The stories of 11 leaders reveal what underlies the carefully constructed Hindutva mask
To understand the nature of the BJP’s thumping victory in the recent general elections, and, therefore, to map its politics and the mind of those who lead it today, it is important to keenly and critically examine the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fount of the political party that is in government today. The lives and minds that birthed the organisation and helped it consolidate its presence in the country despite its breadth of diversity are germane to understanding the RSS. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s The RSS: Icons of The Indian Right isn’t the terribly insightful book it could have been.
It selects 10 men and one woman—KB Hedgewar, VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar, SP Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Balasaheb Deoras, Vijayaraje Scindia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Ashok Singhal and Bal Thackeray—as the leaders of the Indian Right worth discussing; the 11 are by no means the only to hold sway over Indians subscribing to right-wing politics. Indeed, some of them would perhaps have no recall among sections of the right-wing today.
But, the bits that Mukhopadhyay picks from the lives of these 11 people who set the right-wing narrative in the country’s electoral politics, is further evidence of Hindutva’s (cultural nationalism achieved through ‘Hindu’ resurgence, the RSS would have you believe) usefulness in glossing over the frictions within a stratified ‘Hindu’ superset, while helping the traditional concentration of power preserve and fight challenges from the outside. Of course, changing contexts, especially in the aftermath of the 1991 liberalisation and Mandal-era politics, may seem to have caused the nature of the stratification to evolve—concessions have had to be made—but this is only superficial.
Hedgewar’s early ideological compulsions were based on the disenfranchisement of his community under the Mughals and their vassals juxtaposed with the rise of the comprador castes and the British Raj overthrowing the Bhonsle Marathas who had offered his community refuge and patronage, a way to regain the capital they had lost. Scindia’s decision to join the BJP was birthed by an outright revulsion for the Congress that had become belligerently anti-royalty and was professing socialism.
Advani’s rath yatra, read against the VP Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 10% EWS quota—these moves of the Hindu Right highlight the contradictions the caste system (and, related, the apportioning of economic and social capital) has with the supposed plurality of beliefs and flexibility of the Sanatana Dharma. Even though Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, the man who pushed the Hindu Right organised under the RSS umbrella to take its place in mainstream politics in the country, is thought of as a social progressive, it is unlikely that a shrewd political mind like him wouldn’t have seen the assertion of Dalit and OBC leaders, especially those who had trained under Ram Manohar Lohia, as a threat to what the RSS actually wants preserved.
There could have been many reasons for making the Ram janmabhoomi the lodestar of right-wing politics in the 1990s—though the demand was one that had been carried over from even before independence—but it can’t be disputed that Deoras, the agnostic, saw political opportunity in it at a time caste assertion and Dalit identity politics were also coming into their own in north India. At the time, the BJP had organised and supported the anti-Mandal student protests—both OBCs and Dalits view the anti-reservation agenda as further evidence of caste hegemony—while the RSS and the BJP leadership had hoped that the janmabhoomi issue would also help keep the ‘Hindus’ from fractionating. The sangh parivar has managed to shrug off the contradictions with well-strategised tokenism. Thackeray, a poseur-internationalist in his private life, was the fount of the Shiv Sena’s parochial politics that bordered on xenophobia.
Icons… is an excellent preface to further reading on the Hindu Right. What it lacks in terms of addressing its subject substantively to build an academic understanding, it makes up for generously in terms of ease of reading and deliberately uncomplicated chronicling. The chauvinism of the Sangh thought comes through, even though Mukhopadhyay takes utmost care to present himself as neutral—this has as much to do with the similarities the RSS ideology has with fascism as it has with the deftness of the author’s writing. It will be abundantly clear to the reader that while many in the sangh parivar and outside thought of Vajpayee as a mukhauta for the Sangh’s hardline, it is the Sangh’s Hindutva, as far from Sanatana Dharma of the likes of Aurobindo as it can be, which is a mukhauta for the Indian ancien regime protecting its interest against usurpers and modernism.