Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the electoral arm of a Hindu nationalist movement, represents the largest and most organized far-right force on the planet. To understand its rise, we must look to India’s 20th-century history.

In Bharatiya Janata Party’s strongholds in Uttar Pradesh, women from various districts are seen near cutouts of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a rally on December 21, 2021. (Ritesh Shukla / Getty Images)

The rise of the far right is a global phenomenon. Perhaps nowhere is the far right stronger than in the second most populous country on Earth, India. There, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has held power since 2014.

The BJP, however, isn’t simply a party. The vision of the BJP and their cadre organization, the Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is of a militaristic, nuclear-armed path to Indian greatness. It is also a vision in which Muslims have no history and therefore no right to belong in the present.

In an interview for Jacobin Radio’s podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir discusses India’s pressing political problems with Achin Vanaik. They delve into the deep-rooted challenges predating partition and argue that the BJP’s ascent can only be understood in the context of neoliberalism’s rise and the decline of the Congress Party and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Bharatiya Janata Party

Daniel Denvir

To start off, who is Prime Minister Narendra Modi? And what is his Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP?

Achin Vanaik

Narendra Modi began his association with the RSS — or what’s called the National Volunteer Organization — as a young kid. And he was very much indoctrinated in their ideology. In his late teens, he became a full-time member of the RSS and slowly climbed up the organization’s hierarchy.

Transitioning to the BJP during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Modi furthered his ascent through the ranks, with the RSS providing personnel to the BJP, including him, for various roles, notably during the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. He was later appointed as the chief minister of Gujarat under the BJP, particularly gaining prominence after the 2002 pogrom against Muslims, in which he played a significant role. His popularity among RSS supporters surged as he won successive elections in Gujarat, leading to increased favor within the RSS base just ahead of the 2014 general elections.

In 2013, Modi was appointed as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, overshadowing senior leaders, who held prominent positions under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This marked a notable moment in Modi’s political career.

Your second question was about the Bharatiya Janata Party itself. The BJP serves as the electoral arm of the Sangh Parivar, a network of associations and organizations associated with the RSS, its parent body. This network also encompasses the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, which has branches globally, including in the US.

It includes a wide array of organizations, including the Women’s Wing, the Trade Union Federation, and a group known as the Bajrang Dal, or Soldiers of Hanuman, which could be likened to a protection squad. In its earlier iteration, from 1951 to 1977, the electoral arm was known as the Jana Sangh. Then in 1977, it joined a ruling coalition that ousted Indira Gandhi from power. Jana Sangh was expelled from the Janata Party in 1979 due to its ties with the RSS.

Since 1980, it has rebranded itself as the Bharatiya Janata Party — BJP — and steadily ascended to prominence in Indian politics. The BJP’s first rise to power coincided with the decline of the Congress party, leaving a void that the BJP eventually capitalized on.

In this vacuum, the BJP’s path to power followed that of three other centrist parties, similar to Congress, which led coalitions on three separate occasions. However, none of these coalitions managed to complete a full term in office.

After the Congress party’s decline both electorally and in government, it’s replaced by three different coalitions lead by centrist parties. However, none of these parties manage to stabilize themselves. It’s only after this cycle that the BJP comes to power, leading a coalition in 1998. It then falls in 2004.

You have ten years of congress rule leading a coalition. And then in 2014, it comes to power as a single party majority, but with a vote share of only 31 percent. Due to India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, there’s a disproportion between the vote share and the number of seats in parliament.

However, historically, parties with single-party majority rule, like Congress, typically garnered a vote share ranging between 41 percent and 49 percent. In contrast, in 2014, the BJP secured power with a slim majority, winning only 31 percent of the votes. This was mainly due to its dominance in the significant states of Hindi-speaking Central and North India.

And then in 2019, it increased its vote share from 31 percent to 37 percent and got a substantial majority in seat terms. It’s the concentrated character of its vote in the north, west, and center of India that accounts for this. Even with a smaller vote share, it’s had a substantial majority.

Having said that, we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of hegemony that it has established. And the popularity of many of the themes of its ideology.

Hindu Nationalism

Daniel Denvir

BJP supports something called Hindutva, a form of Hindu nationalism that’s often translated into English as “Hinduness.” What is the Hindutva that it seeks to build? And how have organizations like the RSS built so much power with which to advance what you describe as a form of fascism?

Achin Vanaik

I call it a force with fascist characteristics. There’s a debate in the Indian context about whether the BJP is another variant or form of fascism or whether it has fascist characteristics. But either way, it’s a very ugly far-right force with obvious fascist characteristics and it represents a very big danger.

Hindutva literally means Hinduness. You’re correct when you point that out. And the argument is basically that Hinduness is the essence of India and is the essence of Indian nationalism.

That is to say, Indian nationalism is founded on Hinduness, and therefore it’s essentially a Hindu nationalism. As in many other countries, there is an essentialist ethnic-based nationalism — a religious nationalism — which is supposed to be its core. How, exactly, did this notion expand and develop?

Well, there have always been competing nationalisms. During the national movement period, another current known as composite nationalism, was led by the Congress party. But there have always been significant undercurrents of sympathy toward the notion of the Hindu essence of India.

There’s a debate in the Indian context about whether the BJP is another variant or form of fascism or whether it has fascist characteristics.

Hindutva is not to be confused with Hinduism. Hindu is a political construct. Hinduism is, of course, a religion and like all religions, it lends itself to political construction, and the shaping of political movements and struggles. The RSS was founded in 1925, drawing inspiration from Italian and German fascism. Until the mid-1980s, it did not have significant electoral influence.

However, they wielded significant influence in the northwest and central regions of India, ingraining themselves deeply within civil society. Their success largely hinges on their extensive grassroots presence, addressing various societal needs and issues across towns and cities.

And now, of course, in the last two decades or so, they have expanded even into villages, and so on. Cultivating their base has been pivotal, boasting an ideologically committed and disciplined following akin to the traditional strength of the Left. Despite lacking electoral prowess, they have persisted, drawing parallels to the resilience of leftist movements during challenging periods — like the interwar era in Europe.

They stood out as the sole entity to have extensive grassroots organization. When comparing the RSS and its affiliated groups to other far-right movements globally, several distinctions emerge, which help to explain their strength.

One is longevity. Is there any other far-right force in Europe or in North America or anywhere else that has had a continuous existence of over ninety years?

Second, nowhere else in the world do you have far-right forces with fascist characteristics — or whatever you want to call them — that are so deeply wed to the grassroots. They have unparalleled penetration into civil society. Their cadre implementation is profound.

Even during the Congress hegemony from 1947 to the late 1960s, the RSS boasted a stronger cadre base in terms of numbers. Also, the RSS has spawned numerous affiliated organizations, similar to movements like Hamas in Egypt, expanding their reach and influence. This broad implantation has enabled them to address secular needs, development projects, disaster relief efforts, and cultural initiatives, giving them a unique advantage in Indian society.

It was able to leverage this advantage unlike any other force in India, except for the left parties in certain regions. Both the far left and mainstream left have historically shared a common trait with the far right: a strong cadre-based structure.

