linked to the language in which it is most commonly expressed and transmitted. It is something that sounds plausible only in Hindi, particularly the Sanskritised Hindi favoured by its leaders. Politically, the party is a marginal presence in a long Indian corridor from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south all the way up to the northeast—over two days and 2,800 kilometres worth of Indian territory on the 5629 Guwahati Express, with only a brief stop in Bihar for a breath of BJP air.
Although many of the speakers at the convention claimed that the party was far more open-minded than its opponents had made it out to be, in practise, the categories adopted for the sake of argument themselves gave the lie to this claim. It was claimed that the party was not hostile to Muslims per se, as was often believed—it was only opposed to those Muslims who, while they lived in India, bore allegiance to some other territory or idea or grouping. The very structure of this formulation was paranoid. It was hard to believe that the party seriously felt that any Muslim would buy such a contorted argument. A Muslim, even if not the first thing was known about him, was already in a special category in the eyes of the party.
Then again, the party seemed to project a similarly blinkered and reactionary view with respect to its own imagined core constituency of Hindus. A genuine commitment to the rejuvenation of Hinduism—if we assume for a moment that this Hinduism is actually in crisis—would require an organisation that celebrated the great diversity of thought and practice within Hinduism. This seemed well beyond the BJP’s Hindi-belt bias and militant tenor. Despite the odd instance of creative interpretation, the party’s nationalism still seems basically uncurious and inflexible, desirous of bending every Hindu to the adoption of a saffron kit consisting of the Ram temple, the Gita, the Ganga, ‘Vande Mataram,’ and Bharat Mata ki Jai rather than accommodating the divergent adherences of caste, culture and geography. A session on the purification of the Ganga was reduced to a set of eulogies about the place of the Ganga in national life and the miraculous properties of its water, while a resolution on terrorism became the occasion for a characteristically bellicose oration by Narendra Modi. When the chief minister of Gujarat alleged that the Centre had offered his government no logistical or financial support on the matter of state security and bellowed, “Mujhe barood chahiye!” (“I want weapons!”), a roar of applause went up entirely out of proportion to the issue at hand, as if enjoying the sinister undertones of the message.
What the BJP appears to need at 30—and what Gadkari seemed to be trying to do—is the articulation of a more flexible, inclusive expression of its core ideology, which is now the task of its second generation after the departure of the old guard. But even if the new president came as a moderate and modernising voice, the tribalism and inhospitability of the ‘original formula,’ now deeply embedded in the party’s psyche, were plainly on view in Indore, and seem sure to come seeping through even in its fourth decade.