It’s so much easier when they’re the same thing.
(Published on March 25, 2017 in Business Standard)
What’s interesting about Yogi Adityanath’s ascension in Uttar Pradesh is how so many of Prime Minister Modi’s supporters are shocked and disappointed. It reveals either a) how stubbornly they cling to the fiction that Mr Modi’s politics are all about the economy or b) that they are aware of the PM’s devoted service as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, but aren’t affected by Hindu chauvinism, or actively approve of it.
For them, the 2002 Gujarat riots didn’t cloud Mr Modi’s reputation. They didn’t mind his communal statements, or his silence over cow vigilantism. They didn’t care that he picked RSS-linked ministers and institutional heads who have swerved hard to the right, from Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar who blames women for rapes, to CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani, nanny to the nation and huge Modi suck-up. It didn’t matter that Doordarshan airs RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speeches; or that the BJP submitted a first year ‘report card’ to the RSS, like a schoolchild. It didn’t bother them that the PM didn’t speak up for intellectual freedom in universities, or that he changed demonetisation goalposts daily. Mr Modi’s supporters drowned these things out with loud hosannas about economic development, thus far a damp squib.
But now that he has put the country’s largest state in the hands of a violent, misogynistic, god-bothering rabble-rouser, the ugliest face of radical Hindutva—well, now some are worrying about what that says about the PM. (Only some. Others want to ‘give Mr Adityanath a chance’. Given Mr Adityanath’s long public track record, that view is amoral, or terminally self-interested, or outright stupid.)
Powerpoint presentations and business-y acronyms make Mr Modi seem like the most modern face of the RSS. But he remains a face of the RSS, and the RSS cannot abide the liberal, western-inspired Constitution of India, which it sees as an alien imposition on an ancient and supreme Hindu society. A quick reminder, here, that the organisation’s single heart’s desire is to achieve a Hindu rashtra, an India for Hindu supremacists.
Under Mr Modi’s nicely cut clothes and emphasis on digital, hi-tech India, lie ideological roots as autocratic and puritan as they come. While he thinks up catchy acronyms and hugs world leaders, his Rottweiler, Amit Shah, warns against ‘love jihad’, and bays for ‘revenge’ against Muslims at Muzaffarnagar. While Mr Modi salutes the Constitution, his government is busy subverting freedoms and rights, most recently in the obnoxious Finance Bill that, among other things, removes the cap on political funding and accountability (so much for ending corruption), and makes it mandatory to link Aadhaar cards to income tax returns (so much for the Supreme Court’s instructions).
Beef wars, hyper-nationalism, social moralism, cultural puritanism, regressive gender constructs, vigilantism, mass control, violent Hindu revivalism—none of this is unpredictable or surprising. If there’s one thing for which the RSS deserves credit, it is that it has never hidden nor deviated from its proudly public agenda. It spent its long years in the wilderness working its tail off, building its networks, harassing writers and artists and academics, beating up students, and whipping up religious hate. It has stayed true to its cause, and today that dedication is paying rich dividends. It’s a work ethic that the Opposition should learn from.
This is what India let in the door, in 2014. Now, with the country firmly in its hands, recognising an unexpected opportunity that may never come again, the RSS-BJP is going for broke. Choosing Mr Adityanath—who wants to dig up dead Muslim women and rape them, kill 10 Muslims for every dead Hindu, and control women for national security; who says that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together; who as CM has sanctioned moral policing in the name of women’s safety—choosing Mr Adityanath is raising a giant middle finger to the democratic, pluralistic, rights-based Constitution of India. The RSS-BJP was talking development, walking Hindutva; the only development is that it is now both talking and walking Hindutva. It is free at last, its goals looking tantalisingly possible. Politically rampant, it can now focus on subverting academia. Mr Bhagwat will be ‘guiding’ vice-chancellors and academics this weekend at a Gyan Sangam in Delhi.
But India is bigger than Uttar Pradesh, and hundreds of millions of people will raise a giant middle finger right back at any attempt to control their culture and freedom and thought. How this tussle plays out is going to make for a riveting stretch of history.
Meanwhile, for those who insist this is all just melodramatic leftist breast-beating, there’s an old story about a man who, finding a frozen snake, warms it against his breast; whereupon the revived snake follows its natural instincts and bites the man to death.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.