Because teamwork is central to Hindu nationalism
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah after the general election victory, New Delhi, May 23, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
IT WAS 2018 and it was Chandrapur. A polluted mining town surrounded by compressed greenery, Chandrapur is the navel on India’s map. I had just visited the family home of the Bhagwats, and had spoken to the younger son Ravindra. The elder, Mohan, lives in nearby Nagpur and heads the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). We spoke about the importance of shakhas. These are the Lego pieces with which the RSS has built its immense machine. Part-time volunteers or swayamsevaks gather daily for an hour on open ground, alternating physical breathe-outs with ideological breathe-ins.
These were early days for researching my book on the BJP before Modi. Eventually titled Jugalbandi, the book looks at the six-decade-long relationship between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani to tell the 100-year story of Hindu nationalism before Modi. I became obsessed with shakhas, but I did what good researchers should not. I began to view video after amateur video of shakha sessions on YouTube. I had by then finished my PhD at Princeton University in political science, and had read most of the books, articles and screeds on Hindu nationalism. This Western training had provided me lens of a certain tint to view the synchronised exercises that were being performed in the video. As I saw a motley crew of a few dozen marching together, then standing one on top of the other in symmetry, I interpreted this as a display of martial facility. Founded in 1925 during pioneering bouts of Hindu-Muslim riots, the RSS had sought to muscle-up the puny Hindu to compete with the manly Muslim. This was the theory my intellectual training had taught me; it made redundant the need to actually go to a shakha.
I watched languidly when suddenly something struck me. In the eventually 200 interviews that I did for my book, I had been struck by how obsessed the BJP and the RSS were with the Third Battle of Panipat. But that history lesson had made no impact on me until that day spent on YouTube. I had a eureka moment. I saw, in a flash, the connection between the physical exercise in the shakha and the intellectual beliefs of Hindu nationalism. I grasped why the BJP wins.
The Third Battle of Panipat was fought in 1761 between the Maratha confederacy and the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali. With the Mughal Empire in decline, the Marathas were the ascendant national power. Had they won at Panipat—86 kilometres north of Delhi—the Marathas could have ended the British presence in India before it ballooned into Empire. The results of the Third Battle of Panipat would shape modern India like no other.
Though Ahmad Shah Abdali was from another country, he was able to garner the support of local Muslim rulers. On the other side, the Marathas failed to entice the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs to fight with them. The other problem was that the Marathas lacked internal unity. Rather than ruled solely by the Peshwas, they were a confederacy of chieftains: the Holkars from Indore, Gaekwads of Baroda, Bhonsles of Satara and the Scindias from Gwalior. This meant that, while the royal guard of the Peshwas supplied 11,000 cavalrymen for the battle, the Scindias alone contributed 10,000 men on horses. The 100,000 Marathas at Panipat on the morning of January 14th, 1761 were not a single army; they were a mishmash of militias.
This was on display when fighting began. As one historian writes: ‘In the absence of a coherent and disciplined force under a unified commander…control over the various Maratha cavalry was at best weak.’ The cavalry disobeyed orders, and attacked without coordinating with the infantry. The result was that 30,000 Marathas died in battle and 10,000 in retreat, while 10,000 went missing and 50,000 were enslaved or slaughtered. Twenty-seven Maratha commanders were killed in combat, along with the Peshwa’s son.
The loss extinguished the dream of a pan-Indian Maratha empire. It also proved a stalemate for the exhausted Abdali, who was forced to leave India. Into this power vacuum crept the British. Amit Shah, no doubt, has memorised this story since he began attending shakhas. As he himself put it in 2019: ‘The Marathas lost this one battle after winning 131, but had to pay a heavy price and we faced 200 years of colonial slavery.’
