Originally published here on Niti Central. Mackenzie Brown’s Book “White Umbrella” can be found here. Old Offstumped Posts on the “Shveta Chhatra – A Liberal National Agenda based on Dharma” can be found here.
Back in 2009, during the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, one of the most regretful development was the exit of the Biju Janata Da,(BJD), from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as seat-sharing talks over Odisha broke down. One of the primary reasons for the BJD’s to exit was the runaway violence in Kandhamal and the conduct of some of the members of the BJP in the aftermath of the riots in Kandhamal. There were two lessons for the BJP from Odisha back in 2009 which seem to have been finally learnt in 2013 as we witness a quiet transformation underway from Shivagiri in Kerala to Haridwar in Uttarakhand.
There is no denying the fact that the BJP’s core political constituency has always been located in a high degree of Hindu Identity Consciousness. The challenge for the BJP in the last two decades in general and in States like Odisha in specific has been its inability to appeal to this Hindu Identity Consciousness going beyond rhetoric of Hindu victimhood. The other challenge for the BJP was its inability to localise this Hindu Identity Consciousness through local icons, symbols and a message with local resonance.
From Shivagiri to Haridwar, if there is one message that has come through this week, it is of a new kind of Hindu Politics — benign in its rhetoric and reformist in its appeal.
From extolling the reformist values of Shri Narayana Guru in Kerala to sharing stage with a new-age Hindu movement in Haridwar that’s as much at ease with modern science and technology as it is with Hindu spirituality, the trajectory Narendra Modi’s travels have taken this week signal a significant shift in the remaking of the BJP’s core constituency.
It would be myopic to be dismissive of the significance of this shift. Let us, for a moment, pay attention to what was missing in the speeches at both Shivagiri Mutt and Patanjali Peeth. There was no fear-mongering and paranoia over threat from other faiths. There was no rhetoric of victimhood over unresolved culture conflicts and the many communal faultlines from the century gone by. Instead the speeches focused on universal values, social reform, education and attempts to blend spirituality with modern science and technology.
There was no doubt an unmistakable political message in the speeches at both events held at prominent Hindu religious institutions. But that message was more a statement against status quo within the ‘establishment’ rather than over any kind of majoritarian agenda.
Much debate has ensued in recent days over ‘secularism’ including one much-discussed Column by Pratap Bhanu Mehta. While Hindutva politics of the 1990s were a reaction to the perverse variety of secularism practiced in India during the decades after independence, the many flaws and serious limitations of Hindutva politics of the 1990s became quite evident during the 2000s. Between the extremities of a secularism focused excessively on minority victimhood and a secularism rooted in equal opportunity pandering to religion, India has struggled with what shape its secular state must take that harmonises Constitutional values with the demands of electoral politics.
Listening to the speeches from Shivagiri Mutt and Patanjali Peeth on the political expectations from prominent Hindu religious leaders, I am reminded of a profound comment in the book The White Umbrella – Indian Political Thought from Manu to Gandhi by Mackenzie Brown. In the book, Mackenzie Brown observes how the ‘White Umbrella’ has been a constant symbol of the sovereign power of the state from Rama to Akbar to Shivaji and beyond. Elaborating on the ‘political tradition’ symbolised by the White Umbrella, Mackenzie Brown writes:
“The personal integrity of the ruler and the moral sense of the citizenry are the keys to sound government and prosperous society offered by Manu and Gandhi alike…. the core of the tradition symbolized by “Shveta Chhatra” or “White Umbrella” is essentially this: The problem of Government is the ethical problem of the individual projected into the field of the State. Its solution lies in Dharma”.
It was this non-theocratic political tradition guided by Dharma that was visible in abundance in Haridwar and Shivagiri Mutt as various leaders of Hindu religious institutions took the unusual step of expressing a political preference towards Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. It was also this non-theocratic and minimally secular political tradition that Narendra Modi was alluding to in his articulation of ‘India first’.
It is too early to assess the impact this fusion of politics with a benign Hindu identity consciousness. It however, must be noted that the primary movers and shakers of this movement are Hindu leaders drawn from non upper-caste sections of the Hindu society. This, in and of itself, is a radical change with profound implications for society in general outside of politics.
While political pundits and election junkies obsess over whether this means a ‘Hindu vote-bank consolidation’ we must welcome the fact that Hindu identity consciousness can be harnessed as a force for change without getting trapped within narratives of victimhood and communal polemics of the century gone by.
This is the message from Shivagiri to Haridwar.