Meera Nanda – Why the BJP will bounce back

The BJP lost because the urban middle-classes have outgrown Hindutva. This is what our political pundits have been proclaiming since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

This would be wonderful if it were not a fairy tale. What the facts really show is that prosperity is making the middle class more, not less, nationalistic and their nationalism is getting more, not less, fused with religiosity. The middle classes are becoming more self-consciously Hindu, as our cities become more dotted with Muslim ghettos.

No one denies that the BJP has suffered a serious setback. It lost vote share (from 22.2 % in 2004 to 18.8 %) as well as Lok Sabha seats (from 138 in 2004 to 116). But it is not clear what role the middle-class voters played in defeating the Hindu nationalist party. Did the urban middle classes really ditch the BJP and allies? If they did, did they do it because they didn’t like rabble-rousers like Varun Gandhi and the pub-smashing goons of the Ram Sena? Or did they do it because they were no longer aggrieved over ‘minority appeasement’ by ‘pseudo-secularists’? Or was it because they no longer accepted the first principle of Hindu nationalism restated recently by L.K.Advani: ‘Hindu and Bharatiya, Hindu Rashtra and Bharatiya Rashtra are synonyms’?

The simple fact is that there is no evidence that can answer these questions as decisively as claimed by those who read a babalog-Hindutva divorce in the election tea-leaves.

The National Election Study (NES), the most authoritative source of data on voting patterns, has not yet broken down the 2009 poll numbers in terms of income or class. The NES data that we do have suggest that it is their caste identities, rather than class interests, that more closely match the voters’ choices in key battle-ground states including Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The case of middle-class revolt hangs almost entirely on the fact that the BJP lost in metropolitan areas like Mumbai and Delhi where it was least in the running. But BJP’s loss in Mumbai can be easily explained by the spoiler effect of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena. Delhi is the only major urban center where Congress won and BJP lost across all localities, from slums to high-rise gated communities.

Infact there is nothing to suggest that the upwardly-mobile have outgrown Hindutva, at least not in any real game-changing way. We don’t have hard data about how the middle classes voted, but we do have sufficient data on how they pray.  The more educated, urban and upwardly-mobile Hindus have become, the more observant they seem to be: they now pray more frequently, more ritually and more ostentatiously.

The 2004 NES found that ‘over one-third of respondents said that their religiosity had increased in terms of attending religious functions, participation in prayers, temple going etc. Among the educated, particularly among those educated above the secondary level, the proportion of highly religious is higher.’ Similar trends were found in the 2007 State of the Nation survey. The phenomenal rise in pilgrimage is another indicator of rising religiosity among the well-to-do Hindus.

It goes without saying that rising religiosity does not mean rising religious chauvinism or intolerance: all observant Hindus are not Hindutva-vadi, just like all Hindutva-vadis are not observant Hindus. But at the same time, participation in religious rituals is not like, say, wearing a piece of jewelry which one can take off or change at will, depending upon the context. Neither can this religiosity be trivialized as shallow, on-off ‘laptop Hinduism,’ as Ashis Nandy does (Tehelka, June 27). On the contrary, religious observances – prayers, satsangs, fasts, pilgrimages etc – presuppose some beliefs about the way the world is and offer guidance on how to live well. The growing religiosity of Hindu middle classes is not devoid of cultural, ethical and political consequences.

At least one consequence of the growing Hindu religiosity is a growing sense of Hindu majoritarianism, that is, a belief that the culture of the Hindu majority ought to define the cultural ethos of the entire nation, and that the minorities ought to adopt this as their own.

This majoritarian strain is growing among those Hindus who are more educated and who are more religious – precisely the profile of the middle classes. The 2004 NES found that more college graduates (44 %) had a Hindu majoritarian mindset, as compared to those with only high school education (40 %). Religiosity was an even bigger indicator: those Hindus who participated more frequently in religious rituals/discourses/satsangs etc. were twice as likely to agree that the will of the Hindu majority ought to prevail, as compared to the less religious Hindus (42 % as compared to 26 % respectively).