As I remembered the history lesson of Panipat when I saw those videos, what hit me was not its ‘truth’. Much of this narrative would not meet a historian’s standards, and it reduces a convoluted event to simple religious competition. But what hit me was how the RSS had internalised its own lessons from the disunity at Panipat. The physical part of the RSS training was not just exercise, it was exercise done together. What was being taught was teamwork—whether it was marching synchronously, standing on top of each other in a pyramid, or playing ‘games’ that are associated more with corporate outings. What both the history lesson and the physical exercise highlighted was the need for coordination among Hindus. It is this belief in teamwork, what I call ‘Hindu Fevicol’ in my book, that is central to Hindu nationalism. Of the many reasons why the BJP wins, it is the most ignored.
To understand the relevance of this history lesson to today’s politics, consider the politics of three states in just the last one year: Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Hindu nationalists may be majoritarian, but they are no fascists. They are birthed by elections. Their challenge is to convince enough Hindus to vote as one. Hindu nationalism has spent 100 years nurturing this vote bank
The elections in Maharashtra in October 2019 produced an easy majority for the longstanding BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. But a squabble over the post of chief minister led to tense days in which four parties—the BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—all manoeuvred to reach majority. Every party was terrified of having their MLAs poached, of splitting vertically. Every party, that is, except the BJP. No commentator or politician even considered the possibility of renegade BJP MLAs. This unity was not because the state unit was one happy family. Poonam Mahajan and, as is now clear, Eknath Khadse, were smarting under Devendra Fadnavis’ domination. The BJP was unified despite discord.
Consider next the dynamic in Rajasthan, where Congress’ Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot rebelled against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot earlier this year.
In those conspiratorial weeks, there was talk of a re-alignment in Rajasthan politics. But all through, it didn’t even occur to anyone that the state BJP heavyweight Vasundhara Raje Scindia—who had been kept out of the loop by Modi and Shah—might quit the party along with her loyalist MLAs. This was not because Scindia likes the prime minister. It is because she will not betray her organisational family. Literally: the Sangh Parivar.
Consider finally, Madhya Pradesh. The state Congress had long been a three-corner fight among Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. These are the Holkars, Bhonsales and—the irony!—the Scindias of today’s Panipat. And true to form, it was a Scindia who split the
Congress in March while the BJP stayed united—despite similar tensions between Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his once equal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another example from the same state stretches back five decades, to yet another Scindia: Vasundhara’s mother and Jyotiraditya’s grandmother. ‘Rajmata’ Vijaya Raje Scindia was the star campaigner for the Jana Sangh (the precursor to the BJP) for the 1967 state elections in Madhya Pradesh. But the Congress still won a comfortable majority. What should have been an easy return to power, however, was stymied by infighting of a type that we saw 50 years later in the state Congress. Incensed with the chief minister-designate DP Mishra, Congressman Govind Narayan Singh—the dynastic son of a former Congress chief minister—left the party along with 30 legislators.
Although Vijaya Raje could have laid claim to chief ministership, ‘she told Govind Singh to become the CM in order to form a stable government’. Twenty months later, Singh would rejoin the Congress on condition that he remain chief minister. Vijaya Raje, on the other hand, would remain in the Jana Sangh, continuing to finance and campaign for it, continuing to abjure power. Their contrasting sense of loyalty showcases why the BJP wins and why the Congress loses.
Such an ideological emphasis on teamwork is of course not the only reason the BJP wins today. Various scholars have pointed to Modi’s personal charisma, the use of money power, the unsubtle scapegoating of Muslims, and the progressive reach-out to Tribals, backward castes, and now Dalits. But this emphasis on organisational unity is the glue that holds these multiple explanations together.
This Hindu Fevicol is very much in evidence in the national leadership of the BJP today. I am revealing no secrets when I say that many BJP leaders dislike Modi. Many of BJP, RSS and VHP leaders I interviewed admired Modi’s fidelity to ideology and knack for winning elections. But many found him ruthless, self-aggrandising and solitary. Will they say so in public?
Notice those former partymen who have spoken against Modi (and were happy to tell me so when I interviewed them). I mean the Arun Shouries, the Yashwant Sinhas. They are not from an RSS background. Not for them the history lesson that disunity now will mimic the disunity of the Hindu past. In contrast, those BJP leaders with an RSS upbringing—Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi most plainly—have refused to cry pain despite humiliation at the hands of the new Jugalbandi. However deep their dislike of Modi, they will keep up appearances. Family fights shall remain within the house.