The Congress party had activists during the national movement period, but its ideology afterward was a mishmash. It never had cadres — as distinct from supporters — and the structure of leadership connected to patronage and clientelist network. So, the BJP has grown immensely. Let me give you some rough figures to give you a sense of its size.

The BJP says that it has 180 million members, which makes it larger than the Communist Party of China. However, membership can be acquired simply by giving a missed call, leading to tens of millions of passive members. Nevertheless, this indicates the popularity of even passive membership for the BJP.

The party has around eight hundred NGOs doing work of all kinds. It has thirty-six affiliates, including the largest trade union federation and student federation in the country. Additionally, it maintains a notable women’s wing and oversees the VHP, managing cultural and religious affairs both domestically and abroad.

The RSS is estimated to have anything between three to five million members. It has a host of full-timers. It has something like probably around sixty thousand branches in different cities and towns rural areas.

Daniel Denvir

That’s absolutely enormous when you consider that it’s a cadre organization.

Achin Vanaik

Yes, the RSS acts as the backbone for many of its affiliates. It provides full-timers to oversee operations elsewhere — in trade unions and student organizations, for example. Its hierarchical structure ensures obedience from top to bottom. This allows for effective supervision and coordination.

And that’s really the great source of its strength. It has a significant number of full-timers, though the exact number is unclear. Even those who are not full-timers are active members — the RSS demands their involvement. It also boasts the largest troll army, with regular weekly meetings. The RSS has expertly adapted to advancements in communication technology — it’s very good at spreading its message. There’s much more to say about its recent activities, but I’ll stop here to give you a sense of its strength.

“Cultural Exclusivisms”

Daniel Denvir

The Indian National Congress was, for decades, after independence, the dominant force in Indian politics, but today it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. You write that we can’t understand the BJP’s new hegemony without first taking account of how the old Congress hegemony worked and how it then came undone.

I want to talk about that a little and to start off, can you explain what was the Congress model for hegemony after independence, starting under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who governed until 1964?

Achin Vanaik

The hegemony of the Congress party after independence was primarily due to its leadership role in the national movement. Unlike the Congress, the RSS never actively participated as an organization in the national movement — its primary focus was on Muslims rather than the British. The Congress’s success post-independence was largely due to the prestige it had gained during that period.

Secondly, Gandhi and the leaders of the Congress party had built a network of support among rural leaders and the rural elite, which sustained the party for a decade and a half after independence. However, the Congress lacked a coherent ideology that could foster ideologically committed and disciplined cadres that the RSS had, because its ideology was something of a mishmash.

The Congress’s ideology was characterized by a blend of socialism, capitalism, a loose interpretation of secularism aligned with composite nationalism, nonalignment in foreign policy, and a commitment to democratic principles such as elections and basic civil liberties.

The Congress party’s lasting hegemony until the late 1960s, even after Nehru’s death in 1964, can be attributed to its credibility, which stemmed from its multifaceted ideology. However, it faced a break in 1967.

Its longevity can also be attributed to its esteemed reputation, the extensive network of patronage and clientelism it cultivated and the noticeable improvement in living standards during the initial decades of Indian independence. Under colonial rule, living conditions were very bad, but from 1947 to the late 1960s, there was around a 3.5 percent growth rate, the establishment of a public sector, infrastructure development, and increased government employment opportunities.

The Congress party also sustained its developmentalist efforts, including limited land reforms, infrastructure development, and increased government employment opportunities. However, by the late 1970s, it became evident that the party would struggle to achieve its developmental objectives.

The Congress party faced a significant challenge as the rural elite began to shift their allegiance toward regional parties, marking the onset of the regionalization of Indian politics. This shift was evident in the emergence of non-Congress parties at the regional level, particularly noticeable in the 1967 elections. Consequently, the Congress lost its stronghold in both national and provincial elections, relying instead on access to state power and patronage systems to maintain its influence.

Daniel Denvir

Congress ultimately moved from a developmentalist economic program to neoliberalism. How did that play out historically? Did Congress and the BJP’s neoliberal consensus help to create space for the BJP’s ascendance?

Achin Vanaik

India’s economic ideology initially mirrored a third-world version of Keynesianism, characterized by state-led developmentalism. But unlike countries like South Korea, India’s efforts under Nehru’s leadership failed to establish a successful developmentalist state. This failure coincided with the emergence of a rising bourgeoisie that was seeking to further strengthen its position.

The pressure exerted by the rising bourgeoisie, compounded by global changes, pushed India toward a neoliberal trajectory — as it did in other countries. Neoliberalism is best understood as a direction rather than a fixed state, with nations moving in this direction at varying speeds and with different starting points. From the late 1970s onward, countries like the United States, under Reaganism, and the UK, under Thatcherism, embraced neoliberal policies, marking a shift away from Keynesianism due to its perceived failures.

The shift toward neoliberalism in various countries was facilitated by serious defeats for the working-class. In the United States, the defeat of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] and in the UK, the miners’ strike marked pivotal moments. In India, the move toward neoliberalism gained momentum after the 1982 defeat of the massive textile workers strike in Mumbai.

This economic shift can only succeed when the main opposition party also embraces it. In the United States, there’s typically initial opposition, as seen in the struggle within the Democratic Party, such as Jesse Jackson’s defeat, paving the way for the rise of the New Democrats under [Bill] Clinton. Similarly, in the UK, after Bennism was thwarted, New Labour emerged under [Tony] Blair. In India, however, there wasn’t an internal struggle within the Congress party; instead, the party itself — not an opposition party — led the country toward neoliberalism. During the 1980s, the BJP had little electoral significance.

In India, the move toward neoliberalism gained momentum after the 1982 defeat of the massive textile workers strike in Mumbai.

In the ’80s, the BJP’s focus was intent on developing itself through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. But the BJP recognized that if it was going to be a significant player, it had to get the ruling class on its side. Consequently, the BJP, along with the Sangh Parivar, shifted away from its previous stance of economic nationalism and aligned itself with the neoliberal trend.

The neoliberal drift initiated by Congress gains momentum after 1991. However, it did lack initial consensus from the BJP. After its acceleration, virtually all parties, except for the mainstream left, embraced the neoliberal direction.

When the BJP comes to power in 1998, it’s very much part of the neoliberal consensus. The mainstream left tried to fight against it, but West Bengal, in order to advance industrialization, made serious concessions to it. It caught itself in a trap in which its rhetoric was anti-neoliberal, but its practice was not.

From the late ’70s onward, a global trend emerged, characterized by what I’ve termed, following Eric Hobsbawm, the politics of cultural exclusivisms. This phenomenon took various forms, including ethnicity, religion, and nationalism, either independently or in combination.

Across the former first world, examples include racism and xenophobia in Europe. In the former second world, nationalist irredentism in ex-Yugoslavia and the ex-USSR were prevalent. Religious extremism is global, spanning Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist extremism. And of course, Israel demonstrates an extremist form of Judaism.

However, the stability of these right-wing expressions hinges on the unique characteristics of national right-wing politics and ideologies. The failures of developmentalism led to significant frustrations, accompanied by ideological disarray and widening inequalities in income, wealth, and, consequently, power — which eroded democracy. These factors collectively fueled widespread frustration and anger. This shaped the arena for political maneuvering in each country to capitalize on and channel this discontent.

