Cover Story: General Election 2019

The Dawn of Hindu Politics

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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A new idea of India as defined by Modi

ON MARCH 8TH, two days before polls were announced by the Election Commission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency, to lay the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor. Before the official function, Modi offered prayers to this holiest of Hindu deities, flanked by Governor Ram Naik and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Resplendent in a saffron- printed shawl wrapped around his workday desi attire, forehead plastered with sandalwood and vermilion paste, chanting “Har Har Mahadev” over and over again after the priests as he poured in ghee into the fire as the cameras rolled, the chants droning on loud and soporific, Modi could have easily been mistaken for one among the priests of the temple. Not one to pussyfoot around or surreptitiously sneak in idols of sacred Hindu deities into their own temples, or be tied down by inexplicable concepts of a secular state that allowed heads of state to publicly hold iftaar parties during the month of Ramadan but not conduct Hindu prayers, Modi was the one who boldly wore his faith on his sleeve.

At a later event to lay the foundation stone for the corridor at the ancient temple complex and its beautification project, Modi said that he had dreamed of Bhole Baba—as Lord Shiva, the deity at Kashi is more commonly known—virtually daring him to reconstruct his home. “Bete, batein bahut karte ho; aao idhar, kar ke dikhao (Son, you speak a lot; come here and prove yourself by doing something).” The job the deity had given him, Modi said, was to redevelop the holy Kashi Vishwanath temple campus demolished by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, a project which during anyone else’s term, would have had many raising Cain over how the government could involve itself in.

MODI, THOUGH, WAS made of sterner stuff. “The Almighty had perhaps preordained that I should do this work after 215-250 years [Ahilyabai Holkar of the Maratha Malwa kingdom was the last one to attempt renovation of the temple]. When I was here in 2014 to contest the election, a voice from within told me I hadn’t come on my own but had been sent here for a purpose. Today, I believe I was summoned [by God] for this project,” Modi, forehead still glistening with sandal, saffron and vermilion paste, declared at the meeting.

“Even when I was not in politics, whenever I came here — and I came to this shrine several times —this yearning persisted. Call it an order from Bhole Baba, or his blessings, that today marks the beginning of the realisation of that dream.” Dubbing the day’s event “a festival of the liberation of Kashi Vishwanath Dham”, a celebration to free Lord Shiva from the claustrophobia to which he was relegated to for centuries, Modi said his plans to unleash “the Baba” would be taken up on priority.

Mahatma Gandhi was said to have also been very keen on the reconstruction of this temple but governments after his demise continued to sideline the project. Modi said, “Had they taken up the project then, I would have not been initiating it; I would have been proudly showcasing it to the world. The work carried on so far during my term is for all to see. The BHU should carry out a study from start to end to place before the world how a project of this sort in a shrine so holy should be carried out with the least inconvenience to the public, to restore the complex to immense grandeur and glory,” Modi emphasised.

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had ordered demolition of the Vishwanath temple in 1669 in order to build the Gyanvapi Mosque. Modi didn’t mention Aurangzeb but made his reference clear with this, “Our enemies targeted this place many times in the past. The temple in its current state owes primarily to Ahilyabai who started the renovation of the temple complex. She also played a key role in the re-development of the Somnath Temple [in Gujarat].” He added, “Ahilyabai was a devotee of Shiva…. But 215-250 years passed [after her and] nobody cared for Bhole Baba [Shiva]. They [the BJP’s political opponents] cared only about themselves.”

Modi was undeterred by the attacks launched on him by his opponents for demolishing buildings in the temple’s proximity for the purpose of beautifying the area. In fact, he turned the narrative right around to question previous governments on their shocking nonchalance and ineptitude, in wantonly allowing parts of the temple complex to be encroached upon and run to rack and ruin. “I was shocked when we started removing some of the buildings around the temple and found there were more than 40 temples that had been captured [by local people]. Some of them had converted these into kitchens… Pilgrims will be surprised to know the sort of things some people have done here, and [previous] governments have remained silent for 70 years.”

