There is nothing that quite mimics the bloodsport and realpolitik of Game of Thrones like Indian politics. Hereditary houses and regional satraps are now collapsing as a dragon-bellied leviathan engulfs India in an unending fire. From the ashes of the old guard spawn new elites eager to stamp themselves into the saga of the saffron march. A peerless leader of ordinary origin puts storied royalty to the sword as internal rivals are bashed by his hilt and banished to the hills.
And yet neither fantasy prose nor bardic poetry can capture the chaotic current of India’s political maelstrom. For over 8 years, international commentary and their increasingly irrelevant local compradors have produced reams of toilet paper (single ply of course) that describe India as they want it – a failed state on the cusp of economic collapse – not as it actually is. According to them, the government is brewing a communal froth that overflows into a front-page genocide. A revolution of minorities and proletariat will soon shatter the state, as well as those pesky bigoted Gujarati politicians and profiteers, ushering in a return to the Nehruvian utopia that featured diversity, secularism, and abysmal development ripe for poverty porn.
Unfortunately for them, India’s economy has seen consistent growth balanced with fiscal discipline that has averted an inflationary apocalypse, a situation that no doubt would’ve arisen had the center listened to “experts” baying for a fiscal frenzy and did not possess such stellar diplomacy that has mitigated much of the current energy concerns found in the rest of the world. Minorities have overwhelmingly positive views of living as well as practicing their religion in India and Muslims flock to immigrate or even seek refuge under the rule of a supposed Hindu Hitler. And most emphatically, Narendra Modi remains the most consistently popular political leader in the world as approval ratings skim Himalayan heights.
Does that mean everything is rosy for the party of the lotus? Definitely not. In fact, prominent supporter ire has been a more pronounced theme than ever before in the past few years, yet the BJP maintains or even increases vote share as election victories abound and opposition governments fall to the quakes in the wake of the election juggernaut.
The Poison Pill
From an overt policy standpoint, I see the BJP as the dead center of Indian politics. While many airwaves are filled with party members spewing communal rhetoric and threats, examining the BJP’s actual policy record sheds new light on how the BJP rules.
The 2019 triumvirate of Article 370’s repeal, Ram Mandir, and the CAA was arguably the last big bang “Hindutva” win for the government. Even then, the CAA can be uncounted as it is not yet implemented. Yet it is in the failed CAA implementation and the subsequent fiasco that we take an integral lesson on where Indian politics is going.
The Citizens Amendment Act looked to be the surprise knockout blow after the 1-2 punch of Article 370’s repeal and the Ram Mandir verdict. The announcement took many off guard, and then the BJP coupled it with the NRC, an effort to confirm the legal citizenship of those living in India. While the CAA is a humanitarian law that gives relief to some of the most persecuted people on the planet, non-Muslims living in Islamic South Asian countries, the pairing with NRC evoked fears of citizenship revocation amongst some Indian Muslims. This deliberate misinformation combined with BJP spokespersons touting the twinning of these policies eventually led to widespread protests that quickly transformed into deadly riots.
In the background, a now internet-savvy India would receive a steady stream of news with a flood of forced conversions in Pakistan, a Talibani deluge cleansing Afghanistan of its last Hindus and Sikhs, as well as Bangladeshi Islamists ransacking temples with rivers of blood in their wake. These consistent tides of terror served as the subcontinental backdrop for the foreground of Islamist rioting within India.
For many Hindus, whether BJP voters or not, they saw Indian Muslims rioting en masse across India to prevent their fellow Hindu religious kin from finding refuge in India. In their eyes, nothing negative would happen to Muslim Indians via CAA (this is legally true), yet still, Indian Muslims unleashed a fiery fury across Indian cities. The NRC and even the CAA would be delayed thereafter, with the government citing COVID as the cause for delay even to this day. The entire affair was a cataclysmic blow to communal relations.
While the BJP had been shifting the Overton Window bit by bit in its first term, this was the first true tectonic shift. The violent reaction to the CAA solidified the mass alienation of Indian Muslims from the rest of Indian society. The protests at Shaheen Bagh proved to be a tactical victory, but a very massive strategic blunder occurred for Indian Muslims. This would be the beginning of a much more rapid rightward shift in Indian political discourse.
A Hindustani Dialectic
Curiously, this would also be the start of the BJP’s softening towards secularism. The CAA’s de facto shelving would be followed by the repealing of decades-long awaited agricultural reforms (no doubt to soothe Sikh sentiments and for the Uttar Pradesh election’s caste equations), various schemes outreaching towards minorities, and even suspending a star spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, for quoting uncomfortable verses in the Hadith. Recently, the BJP has been gearing up cadres to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims, a group carved out of less well-off Muslim communities in India whose origins come from local lower caste converts. All of this, along with related failures in law and order has incensed many BJP voters, especially vocal ones on social media. And yet, as we mentioned earlier, the BJP marches on in electoral victory and popularity.