And in the last ten years, you’ve seen this primarily taking the form of right-wing and far-right authoritarian populisms.

The Center Cannot Hold

Daniel Denvir

To what extent did Congress’s emphasis on dynastic rule undermine its own hegemony, or at least facilitate its denial of the crisis of its hegemony as it substituted increasingly less popular family members for any sort of coherent ideology?

Achin Vanaik

In the Indian case, there was no significant opposition within the Congress party, which embraced neoliberal policies. Unlike parties with robust organizational structures, the Congress party’s leadership, the dynastic family and the coterie around the leadership, essentially dictated the shift toward neoliberalism.

Unsurprisingly, this created considerable disillusionment and unhappiness with the Congress party. Now, the important question is this: Why couldn’t the Congress party maintain a coherent organization? Well, part of the answer lies in its transition toward a patronage and clientelism-based network.

With the loss of its rural elite structure, which previously controlled the lower ranks, it lacked coherence. Instead, it harbored various factions, pacified only by the prospect of accessing power within the Congress. Given these factional divides and the absence of a strong unified ideology, the family — under Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi — has had to serve as the arbitrator. However, with the decline of the Congress structure, this role has become increasingly challenging.

So we may be seeing not just the end of the dynasty, but also a big decline toward the Congress party becoming totally insignificant. Given its history and longevity, I’m not going to predict that it’s going to disappear into oblivion. But what I can say is that the Congress party is classically a kind of centrist party, much like the onetime centrist parties of Latin America.

These parties played a pivotal role in the post–World War II development of their respective societies, advocating strategies such as import-substituting industrialization. Much like the Congress party, they comprised both left and right factions within their ranks. However, as their developmental projects faltered in Latin America over time, these centrist parties underwent significant transformations.

We’ve witnessed a similar pattern with various centrist parties across Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and beyond. Many of these parties either diminished in size, transformed into explicitly right-wing entities from their prior bourgeois centrism, or faded into obscurity entirely. In the case of the Congress party, it has undergone a transformation into a smaller, explicitly right-wing faction, although it hasn’t completely disappeared yet.

Daniel Denvir

A key moment in the BJP’s rise was the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. It was a massive Hindu nationalist movement launched in the late ’80s that resulted in the demolition of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid mosque, which Hindu nationalists asserted was the birthplace of the deity Ram.

Explain this campaign and how Hindu nationalists used it to mobilize Indians around Hindu politics and to build BJP power.

Achin Vanaik

Well, the point is that this was the single largest, most sustained popular movement since the days of the independent struggle.

It lasted for years. It was a massive movement in North, West, Central, and some support even from the South and East. This movement galvanized the cadre force and connected them, along with other sympathizers, to ordinary people in various ways. They exhibited remarkable creativity in establishing connections with ordinary people, advocating for the construction of a Ram temple at the site.

This period saw an abundance of religious processions and caravans, supported by a significant amount of literature and the popularity of a TV series on Ram. It provided ordinary people with opportunities to engage with the movement.

People could get involved in all sorts of ways. For example, by collecting consecrated bricks at the site for the construction of a future Ram temple. These sorts of initiatives encouraged people to contribute in whatever way — say, by consecrating the bricks or by assisting in the process. It conveyed the message that individuals were actively involved in meaningful endeavors for the cause.

Or people could be asked to “please make some rotis and parathas” for those that are traveling by foot over long distances. Households would then prepare them. In other words, the campaign connected people; it played on religious sentiment. There’s a distinction, however, between the average consciousness of those who supported the movement and the leading elements, which include members and cadres of the Sangh Parivar, the RSS, and the VHP. These organizations played a significant role in the campaign, particularly due to their cultural influence. What do I mean by this?

The average consciousness of most Hindu supporters for this movement was something like this: “You know, there is a mosque there. We are not saying destroy the mosque, but what is wrong if there’s another temple built there?” So, there was already support for the idea of building the Ram temple.

However, what ultimately determines the final goal and outcome is not this average consciousness. It’s the consciousness of the leading elements, which always leans toward destroying the mosque because what’s deemed more important than building is destruction. And ultimately, that’s the outcome.

What we’re witnessing is the most remarkable construction of anger and grievance where there is no valid basis for such sentiments.

This is something that people like [Vladimir] Lenin understood very clearly when he emphasized that the direction of any movement is determined not by the average consciousness, but by the consciousness of the most active elements. Also, note that this is a construction of a mass movement around an issue from the sixteenth century. It’s a constructed issue.

In fact, you have this extraordinary situation in which you have large parts of the Indian diaspora who have traveled to the United States and want to stay in the United States for their entire lives and the lives of their children — people who have no intention of settling back in India — who are jumping onto this movement and saying that Muslims in India are guilty of opposing the movement.

It’s quite an extraordinary state of affairs. Everybody seems to have forgotten that, in fact, in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Hindu temples were never open to all Hindus due to the caste system. The overwhelming majority of Hindu temples were for some particular sect or caste.

All this has been forgotten. What I’m suggesting is that what we’re witnessing is the most remarkable construction of anger and grievance where there is no valid basis for such sentiments. The fact that they have succeeded in creating this fervor is indicative of their success. It’s much easier to mobilize a large movement around something that is universally acknowledged as a historical wrong, rather than one that is artificially constructed.

Constructing Hindu Nationalism

Daniel Denvir

To what degree has the RSS and the BJP had to remake Hinduism to suit their politics? How does their envisioned version of Hinduism, as a cohesive and unified religion, differ from its historical reality?

Achin Vanaik

Well, you see, there have been different understandings of what Hinduism is. One argument is that Hinduism has always been characterized by what’s called a high tradition and a low tradition, representing philosophical and practical aspects respectively. This duality mirrors similar distinctions found in other religions like Islam or Christianity.

That has been one view. A second view has been that Hinduism is a mosaic with many different practices, but there are a few singular things that cut across this mosaic and ensure that this mosaic fabric remains stable. That’s the second view.

The third position which I hold to, which I think is most accurate, is that Hinduism is actually made up of a congeries of different sects and practices, which never knew anything about each other and which had no real connection.

The term “Hinduism” as a religion emerged much later in history, not before the common era or even up to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, according to respected historians. The word “Hindu” as a self-identification for people in India truly gained prominence in the sixteenth century.

Historically, the term “Hindu” is derived from the word “Sindhu,” which referred to the land beyond the Sindhu River, originating from Western Asia. Over centuries, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, various factors contributed to the construction of the notion of a singular religion. The RSS has capitalized on this historical evolution, promoting, and shaping it according to its agenda.

Today, Hindutva entails identifying with a religion known as Hinduism, which encompasses diverse practices and beliefs, and accepting that one belongs to it.

Daniel Denvir

Is it in part a form of auto-orientalism?

Achin Vanaik

Well, in a sense, it has connections with what you’re saying, because the idea of a singular Hinduism or Hindu religion was influenced by European conceptions of religion, which were later imposed on the Indian context. Also, it was constructed within the Indian national movement, particularly during the period when a stronger sense of Hinduness emerged.

