Representative image of an RSS conclave in Pune. Photo: Reuters

By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

New Delhi: Changes that took place in the six months since Narendra Modi assumed power for the second time look likely to have a far-reaching impact on Indian democracy.

From reading down Article 370 to the Citizenship Amendment Act, Modi 2.0 has gone about implementing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s core articles of faith. A majoritarian verdict on the Ayodhya land dispute has only come as a sweetener for it.

The Wire spoke to eminent political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot on these seismic shifts.

Jaffrelot has been been researching and writing on the politics of South Asia for the last two decades. He has authored multiple books on the politics of Hindu nationalism and caste-based mobilisations in India. He recently co-edited the volume, Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. His upcoming book is on the 1975 Emergency.

In this wide-ranging interview, he analyses recent political developments in India, offers insights on Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Modi, discusses the evolution of the RSS over the decades, and links current Indian politics with the global spurt of right-wing populism.

While the first part of the interview, which you can read here, deals with the current developments in India, the second lays its focus on evolution of Hindutva nationalism.

Hindutva nationalism began and consolidated on a strong Hindu-Muslim polarisation agenda but it has also morphed into anti-dominant caste politics across India. It has widened its social base drastically. Is it changing?

The sociology of Hindu nationalism is a very complex one. Traditionally, the Sangh parivar has been supported by upper castes.

RSS was primarily a Brahmin organisation and the Jana Sangh was known as a “baniya-Brahmin” party. BJP has retained this characteristic but has been able to attract low caste voters too.

The fact that it has retained its upper caste legacy is evident from the social profile of the caste background of its ministers, MPs and MLAs – something very obvious from the CNRS-supported data base that Ashoka University and Sciences Po have built under the name of SPINPER.

In the Hindi belt, we are back to the pre-Mandal proportions of upper castes MPs and MLAs.

Today’s saffron wave has brought back to office the elite groups which had been challenged by OBCs and Dalits. Incidentally, this is what populists are so good at across the world: to help elite groups which are losing ground to resist new, emerging social forces by delegitimising socio-economic factors of politicisation.

BJP could tell OBCs and Dalits, forget your caste, think that you are Hindus first. Similarly, the white middle class voters who felt threatened by the Blacks and the Hispanics who had voted Obama to power rallied around Trump – and Bolsonaro (in Brazil) is also a reaction against the Lula years.

In India, it worked very well not only because of the polarisation engineered via the Ayodhya movement and communal violence – two important “pull factors” – but also because of the contradictions of the OBC and Dalit movements.

First, reservations reached their saturation point after Mandal II under Manmohan Singh: nobody could say, ‘vote for me you’ll get quotas’.

Second, OBCs and Dalits who had started to emancipate themselves thanks to V.P. Singh wanted something more and appreciated Modi’s discourse: he could not (and did not want to) offer reservations – nobody could – but he gave them a sense of pride and belonging.

Jobless plebeians joined Bajrang Dal and other similar lumpen organisations and started to get a sense of identity by fighting for the cow.

Third, another contradiction of OBC and Dalit movements laid in their divisions along jati lines. The plebeianisation of BJP partly results from the alienation of non-dominant OBC and Dalit jatis by the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and other caste-based parties.

In UP, the BJP was quick to give tickets to non-Jatav Dalits who resented the way Jatavs had cornered reservations and were boosted by the BSP when Mayawati became CM in 2007. Similarly, non-Yadav OBCs were attracted by BJP because they felt marginalised by the SP and the RJD in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

For understanding the rise of national populists, one needs to look at pull and push factors – as well as the limitations of their opponents, who are usually prone to divisions: liberals (and socialists even more) tend to divide themselves more than ethno-nationalists who claim that they embody the people, as well as its unity – and who do not tolerate dissent anyway.

In Turkey and in Israel, it took years of opponents to Erdogan and Netanyahu to close ranks.

Hindutva, it seems, has adapted to the modern world quite successfully. The Sangh parivar has been effecting change not merely at a political level but also a cultural and intellectual level. It wants to rewrite history, destroy past institutions, and pull down Indian leaders.

I do not think that Hindu nationalism has fundamentally changed over time, since its creation one hundred years ago. If you read Savarkar – and Golwalkar even more – you will find the same ideas as those which Hindutva leaders articulate today: the reading of history is the same, the enemies are the same, the objective – a Hindu Rashtra where some Indians will be more equal than others – is the same.

The attempt at rewriting history was already there is 1977 when ex-Jana Sangh Janata Party leaders were part of (Morarji) Desai’s government, and it was one of the reasons why ex-Socialists like Madhu Limaye raised the issue of “dual membership” asking Vajpayee, Advani and others, “Do you pay allegiance to RSS or to JP?”

What has changed is society.

The 1991 liberalisation has made society more inegalitarian. Certainly, everybody has benefitted from growth, but some have profited by it more than others. The legitimacy and banalisation of inequality, at the expense of the old Gandhian and Nehruvian ethos, has prepared the ground for an acceptation of a hierarchical view of society that has affinities with Hindu nationalism and its sociology.

