BJP, Nationalism, Populism and Neoliberalism

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and Home Minister of India, Amit Shah

"Nations are not something eternal. They began, so they will come to an end" said Ernest Renan in his celebrated article 'Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?'. In contemporary India, the perversion of nationalism by stressing on ethnic politics has damaged the post-colonial legacy of nationalism and is now  contested by the progressive public. Amidst the surge of Hindu Nationalism and populism, set up using state apparatus in today’s India, it is vital to discuss the role of the state, political parties, markets, and relationally embedded individuality. It is also equally important to understand the newly emerging Indian Nation, itself a modern imagined community and whether it has anything to do with neoliberal aspirations of individuals.

There are certain parameters which have been instrumental in shaping nations and subsequently, nationality and nationalism. The foremost among them is ‘territoriality’, which is an essential component to build up the narratives of nationalism; the second is ‘identity’, with the help of which masses could be galvanised and consolidated and the third is ‘homogeneity’ within a society, embodied in that particular nation-state to sustain this model based on nationalism, populism and majoritarianism.

Today’s narratives of nationalism and populism of RSS-led BJP government are far newer and different to some extent than that of RSS-patriarchs like Savarkar, Hegdewar and Golwalkar. While Savarkar’s nationalist narratives based on Hindutva were more ‘identity’ based which tried to assert 'Hindutva' in a territorial sense, i.e. in terms of ‘son of the soil’ and as descendants of ‘Vedic fathers’, Golwalkar and Hedgewar’s Hindutva-nationalist narratives were based on 'spirituality' which was embedded within the religious ideas of ‘Hinduism’ and the ‘cultural’ which endorsed religious identity as well as practicing the ‘Sanatana-Dharma’.

However, to impregnate such majoritarian-nationalist narratives in the minds of masses, one does not only need the rhetorical building, but institutional and organised support as well. RSS does the work of rhetoric building, organisational support and BJP was/is supposed to provide the institutional support. This is why it becomes very essential to look at Modi’s populist politics of nationalism from the prism of the state, state policies, the political party and the services it provides using its offshoots, and the market which endorses and sustains such politics and individuals who become the foot-soldiers of the same.

Territoriality and Nationalism

We first deal with the role of state here in this article, which plays a very vital role in defining and asserting the politics of territoriality. To provoke the masses and capture their imagination, the BJP since it came to power in 2014, has been using territoriality continually to inspire the masses to become the part of their political project of Hindutva-nationalism. The hyper-nationalist narratives have been employed for this purpose: like Uri “Surgical Strike” (subsequently promoting the movie on it), branding Pakistan as the enemy state as well as amplifying Indo-Bangladesh border issues, disempowering the legislature by making it an appendage to the executive, and recently, revoking Article 370, pushing the agenda of NRC, etc. Thus, by constantly highlighting real as well as imagined divisions, the BJP systematically uses territoriality to attract the support of people.

Secondly and most importantly, the BJP came up with innovative ideas to reach the masses using the state apparatus itself. The factor which distinguishes BJP’s nationalism from that of Indira Gandhi is that it could successfully use institutional and procedural mechanism as well. It has been evident that it becomes easier for fascism to incorporate ideas using bourgeois democratic framework of which institutions and procedures are integral parts. Indira Gandhi could only use institutions to bring about her politics of nationalism and populism but never could (or never wanted to) hijack procedural mechanism and which could still be able to survive the democratic framework in India.

Nonetheless, BJP could do it by bending and molding procedures in their own way to establish authoritarian politics using measures like demonetisation, passing Aadhar bill as a money bill, invoking Article 356 (President’s Rule) in various states undermining precedence and procedures. In universities, most prominently JNU, we see how the government is using institutions and procedures to suppress the free voices of students, labeling dissent as treason and issuing certificates of anti-nationalism to anyone who dares to question the state. The ruling party not only uses institutions to control power by appointments of complying personnel but also jumps established procedures like keeping the students’ unions in the sidelines when it comes to crucial decision-making, meddling with the university curriculum, curbing the freedom to organise events that aim to promote critique of the establishment and so on.

Rhetoric Building and Services Delivery

The role of the BJP as a ‘political party’ can more be considered in terms of rhetoric building with the help of RSS. The majoritarianism of BJP as a party combines cultural nationalism based on identity and othering communities which promotes cultural conservatism and misogyny, but at the same time retaining support by providing some social services. This cultural nationalism of RSS-BJP demand homogeneity in society, most of the times which can be brought about only with ‘ascribed-identities’. And to achieve this, it tries to build grand narratives to subsume all other small, regional and local identities - one such narrative is ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan’. This kind of narrative not only encourages the upper castes, upper classes to be a part of its political project but also has the capacity to include large numbers of OBCs, Dalits and tribals as well. This galvanisation of masses is done by using the services provided by RSS itself and using its offshoots on ground like various ‘prabodhanis’, ‘vanseva samitis’, ‘shakhas’ etc. Such offshoots do the work of ‘Sanskritisation’ and ‘Hinduisation’ of communities other than upper castes which ultimately helps the required homogenisation of the society to build their own hegemony. As Jairus Banaji says, in India the growth of fascism has been a gradual, step by step process where the fascist elements penetrate all sectors of society and emerge having built up that groundwork.

