Hindutva’s ‘accursed problem’

Mahesh Rangarajan

back to issue

The exit of Kalyan Singh from the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh and from the primary membership of the Bharatiya Janata Party itself was inevitable once it became clear that the Vajpayee-led forces were set to return to power in the general elections. What is significant is that with this one decisive step, the Hindutva movement may well have opened a fresh chapter in its history. The question of questions is whether a new social alliance will now replace it as the premier political force in the province. Much of the answer depends on what now happens, not only within the party ranks or among the legislators in Lucknow, but among the diverse and mutually conflicting elements that constitute its social base.

Only a decade ago, Kalyan Singh was crucial to the success of the party in transforming what latent sympathies existed for its ideological plank in north India into a potent electoral force. From the time of the rath yatra of Lal Krishna Advani and until the eventual demolition of the Babri Masjid, nothing seemed to have gone wrong for the saffron combine in the most populous state in the country. Not only did it emerge as the fastest growing political entity in the various regions of the vast state, it also replaced the Congress and then the various outfits of the Janata parivar as the largest political force in U.P. The Mandir even overcame the dissonance created by the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990 by the V.P. Singh government.

The new role of the Other Backward Classes within the Hindutva movement found expression in political leaders who combined Mandal and Kamandal – the advocacy of a saffron agenda and the drive for empowering their own communities. Figures like Uma Bharti in Madhya Pradesh and Kalyan Singh in U.P. were critical to the process by which the party grew from being a fringe element in politics into a major force to be reckoned with. At the same time, as long as the project of the Mandir and all that it symbolised remained on the agenda of the party, it performed a major cementing role.

It was still possible to paper over the obvious discomfort over the ascendancy of the Mandal classes among savarna Hindus who had switched en masse away from the Congress in the winter of 1989. In electoral terms, the organisation was already dependent on the careful management of these contradictions even in 1991, the only time it ever won a clear majority in the assembly polls. The break-up of the Janata Dal left the erstwhile socialists in disarray, the Bahujan Samaj Party deepened its hold on Dalit voters, and the Congress continued to ebb away as a force on the ground. In the aftermath of the demolition, two key groups led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati respectively converged to push back the BJP from its position of pre-eminence.



The verdict of the assembly elections of 1993 pointed to the core dilemma of the BJP. The Ram card had lost its shine and lustre. Even though it still polled over a third of the votes, the Samajwadi-Bahujan Samaj parties with about five per cent fewer votes managed to polarise the electorate at the constituency level. This meant that tactical voting in most of the 425 odd assembly constituencies made a mockery of the claim that a divided opposition would work to the advantage of the group polling the most votes. What is more crucial is that the net votes of the rival parties have since gone up in successive elections, whether to the Lok Sabha or the assembly. Both Mulayam and Mayawati had already emerged stronger by 1996 even though they had gone from being allies to antagonists. The saffron party peaked last year and slipped in 1999. Its two premier rivals – even the BSP has never had a pre-election accord with it, despite sharing power on two occasions – have gone from strength to strength.



It is not that Kalyan Singh was unaware of the vulnerability of his party. With the rise to prominence of both the Mandal and Dalit groups by the mid-’90s, the very Hindus the Sangh wished to unite were fragmenting and coalescing in a manner that would render its agenda a non-starter. In November 1993 and again in October 1996, he pushed hard for an increased allocation of seats to the Backward Classes. Any accretion of support could only come from such strata. In November 1997, with the collapse of the arrangement with Mayawati’s party, he opted to break and split other groups to put together an alliance government. The price that was paid was not a minor one: the temple agenda slipped way down the list of priorities. To add to this, there was a fresh dimension to Kalyan Singh’s politics in his second spell in power that was not quite so significant the first time around in 1991-92.

To put this in perspective one needs to look more carefully at the growing tensions between the Mandal and Dalit classes. The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party reflected and further crystalised the assertion of the Scheduled Castes who make up over a fifth of the population. As with the Mahars in western India, the Jatavs were in the vanguard of the Dalit-led political formation. Where they succeeded was in uniting their supporters under one flag and bargaining for a better deal.