But that is not all. What is peculiar about Hindus is that they see themselves as a hegemonic majority and an oppressed minority at the same time. Nearly 40% of Hindus – the highest proportion of any majority group in all of South Asia – surveyed in the 2008 State of Democracy in South Asia think of themselves as a minority in their country. Anecdotal evidence based upon conversations in comfortable living rooms suggests that the upper-caste Hindus continue to carry a huge chip on the shoulder over caste reservations and minority vote-banks.  In other words, a substantial proportion of Hindus have come to believe that they are not getting the respect and power that is due to them.

It is this mindset of entitlement combined with old and new resentments that the Sangh Parviar has actively cultivated. Take the work of popular gurus like Swami Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Asaram Bapu, Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Dr. Pranay Pandey (of Gayatri Parivar), all of whom have informal affiliations with the Sangh Parivar.  On the one hand, these gurus have honed to perfection the notion that whatever is worthwhile in India is thanks to Sanatan Dharma, while on the other, they have fueled fears of Dharma Under Threat from the supposedly hedonistic West and the supposedly intolerant, and violent Semitic monotheistic religions,  Islam and Christianity. The fact that these gurus have been able to gather hundreds of thousands of ardent followers, despite their well-known Hindu Right sympathies, goes to show how utterly normal the triumphalist-yet-resentful ideology of Hindutva has become.

It has become commonplace to hear well-heeled yuppies wax eloquent about India becoming a world power because of the Hindu samskaras of its people, while simultaneously pulling down Islam and Christianity. Listening to them one gets the impression that L.K.Advani and his party will not have much difficulty selling their repackaged Hindutva which treats Hinduism as the ‘cultural life-current’ of the whole nation. Indeed, the jingoistic pride the Indian middle classes express in their culture defies all those who think that globalization mutes religious exclusivism, or that money-making drives out communal prejudices. They overlook the fact that success in the global race for money and power can itself become a source of religious-cultural chauvinism.

Will the repackaged Hindutva be kinder, gentler and more ‘inclusive’, as has been proclaimed by BJP stalwarts after their post-defeat conclave in June?  It is hard to imagine how any ideology that openly declares the religious faith and practices of the majority community to be the norm for the entire nation can be called ‘inclusive’. The wide and deep hold of this kind of thinking – which has the blessings of the Supreme Court, no less – makes India an ethnocracy pretending to be a liberal democracy.

Even though it will try not to spill blood streets – at least not at a scale large enough to can frighten the middle classes and the foreign investors – the ‘gentler’ Hindutva will be far from benign. It will carry out its communal agenda by non-recognition of minority communities and by utter indifference to their legitimate material and cultural interests.

The middle classes will fall in line. They will not ask too many questions when the police nab innocent Muslim lads on suspicion of terrorism. They will not worry when those with non-Hindu names can’t find jobs and houses. They will treat it as perfectly normal when their ‘secular’ government spends lavishly on yagnas, kathas, pilgrimage circuits and land-grants for temples, ashrams and gurukuls.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the 2009 election is that the BJP will think twice before supporting Varun Gandhi, Pramod Muthalik and other rabble-rousers. Even though their ugly tactics succeeded locally, the urban middle classes in the rest of the country saw them as a threat to their own fairly westernized lifestyles.   But let’s not fool ourselves — their defeat, and the defeat of the BJP in this election, is not the end of the story.

Meera Nanda is a philosopher of science with initial training in biology and is currently a fellow of the John Templeton Foundation, USA.  She is the author of award-winning book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism. Her book The God Market: How Globalization is Making India more Hindu has just been released.


2 thoughts on “Meera Nanda – Why the BJP will bounce back

  1. Excellent article Meera. Badhaaee ho ! Middle class is a very complex group of Indian society. They are and were always greedy, insensitive and pro-establishment. They may be either Hindu or Muslim or from any other religious group, but their characteristics are the same. They think about themselves only.
    They didn’t care about poor. Thought they are the most highly educated, skilled and intelligent group in India. Look at the history on Indian Independence. All our bloody middle class brothers were supporting British.

  2. This Vinod dude seems to one of those sons of elite communist party members who live all their life stealing from the middle class and poor and then have the nerve to spit on the middle classes.

    Hey vinod we “middle class” have the decency to eat with what we earn, what have you done for the country or fill your stomach? Stole from others, isnt it? You are true communist, loathsome creature.

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