Remember earlier I talked about composite nationalism. Well, what is colonialism? Colonialism represents a defeat for those who are colonized. In the nineteenth century, you begin to have a number of Indians who are confronted with the reality that they have been defeated by colonialism.

They have to have a sense of self-worth — elites have a sense of self-worth. How do they get this sense of self-worth? How do they have a sense of themselves in the face of the defeat of colonialism? Well, they can’t have it at the material level, and they can’t have it at the technological and military level that the British had.

In what area can they talk about themselves as having a sense of self-worth and a superiority that the British do not have? It could only be in the area of culture, religion, and spirituality, and that, therefore, is where you have the beginning of the construction of this idea: of Hinduism as a remarkably tolerant religion, a common religion, a religion that did not have the same kind of propositional truth as the semitic religions and therefore does not have the horrors of  crusades and jihads and so on.

We must always remember that before you can have a political nationalism, you have to have some kind of cultural nationalism. During the national movement period, different forms of nationalism emerged, each with its own perspective on Indian identity. One strand, advocated by the RSS and supported by leaders like Sardar Patel, emphasized the unity of Hindus. Another championed the idea of composite nationalism, celebrating India’s diversity as its defining characteristic. This approach highlighted India’s historical unity amidst its diverse cultures and religions.

But those who talk about a unity of diversity then have to point out or locate the source of this unity in diversity. And because it is supposed to be very, very old, that means it must predate the coming of Islam in India, which arrives from the seventh and eighth centuries onward. And therefore, it tends to imply or explicitly state that it is rooted in the richness of Hinduism, particularly Brahmanical Hinduism.

You can see the construction that’s emerging here. This construction gets accelerated during the national movement period and continued after independence.

Consider this simple example: in the 1931 census conducted by the British, tribal populations were categorized as animists. However, in the first census after India gained independence, anthropologists classified tribal populations under the category of Hindus. This illustrates a process of Hinduization. While Hinduism is not a singular entity but rather a collection of sects, this does not prevent these sects from perceiving themselves as having a unified identity. Various pressures and influences contribute to this, providing individuals with a sense of belonging and support within a larger religious framework. In other words, religious identity is constructed.

The “Sleeping Beauty” Concept of Nationhood

Daniel Denvir

In a way, there seems to be a religious parallel here to the history of nationalism in terms of the rise of the modern nation-state alongside colonialism seeming to require that decolonization take the form of anti-colonial nationalism. Similarly, it seems almost that Hinduism has to become this coherent unitary thing that it never was in order to exist in a world where religious identity is in many ways shaped by monotheistic religions.

Achin Vanaik

Here, I’d say that the crucial question revolves around nationalism and the concept of the nation itself. Nationalism, undeniably, is a construct, as is the nation. However, there exists a minority that argues that the nation and nationalism are a modern construction.

It’s obviously true on one hand because it belongs to the era of mass politics, which is something that’s modern. The nation-state is a form of the state that is also modern. But there is dispute among scholars about whether the nation is old or new. The nation is cultural and political. We all agree. But there’s a difference between the modernists who insist that in fact the political dimension of the nation is much more important than the cultural dimension.

In contrast to those who emphasize the cultural dimension over the national one, there are varying interpretations of nationalism, typically categorized as ethnic or civic. However, I prefer to view it differently. All nations construct a narrative of their past. Civic nationalism tends to be more inclusive and tolerant compared to essentialist nationalism. Basically, there are two perspectives on nationalism.

One perspective views nationalism as a historical inheritance, leading to disputes over who are the rightful heirs and what constitutes the true inheritance — whether it be blood, religion, ethnicity, language, or customs. The alternative viewpoint sees nationalism as a present and future phenomenon, shaped by contemporary society. In this view, nationalism is what we collectively create. This perspective allows for diverse interpretations of national identity, as seen in countries like the United States and Australia, which are characterized by multiculturalism and various ways of identifying as American or Australian.

But if you have an essentialist concept, what you’re basically saying is that this aspect is the most important — this is the only way in which you can feel truly Indian. “And if you don’t understand this, and if you don’t accept this, then you are in danger of weakening us and we will not tolerate it.”

And that message reflects the stance taken by an Islamic state like Bangladesh toward its Hindu minority, or Pakistan toward its Ahmadiyya community, considered non-Muslim. Similarly, it echoes sentiments from groups like the RSS in India toward its Muslim minority.

This mindset is evident in other contexts, such as Germans questioning the Germanness of certain groups based on Aryanness, or Margaret Thatcher expressing concerns about England’s culture being overwhelmed by Asians. It also mirrors the perspective of some white nationalists in the United States who view Mexican immigrants or black Americans as not authentically white — although that’s a declining force in the United States, I would assume. But, of course, Hindu nationalism is expanding in the Indian context.

What’s happening is called a “sleeping beauty” concept of nationhood. In the Indian context, the concept of the sleeping beauty draws parallels from the well-known story. In this narrative, the slumbering beauty represents Hinduism, which has been dormant for a considerable period. Just as in the fairy tale where Prince Charming awakens Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, the forces of Hindutva aim to awaken Hinduism through political action and advocacy. The slumber of Hinduism is attributed to historical factors, emphasizing the role of Muslim rulers such as the Turks, Afghans, Persians, and Mughals.

By portraying Muslims as the “evil witch” responsible for putting Hinduism to sleep, this ideology seeks to mobilize sentiment against them. It presents a form of organic nationalism. It asserts the existence of a timeless Hindu identity rooted in fixed cultural characteristics that can be revitalized. And this organic nationalism, incidentally, like you implied earlier, actually comes from the nineteenth-century German romantic tradition — it was imported into India. So ironically enough, the views of the RSS and those who support Hindu nationalism don’t even originate from India — they are adapted and adopted from the West!

Daniel Denvir

Which requires this massive rewriting of Indian history. And now the BJP is literally attempting to rewrite that history.

Achin Vanaik

Yeah, and the first speech that Modi gave when he became prime minister in 2014 was to talk about a thousand years of foreign rule. So, in other words, he’s not interested in the British; they didn’t come in the sixteenth century.

Yes, the East India Company came in the sixteenth century, but Modi is making it about a thousand years ago because he wants to indict, above all, the key foreigners who invaded in the past. But India was never a united country — it was just a conglomerate of many different things. India is a name that we give to a part of the world which had many different kingdoms. So, you see, what’s happening is history is being rewritten.

Daniel Denvir

So the BJP and RSS, they think of the sort of outside occupation of India as dating back even before the Mughals?

Achin Vanaik

The Mughals come later. Before them, you had the Afghans, the Turks, and the Persians. Different rulers came from different parts.

The Legacy of Partition

Daniel Denvir

Where’s the primordial free India? When did that exist?

Achin Vanaik

Before the Muslims arrived, there were parts of India where they didn’t come under the rule of kings but arrived due to trade. Some of the earliest Muslims arrived as a result of trade between Arabia and the western coast of India, in places like Kerala. Similarly, Christians arrived in India before they reached Western Europe, around the third or fourth century CE.