What we are seeing is an Indian version of the Hegelian dialectic. The Hegelian dialectic is essentially when a thesis and anthesis merge to form a synthesis, many times with one more dominant than the other. The BJP is no more the invading blitzkrieg force that upended Indian politics. Now it is transforming into a party of governance that deals with entrenched elites, an antagonistic bureaucracy plus judiciary, along with micro-electoral arithmetic and feudal forces that give Indian politics its fractal, serrated, bloody edges.
The central command has doused the incendiary elements of the BJP and its ideological affiliates as their sparks frequently have the potential for societal wildfires. But I also believe there is a more cynical element to this. The various atrocities and injustices that Hindus face in the quest to uphold an uneven secularism do indeed help the BJP. Hindu resentment from issues such as blasphemy killings executed by minorities (many of which were related to the Nupur Sharma issue prior), the government solely interfering in Hindu institutions, and various other ires ultimately cause Hindus to gravitate, some begrudgingly, towards the BJP.
“If it is this bad with the BJP, imagine how horrid it will be with the opposition.” The world is run on incentives, and India, especially in its politics, is no different.
An institution that offers infinite incentives in India is caste. As I’ve written about prior, the BJP has pursued a mammoth, marathon effort to usurp non-upper caste voters and has been met with stunning success. As recently as the Uttar Pradesh elections, a state famous for caste conflict and caste-based voting, the BJP captured massive voting percentages not just from its usual upper caste base, but also from huge chunks of OBC and SC voters as well.Recent polls also show how the disparity in upper and lower caste approvals/voting preferences dissipates when it comes to the BJP. On average, if you are a Hindu, the BJP will be your number 1 choice, regardless of caste.
A big reason for this has not only been the gargantuan infrastructure and welfare programs that disproportionately help the poor and lower castes, but also because the BJP has been directly reaching out to lower castes with caste-specific benefits, greater party leadership opportunities, and deification of lower caste icons, especially Ambedkar. Despite this at times preferential treatment, upper castes steadfastly support the BJP. In the Uttar Pradesh elections, they even increased their voting percentage despite the BJP’s largesse towards non-upper castes.
I believe this boils down to the fact that upper castes are losing their caste consciousness and seeing themselves as Hindu first, then their caste. Affluence and urbanization are death knells to caste in India, and the upper castes are attaining these at higher rates than other castes. Secondly, the poor are gaining a financial and even social safety net from better infrastructure, streamlined welfare, and better law and order provided by the BJP. The latter is integral in voting trends for Uttar Pradesh due to internecine caste violence. All these societal safeguards were previously in the realm of caste as an anemic government couldn’t provide these, only your kinsmen could. Thirdly, there is very little alternative for many upper castes as numerous opposition parties do not give them as many leadership opportunities at best or dog whistle pogroms against them at worst. Lastly is the BJP’s seemingly diluted Hindutva credentials, but more on that later.
While the successful navigation of caste in Hindu societies is one thing, even more audacious is the desire to enflame caste in Muslim societies. While South Asian Muslims have their own caste system of Ashrafs (descended from foreigners and uppers castes), Ajlafs (from middle castes), and Arzals (from lower castes), it is not nearly as stratified and penetrating as the Hindu system. Yet the BJP wants Islam to meet Ambedkar. Just as the Hindu politic was pitted against each other by caste, the neologism “Pasmanda,” consisting of Ajlafs and Arzals, is the cleaver that the BJP seeks to use to butcher a historically united Muslim bloc.
Pasmanda consciousness is not ubiquitous, but the BJP seeks to change this by touting its welfare schemes that disproportionately help Pasmanda Muslims due to higher rates of poverty in the community as well as stark imbalances in Ashraf versus Pasmanda representation in Muslim organizations. This is an extraterrestrial move for the BJP as it could alienate parts of its Hindu base via obvious communal issues as well as potential spillover in caste politics. But the BJP rests easy with its Hindu home base so far, despite its aggressive batting off home turf on the political pitch.
The Basis of Covering Its Bases
There is no political machine greater on the planet today than the BJP. You can hate their guts and wish every party member from the Prime Minister to a peon to hell, but you should still learn their craft. They are built to win elections. One can say they are faltering in their ideological clarity, abandoning their Hindutva roots as they engage in the Hindustani Dialectic. Perhaps it is simply incompetence, but that betrays their consistent winning instinct. The BJP are not revolutionaries, perhaps not even reformers for some, but they are surely incrementalists. The patient poise of their pace has led them to become the apex predator of Indian politics, a true political animal.
