Prime Minister Narendra Modi said something very significant last month in Indore. Addressing the influential Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect largely involved in business and trading in west and central India, Modi said the ancient Indian philosophical “concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) gives a distinct identity to India from the rest of the world and the Bohra community is an example of it.”
This extolling of a Muslim community - and it was the first time an Indian prime minister had attended their premier event - did not go down well among sections of the rank and file of the Hindu nationalists, with the militantly anti-Muslim Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) questioning Modi’s motive in visiting a mosque and implied he had acted against his faith and was "appeasing" Muslims. Days after Modi said this, Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), widely identified as the ideological mentor of the BJP, set off a political storm by making remarks that were decidedly heretical and moderating the hard Hinduism associated with the organisation and even his own declared views.
Muslims, he said, were not anathema, as was previously preached, but integral to Hindutva; a secular constitution was acceptable to the RSS as “all religions are equal” and the RSS was not seeking to privilege Hinduism; and, far from being seen as a votary of patriarchy, the RSS believed in “equality and independence for women” and was not against inter-caste marriages.
Taken along with Modi’s remarks just days earlier, the ideological turnabout set off intense media debate and speculation, even among the ranks of the Hindu Right, as it meant upending their core beliefs which were the defined markers of their political identity.
Questions are being rightly raised as to why Modi and Bhagwat suddenly chose to extol the path of inclusiveness and pluralism - almost in concert - when the Hindu Right has all along sought to dub Islam and Christianity as “alien” faiths. They had previously not discouraged their ideological storm-troopers from harassing or even killing Muslims and even pledged to rewrite the Constitution some day, as its core ideals were avowedly based on western value systems and were not Indian.
Many right-wing intellectuals and influential BJP functionaries described it as a “significant shift” in thinking and “India’s new common sense,” rooted in an “enlightened Hindu consciousness.” A minister in the BJP government even called it a “powerful change of gear” with a bold new narrative that has put the party “on notice”. Another party leader maintained that the change was coming but admitted it might be quite challenging to drive the “new thinking” into the rank and file used as they were to a Hindu hard-wired supremacist line that had deeply polarised Hindu and Indian society in the last few years since Modi came to power in May 2014. As politician-writer Shashi Tharoor has argued in his book “Why I am a Hindu,” the “lived Hinduism of a vast majority of Hindus” has “very little room for intolerance, for dogma, for attacks on others because of what they do or do not believe”.
With the slow realisation that the coming elections - both in major central Indian states and national elections in early 2019 - cannot be won on the strength of its ideological support base alone and that the BJP, for it to return to power, has to win over once again the youth, fence-sitters and Hindu moderates who had voted for it in 2014. But these sections had increasingly turned away from the party not only because of its failed promises but regressive social agenda and sectarian beliefs that were threatening to rupture the country’s plural fabric and sullying its secular ideals that were constitutionally codified.
Bhagwat apparently had exhaustive consultations, within and outside his closed organisation, before the line of accommodative moderation was unfolded, calculatedly, at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan convention centre.
Whether this gains broad acceptance within the “Parivar”(Hindu Right fraternity) hardliners, who had been schooled in a certain line of thinking, and whether it helps to tip the scales at the hustings is a game that will be closely watched both inside and outside India, with considerable interest.
(The author is President, Society for Policy Studies)