Hindutva argues that religions indigenous to India, like Buddhism, are connected to Hinduism. So, they are considered acceptable. Those whose motherland is India and whose religion is not indigenous to India are not perceived as truly Indian. For example, Buddhists and Jains are accepted as indigenous, so they don’t face as many issues, unlike Sikhs and others.

The BJP also has issues with communists, who are perceived to have a foreign religion and are seen as not owing allegiance to the Indian nation due to their internationalism.

They do have issues with Muslims and Christians, although to a lesser extent with the latter, as the Christian population is only about 2.5 percent. The Muslim population, which was around one-third before partition, is now around 14 percent. The BJP also has issues with communists, who are perceived to have a foreign religion and are seen as not owing allegiance to the Indian nation due to their internationalism.

Daniel Denvir

Speaking of the partition, to what extent was the 1947 partition, which ended British rule and created India and Pakistan, a foundational moment of transition from colonialism to a postcolonial era? This event, which resulted in the deaths of between one and two million people and displaced many more millions, marked a significant shift and set the stage for a postcolonial India characterized by repeated acts of communal violence.

Achin Vanaik

It was indeed a very significant event, but its outcome was not inevitable. The primary responsibility for the partition, contrary to much of the conventional narrative in India, must be attributed to the Congress party. The Congress was not willing to accept a looser confederation, which Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of Pakistan, was prepared to consider.

Instead, the Congress aimed for a more centralized and united India where it would hold dominance. While blame for the partition is certainly shared, in my view, it primarily rests with the Congress party. This is not to absolve Jinnah of his communal appeals, which he later used to strengthen his bargaining power, but such actions cannot justify the partition.

He was always more open to the idea of a confederation, but deeply concerned about the situation for Muslims in a Hindu-majority country. Ultimately, this concern led to the tragedy of partition, which is often blamed on Pakistan, not just by the BJP or the RSS but also by many self-proclaimed liberals. This has become a significant source of anger, although it’s unfair in many respects.

The partition has indeed been a defining aspect of postindependence India. Initially, it did not immediately lead to communal violence due to the shock of the events and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi — which actually bought some time. However, in 1948, there was a massive pogrom in the province of Hyderabad related to the question of unifying India. After 1948, communal riots became more significant, particularly in the early 1960s.

Disturbingly, there has been the participation of police and paramilitary forces in assaults on Muslims in independent India. Paul Brass, an American scholar, provided statistics from official Indian sources up to the late ’80s, indicating that over 75 percent of victims in communal violence were Muslims, despite constituting only 13 to 14 percent of the population.

Since then, obtaining statistics with a religious breakdown of victims in communal violence has become challenging. However, it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of victims of communal violence are Muslims. This doesn’t negate the occurrence of communal incidents where a significant number of Hindus have died or cases where such assaults have been led by individuals from the Muslim community.

Daniel Denvir

For the Hindu right, what is the political function of communal violence? When we think about mass riots anywhere, we tend to assume that they have a kind of political function. They have a spontaneous and almost pre- or extra-political character, but you write that that’s not exactly right when it comes to communal violence in India.

Achin Vanaik

Not at all. Communal violence always requires preparation. It requires a trigger and requires a follow through. An environment of tension and fear is deliberately created. Triggers can be constructed or arise from minor incidents, serving as sparks. Mobilization by certain groups often follows. The notion of spontaneity versus organization is misleading, as even seemingly spontaneous events involve some level of organization. Large-scale communal riots are not spontaneous; they’re often orchestrated by political entities like the RSS and BJP for political gain.

Hence, there’s a political agenda behind them. Studies by researchers like Stephen Wilkinson have highlighted that most communal riots targeting Muslims occur in states with a moderate Muslim population — not too small, but not too large either.

Communal riots are often closely tied to upcoming elections. Historically, these riots have been more common in smaller towns. They also serve as opportunities for traders to eliminate competitors or seize property through force for personal gain. In other words, there are material benefits that can accrue from communal riots for those on the winning side.

In the past five to six years, there’s been a notable shift compared to earlier times. For instance, in 2002, I was part of a fact-finding group that investigated an incident where Narendra Modi seemed to exploit communal tensions for political gain. Following the burning of a train coach carrying Hindus, which itself was a serious provocation, Modi made statements that appeared to justify and rationalize the ensuing violence. The bodies of the victims were deliberately brought to Gujarat’s capital city to incite anger. During our fact-finding mission, individuals facing persecution shared accounts suggesting that Modi had encouraged Hindus to express their anger. These findings were later documented in our report and shared with others.

He made statements like “to every action, there is a reaction” — a kind of justification for the pogrom that took place. The violence saw places being set ablaze using gas cylinders that had been collected and prepared in advance.

These mobs were organized systematically. Despite the tens of thousands of displaced Muslims living in desperate camps, Modi visited and made derogatory remarks, referring to the camps as “baby-producing centers;” attacking Muslims for their supposedly greater fertility and having many wives and therefore many children and all this nonsense. And he gets away with all of these things.

Despite the tens of thousands of displaced Muslims living in desperate camps, Modi visited and made derogatory remarks, referring to the camps as ‘baby-producing centers.’

During this period, the RSS didn’t need major communal riots, as it wasn’t in the interest of capital, which dislikes disruptions to business. But what has changed is the normalization and banalization of micro-level attacks on Muslims. There are assaults on Muslims here, there, everywhere. And assaults on others who are seen as enemies — rationalists, for example — and overwhelmingly, the assailants get away with it. Collaboration by the police, local judiciary, and other authorities is common in these cases.

People tend to forget that even after the successful 2002 program for the BJP and Modi, he was not permitted to enter the United States. However, this isn’t surprising considering the pragmatic nature of international relations, where countries, regardless of their democratic status, prioritize their interests. I won’t delve into that, but I’ll highlight three crucial events that have significantly contributed to the BJP’s growing popularity.

Please note that these three pivotal events are all symbolic of political violence in various ways, and they have played a crucial role in expanding the support base of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar beyond their traditional followers.

Firstly, the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid. Secondly, the 1998 Pokhran nuclear test explosions, which declared India a nuclear-armed state. And thirdly, the 2002 Gujarat riots against Muslims, which propelled Modi to greater popularity within Gujarat and the RSS, eventually leading to his candidacy for prime ministerial position within the Sangh Parivar. These events are significant in the RSS Hindutva lexicon, but beyond that as well — as expressions of the path toward greater strength. It’s an extraordinary state of affairs.

Non-Alignment Posturing

Daniel Denvir

A major theme for the BJP, and I suppose for Congress as well, has been to make India a strong country. This is visible from the failed war against China in 1962, recurrent conflicts with Pakistan, ongoing tensions in Kashmir, efforts to combat Naxalite Maoist insurgents in the eastern regions, India’s successful development of nuclear capabilities, resistance to Pakistani proposals for denuclearization in South Asia, and recent strides in space exploration.

What is the concept behind postindependence India needing to be a strong, perhaps even masculinized nation, which stands in contrast to the image of India — particularly as perceived from the West — symbolized by Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance?