Certainly, the new middle class believes more in merit than in status, but it is overwhelmingly upper caste anyway…

Society has also been more receptive to Hindu nationalism because of the rise of Islamism. The terrorist attacks of the 2000s have made a significant impact on the Hindu psyche, that has traditionally be inclined to look at the Hindus as vulnerable vis-à-vis Muslims because of their divisions along caste- and sect-based lines, because of vegetarianism, etc.

Mahatma Gandhi used to say the Hindu as a rule is a coward and the Muslim as a rule is a bully…The terrorist attacks of the 2000s has exacerbated some latent form of Islamophobia, while was becoming pervasive in the rest of the world after 9/11.

I do not mean that Hindu nationalism has not changed at all, but the significant changes – including the exhaustion of caste politics that I have mentioned above – were probably more important for understanding the acceptability and the growing popularity of an ideology that has not changed much.

On the Sangh parivar side, what have changed the most are the techniques of propagation of its ideas – not its ideas themselves. Shakhas are less important than social media, for instance, showing that the Sangh parivar modernised its public relations more quickly than any other school of thought. But that had also something to do with social change, including globalisation and the connection with the diaspora that RSS cultivated.

Yet, Modi and his supporters project these shifts as an anti-elite, anti-nepotism project. How do you view this argument? Their supporters have managed to turn a constitutional doctrine like secularism into a bad word. They have also branded all dissenters ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘urban Naxals’. Now even the prime minister and home minister use such words to delegitimise dissent.

This is typical of populism, a political style that, as Cass Mudde says, presents society as separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’.

Populists claim that they speak for the people. Even if they are not really coming from poor families, they pretend that they do, to be a conduit for expressing revenge: the revenge of “those on the bottom”.

They make a point to share their culture, their manners, and their language, by opposition to the elites’ “propriety.” Not only do populists “act like” ordinary people, but they enjoy transgressing the codes of good behaviour, shocking the establishment in the name of an authenticity that the elites have betrayed by their cosmopolitism or their bourgeois or even aristocratic ethos. From that standpoint, like the common people, populists readily claim to be victims – victims of “Khan Market gang”, the English-speaking elite (and media) that they hate. The repertoire of victimisation is all the more powerful when the political establishment is perceived as being buttressed externally by foreign powers.

But on the other hand, populists exhibit exceptional virtues and skills through constantly staged performances (especially in the media), drawing on a performative repertoire: the populist leader is endowed with supranatural powers, memory, physical fitness…That is why body language often plays a key role in manufacturing the populists’ image.

Putin readily shows himself in action, dressed in a kimono or an ice hockey uniform and Duterte brandishes a Kalashnikov in front of the cameras…

The populist is both, “like me” and superman, in contrast to the establishment that is cosmopolitan, immoral, cut off from the people (especially when some “foreign blood”) runs in the vein of its leaders.

Modi himself has projected himself as an OBC leader. He has nominated a Dalit as the Indian president. The vice-president is also from an OBC community. Yet, violence against Dalits on ground is on the rise. How do you see the phenomenon. Is this something the Sangh parivar can sustain?

As I’ve said, they can get away with it so long as the Dalits are divided along jati-lines and till identity politics prevail over socio-economic issues. The impact of the economic crisis may make some difference very soon. Already, the poor – as well as others, including the youth – are realising that they do not get the jobs they were promised, that the MGNREGA is not delivering the way it did…

Populists are not socialists: they do not redistribute wealth.

On the contrary, they are promoting identity politics at the expense of social reform – they are status quoists in economy. In the case of India, the BJP leaders have initiated a very small number of reforms – partly because they do not want to diminish the power of the state over the economy, simply because it is their power that would be at stake then. But the economy is suffering even more.

Already, the anti-accountability reflex has prevented BJP from winning any state election on its own since 2017. So much so that we may end up with an unprecedented situation when the party ruling the country at the center with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha will be at the helm of a handful of states. The kind of governance – and federalism – that this situation may generate remains to be seen.

Is there something called ‘neo-Hindutva’ under the leadership of Modi, something on the lines of what we understand as ‘alt-right’?

Modi has introduced two fundamental changes. First the concentration of power had never been so extreme within the Indian state since Mrs. (Indira) Gandhi’s second term and within the Sangh parivar, that has cultivated collegiality for decades, lest personalisation of the movement should make it less sustainable.

Secondly, his populist style has fostered the plebeianisation process I’ve just mentioned.

Other changes that are associated with “neo-Hindutva” have not been initiated by him. The proximity with the corporate sector is a case in point.

Certainly the “Vibrant Gujarat” events have given it more publicity, but Pramod Mahajan had already started this rapprochement with the big business in the 1990s.

That was a major departure from the traditional craze of RSS for cottage industry and agriculture: the parting of the ways with Deendayal Upadhyaya, D.P. Thengadi and Nanaji Deshmukh was already consummated when Modi rose to power – and crony capitalism is not a malady associated with the Congress anymore…

It is generally understood that the RSS pulls the strings in a BJP-led government, both at the Centre and the states. With Modi as the prime minister, do you still think so, given an unprecedented centralisation of power in current times.

