Bloodless Digits of the ‘Hindu Nationalist Party’

First published in The Pioneer, October 06, 2012

L K Advani realises the huge political costs paid by the BJP for the "Hindu nationalist" label which won't come unstuck despite abandonment of every remotely Hindu slogan for the sake of maintaining a coalition. Is it time for a final, potentially implosive, heave-ho?

It is par for the course in international newspapers, especially the American newspapers, to refer to the Bharatiya Janata Party as the ''Hindu nationalist party''. In fact, it is almost without fail that anytime the gray old lady of New York City deigns to mention the BJP, the copy editors insert the term "Hindu nationalist party", just as they mention, without fail, that Jayalalithaa goes only by one name.

While the latter service to readers may be appreciated, one need not spend too much time trying to analyse the reasons why the BJP is labelled the Hindu nationalist party though in no way does the Bharatiya Janata Party translate in any language to Hindu nationalist party. Burdened by that kind of a shibboleth, which no other political party in India carries, not even the Indian Union Muslim League (which escapes being labeled a Muslim nationalist party), many have wondered if the BJP can shed its Hindu skin and become just a center-right party focused on development, growth, and simple national pride.

Why shy away from the "Hindu" label, some others ask, and this writer, an executive council member of the Hindu American Foundation, has ardently espoused in the American context, the Hindu roots of yoga. Others argue that being a Hindu does not mean one is anti anyone -- Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. Could not a Hindu party espouse action and governance according to the grand Hindu principles of ahimsa, satya, and the all embracing dictum: sarve janah sukhino bhavantu, they wonder. They say that the historical narrative of India is without doubt a predominantly Hindu narrative, but in no way would that mean ignoring or marginalising, let alone demonising, others.

"We are not Saudi Arabia where no temple, church, or synagogue can be built. We are not a proselytising people like the followers of aggressive monotheistic creeds who want to make the world Christian or Muslim. Can't we embrace the Hindu label without being demonised?" they plaintively plead.

And that is how the leaders of the BJP have pitched their appeal to the Indian voting public. Alas, that pitch is queered by the relationship that the BJP has with the RSS, and the RSS, which has similarly argued that Hindtuva does not mean selling religion, creed, or snake oil, as its sworn enemies and clever Marxists proclaim, but an ideal of "Hindu-ness" which is a pluralistic, all-embracing, benevolent philosophy of life. Even the Supreme Court of India agreed that Hindutva does not mean an appeal to religion but that it was an ideological appeal, like appealing to socialism, capitalism, or communism. The advocates for the appellants argued before the highest court of India that Hinduism and Hindutva refer to "dharma" and dharma is not equivalent to religion. They quoted the Vedas, and the smritis, and proclaimed that Hindu dharma explicitly respects all religions. The learned judges -- JS Verma, NP Singh, and K Venkataswami -- delivered their judgment in 1995 and said that "the term Hindutva is related more to the way of life of the people in the subcontinent." To make sure that indeed they were not Hindu in any sectarian fashion, the NOA's political plank also made it clear: "We reach out to the minorities and even at the cost of repetition proclaim that we will safeguard the rights as enshrined in our Constitution."

Did those judgments and proclamations matter then, and do they matter now? Can the BJP let go of its Hindutva lineage and baggage or should it let go? Individuals, communities, and nations are tied to their fates, and it may take some time, even some lifetimes, for them to emerge with a new identity, find a new vigour, and happy acceptance by the public. As of now, the BJP is caught between a rock and a hard place: what is its identity beyond its relationship with the RSS? Can it publicly and formally distance itself from the RSS and cut all ties with it? What would it mean to cut ties? What kind of a litmus test could there be that would show the BJP and the RSS indeed have no relationship with one another? Could such an operation be carried out by the BJP simply eschewing any mention of Hindutva in its party plank?

As the American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, would remark in such a context: "Really?" And without the connection to its RSS roots, who would the BJP attract, and more importantly, would the BJP be considered by its critics to have indeed shed ties with the RSS?

Of course, some observers are saying that Chief Minister Narendra Modi has already begun such an operation -­ cleaving himself and his state unit of the BJP from the RSS and its various "brotherly" and "sisterly'' connections. His focus on development, making Gujarat "vibrant", making Gujarat the hub of industry, agriculture, and education, and achieving high grades on international development indices has brought him some good press. But can he escape the label of "Hindu nationalist"? Will the left, liberal, Marxist, Muslim, secular, and international attack dogs let him emerge as an icon of modern India, orwill he be doomed forever as a "Hindu extremist"?

Finally, what would it mean for the BJP and what would it take from the BJP to emerge as a right of center Indian nationalist party? Indian economic policy has veered from the left to the far left, with a whole variety of constituencies lured, fed, and cultivated on myriad subsidies, grants, reservations, and giveaways. The Indian electorate has been sliced and diced on regional, linguistic, caste, religion, and other bases, and the BJP proclaiming itself a right of center party does not mean it will easily, if ever, be able to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.

An American correspondent for well-known Indian newspapers recently rued in a Facebook posting, how at some events organized by Tamil groups in Delhi and elsewhere speakers merrily and wickedly disparaged Hindus and Hinduism. He said that the pro-chancellor of SRM University, while delivering his speech in Delhi said, "Those who read and recite Sanskrit will go to hell." At the Pongu Tamil conference in Bangalore, the correspondent said, one of the speakers attacked Brahmins and "spewed nothing but venom", and that there were loud cheers from some in the audience.

So, even without the BJP there can be no escape from anti-Hindu rhetoric in India or demonisation of Hindus and Hinduism outside the country.

Would it behoove therefore of the BJP leaders to let go of the party's connections to the RSS and seek a new path to India's growth and excellence? Or, would it be committing political suicide by losing the support of the Hindu base, whatever little of it is left? For all purposes, we can assume that the BJP will be damned if it did, and it would be damned if it didn't. Unless, of course, by some sheer chance or fate the BJP were to win a majority on its own, and not have a clack of one­man, one-crazy ideology, one-state, or one-agenda parties pulling you in a hundred different ways.

Advocating that the BJP change course, redefine itself, reinvent itself is all well and good, but that is easy work for arm­chair experts. The reality on the ground is much more complex. Yes, really! Alas.

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