As chief minister in 1995, Mayawati shrewdly drew on upper caste groups at the helm of the BJP to cut Kalyan Singh to size. Her spell in power, though brief, placed several issues on the agenda that deepened the divide between the Dalits and the OBCs. In a brief span of two years the BSP had gone from being an ally of the votaries of Mandal to a force able to push forward a distinctively Dalit agenda. The arrangement soon came undone.

The second such experiment in 1997 saw a similar pattern at work. As chief minister in his second spell, Kalyan Singh aggressively identified himself with the empowerment of the OBCs at the cost of both the Dalits and the Forward Classes. The latter were his key rivals within the party. The former felt the sharp edge of domination as the government weakened the implementation of protective legislation on human rights. This only reinforced the hold of the Bahujan Samaj Party in its role as a champion of Dalit rights.



In the process, Kalyan Singh became a victim of the very contradictions he tried to bridge. The shift in terrain to caste-based political assertion that was so marked in his own public persona, made it inevitable that he would run afoul of his party. His bid to solidify the hold of the Mandalite groups was now out in the open. The Rani Avantikabai Trust named after an OBC rebel of 1857 seemed to loom larger than the trust set up to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya. This provoked a backlash from the upper caste MLAs. A rough head count of BJP MLAs in U.P. showed that savarna Hindus made up about 120 of 176. By the time the general elections drew near, some of Kalyan’s supporters, notably the former MP Sakshi Maharaj, left the party.

The general elections saw the party’s share of seats fall by half. It fell between two stools – with the Backward votes gravitating to the SP and the FCs to the Congress. The repercussions were not long in coming. In a matter of weeks, Ram Prakash Gupta, an old rss hand with virtually no popular support or standing, replaced Kalyan Singh. The latter was expelled from the party and swiftly distanced himself from the Mandir agenda. In a rerun of the Vaghela episode, the BJP proved unable to satisfy the aspirations of a strongly-rooted member of the upwardly mobile Mandal classes. But U.P. is not Gujarat. The party polls only one in three votes, not one in two as in the latter. The assembly elections due in October 2001 may be held sooner, should the ministry fall.

The impact in the short term may be contained within manageable limits. The Vajpayee government is in no danger due to the denouement in Lucknow. The National Democratic Alliance more than made up the shortfall of seats in Uttar Pradesh, mainly due to its deftly conceived network of alliances across most of the major states. But what it did do was to freeze the party’s own representation in the Lok Sabha at 182, putting its allies in a stronger bargaining position. This also made it more, not less, reliant on partners who cannot on any account permit the revival of the Mandir-based plank in an explicit form. For now, the hunger for power will muffle the voices calling for action on this front.



The wider questions raised by la affaire Kalyan Singh will not go away so easily. Ever since its inception in the mid-1920s, the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh has had to grapple with the issue of caste. Even as its rhetoric focused on the dangers of confessional faiths, its modus operandi centrally rested on under-playing the tension between Brahmins and the cultivating castes and Depressed Classes in western India.

Much of the energy of the Jana Sangh as well as its present avataar, the BJP, has gone into containing caste-related tensions. This has been done through a combination of social welfare or upliftment schemes with selective induction of key personnel into major posts in the party structure and in governments, though not as yet in the highest apex bodies of the Sangh itself. Both policies have been pursued in tandem in a state like U.P., with Nanaji Deshmukh taking the ‘social work’ route in Gonda in the eastern half of the state. At its most extreme end, general secretary K.N. Govindacharya articulated the need to change the ‘chaal, charitra and chehra’ of the organisation in the aftermath of the debacle in the 1993 assembly polls.



The efforts to transform in an orderly way the style of functioning, the character and the public face of the party have not been smooth. The sarsangh-chalak or supreme head of the rss, Rajendra Singh, even went so far as to label social engineering as ‘an alien, a Leninist concept’. There is here an inherent danger: moving too fast alienates the status quo groups, especially the upper castes. But with half a century as voters under a Republican Constitution behind them, the OBC communities may find the progress under the aegis of a pan-Hindu front far too halting and slow to satisfy their aspirations. Ditto for the Dalits.

These conflicts have been most apparent in northern India for a variety of reasons, some structural and others specific to changes in recent times. Unlike in the South and West, it was difficult to polarise society on Brahmin versus non-Brahmin lines. The valley of the Ganga is not only home to one in four Brahmins in India, but along with other twice-born castes they constitute over a fifth of the total population. This is roughly equal to the proportion of Dalits in the electorate. Further, it was only in the late ’60s that an alternative political leadership emerged under Charan Singh to challenge the hegemony of the dominant social groups. Though the attempt failed, he opened up the space which was later exploited by Mulayam Singh Yadav.