Thus, it becomes very important to understand how this mass base is constructed by radical right-wing parties. Generally, fascism grows in the context of an economic crisis; but in case of India, BJP’s majoritarian-nationalism presupposed (before 2014 elections) a stagflationary tendency as well as a moral crisis in terms of corruption which enabled the RSS-BJP to hijack the Anna Hazare protest and come to power. The Commonwealth Scam, Coal-gate Scam, Anna’s protest against corruption, orchestrated attacks on minorities in Orissa in 2007 and 2008 and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, and many more such events acted as a precursor to the moral crisis to capture public imagination which helped BJP greatly to win elections.

Beyond this, as Christophe Jaffrelot says, BJP as a political party has also been using innovative communication techniques—repeated ad nauseam catchy and vague slogans which attracted the masses, though all were empty signifiers, for example, ‘Acche Din Aanewale Hein!’. There has also been a use of certain artefacts, myths, rituals and symbols, with which deification is brought about with the help of religion itself. For example, the posters of fiery Hanuman, angry Shiva, Rama on battlefield, etc, helped in asserting putrid ‘purushartha’ (virtue of being male) which ends up being glad/satisfied in doing ‘mob-lynching’. These are also called as ‘stormtrooper tactics.’ Banaji also says—'hate propaganda clears the ground for physical attacks and mass killings by producing a 'climate' of violence where communal 'riots' (i.e. pogroms) can 'flare up' (be organised) at any point of time. The "climate" is worked matter, the object of a concerted praxis.’

Castes, Public Imaginations and Neoliberal Aspirations

Schools, workplaces, families and the whole society becomes the factories of ‘reactionary ideology’ of which whataboutery becomes the basic weapon. However, such tactics seeks to produce homogeneity within the society based on hatred and jingoism; subsequently, market helps such politics to sustain. To understand this, we need to go back to the period around 1991, where three fundamental forces were created on the basis of which BJP could capture public imagination and consolidate mass support of their every wrongdoing. These forces were market, mandir and Mandal. It amazes us how RSS-BJP could get such mass support despite being known as upper-caste Brahmanical organisation, especially from OBCs and Dalits. For me, the reason lies in opening up of the economy in 1991 with New Economic Policy, generally known as Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation (LPG reforms) and in subsequent neoliberal framework. It is also evident from many surveys that BJP has the largest vote bank of OBCs, middle-class, and new entrants to the middle class.

The question of locating individuality within discourses of nationalism in India must be considered pertinent in the context of the historical development of populism post-independence which comes into play with state policies and later, with the advent of neoliberal framework in post-reform India. The OBC block initially emerged as a political power and economic pressure group in the post-independence period with fragmentation of land, and subsequently the green revolution and new technological innovations in farming. Their entry into new services sector with the advent of economic reforms could help OBCs to uplift themselves as an economic force. The Mandal Commission gave them chance to uplift socially as well, as reservations in education sector and government benefited them. Nonetheless, at the same time mandir-politics could not remain separated from this upward mobility. For the first time, the OBCs got chance to rub their shoulders with upper castes (especially Brahmins) after which we could see that they started adopting rituals, sacred thread ceremonies, and other practices of brahmins. This did not happen in isolation; in effect it went beyond OBC block too, this rise of OBCs inspired other communities too. 

The combinations of promise of economic prosperity, political power and social upliftment created a neo-middle class and inspired masses to be a part of this joint-venture project of Mandir and Market. The aspirations of people were on the rise since then, yet no one could see through and understand that there always would be the gap between aspirations and achievements. In effect, OBCs, Dalits and other marginalised communities started playing role as an individual hyper-consumerist.. In addition to this neoliberalism created a space for such individual to be a precursor of hyper-nationalist narratives. The narrative of “development” although an empty signifier, culminated in suppression of cultural anxieties, and populism lying between that void space of aspirations and achievements, thereupon pacifying the public outrage against any illiberal, autocratic move of the current government. 

Harsh Mander has said that this neo-middle classes are today socialised in not one but three normative systems which justify every act of BJP government—caste system, ‘refined’ lifestyles’ and rise of neoliberal-market-led growth with ‘socialist guilt’. That is why it is very important to understand nationalism as not only as an isolated project but its connections with the conspicuous lethal project of BJP as a political party and state backed neoliberalism which has galvanised masses to be a part of it and this poses immense threat to the very social fabric of Indian society. Hence, we need to understand this whole structure, build up a critique and act accordingly.

Notes

  1. In psychoanalysis, relationally embedded individuality indicates person’s constitutively relational affectivity which facilitates development in that person of a sense of personal distinctiveness. In other words, its a person's grief, angst and intersubjective-vulnerability which relates itself with something else outside her/his concerns.
  2. Jaffrelot, C. H. (2019). Majoritarian State.London: Harper Collins
  3. 3 Activities which shock/amuse people and make them comply with establishment.
  4. 4 Mander, H. (2015). Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India.New Delhi: Speaking Tiger.