Modi’s project to redevelop the Kashi Vishwanath complex is a far cry from the reconstruction of another of Hinduism’s holiest shrines, the Somnath temple in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. In his Pilgrimage To Freedom, KM Munshi writes that after a Cabinet meeting in early 1951, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called him to state, “I do not like your trying to restore the Somnath shrine. It is Hindu revivalism.” Munshi, then the Food and Agriculture Minister, wrote to the Prime Minister in reply, ‘Yesterday, you referred to Hindu revivalism. You pointedly referred to me in the Cabinet as connected with the shrine at Somnath. I am glad you did so; for I do not want to keep back any part of my views or activities. I can assure you that the ‘Collective Subconscious’ of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somnath… than with many other things that we have done and are doing.’

Nehru was not happy. Writing to then President Rajendra Prasad, he asked him to reconsider his decision to inaugurate the temple. He wrote to Prasad, ‘I confess I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath temple. This is not merely visiting a temple but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has a number of implications.’

Ordinary citizens no longer feel a strong sense of discomfiture about being identified as practicing Hindus. The manufactured conflict that held back from acknowledging their roots suddenly seems to have dissipated

The first major articulation of the intention to rebuild Somnath temple was made by Sardar Patel, Nehru’s deputy prime minister, at a public meeting in Junagadh in November 1947. The reconstruction of the Somnath shrine was an act of acute defiance against a British hand-me-down worldview of culture and civilisation, one that remained both perplexed with and derisive of the contours of Hinduism that stared them in the face in their colony. It was a worldview however that the elite, Western-educated ‘liberals’ of the time and adherents to a British-reinvented Hinduism such as Nehru, espoused. Nehru stayed away from the opening of the Somnath temple. Had not Patel and KM Munshi persisted with it, that reconstruction project would probably never have taken off.

Few, in fact, recall the history of Somnath and its reconstruction today. But in stark contrast to Nehru, it is Modi himself who is unapologetically and aggressively backing the reconstruction of the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex. Measured in terms of religio-socio-cultural and political outlook, the distance covered under the baton of Modi in the last five years has grown multiple times when compared with the distance from 1950 until 2014. Modi, in his first term, is a Prime Minister who not only presided over the movement to reconstruct the ancient Kashi Vishwanath temple but also the Prime Minister who has remained the prime mover for it.

ONE OF THE most serious and concrete consequences of colonial rule was that it filled the Hindu subjects with a sense of profound guilt about their faith. They were made to believe that there was something inherently wrong with their faith, their outlook towards the world and that their decline was inevitable, resting mainly on the weakness of their belief system. Although some of the Orientalists tried to, after having gone through the Upanishads and Vedas, explain the richness of the faith but the dominant perception of Hindus being a decadent and retrograde community persisted. And the attempts of Orientalists like Max Müller were dismissed as ill-informed romantic condescension.

But the larger and more significant damage to Hinduism, one that projected it as an enervated belief system completely lacking in spiritual and moral vigour of any noticeable sort, happened from within, after Independence. This was when systematic attempts were made to paint it as a ‘weak’ belief system. An omnibus faith that celebrated diversity was trashed.

Marxist historians backed this project—a fact which is now being ignored by those who are protesting against state-sponsored attempts to rewrite history. Such was the domination of this thought that even Swami Vivekananda’s Hinduism was frowned upon and sought to be projected as revisionist. An entire faith was tarred as exploitative, unequal, patriarchal and providing religious sanction for subjugation of non-Brahminical castes. The very moral centre of Hinduism, its uniqueness and strength, was roundly castigated and ridiculed.

The fact that Hinduism, as practiced in the subcontinent, was an omnibus faith that gave its followers the freedom to practice their faith in their unique ways was seen as foolishness. Worse, idol worship and their entire way of life were lampooned as a relic of a regressive past. Epics revered by Hindus were subjected to most rigorous forensic investigation and auditing by academics and Marxists who fattened themselves on the rich grants provided by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), subsidised by the successive Congress regimes.