But creating a bloc of disparate groups in the heartland is a difficult task for just about anyone. The saffron alliance’s greatest gains came at the same time when the old Congress-led social alliance crumbled. Its problem is that relationships are now more tenuous and loyalties more fluid than in the past. Mandal as a symbol undoubtedly created the opportunity for an alliance on principle in favour of reservations among the two great political communities of the SCs and the OBCs. Though the alliance was short-lived, it has left a legacy that makes the establishment of the hegemony of Hindutva forces very difficult, even in the one macro-region where it has a logical constituency.

The very logic of democracy undercuts attempts to forge a pan-Hindu consciousness, even as it does not provide any guarantee as to who will fill the vacuum. Ideology has been critical in a bid to overcome constraints in the way of the saffron forces. From the moment of its birth as a political entity in 1980, the BJP has alternated between two broad strategies of inclusiveness and explicitly exclusivist politics. From 1980 to 1986 and again since 1996, it has placed more emphasis on forging a broad anti-Congress front and less on advancing its ideology by carving out a distinctive voter base. For a decade from 1986 onwards, Hindutva was foregrounded in all party campaigns as distinct from those of other front organisations of the Sangh. The two tracks are not mutually exclusive but the compulsions of politics require that one and not the other be given more prominence at any specific moment in time.

Where does caste fit into this equation? There is no doubt that caste-based hierarchies constitute as intractable a problem for the votaries of political Hindutva as they once did for Congress nationalists. For the party, problems have been more intense in states like U.P. where the share of the national cake is small and the competition for service jobs sharper. To add to this, the temple issue seemed in the late ’80s and early ’90s to grip the popular imagination of large sections cutting across the ranks and divisions of Hindus in much of north India.



Though never all-encompassing, it appeared to have the potential of creating a new grammar of politics. Leaders once boasted that no one dared oppose the building of the temple. The Congress was even named as an ally by Mahant Avaidyanath on the occasion of the shilanyas at Ayodhya in November 1989. The Janata Dal at the time treated secularism as a non-issue as it forged a pre-poll accord with Advani’s party.

A decade later, the situation appears to have reversed itself. Mandal and its grammar of politics reigns uncontested over the political classes. Its opponents have melted away or confined themselves to hoping that market-led growth will render the state sector irrelevant over time. Caste has triumphed, at least for now, over the bid to forge in north India a freshly minted and militant Indian ethos centred on the temple at Ayodhya.

But a series of battles lie ahead. Its alliance with regional forces gives Atal Bihari Vajpayee more than a hold on power in New Delhi. It also opens up the possibility of expanding the base of his outfit among the OBCs who are so central to Indian politics today. The very size of the country enables divergent policies to be pursued in different regions, even in neighbouring states. Upper caste power may have been reinvigorated in Lucknow but the bid for power in Bihar rests on an alliance with sections of the Dalits and the Mandal communities. Such attempts could even succeed for a time.



The issue is whether the wider project can move ahead at the pace it once had. This seems highly unlikely if not impossible. Far from ideology overcoming caste-based loyalties, it appears not to be an effective solvent. The sheer bitterness with which Kalyan Singh speaks of how the saffron platform has no place for the marginal communities of yesteryear, indicates that cosmetic changes in the old order will not work. What, if anything, will? The deeper problem is that in what was its stronghold for much of the decade of the ’90s, the building of a unified Hindu vote bank has been seriously damaged if not fundamentally compromised.

No wonder there were signs of panic in the Bihar unit of the BJP that the importance of the Forward Backward divide in the state may re-emerge and work to their detriment. Kalyan Singh may have gone his way; how his former colleagues dig their way out of this hole is what matters. At the moment the only way they can hold onto power is by underplaying their own distinctive beliefs and ideals. The public platform is thus open to those who espouse very different views of society. The social alliance that kept the party a front runner in the Ganga valley is coming undone. It is a time of great opportunity for its rivals. And what they do and how they fare will inevitably create ripples across the entire body politic.