The RSS had internalised its own lessons from the disunity at Panipat. The physical part of the RSS training was not just exercise, it was exercise done together. What was being taught was teamwork, the need for coordination among Hindus
Modi has responded in kind, paying public obeisance to the elders in his parivar. This was palpable a few weeks ago when Advani turned 93. Modi visited him head bowed and called him a “living inspiration”. Advani in turn blessed him. Their acting was not to convey mutual love, of which there is none. They both wanted to signal that family rituals will be adhered to.
The more visible instance of this was when Vajpayee died in August 2018, at the age of 93. Vajpayee had done much to ruin Modi’s career, from trying to get him sacked as Gujarat chief minister after the 2002 riots to trying once again after the BJP’s national election defeat in 2004. Yet, Vajpayee’s funeral was a national event, with the prime minister accompanying the hearse to its final resting place on foot for six kilometres.
Contrast this with the funeral of PV Narasimha Rao in 2004 by the Congress government in power then. Though Vajpayee had done as much to hurt Modi as Rao had done to Sonia Gandhi, that former prime minister’s dead body was denied entry into the party headquarters, was not allowed to be cremated in Delhi, and the funeral pyre was exposed to stray dogs in Hyderabad. This sequence of events is detailed in a biography of Rao, Half-Lion, which I wrote some years ago. When Advani read those pages, he told me: “We also have differences in our party. But we don’t treat each other like that.” This, in a nutshell, is why the BJP won then, why it wins now.
Perhaps the most significant example of this teamwork—this ideological commitment to keep the marriage going even when the love has left—was Vajpayee’s decision not to leave the BJP in the late 1980s. The RSS had ordered the ‘Gandhian socialist’ Vajpayee to step down as party president in 1986. For the next seven years, he was unwanted in his party as Advani rode atop a converted Toyota chariot on his Rath Yatra to Ayodhya. Vajpayee opposed this mixing of religion and politics saying: “The difficulty of the rath [is that] once you ride it you do not feel like getting down from it.”
Other parties sensed Vajpayee’s isolation during this period. VP Singh later claimed that Vajpayee wanted to break away from the BJP. The Congress also came fishing. “Rajiv wanted the Hindu vote, and Vajpayee was the kind of person who may have been able to get it without…(antagonising) Muslims,” a senior Congress leader who met Vajpayee to entice him remembers. But, this leader adds, “(Vajpayee) would listen, and then laugh. He would not say anything…(but) we knew. He was not going to come.” When asked by journalists about leaving Advani’s BJP, Vajpayee would reply, “Jaayein to jaayein kahan? (If one were to leave, where would one go?)” Had Vajpayee left the party in the 1980s, the BJP would not have been able to mainstream itself in the late 1990s and attract the range of coalition allies it did. His decision against divorce was vital to the first bloom of the lotus.
That it was a history lesson which weighed in on his decision to not leave can be seen from a speech Vajpayee gave at the height of his estrangement, in 1988. Vajpayee referred to the battle between the East India Company and the Nawab of Bengal in 1757 which marked the beginning of British rule: “In the Battle of Plassey, as many people were fighting as were standing outside the battlefield and seeing the entertainment. They were waiting to hear the results of the battle. The future of the country was being decided, but the entire country was not involved in this decision.”
The most significant example of this teamwork was Vajpayee’s decision not to leave in the late 1980s. Had he left, the BJP would not have been able to mainstream itself. His decision was vital to the first bloom of the lotus
Vajpayee’s fear of division was not just moored in history; it was anchored in the rifts that were tearing apart the Congress right then. He made a trip to England in the late 1980s to attend an academic conference in Oxfordshire. There he met the Princeton political scientist Atul Kohli who had written at length about the de-institutionalisation of the Congress. “I have read your books,” Vajpayee told him during their evening walks. “That is what we are worried about. That’s why organisation matters so much for us.”