Achin Vanaik

First, you’re right in saying that the vision that guided Nehru and his successors is different from that of Gandhi. Gandhi didn’t really think much about international affairs or foreign policy, apart from seeing himself as a kind of exemplar. His approach to fostering composite nationalism involved advocating for Hindu-Muslim unity, exemplified by his support for certain Muslim factions in India during the Khilafat movement, which sought to restore the caliph in Turkey after the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire.

Now, that’s a pretty odd statement to make. It indicates that for Gandhi, what was important was to forge an Indian unity on the basis of existing religious identities rather than on the basis of a secular -cutting-across of these religious identities. He certainly wasn’t bothered about the fact that although India was struggling for independence from Britain, so too were many countries in the Arab world, and many countries wanted to get rid of the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here he was, supporting the establishment of the caliph.

So his own view on international affairs was both limited and partial. But he wasn’t an advocate for the kind of aggressive, highly militarized Indian nationalism that emerged later on. Nehru, on the other hand, was a proponent of and one of the primary spokespersons for the Non-Aligned Movement.

The most important thing to understand about the Third World Non-Aligned Movement, is that there was not really such a thing as the Third World in the movement. This is because, within the members of the Third World Non-Aligned Movement, there were a number of countries that were considerably advanced and could not really be called “Third World.”

There was no real thing called “non-alignment,” and there was no such thing as the movement. Non-alignment was basically a posture, in many ways hypocritical, adopted by the national bourgeoisies of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa and elsewhere to maximize their maneuvering space — even though most of these countries were aligned with either the West or the East. India was less aligned, so it could pretend to be the most non-aligned of the non-aligned!

In that era of non-alignment, India often relied more on the Soviet Union for support in the UN and elsewhere, especially when facing criticism for its actions in Kashmir or other places. However, during this time, India ensured under successive leaderships that it remained unified. If this meant employing violence and force to prevent secession from territories established by British India for independent India, such as in Nagaland or Kashmir, it was prepared to do so.

People forget that India is one of the few countries that completely swallowed one neighbor and divided another. It completely swallowed Sikkim, a protectorate, which was still a separate country, in 1975.

Its role in the Bangladesh national liberation struggle was certainly motivated by strategic calculations about weakening Pakistan. India intervened when it did, despite the ground leaders in Bangladesh being content with Indian support, as they believed Bangladesh could achieve liberation independently within a year. One of the best books on this is Larry Lifschultz’s Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution.

Since then, the Indian government — especially in the post-Nehru period — has played a role in all kinds of activities. In 1988, it sent its troops into in a civil war in the Maldives where it had no business intervening.

Following the transition of power from the British, India assumed a paternalistic approach toward the Highland Crest Kingdoms, resulting in the absorption of Sikkim and the rough treatment of Bhutan and Nepal. Even concerning the Chinese border issue, a resolution might have been possible if India hadn’t adopted the colonial-era thinking and policies inherited from the British. This perspective on territorial boundaries significantly influenced India’s stance.

I’m deeply critical of the Chinese for their behavior in Tibet, as I am of India’s refusal to acknowledge the independence of Nagaland. When the leader of Nagaland expressed a desire for independence, Gandhi initially responded by highlighting the principle of fighting against British colonialism and supporting self-determination. But this sentiment was not consistently upheld by subsequent Indian administrations.

Gandhi himself was inconsistent on the matter — he endorsed the use of force in Kashmir in 1948, despite being known as an advocate for nonviolence.The issue in Kashmir has long been complicated by the fact that both India and Pakistan view it as a bilateral matter, disregarding the aspirations of the Kashmiri people for self-determination and potential independence.

Nuclear Anxieties

Daniel Denvir

Which is one of many similarities between the Kashmir situation and Palestine. Palestine was for so long also treated as a conflict between Israel and Arab states. Palestinians had to come forward and assert that it was a national liberation movement for Palestinians — not a diplomatic bargaining chip between rival states.

Achin Vanaik

I would disagree with you on that, because the case of the Palestinians, in one respect, had a very significant difference. After the end of World War I, the 1922 League of Nations gave France and Britain a mandate over various territories in what is called the Middle East. This mandate was a form of indirect rule with the ultimate promise of independence for these territories, including Palestine. While other countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan did gain independence, this was denied to the Palestinians.

And there was a much stronger collaboration of British imperialism in facilitating the migration of Jews to Palestine and the subsequent role they played. So, the similarity is not quite there, but if you are trying to emphasize that they are occupied territories, then yes, they are occupied territories. However, due to the unique history of Palestine, you’ll find more people in the West and elsewhere who accept that it is indeed an occupied territory.

One difference between Palestine and Kashmir is that the ratio of armed personnel to civilians in Kashmir is higher than in the Palestinian occupied territories, or anywhere else in the world.

You don’t have an informal recognition by other countries that Kashmir is an occupied territory by India, unlike the widespread recognition of Palestine as an occupied territory. This is an important distinction. However, concerning repression and brutality, one difference between Palestine and Kashmir, which doesn’t reflect well on India, is that the ratio of armed personnel to civilians in Kashmir is higher than in the Palestinian occupied territories or anywhere else in the world.

Daniel Denvir

Achin Vanaik

Daniel Denvir

Pakistan and India both maintain nuclear first-strike policies; the risk of a conventional conflict escalating into a nuclear war is alarmingly real. How is it that they are both US allies? Is this a stable situation?

Achin Vanaik

Israel has nuclear weapons, and Americans have no problem in seeing it as a very stable ally. It’s worth noting that Israel has come close to using its nuclear arsenal against non-nuclear countries, particularly in the 1973 conflict.

Similarly, Britain also possesses nuclear capabilities without raising concerns about its stability as an ally. In the eyes of the Americans, there seems to be a distinction between “good” and “bad” nuclear powers based on geopolitical interests and alliances.

Which Islamic country in the world has the biggest pool of scientific and tactical personnel? Which Islamic country has the most professional armed forces? And which Islamic country has been a longtime ally of the United States? It’s not Egypt; it’s not Saudi Arabia. It’s Pakistan. It’s essential to highlight these strategic assets that Pakistan possesses, especially when considering the complexities of geopolitical dynamics and the United States’ approach — which often involves double standards.

You mention the potential nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. It’s crucial to clarify that while both countries possess nuclear arsenals, their policies regarding first use differ. India officially adheres to a doctrine of “no first use,” although this stance is subject to certain qualifications and interpretations, which are arguably less stringent than China’s equivalent policy.

But your Indian experts will never point this out, because China is the baddie, not India. Of course, both are baddies.

Threat Perception

Daniel Denvir

Pakistan’s policy, I believe, is that they would use so-called tactical nuclear weapons against India’s much-larger conventional forces.

Achin Vanaik

That is right. But what one should understand is that Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was primarily India-centered.

The logic was simple: if India has them, then Pakistan must have them too. This was a prediction I made publicly, perhaps one of the few to do so at the time.

I said that if the BJP comes to power, they’ll go in for nuclear weapons. The reason I said this had nothing to do with China or Pakistan — it had everything to do with the ideology of the BJP and the RSS.  They envisioned a strong, muscular India, and nuclear weapons fit into that vision.

