The recent Assembly elections in five Indian States have established the pre-eminence of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the country’s polity. Nistula Hebbar spoke to Professor Walter Andersen, Director of the South Asia Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University, as well as the co-author (along with Sridhar Damle) of the well regarded book on the RSS — “The Brotherhood in Saffron” — on how the polls will affect relations between the BJP and the RSS, and whether comparisons between Mr. Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump and late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are fair…
How do you read the mandate for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in the context of national politics?
Professor Walter Andersen: The results provide the Modi government several significant national advantages. Firstly, it insures getting a working majority (with NDA allies) in the Upper House, thus easing the passage of potentially contentious reform measures. Secondly, it establishes Mr. Modi’s dominant position in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and gives the State BJP parties enhanced confidence (and maybe clout) as they face various regional parties. On the issue of clout, the BJP State units can now speak with authority on rewarding/punishing dissidents in their own party and nudging politicians from other parties to back them (look at Manipur and Goa, where the BJP seemed to have no trouble luring other politicians to their side), and that can help when forming a coalition government or keeping coalitions going (as in Kashmir). And finally, it assures the BJP of getting who they want for President of India with minimal bargaining with others.
There have been comparisons between the BJP’s spread nationally and that of the Congress, where earlier the latter was considered the only party with a nation-wide appeal.
While there are still areas where the BJP is weak, it is rapidly spreading all over, as the voting in the Northeast demonstrates. Recall (Prime Minister Narendra) Mr. Modi and the BJP’s pledge in 2014 that one of their major goals was to spread all over the country and to make India Congress-mukt. It seems to becoming what the Congress once was, the only real national party and the arbitrator of local political deals. It also is developing the strong State party leaders that the Congress once had while simultaneously having a strong national leader (comparable to Nehru) who seeks both to strengthen the State parties while asserting himself as the CEO of these leaders. Assisting this effort are the tens of thousands volunteers from the Sangh Parivar, an asset seldom analysed, but very real. I am told U.P. was swarming with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh/Sangh Parivar workers getting people out to vote. On this, it differs very much from the Congress.
How will Modi’s success in U.P. affect his relationship with the RSS and the Sangh leadership?
The RSS worked very hard to ensure the victory that emerged. But there is an inbuilt tension in this success. The RSS does not want to lose its best and brightest to the BJP — and (RSS chief Mohan) Bhagwat has indeed issued public warnings to swayamsevaks to remember that they are first swayamsevaks and that politics is a very different vocation — and presumably the RSS’ “character building” is the morally superior. There is no doubt that Mr. Modi is the most influential figure in the Sangh Parivar and that surely must be of some concern to the RSS leadership as their character building and Hindutva enterprise is in many respects very different from the political objectives of Mr. Modi (e.g. the reservation issue) and the BJP. Fortunately for them, Mr. Modi is a respectful former ‘pracharak’ who still admires what they are trying to do in terms of the nationalist project.
How do you read the BJP’s choice of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh?
The selection of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister is interesting and risky. It represents an effort to unite Hindus for the 2019 general election, but it could impair the ability of the party to expand to the middle. Perhaps most importantly, can he share power and work productively with others, something he has not had to do yet. He has periodically irritated the BJP and the RSS for his go-it-alone style, a failing that makes him somewhat suspect in the view of the collegially oriented Sangh Parivar.
He is a superb orator and seems committed to a mission like Mr. Modi. He is also committed to a fight against graft and corruption and goondaism, a welcome relief for a State like U.P. that has had a
chequered record on this. While he has issued inflammatory statements, he seems to be free of charges of personal corruption. As a bachelor and monk, he is also free of the irritating efforts of relatives trying to benefit from access to power, a point that the party has been emphasising. He can also defer the demand (primarily from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) to immediately construct a Ram Temple and can probably do so. After all who can challenge his Hindutva credentials?
Sometimes it is necessary to keep in mind that Mahatma Gandhi was a better analyst of views of the great mass of Hindus than, for example was Veer Savarkar or even the first sarsanghchalak of the RSS K.B. Hedgewar. Mahatma Gandhi firmly believed that through his own perfection in personal behaviour he could influence the behaviour of others. Yogi Adityanath may not be committed to Gandhi’s ahimsa, though I feel, Mahatma Gandhi on this was something of exception among Hindu religious activists, but the emphasis on incorruptibility is similar. Let us also not forget that Mr. Modi’s original calling was to be a monk and I think there is still about him something of the monk all leading to a certain sympathy each has for the other.
There has been a lot said on comparisons between Modi and U.S. Pesident Donald Trump, and again between Modi and late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. How fair is that comparison?
Let me first talk about comparisons between Mr. Modi and President Trump. I am always suspicious of these kinds of cross-cultural comparisons of leaders. They come from very different backgrounds. More than just cultural differences, Mr. Modi comes from a low caste poor family, while President Trump came from a rich one. Mr. Modi always had service as his mission, I’m not sure if this is what motivated President Trump for whom transactional monetary gains were always pre-eminent. Mr. Modi always thought of himself as part of a mission-like group that was something of a family for him (i.e., the RSS). Mr. Trump has no such larger identifications and only recently has come out as a Republican. Some don’t even think of him as a classic conservative. Where they are alike is that they both think that private enterprise is way to growth (though President Trump thinks this far more than Mr. Modi), both are the virtually unchallenged leaders of their respective parties; both are in a hurry to make their countries “great again” and both are nationalists.
What about comparisons between Modi and Indira Gandhi?
Here, I do think there are comparisons on how they operate, but virtually none at all on their backgrounds. One was very much the aristocratic Kashmiri Brahmin, and that was used to guarantee support from other Brahmins at a time when Brahmins exercised much more influence than they do now. In some ways, Mr. Modi has transformed the BJP and it is no longer an institution dominated by high caste Hindus and Brahmins. Indeed he is leading something of a social revolution from the bottom in the name of nationalism. But he has also used his caste background to mobilize support. Both have reputations of being tough minded, and operate with only a small group that is socially close, and somewhat vindictive. But politics at that level is a tough business and I think you need a certain toughness to survive. They both had such characteristics. Neither “gives up” and both are willing
to take risky moves (demonetarising for one and the Emergency for the other, to name but two). I think both also think they have a special mission and no one else can do what they are attempting to do to make their country richer/stronger/etc. In that sense therefore there is a comparison to be made. This parsing of the background from the style of working in reading the two is important.