3 main factors explain this pace:
- The Anti-Hindu nature of the opposition: The Indian opposition comprises many groups and leaders with a severe ideological antagonism toward Hinduism. This doesn’t mean the entirety of the opposition or those that vote for them hate Hinduism, but there are powerful entities, organizations, and individuals who have either personal or incentivized reasons to oppose Hinduism and its political expression of Hindutva. They have a loud and frequent penchant for insulting Hinduism and Hindus, a feature ripe for the BJP’s propaganda wing to popularize.
- The BJP is a Big Tent Party: Because the opposition is seen as revolting to so much of the populace, the BJP captures ceded ground. The BJP can engage in secular and Ambedkarite pandering, things that regularly rile seasoned voters, because they have no choice but to swallow these overtures as they believe the alternative wants them and their ways annihilated. As the BJP’s election supremo, Amit Shah’s maximal electoral efforts are naturally neighborly to this Big Tent tactic as many hues of saffron and even other colors now find a home in the BJP.
- The BJP is Hindu enough for the majority of Hindus. Okay, this will need a longer explanation.
This says something more about Hindu society than the BJP. There is a widespread trope that the BJP has been propped up solely by Hindu Nationalism. But more likely, Hindu Nationalism plays a secondary if not tertiary force in its ascent after the BJP’s development initiatives or perhaps even sheer disgust of the opposition. The BJP believes, possibly correctly going by voting patterns, that development in the form of infrastructure, welfare, and other economic programs is the primary vector of its party to win votes while Hindutva efforts are the bumper to solidify winning tallies.
There is also a federalist play to this as the center particularly has moderated its official messaging to near secular levels as it mainly popularizes non-partisan efforts and achievements. BJP-ruled states on the other hand coat their hands in saffron as they provide a steady stream of “Hindutva” wins, many of which are aesthetic while a few are kinetic, including location renamings, textbook changes, anti-conversion laws, cow protection initiatives, and temple restorations, the latter of which cannot be understated.
While most of these efforts will provide little electoral fruits, the imagery of renovated temples provides an entire basket of votes. Just as the BJP has rejuvenated hallowed and holy sites such as Kedarnath, Kashi Vishwanath, Ujjain, etc… there is one temple that will usher in a new era and stitch saffron into the skin of the BJP forever. Fought over for centuries, the site of Lord Ram’s birthplace will witness the rebirth of its temple after a verdict that handed the BJP its deliverance into the history of not just the Republic of India but the Indian civilization. Narendra Modi will preside over India turning on its axis and entering a new age as a quest that so many Hindus, kingly and common, died for will finally be fulfilled.
Each brick laid in Ayodhya. Each chisel chipping away at stone. Each bead of sweat dripping from the carvers of destiny. Each of these moves the Overton Window of India little by little till a new vision of India will permanently emerge. The Second Republic will be within sight. And for all the BJP’s politicking, their secular turn, and the ideological sacrifices to prop up that Big Tent; all of these will be eclipsed in the shadow of Ram Mandir.
9 thoughts on “The Indian Overton: Saffron Secularism”
One heck of a post. Amazing work. Even farmer stuff is going to workout with state level implementation.
UCC is next.
Awesome post. Any foreign correspondent reporting news about India should read this post to get some basics right in their reporting. With regards to Ram temple in Ayodhya, India will see the biggest civilizational spectacle since its independence with regards to official opening ceremony. The only question is how much voting percentage bump BJP will gain from that event.
BJP bump will be mostly in Northern areas, and mostly it will shore up their numbers which is bound to fall due to anti incumbency.
In other areas i don’t see it affecting anything
You’re assuming that those foreign correspondents don’t know these things already. Their faulty coverage is not because of ignorance but totally intentional.
Good and tactical analysis
Absolutely brilliant article, Emissary has skilfully peeled off the mystery(if at all for BJP’s ideological adversaries) why BJP will remain the dominant force in the Indian politics for the foreseeable future
The political formula for India’s electoral cycle is three years of sobriety and two years of risky behaviour. The two risky years are the first year (win flush) and the fifth year (campaign stakes)
Sober years are for the centrists. The two years can swing any way.
Very well analyzed and articulated. The shift is pretty obvious to most people even to those who may not wish to acknowledge it. Add to this the tremendous success of movies like RRR and more recently Kantara; the indelible stamping of our stories, our demi gods and goddesses and our dharma in our collective psyche is almost complete. I just wish the government grows a spine and brings in a fully implementable CAA. It’s completely adharmic to throw our own to the wolves.
Who are “our own” ? And who threw them to the wolves ?
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