This inclination wasn’t new; even the earlier incarnation of the Janata Party in the late ’50s advocated for India to have nuclear capabilities, influenced by the ideology of their mentor, Veer Savarkar. When India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, positioning itself as a nuclear threshold power, it signaled a clear intent to keep the nuclear option open.

All parties, including the mainstream left, supported India retaining the nuclear option without necessarily using it. The BJP was the one party that advocated for India to possess nuclear weapons.

Countries pursue nuclear weapons either due to shifts in their self-perceptions or as a response to perceived threats. The United States was the first to develop nuclear capabilities, not out of immediate threat concerns, but rather to assert dominance on the global stage. Despite knowing that Germany was not pursuing nuclear weapons after 1944, the United States went on to develop them. It did this to establish itself as a formidable force and to send a message to the Soviet Union and other communist nations.

Britain and France took nuclear weapons, not because of threat perception. They did it more to maintain themselves at the high table of the world powers because they were the declining colonial powers.

China and the Soviet Union pursued nuclear weapons due to threat perceptions — the “if they have it, we must have it” mentality. China, particularly in 1964 amid strained relations with both the US and the Soviet Union, pursued nuclear capabilities for security reasons.

India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, despite improving relations with China, more as a reflection of changing self-perceptions, akin to the United States, Britain, and France. Conversely, Pakistan’s nuclear program was largely driven by threat perceptions, especially concerning India. Interestingly, between 1987 and 1998, Pakistan never conducted a nuclear test to match the 1974 test.

Pakistan repeatedly proposed denuclearization to India, only to be met with Indian rebuttals citing concerns about China. But after it conducted its own nuclear tests, Pakistan became increasingly apprehensive about India’s significant conventional military superiority.

As you’ve mentioned, Pakistan has expressed its intent to use nuclear weapons in response to Indian advancements in conventional weaponry, particularly threatening to target Indian soldiers on its territory. In turn, India has warned that any attack on Indian soldiers would provoke a full-scale nuclear retaliation.

Ultimately, both are crooks — both are shameful. The idea that there is something called “responsible nuclear power” is ridiculous. The true peril, however, lies in the potential for escalation, not in a deliberate decision by either side to launch a first strike. This danger is exacerbated by what can be termed an escalation dynamic.

This part of the world has been in a continuous state of tension since gaining independence. Unlike the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, which saw periods of relative calm, the situation here has been consistently fraught. India and Pakistan, as neighbors with a history of conflict, have engaged in four hot wars.

The danger is clear: a conventional conflict could easily escalate into something far more catastrophic. Initially, neither side may contemplate using nuclear weapons, but the fear of the other side doing so can quickly escalate tensions and raise the specter of nuclear warfare.

India and Pakistan, as neighbors with a history of conflict, have engaged in four hot wars. A conventional conflict could easily escalate into something far more catastrophic.

In 1999, during the Kargil War, both sides actually prepared their nuclear weapons for use. So, the risk of escalation is real, and it’s exacerbated by the extreme arrogance of groups like the RSS in India. There’s this notion that India must “teach Pakistan a lesson,” driven by a deep-seated anger that rejects any comparison between the two countries.

This sentiment isn’t limited to the RSS but extends even to liberal circles in India, fueling the disdain for any association between India and Pakistan. “We have to show that we are a major world power. But in order for us to show that we are a major world power, we first must be a major regional power. And the damn Pakistanis are a huge problem.”

So what happens? In a historic move just before Modi’s reelection bid in February 2019, India launched a major air assault deep into Pakistani territory, targeting Balakot. This marked the first time since 1945 that one nuclear power launched such a significant attack on another nuclear power.

Daniel Denvir

This was in retaliation for an attack on Indian forces in Kashmir.

Achin Vanaik

In Kashmir, yes. But this was a suicide bomb carried out by a local Kashmiri youth — the initial attack in Kashmir was carried out by a local Kashmiri youth affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb. Despite the local nature of the attacker and the underlying frustrations of Kashmiris, India saw it as an opportunity to send a political message to Pakistan. This led to the deep-penetration air strike in Balakot.

The most influential forces shaping the dynamics in India are multifaceted. While the military holds significant sway, religious extremism, both within the government’s ideology and among external forces, exerts a tremendous influence.

It raises concerns that a conventional skirmish could escalate into a more serious conflict — with the potential for a nuclear exchange. While it’s not inevitable, the heightened risks underscore the fact that we need deescalation and diplomacy to prevent such a catastrophic outcome.

“Other Backward Castes”

Daniel Denvir

Looking back at this long history of wars, nuclear weapons, repression — in Kashmir and against Naxalites — was there a Hindu nationalism that was formally present in Congress’s foreign and security policies that was ultimately conducive to the rise of the BJP? Although Congress presented itself as a secular party, was its foreign and security policy actually Hindutva lite?

Achin Vanaik

I would say that its foreign policies have increasingly moved in the direction of fairly standard realpolitik considerations about how India must become a stronger country. It has consequently moved toward consolidating its partnership with the United States and consolidating a strategic relationship with Israel.

While the BJP has capitalized on this trend, it’s not solely driven by Hindutva ideology. Instead, it’s the Congress party’s Hindu-leaning policies domestically that have paved the way for BJP’s acceptance in foreign policy circles. Unlike the BJP, whose anti-Muslim stance is fundamental to its ideology, the Congress Party’s policies aren’t inherently anti-Muslim, although similar sentiments may occasionally influence their domestic agenda.

In its foreign policy, India’s connection with Israel aimed to bolster ties with the United States, which makes sense strategically. However, the BJP adds an anti-Muslim twist to this relationship. If you delve into the RSS’s writings, you’ll find a strong admiration for the creation of Israel.

It’s worth noting that while racism in Western Europe used to be based on skin color, it’s now more cultural, manifesting as Islamophobia. Among the US and Western European governments, there’s a distinction between “good” and “bad” Muslims, with Saudi Arabia often falling into the former category despite its extreme and reactionary form of Islam. However, in Hindutva ideology, anti-Muslim sentiment is foundational in a way that’s not quite the same in Europe.

You can’t say the same about Congress. It does dabble in soft Hindutva politics, but there’s only one political force in India truly committed to establishing a Hindu Rashtra, and that’s the BJP. The Sangh Parivar and the BJP are singular in their determination.

Other parties in India, even those who occasionally ally with the BJP or engage in soft Hindutva politics, don’t have the same relentless drive. This certainly isn’t the case for the mainstream left, let alone more-leftist forces.

Daniel Denvir

You write, “A successful hegemonic ideology will mask contradictory interests while offering some unified sense of belonging to the majority.”And you write that the BJP has recruited a “lumpen aspiration, OBC, social base” — “OBC” meaning “other backward castes.”

They’ve also appropriated the legendary Dalit leader, Ambedkar. Which is somewhat bizarre, at face value, given that Ambedkar converted to Buddhism because he believed that there was no path to freedom for Dalits under Hinduism.

How has the BJP built this cross-caste coalition? Does that coalition contain contradictions that might ultimately be exploited by leftist opposition to the BJP?

Achin Vanaik

There are a couple of things to consider here. First off, how did the BJP manage to pull off this feat when Ambedkar, the iconic leader of the Dalits, turned to Buddhism? And what about the potential backlash from anti-caste movements? That’s how I’m interpreting what you’re saying.

