TO explain the current situation of the Congress, it is worth recounting an apocryphal story about Emperor Akbar’s favourite elephant. When the royal pachyderm died, his keepers could not muster the courage to convey the sad news to Akbar. They feared his wrath. One day the emperor asked after his elephant. ‘He does not move, and has been rejecting food and drink,’ reported the mahaavat. ‘Is he ill?’ asked Akbar. ‘He does not breathe either,’ said the elephant keeper. ‘Then is he dead?’ thundered the emperor. ‘How can I have the temerity to say such a thing, Your Excellency,’ replied the poor mahaavat. In other words, the Congress is dead. It may not be dead according to the calculations of political analysts or psephologists, but as a credible counter to the politics of jihadi Hindutva of the sangh parivar variety it is ineffective, unimaginative and irrelevant.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Congress was the midwife that delivered jihadi Hindutva. The eventual success of Hindutva in independent India is a direct result of the failure of successive Congress governments to deliver the promises of governance and the accompanying failure to build a set of viable, popular and participatory liberal-democratic institutions. This is the primary premise on which jihadi Hindutva argues its case. Not that it has an alternative to governance or institution building. Rather, it argues in favour of a strong, macho state that does not necessarily deliver the goods of well-being and prosperity, but offers hope and optimism in the fashion of most millennial sects.
Jihadi Hindutva posits a notion of cultural nationalism that has a far reaching emotive appeal to a vast majority of people who find the Congress’ idea of territorial nationalism difficult to handle. The latter requires faith in the nation as an artificial, formal and impersonal construct. In sharp contrast, jihadi Hindutva rallies its allegiance to obsolete, yet potent, cultural symbols such as Ramjanmabhoomi and trishuls.
More importantly, the success of the sangh parivar lies in its deft play of the politics of friend and foe. This brand of politics is simplistic and has little respect for nuances such as the Constitution, liberal debate and democracy. It draws strength from a constant preoccupation with correcting real or perceived wrongs and constantly ‘creating’ new foes. Short-term goals such as economic prosperity, law and order, forms and procedure are sacrificed at the altar of the urgent need to tackle external and internal enemies. These enemies have an uncanny tendency to proliferate. The energies of the entire nation ought always to be primarily geared towards this goal. Indira Gandhi gave birth to this idea in India and the sangh parivar has merely perfected it.
On the aesthetic plane, jihadi Hindutva represents moronism at its best. It tends towards mediocrity, favours moral sanctimoniousness over rational conversation, and displays an overwhelming tendency to look forward to the past. Elements such as discussion and debate belong to the liberal idea which assumes a world of opposing interests, differences and egos. It lies in the belief that a degree of civic peace can be found through an unrestrained clash of opinion and that competition at all levels will ultimately produce harmony. Today, both the sangh parivar and the Congress no longer believe in persuading opponents of the truth or justice of an opinion, but rather preoccupy themselves with fabricating a majority in Parliament to govern.
The other crucial principle that the Congress embraced in 1947 was democracy. In theory, the idea is one of an identity of the governed and governing. This entailed a principle of unity which declared the community of men, free and equal. The liberty of the individual and his rights were placed in the forefront, while completely integrating him into the sovereign nation. In other words, the final integration of India was achieved not through an organic growth preserving the historical individuality of the component parts, but by abstract thought setting out to build on a non-historical basis.
Societies that are democratically organized do so in the name of ‘the people’, which is again an abstraction. In truth, the masses are sociologically and psychologically heterogeneous. To the people, once identified with a locality, customs, observances and traditions, a non-territorial and ahistorical identity is ascribed. This is the idea of nationality without the political influence of history. For a people rooted in the soil of a nation, there is a certain hierarchy of allegiances – to their village, community, district, ‘desh’. In contrast, there is an uncanny likeness between the nation state and the modern city. Both are founded on human beings growing up anonymously, losing identity and becoming regimented. Inherited beliefs get displaced, old ties break, and there is constant uncertainty, fear and an ever growing sense of void.
To master these, there usually ensues a proud assertion of a glorious past, illusions of national grandeur and claims to racial and moral superiority. The sangh parivar’s brand of jihadi Hindutva takes its cue from this sense of alienation and dislocation in society. The solution they offer are centralization and moral and racial superiority. The first step in this process is the conscious depreciation of other peoples. The self-appointed apostles of an exalted creed, then, burn humans, places of worship, films and books. A consciousness of power, which is a substitute for freedom, comes in the form of violence of one kind or the other. The song and ceremony of the complex fabric of liberal institutions comes face to face with the fact that the majority, in the name of representing the will of the people, can crush the minority.
