April 2, 2002


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Ashutosh Varshney

A defining moment for Hindu nationalism?

The recent spate of Hindu-Muslim riots raises an issue of great political significance for India. What are the future implications of these riots for Hindu nationalism as a political force?

The Gujarat riots have created yet another defining moment for Hindu nationalism.Politically speaking, the BJP is best viewed as the electoral wing of Hindu nationalism,
subject to some of the so-called electoral laws of the nation. Historically in India, political parties, focusing primarily, or only, on Hindu-Muslim issues, have been able to come to power in states, but if a party wishes to come to power in Delhi, it must -- and has had to -- put together a coalition of castes, religions and regional groups. India's ethno-religious diversity has always required such alliance building.

Finally understanding this inescapable logic of Indian politics, the BJP has over the last several years moderated its ideological purity and managed to lead a coalition of 20-odd parties in power. Although the BJP is very different from the Congress party, there is one resemblance that must be noted. The Congress had cross-regional, cross-religious, cross-caste alliances within the organisation; the BJP has constructed them with other parties in an inter-party coalition.

But it is clear that the BJP's moderation of recent years, forced by the exigencies of ruling India, has made the right wing of Hindu nationalism, especially the VHP and the RSS, extremely unhappy. The VHP and RSS have never contested elections, but these organisations remain politically very important to the BJP. Most of all, they supply a large number of committed cadres for political and electoral campaigning. Moreover, supported partly by the remarkably wealthy Indian diaspora in the US, UK and East Africa, the VHP is also financially well endowed. It has money as well as cadres.

It may be worth asking where the meeting points between the BJP and the right wing of Hindu nationalism at this point are. Of the ideologically pure demands that the right wing has, which the BJP has dropped from its political agenda, two issues, in declining order of importance, are critical: the building of a temple in Ayodhya to "reclaim Hindu pride" from what the right wing calls the "Muslim humiliations of the past"; and a claim that Muslims ought to drop their separate personal laws on marriage and divorce, following instead a common civil code.

A third critical demand is not an issue -- namely, a hard line on Pakistan and, by implication, a hard line on Kashmir. Here the BJP and the right wing more or less agree. Other demands, as of now, are less important, though they may acquire intensity later.

Before long, the BJP will have to make a choice. Should it embrace the right wing for the sake of organisational and ideological coherence, or should it embrace the centrist logic of Indian politics and make ideological compromises for the sake of power? If it goes for the former option, many of the BJP's coalition partners, enjoying significant Muslim electoral support and opposed to these Hindu nationalist demands, will simply quit the alliance and the government will collapse. If the latter option is chosen, an increasingly confrontational situation will emerge between the right wing and moderate right of Hindu nationalism. It may well, though not necessarily, become the kind of adversarial situation the CPI-M and the Naxalites had in West Bengal in the 1960s.

In all probability, the BJP will vacillate, hoping that it will not be forced to choose. However, after the Gujarat riots and the resurgence of the movement for Ayodhya, matters are not so simple any more. A choice may be forced on the BJP leadership by political developments outside its control. For example, if the right wing returns to militancy around June 2, when it wishes to take control of the "uncontested" part of the controversial Ayodhya site, and riots break out all over again, the BJP would almost certainly have to decide which way it wants to go. Many of its coalition partners, heavily reliant on Muslim votes, will be committing political suicide if they continue to ignore legitimate Muslim concerns for physical safety. They will force a decision on the BJP.

If the BJP does go towards the right wing at that point, the political situation, ironically, will more or less resemble what happened in 1979-80. Faced with the option of breaking its links with the RSS or staying within the Janata coalition, it had then embraced the RSS.

There is one great difference, of course. The BJP was reduced to two seats in the 1984 elections; it can't go down to such an absolute low any more. But all electoral indications and research continue to suggest that a rabidly anti-Muslim, right-wing Hindu nationalism has no mass base in India. Only a fringe of the country supports such ideas. An embrace of the right wing will, in all probability, drastically bring down the number of BJP seats in Parliament from its current high of 182. It will also once again become a pariah in Indian politics.

The BJP's political dilemma can thus be simply stated. If it tries to be ideologically pure, it will patch up its relationship with the VHP and RSS, but lose power and become an 'untouchable' in politics. And if it continues to make key ideological compromises, it will continue to have coalition partners and the possibility of ruling India, but it will increasingly embitter the RSS and VHP.

Meanwhile, one thing is certain. Delhi will maintain a hard line on Pakistan and Kashmir. For all practical purposes, that is the only key ideological issue the moderate right and extreme right wing of Hindu nationalism now share. It is also a matter on which a great deal of consensus exists within the BJP-led coalition. A hard line on Pakistan neither endangers the coalition nor does it create problems with the right wing of Hindu nationalism. It will continue for the foreseeable future.

The author is associate professor of political science and director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Yale University Press just published his book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India.

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