The modus operandum of the Sangh parivar is very peculiar. The men in charge of its different units have all been trained in the RSS and share the same world view.

As a result, the task of the RSS needs to be seen more in terms of coordination and consensus building than remote control. The decision-making process cannot be equated to a one-way traffic and the BJP has certainly never been remote controlled from Nagpur.

That said, there is no doubt that the balance of power within the Sangh parivar has shifted under Narendra Modi. This process started when he was chief minister of Gujarat and emancipated himself from any collective authority. In contrast to other BJP leaders he did not report to the Prant Pracharak, for instance – and fought against other components of the parivar, including the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

He could do that because he had built his own parallel power structure and related directly to the voters – via different techniques of communication – including holograms.

He then captured the state party apparatus in order to marginalise Keshubhai Patel. The same process has been repeated at the national level when Amit Shah became party president.

Since 2014, RSS leaders adjusted to this situation for three reasons, I think, first, Modi – who was already very popular among the young swayamsevaks – has become an icon who delivers in electoral terms.

Second, he applies policies which are old articles of faith of RSS, like the reading down of Article 370, and third, RSS does not depend upon Modi because it is much larger than any man and will continue its career after Modi will leave the scene.

In the near future it will be interesting to see whether RSS leaders are careful not to be too closely associated with the government in order not to be affected by any form of anti-incumbency.

In fact, the Sangh parivar could become its own opposition, like Congress in the 1950s-60s, if the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh decide to oppose more overtly some of the BJP’s policies.

Right wing populism is on the rise in many nations. How different is the case of India? Why are so many nations in a situation in which right wing leaders are able to capture the aspirations of a majority of people better than others? The most recent example is the election of Boris Johnson in England.

As I said, in many cases, these populist leaders exploit fear. The fear of the “sons of the soil” vis-à-vis foreigners (migrants, minorities, threatening neighbours), the fear of the middle class vis-à-vis new competitors (Blacks, second or third generations migrants, OBCs, Dalits…), and the fear of a globalisation that is affecting traditions (in cultural or religious terms)…

But the populists also benefit from the failure of the left. That has not contained inequalities, on the contrary, when it was in the driver’s seat, not to mention the division of the leftists and the secular (or pseudo-secular) forces in general.

Last but not least, populists have been supported (overtly or covertly) by the winners of globalisation and liberalisation, the big businessmen – who like authoritarian leaders (at least they have only one interlocutor to deal with) and who appreciate nationalism in the name of which protectionism can be activated in their favour.

And for the populists, big business is key because election campaigns are very costly, especially when, in addition to canvassing, holograms and armies of social media trolls are requested to saturate the public space: in 2019 the BJP has spent about $ 3.5 billion – probably a world record out of the US.

The transformation of the media plays a major role in the rise to power of the populists. In the past, during the wave of leftist populism of the 1970s Indira Gandhi, Z.A. Bhutto and Mrs. Bandaranaike had used the radio.

Today, to relate to the voters, the populists use social media and are very much helped by the corporatisation of the mainstream media: most of TV channels and newspapers belong to businessmen who cannot afford to antagonise the government to get licences – or to escape IT raids!

With such a staunchly Hindutva regime in India, how do you assess India’s relations with neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka?

The new dispensation may only damage the relations of India with Bangladesh, from where, incidentally, Indian “migrants” are also sending substantial remittances.

But relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka may be affected for another reason: China, the main challenge for India today.

Certainly, New Delhi’s big stick policy has always made these small countries uncomfortable, but today this push factor is amplified in a formidable pull factor: China’s strategy, based on huge investments and loans in the framework of the Road and Belt Initiative which is eroding the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and Nepal – not to mention Pakistan.

Ironically, India is also a victim of the national-populism of its neighbours: India is not the only country indulging in majoritarianism, that defends its “sons of the soil” at the expense of minorities; Sri Lanka is doing it for a long time and the Rajapaksas, experts in national populism, are targeting the Tamils again. India may not be able to ignore it.

By following the same ethno-nationalist policies everywhere, populists make international relations more acrimonious. The way Trump and Johnson are treating migrants, including Indians, is a case in point.

Do you see India moving towards being a more militaristic state, say on the lines of Israel. Many have also compared India with current day Turkey.

There is a strong tradition of separation between the civilian and the military in India. Certainly, this tradition is eroding because of the use of the army by politicians and the public interventions of army generals. In a way, we see new processes at work of militarisation of politics and politicisation of the army.

That was particularly clear during the last Lok Sabha election campaign, in the wake of Pulwama and the Election Commission did not do much about it. This difference of degree may become a difference of nature, and India a security state, like Israel, only if external threats intensified.

This is difficult to predict, but you cannot rule it out and, therefore, to make sure that the country never meet this fate, a clear separation of institutional domains should be enshrined in laws or at least scrupulously observed. To guarantee such a separation is as important as the subordination of the army to civilians. Consequently, to appoint ex-generals as ministers is as bad an idea as having ex-Justices as governors.

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