To make this agenda effective, outfits like the sangh parivar rush, first and foremost, to control the means with which the will of the people is likely to be constructed: military and political force, propaganda, control of the press, popular education and schools. In this sense, the caste-marked Murli Manohar Joshis of the world are the first crusaders and apostles of such an ideology.
Another striking feature of jihadi Hindutva has been to shift the emphasis from the idea of superficial political equality to the preponderance of economic and technical organisational solutions to social conflicts. The liberal edifice is dismissed as a monopoly of the discussing classes. This logic substitutes the idea of majority with that of power, dismissing arguments about voting percentages as the indulgence of psephologists. They argue that the will of the out-voted is in truth identical with the will of those in power, while the latter invariably claim the ‘majority’ to be on their side. This is what Narendra Modi claimed after his win in the assembly elections recently: He represented the Muslims as well as the Hindus.
To understand the mind of the sangh parivar and jihadi Hindutva is, therefore, to comprehend the witches’ brew of nationalism, democratic majoritarianism and dissolution of the liberal polity into an everlasting discussion of cultural and philosophical-historical commonplaces. Instead of policy, discussion and execution, the nation today is preoccupied overtime in discussing ‘Truth’, whether it be that of the birthplace of Lord Rama or the virtues of banning cow slaughter.
The Congress has little to offer here as an alternative. It has selectively flirted with the very elements that constitute the core of jihadi Hindutva.
As a counter to Hindutva, it offers soft Hindutva. To counter communalism, it offers secular essentialism and cultural neutrality. Its answer to the politics of friend and foe is merely creating its own rogue’s gallery. It hopes to fight identity politics with meaningless internationalism. Worse still, it hopes to match the sangh parivar’s nostalgia about a lost golden age with an indeterminate future. Hindutva’s anti-elitism is countered by lip service to meritocracy.
What the Congress requires is an alternative metaphysics, not an alternative political ideology. It needs to restate the idea of India afresh for itself. In the 20th century, the Mahatma did this for them. The problem with the Congress is that it has ceased to think through the larger question of the idea of India, nor does it have the instrumentality to do so. In contrast, the sangh parivar does have an idea of India, however pernicious and flawed. It needs a metaphysics, not merely because it has turned weedy and unwieldy, but also because its language, symbols and figures of thought have little to do with embeddedness in Indian reality. In the place of an intellectual core, it only has mediocre newspaper columnists, failed journalists, chiffon socialists and a medley of non-descript socialites.
One historical figure that troubles the votaries of jihadi Hindutva more than anyone else is Lord Buddha. Savarkar attributed India’s decline and degeneration to Buddhism. Vivekananda and Aurobindo had a love-hate relation with the Enlightened One. The centre of this discomfort is the Buddha’s denial of the existence of God and of the soul, his ethics of non-violence and universal brotherhood, his rejection of caste and privilege, his indictment of brahminical Hinduism, his distaste for rituals and, most importantly, his all-embracing love for all beings. The Mahatma once represented the best in Buddhism in his life and work, but is now sadly associated with the discredited past of the Congress. So, it doesn’t help the Congress much to resurrect the Mahatma.
Without too great an emphasis on dukkha, the Congress needs to latch on to the central tenets of Buddhism and restate them as their alternative metaphysics. The core of this would be the idea of love and equality. This forms the basis for a lot of new age sects as well. Love sells. Love communicates. Love as care, love as reaching out to people, love as an active interest in the welfare of others has greater power than say a bhagwati jagaran. Love is unselfish. It transcends race, caste and nationality without compromising on a basic core of ethics. That is what the Buddha preached and this is what made the likes of Savarkar deeply uncomfortable.
In doing so, they must not ‘secularise’ this to the extent that love, compassion, empathy, equality and care become mere slogans. The challenge is to keep intact the ethical, moral and emotional core of the message of Buddha while working towards transforming society. After all, the Buddha too was confronted by a similar set of considerations when he proposed his world-view. The jihadi Hindutva of today is not very dissimilar from the karma-kanda driven, priest-dominated faith that the Buddha challenged. He succeeded once. There is no reason he cannot succeed a second time.