Like worms crawling out of the woodworks, far-right leaders of the Hindutva pantheon are stepping into the limelight to claim the attention that has long been denied them. Evidently they have been enthused by the perception that the steady ascendance in the political fortunes of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, valorised by his faithful flock followers as the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, has opened up the political space for them to strut their stuff.
Thus, for instance, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia, whose political influence had been cut to size in an earlier time, is back on the beat with his polarising communal speeches and outright hate-mongering – which echo similar venomous hate speeches by the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi. In early February, for instance, Togadia responded to Owaisi’s boast (about what Muslims could to Hindus if the police across India stood down) with a macabre celebration of the disproportionately high Muslim mortality rates from riots in India, including the Gujarat riots of 2002, whenever the law and order machinery had in fact stood down. Although it was packaged as a “lesson in history”, it was in fact an unsubtle threat to the Muslim community and a dog-whistle intended to rouse the basest passions in Hindutva warriors.
On Sunday, Togadia was on stage at the ‘Hindu Sangam’ with similar pronouncements intended to promote his advocacy of exclusivist, Hindu-supremacist sentiments – to the point of prophesying a ‘Hindu state’ in Gujarat by 2015.
Togadia also gave voice to “our dream” of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya at the site where the Babri Masjid stood. That dream, he added, would be realized only when “we become Hindus, not only by our behavior, but with our practices and awareness”.
At that same platform, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat too spoke of building a “glorious” Ram temple at Ayodhya, and of a fanciful Hindu renaissance of sorts that would “lead the world”.
Other appointments made by BJP president Rajnath Singh—including the controversial appointment of Modi’s political lieutenant Amit Shah—and the exclusion of some of the more personable leaders (who don’t, however, have a political mooring or the backing of the RSS) make for bad political optics for a party that wishes to reach beyond its hardcore support base.
The fact that the far right has found its voice about now is more than a little ironic because it comes at precisely the moment when the BJP is looking to harness the mass appeal that Modi has generated in recent years by showcasing his developmental work in Gujarat and playing down its hardline Hindutva identity. In fact, Modi’s three-time electoral success in Gujarat has come on the strength of his having effectively sidelined the loony far right, as epitomised by leaders like Togadia, and having carved out an element of political autonomy from the mothership RSS.
As this narrative that activist and media commentator Madhu Kishwar reports on, citing one of the interlocutors at a meeting in London in 2003 between Modi and Muslim leaders, Modi was cramped for political space by the VHP -– and, in particular, the fear that the “VHP types will wipe me out”.
Yet, according to this narrative, Modi did offer redress and the promise of justice to Muslim leaders, which evidently persuaded them of the genuineness of his intent, despite all the negative portrayals in the media surrounding the 2002 riots.
All that political goodwill will be in serious jeopardy if the perception gains ground that Modi’s ascent on the national stage is akin to the Trojan horse that assists the ultra-right to clamber back onto the national stage, in much the same way that they did at the height of the Ram temple campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The revived chatter from the far-right Hindutva groupings also has the potential to interfere with the political message that Modi has fashioned over the past decade to his advantage, which rests on a popular appeal beyond the traditional constituencies of the BJP. These new constituencies, at the centre of the political spectrum, are drawn by the developmental discourse that Modi purveys, which offers a sharp contrast to the UPA government’s economic narrative, which rests on entitlements and pandering to rent-seeking behavior.
As I’ve argued earlier (here), and as historian Harbans Mukhia points out, the perception that playing the Hindutva card in general—and the Ram temple campaign—has earned huge dividends for the BJP is something of a myth. Since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Mukhia points out, the BJP has never returned to power in Uttar Pradesh, except, briefly, as a junior partner of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Elsewhere across the Hindi belt too, which is considered the support base of the BJP, the party has fared badly since 1992. And even its brief stint in power as the head of a coalition—between 1998 and 2004—was facilitated by the deliberate downplaying of hot-button issues, including the Ram temple campaign at Ayodhya.
Which is why there is reason to believe that the Hindutva pantheon’s reassertion of itself so early in the election cycle could work against the political interests of the BJP. Modi, of course, has many detractors on the other end of the spectrum, but the ones with the capacity to torpedo his message and scupper whatever chances he may have are those on his side of the fence.