During a speech at the India Today Conclave in March this year, Sonia Gandhi said, “The BJP has managed to—I don’t say brainwash because that is a rude word, but it has managed to convince people, to persuade people that the Congress party is a Muslim party.” The speech was an attempt to defend the Congress’s need to project Rahul Gandhi’s new-found love for temples.
Two months earlier, an India Today story, in a cover package titled, “Hindu vs Hindutva,” noted, “While the appropriation of Hindu identity by the ‘Hindutva’ politics of the Sangh Parivar has … helped propel the NDA government to power … recent months have seen an unprecedented attempt by ‘liberal’ political forces to reclaim the lost ground. From Rahul Gandhi’s temple tour on the Gujarat campaign trail to Rajinikanth’s manifesto of ‘spiritual politics’ and Siddaramaiah’s war of words with Yogi Adityanath or the latest posters depicting the PM as Ravana in Amethi—the battle of ‘Hindu versus Hindutva’ has been joined.” Other commentators have carried forward the argument—in a March story in The Print, its chairman and editor-in-chief, Shekhar Gupta, claimed that the BJP’s hold over the country “cannot change until those with claims to secularism and minority votes reset their politics.” He further wrote, “They have zero hope if they can’t bring a critical mass of the majority back.”
This argument is wrong on many levels, and it ends up concealing its real implications.
To begin with, the argument commits the sin of endorsing the very disease it claims to fight. It relegates over 220 million people—including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, who would on their own constitute the fifth-most populous country on earth—to the role of mere onlookers in a tussle between Hindus over Hindutva. Such a formulation of the present-day politics implicitly concedes the core argument of Hindutva—that those who are not part of the Hindu majority are lesser citizens—and foregoes the equality granted under the Constitution. It implies that they live here only through the forbearance of the Hindus, not because they have the same rights as any Hindu in India.
Though it begins with a claim that seems reasonable—the need to persuade Hindus they are well represented irrespective of whether the BJP or the Congress is in power—the argument ends in absurdity. Why should any such argument stop at Hindus—should not all Indians should feel that they are well represented irrespective of whether the BJP or the Congress is in power? But we already know this is not the case. Muslims, and most Indian minorities in general, are not represented at all when the BJP is in power. The logical inference in this seems to be that the cure for the BJP’s marginalisation of the Muslims is to make the Congress more Hindu—apparently the only way to make Hindus feel secure is to ensure that neither the Congress nor the BJP is seen as representing Muslims.
Beyond such absurdities lies a pitch for the Congress to reshape itself in keeping with the Hindu versus Hindutva dichotomy—one which is best espoused by the likes of Shashi Tharoor. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival early this year, Tharoor said, “How such a wonderfully capricious faith, so open, so liberal can be reduced by some into a badge of identity akin to that of the British football hooligans, I don’t know, but I don’t want any part of it.” Tharoor takes for granted that this is a “capricious”—he has been so quoted in the Hindustan Times, so it is not inconceivable that he may have actually said capacious—“faith, so open, so liberal.”
It is difficult to understand what is open and liberal about the institutionalisation of caste that underlies Hinduism. But rather than get into a theological debate about the nature of the faith, it would be more relevant to try and explore where this notion of a Hindu identity that is opposed to Hindutva resides—where is this Hindu to be found? Does such a Hindu even really exist?
The caste- and religion-wise break-up of voting patterns for the 2014 elections indicates that the greatest consolidation of voters was among the upper-caste Hindus—more than 50 percent of them voted for Modi. (While no such breakdown is a completely representative electoral analysis, it is certainly reflective of voting patterns.) No other grouping, including Muslims, Dalits and tribal communities, who are often the focus of the study of identity politics, displayed such herd-like voting behaviour.
Only appeals with a different resonance across castes and religions can explain the different levels of support for Narendra Modi across such groupings. Factors such as corruption, anti-incumbency should distribute themselves evenly across groups, except in the special case of Muslims, who are tied down by circumstances to vote for any party but the BJP. This suggests that Modi’s Hindutva and his record in Gujarat—beginning with the complicity of his administration in the violence against Muslims to his consistent dog-whistling about the community—found the greatest response among those who count as Hinduism’s most fervent followers, the ones with the strongest claim to the Hindu identity.
Thus, if the idea of this Hindu resides anywhere, it must reside most prominently among its upper-caste members, who are most immersed in the traditions and texts of this “open” and “liberal” faith. The knowledge of Sanskrit, the Vedas, the Gita, the Ramayana, the traditions of worship, the long inheritance of culture—all of it is most specifically located among the upper-castes. Unless we claim that true Hinduism is folk religion, to be found not in, but away, from the great traditions of Hinduism, we are left to conclude that it is those who are most Hindu who are the most avid supporters of Hindutva. It is clear, then, that the Hindu demographic targeted by the Congress is not Tharoor’s ideal and hypothetical Hindu, who is opposed to Hindutva, but the upper-caste ones who are its strongest proponents.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, commentators, almost all of them upper-caste Hindus, are advising the Congress that the party must give up the politics of Muslim “appeasement,” which even these advisors admit was meant to benefit not the Muslims but the Congress. Instead, the commentators advise, the party must take up what, going by their own terminology, amounts to Hindu appeasement. This is sought to be justified by claiming that Hinduism is a liberal faith to begin with, and that the new strategy in no way contradicts the values that the Congress stands for. Hence, the Congress can claim to be Hindu without foregoing its claim to liberal values, unlike the BJP, which is seen as following a version of Abrahamic Hinduism. The unstated implication here is that Abrahamic religions are less liberal because of their intolerance, though why equality is a less important liberal value than tolerance is never made clear.
In reality, even though this debate is seen as crucial to the future of country, it is focused on the upper-caste Hindu populace, who constitute less than 30 percent of the Indian population, albeit a 30 percent that dominates politics and the commentariat. The leadership of both the Congress and the BJP illustrates this—in fact, the Congress leadership does so even more than the BJP.
But it is a debate that has no meaning once we move away from Hindu upper-caste politics. The BJP’s success has been the most limited among the Yadav OBCs and the Dalits. Here, parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party have combated the BJP’s Hindutva, not by projecting themselves as more Hindu, but by being representative of those who vote for them. The reason the BJP has managed more success among the lower OBCs and the tribals, though not as much as among the upper castes, is that there are no parties who speak in their name. In fact, as the lower OBCs find representation in the Samajwadi Party or parties of their own, the BJP is finding it difficult to hold on to these voters.
In combating the BJP, the choice before the Congress was to be a party that is more representative of the country or be a party much like the BJP, which represents Hindu upper-caste privilege and uses an ideology to justify this. But where are the independent Yadav, Jatav, Muslim, Rajbhar, Patel—the list is endless—members with grass roots support in the Congress? Why is the party largely staffed by a few showpieces such as Salman Khurshid (an upper-caste Muslim) or Meira Kumar (of inherited pedigree), while the real power resides in the Gandhi family and a cluster of trusted upper-caste acolytes? When the party is actually represented by a leader whose standing is not dependent on the first family, and who has mass following in the community he comes from, as in the case of Amarinder Singh in Punjab, the result speaks for itself.
This Hindu face of the Congress—the temple hopping and janeu display—is meant to preserve certain privileges, and it only made a marginal difference in vote share between the Congress and the BJP in Gujarat from the last Assembly election. If the party cannot diversify, and cannot become representative of the country through people who command power, it needs to step aside and make way for the Mayawatis and the Akhileshs, and spare us the farce of the good Hindu.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.