Some readers may argue that the BJP’s teamwork stems not from a reading of history but from alike social backgrounds. But Vajpayee (UP Brahmin), Advani (Amil Sindhi), Narendra Modi (Gujarati Ghanchi) and Amit Shah (Gujarati Baniya) come from diverse castes and parts of India. And the social base of their party has evolved from only upper castes to Tribals, OBCs and even Dalits. In the 2019 General Election, for example, Modi won more Tribal, Dalit and middle-caste votes than his opponents. And the symbolism of India currently having a backward caste prime minister and Dalit president tells you what the ruling dispensation wants to convey about itself.
Besides, even if the BJP were a single-caste leadership, kinship alone is no guarantee of teamwork. Single-caste parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) are as plagued by infighting. Hindu nationalists rely on history, yet again, to grasp this point. To quote the longest-serving RSS chief MS Golwalkar: ‘The person responsible for the defeat of Prithiviraj, the Hindu King at Delhi, by Mohammed Ghori was his own caste relation Jaichand. The person who hounded Rana Pratap from forest to forest was none other than his own caste-man Raja Mansingh. Shivaji too was opposed by men of his own caste. Even in the last-ditch battle between the Hindus and the British at Poona in 1818, it was a fellow caste-man of the Peshwas, Natu by name, who lowered the Hindu flag and hoisted the British flag.’
It is this analysis of history, not the affective bonds of caste or gender, that have made both jugalbandis value teamwork above all else. This is as true of Modi as it is of Amit Shah. By the early 1980s, Shah was visiting shakhas, swallowing the same physical and ideological doses that Vajpayee and Advani had gulped in the 1940s and Modi in the 1960s. Although attending shakhas a thousand kilometres and several decades apart, all four have learnt the same version of history. It is one plagued by the absence of Hindu unity.
So far, I have argued that the secret sauce for the BJP’s victories is the ideology of organisational unity, and that this sauce is made by a certain squeezing of history. Let me conclude with a final, even more provocative point. Why did Hindu nationalism adopt this focus on teamwork? Why care about unity in the first place?
The BJP and RSS are obsessed with the Third Battle of Panipat. All four—Vajpayee, Advani, Modi and Amit Shah—have learnt the same version of history. It is one plagued by the absence of Hindu unity
To answer that question, one must go back to the origins of Hindu nationalism, to a hundred years ago. The triggering event was the introduction (by British colonialists responding to nationalist pressure) of limited elections in the 1920s. Any definition of democracy is founded on free elections. One individual, one vote. But Indians lived lives built around group identities such as caste, religion, region and language. The introduction of elections was thus an experiment. Would democracy transform Indians into voting as individuals rather than groups?
We know what happened. India’s groups now had an incentive to increase numbers, either through re-definition or through coalitions. For instance, the question ‘What is Hinduism?’ morphed into ‘Who is a Hindu?’—the final subtitle of a 1923 essay by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the clearest thinker of Hindu nationalism. Savarkar was closely following the elections of the 1920s and the vote-bank politics it was incentivising.
And the creation of the RSS, and the first national Hindu party, the Mahasabha, were also responses to these elections of the 1920s.
Their challenge now, a hundred years later, is as clear as it was then: to convince enough of India’s Hindus—divided into 3,000 castes, 25,000 sub-castes and 19,000 languages—to vote as one. Hindu nationalism has spent a hundred years nurturing this vote bank—by reaching out to lower castes, celebrating common cultural symbols that can unite Hindus, and fomenting an atavistic fear of Muslims. This vision—both progressive and regressive —makes sense only in the context of democracy and its emphasis on numbers.
Hindu nationalists may be majoritarian, but they are no fascists. They are birthed by elections, the first ingredient of any definition of democracy. This umbilical link is made stronger by the fact that Hinduism provides no religious model of the state, no Caliphate or Papal State, that can supplant democracy. The Hindu state requires elections. That’s why the BJP is so good at winning them.
(This essay draws on Vinay Sitapati’s latest book, Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi (Penguin Viking, 424 pages, Rs 799), to be released on November 23rd)