Obviously, Christianity and Islam were spared even a fraction of the scrutiny that Hinduism faced. The sole protest came from the RSS and its offshoots but this was not loud enough because of their complete marginalisation in the prevailing power ecosystem and the hegemonic control of the Marxists over the thought process in campuses, faculties and the intelligentsia. The RSS’ opposition remained on the margins. The RSS dissent to the undemocratic domination of the Marxists also grew, but a credible and powerful revolt had to wait until the arrival of Narendra Modi on the scene.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was compelled to transform from a virtually hijab-sporting leader who took pride in reciting the Kalma to a God-fearing Hindu who today invokes Hindu deities

Modi has refused to buckle under the dominant intellectual establishment and has taken them head on, instead. His challenge was not just limited to the political sphere—as was the case with LK Advani—but he extended it to the socio-cultural realm too. Here was a leader who was fluent in Sanskrit but tapped into the very source of folklore to reach out to the myriad groups and communities that make up the adherents to a naturally inclusive Hinduism, instead of relying on the sacred texts alone. Modi openly claimed that Marxists had always derided him and claimed a copyright over the zeitgeist.

Modi is no stranger to taking on the Marxists. At the National Council meeting of the BJP in the Ramlila Maidan—after Modi’s anointment as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, he took the fashionable ‘Idea of India’ espoused by the establishment by the horns. He pointed out that the Idea of India was not privy to a select set of people or a certain school of thought alone and belonged, instead to millions of individual Indians. Those who propagated only one Idea of India denigrated thousands of Indians and contradicted their own purportedly very liberal and tolerant view they claimed to hold.

“How could there be just one Idea of India and how could the Soul of India rest only with a privileged few,” he famously asked and went on to spell out his own Idea of India. Modi struck a very loud and effective protest note and referred to India’s Hindu ethos. “Nowadays, a new phraseology is in vogue and I want to discuss it. Some people are saying ‘my Idea of India’. Now, 1.25 billion Indians can have their very individualistic Idea of India. It is not the jaagir (estate) of any one set of people. The Idea cannot be tied down,” he asserted in what was seen as a forceful response to the criticism that the BJP’s ideology was antithetical to the ‘Idea of India’—a phrase that is often translated as the mainstream definition of a secular India.

Touching on cultural motifs, Modi also often dipped into spiritual texts to speak of non-violence as a universal dharma (duty), equality of all spiritual paths, the world as one family, empathy with suffering of others and respect for women. That was just the beginning.

After assuming power, Modi’s assertion of the key contours of Hinduism as he perceived it continued apace and was evident in the way he dealt with the protests over his Government’s promotion of yoga. As Prime Minister, he had certainly pushed yoga as a larger wellness regime. But the whole dimension of this project changed when critics looked for a Hindu subtext in the government enterprise. He persisted with his efforts despite the most stringent attacks on his project and its popularity, leading to the UN finally declaring a Yoga Day worldwide, for the first time in history.

MODI’S REPEATED VISITS to temples, his defence of local traditions in the case of Sabarimala despite attacks on his alleged duplicity, the missionary zeal with which he took up the renovation of the Kedarnath shrine, the development of the Char Dham route—all of these were indicative of a civilisational commitment. Many of Modi’s decisions have tied in with the larger framework of resistance to the subjugation of Hinduism.

Under his baton, the project to free the Hindu Idea of India, relegated to the margins by the ruling establishment for decades since Independence, is almost nearing completion.

Modi has successfully democratised the Idea of India by openly reclaiming the roots of Hindu culture and releasing it from the clutch of an elite. How successful he has been was evident when Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, was forced to emphasise that he too wore the janeu, or the sacred thread. It did not stop there. Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, was compelled to transform from a virtually hijab-sporting leader who took pride in reciting the kalma to a god-fearing Hindu.

Ordinary citizens no longer feel a strong sense of discomfiture about being identified as practicing Hindus. The manufactured conflict that held them back from acknowledging their roots—the conflict between tradition and modernity, between progress and reverence for the past—suddenly seems to have dissipated. Most of India’s youth are now comfortable in their Hindu identity. Ghar Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, the new battle-cry of the Hindu Right, is suddenly an anthem gone viral. In Kerala , long considered the bastion of Marxism, the sudden spurt in the growth of BJP is arguably on account of the assault on the Sabarimala tradition.

It is still a while before the Hindu is given the respect that has been reserved thus far only for the Abrahamic faiths. A second term for Modi will certainly be a catalyst for Hinduism 2.0. With shocks like demonetization behind the country and a more transparent system in place for better utilisation of resources, the contours of a social security state are visible and the idea of Hindu Politics is gaining momentum.

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