You know what’s even more surprising? The BJP has embraced Bhagat Singh as one of its heroes. He was a popular figure known for his resistance to the British, but unlike Gandhi, he wasn’t exactly preaching nonviolence. In fact, he put a bomb in the legislative assembly, although it didn’t actually kill anybody.

He’s considered a great figure for his defiance — his renown is as a young defiant revolutionary. Bhagat Singh saw himself as an atheist and a Marxist, but he’s appropriated by the BJP because he’s still a very important figure for many people in India. He’s the exemplar of a defiant, vibrant revolutionary figure committing his life to the struggle against colonialism.

The BJP, having had no role in the national movement, has adopted nationalist icons to bolster its image as a staunch nationalist force. Now, when it comes to Ambedkar and Hinduism, Ambedkar was deeply disillusioned with Brahmanical Hinduism. He believed that the only way to dismantle the oppressive caste system was to break away from Hinduism entirely and embrace Buddhism.

Interestingly, Hindutva ideology doesn’t oppose Buddhism, as it considers Buddhism to be indigenous to India. So on one hand there’s no issue with Buddhism. However, Ambedkar’s attempt to combat the caste system by advocating for conversion to Buddhism hasn’t seen widespread success.

The proportion of Buddhists in India since the time of Ambedkar’s conversion until now has remained roughly the same. The struggle against caste oppression has largely unfolded within the framework of Hinduism. Many lower-caste individuals have found a sense of dignity and identity within Hinduism, making them more receptive to Hindutva messaging.

Hindutva has skillfully appropriated not only Ambedkar but also various local and regional lower-caste figures, portraying them as revered members of a unified Hindu community. This narrative fosters a sense of belonging and unity among diverse caste groups, aligning them with the Hindutva ideology.

Co-opting Struggle

Daniel Denvir

The BJP has capitalized on the rise of regional and lower-caste politics that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s as Congress’s influence waned. While one might think that this would have created a new political center of gravity, in fact, the BJP has appropriated these new political forces.

Achin Vanaik

I’ve just pointed out what the BJP and the RSS are doing from their perspective. Now let’s look at what the lower-caste movements have been doing from their side.

Their assertions have done three things. One is that it’s provided them with a greater sense of dignity and self-respect. Good.

The second thing it has done is, through the policy of reservation of government education and jobs, it has enabled them to get greater material benefits. Good.

The third thing is that the lower castes have wanted to have their hands on the levers of power at all levels — at the state level and, to whatever extent they can, at the central level. Now this has required them to make cross-caste alliances, which means including higher castes. What has happened, of course, is that rather than seeking to destroy the caste system — or the structures of the caste system — they have sought to use their position as lower castes to climb up the class and power ladder.

I’m suggesting that there is a parallel here to what has happened to black politics in the United States. The earlier forms of black nationalism — pride, self-respect, hostility to racist structures — eventually ended up in a kind of black politics that is very much within the mainstream part of the Clinton Democratic Party machinery. It is more and more about black people going up the class ladder. A four- or five-fold increase in blacks in the American middle class — arriving, effectively, at salary parity with their white counterparts in the same professions, with a maybe 1- or 2-percent difference at most.

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and most of his domestic policy were as bad as those of every previous American president. Yet he had the temerity to see himself as a postracial candidate when racism is endemic and fundamental to American society — in the education system, in the prison population, and beyond.

The struggle against racism cannot be separated from the fight against the nature of neoliberal capitalism. In both the United States and India, there’s a co-optation of black and lower-caste struggles. While the BJP and RSS may make concessions for Dalits and others to foster Hindu unity, there are limits to how far they can go.

The BJP can co-opt lower-caste struggles, it can make serious concessions, but it can’t go to the point where it has to abandon the principles of upper-caste Brahmanism. Therefore, that tension remains.

How it will play out, however, is a different question. Leadership from lower castes is required that can connect their struggles with broader class-based issues in order to connect with the struggles of others — and not simply to be preoccupied with lower castes.

I would suggest the same thing is true in the United States; there has to be a different kind of leadership. It must connect more seriously across racial lines and along class lines, with a perspective of fighting against the powers that be and the nature of the American political and capitalist system.

The Indian Left

Daniel Denvir

What possibility is there for this sort of struggle in India? We haven’t talked about the Left much, but the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), which emerged from the CPI in a split during the 1960s, are, like the Congress Party, are shadows of their former selves. But they were once powerful forces.

Achin Vanaik

Indeed. While they were once strong, they’ve lost their footing. The crisis facing the mainstream left today is perhaps even greater than that of the Congress Party. The most pressing issue is that they’ve become primarily electoral forces, lacking the ideologically disciplined, high-morale, and committed cadre force necessary for generating extraparliamentary mass mobilizations and struggles.

The ruling class hates the Left and the far left much more than it hates the far right.

What’s common for both the far right, represented by the RSS and the Sangh Parivar, and the Left — not just the far left but the Left in general — is their success hinges on engagement outside the electoral arena. Their success in mobilizing beyond elections often translates into a stronger electoral presence.

This dynamic holds true for both ends of the political spectrum in India. But once the far right establishes a sizable electoral base, it becomes more acceptable to the ruling classes. It can easily ascend the electoral ladder while leveraging the resources and power gained from its state presence for its extraparliamentary activities — whereas the Left and the far left must consistently prioritize the struggle outside of the electoral arena. The ruling class hates the left and the far left much more than it hates the far right.

The ruling class might entertain the idea of tempering the far right on certain occasions, depending on its strength. But it wants to see the Left totally eliminated. There are far more powerful forces aligned with the Right and far right than with the Left and far left.

To succeed in mobilizing beyond the electoral sphere, a movement requires deeply committed and dedicated cadres who believe in their cause wholeheartedly. The key distinction between the interwar fascist era and the present day is the confidence level. Back then, when things were so bleak, communist movements and leaders said, “The future still belongs to us.”

Today, however, it’s far more challenging for the Left to assert the same claim about the future. And as for the CPM and the CPI, or even the Naxalites, their main ideological influences have been Stalinism and Maoism. Russia and China have never succeeded in creating a political system that can attract others due to its lack of democracy, which they’ve rationalized through their interpretations of Marxism and socialism.

This stands in stark contrast to other currents, outside Stalinism and Maoism, like democratic socialism, which have a stronger commitment to democracy. For parties like the CPM, CPI, and the Naxalites, if they don’t reassess their politics and ideology, it’s challenging to develop the necessary ideological commitment, discipline, enthusiasm, and attractiveness to draw others into their fold.

Daniel Denvir

In your view, a left government coming to power in either the UK or the United States could potentially alter the course of Indian politics. Why do you believe events in these countries hold such significance for India’s future?

Achin Vanaik

The growing influence of radical left-wing youth in countries like the UK and the United States could have a ripple effect globally, including in India. These emerging forces are likely to prioritize human rights and democracy. This could lead to increased scrutiny and criticism of political forces elsewhere. This changing international climate could impact support for right-wing leaders like Modi, especially among non-aligned liberals.

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