Making sense of the Savarkar debate in the Maharashtra polls
The "Congress-free" India under construction seems ready to accommodate all icons -- without going into the specifics of their thoughts and actions -- while sidelining the Congress as a Nehruvian entity that India no longer has patience with.
Close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi accusing the Congress of having insulted the memory of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar during his Maharashtra election campaign, Home Minister Amit Shah has said in an interview that the Hindutva ideologue's legacy made him a deserving candidate for the Bharat Ratna.
In saying what they did, the two top leaders of the ruling party tacitly endorsed the state BJP's poll manifesto promise of ensuring that Savarkar is posthumously awarded India's top civilian award.
Predictably, the Congress reacted sharply to Modi's comment -- and his statement that the values of Savarkar are the basis for Indian nationalism -- with Manish Tewari saying that the government should confer the Bharat Ratna on Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse rather than on Savarkar, who was accused in the case but acquitted.
The turn of events in the last two days or so suggests that the BJP is not averse to turning the coming assembly polls into a referendum on its core ideological agenda of Hindutva. Yet, this move towards the core agenda is accompanied by the claiming of icons across the political divide -- from BR Ambedkar, whom the PM evoked in the same breath as Savarkar, to Sardar Patel -- so as to "mainstream" Hindutva as an idea without going into the nuances of its ideological disagreements with the likes of Ambedkar or Patel. The Congress is the prime other of this Hindutva pitch, with Jawaharlal Nehru and his family being singled out as worth discarding.
In this, the ruling party under Modi has decisively broken with the BJP's strategy in the Vajpayee years and later of keeping core issues on the backburner to stitch together coalitions with regional parties that called themselves secular.
Even in 2014, Hindutva was a footnote, while promises of "development" were the leitmotif of Modi's political campaign. The 2019 Lok Sabha campaign was more aggressive, with the Balakot strikes by the Indian Air Force being a significant poll plank. However, the coming assembly elections are witness to the employment of unequivocal Hindutva: the row over Savarkar apart, Modi has repeatedly talked about the scrapping of Article 370, which conferred special status on Kashmir, as a 'major achievement' of his government and attacked the Congress for questioning the move.
Why are these issues crucial for the core worldview of the BJP?
Savarkar is important for two reasons. One, he was the first to popularise the phrase Hindutva, which is the ideological beacon of the BJP. To cut a long story short, Savarkar in 1923 wrote the pamphlet Hindutva, which defined Hindutva, or what it was to be Hindu. In his understanding, a Hindu was someone whose holy land and fatherland both lay in India. This included Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, but excluded Muslims and Christians.
Savarkar's may not have been the only contribution to the early idea of Hindu nationalism: Colonel UN Mookerjee and Arya Samajist Lal Chand had already written pamphlets that saw Hinduism as under threat more than a decade before the publication of Hindutva.
Yet, Savarkar remains the clearest exponent of a Hindutva idea of India. In this sense, he has remained an ideological beacon for the BJP and the RSS, even if he led the Hindu Mahasabha and not the Sangh.
The Vajpayee government had also sought to fete Savarkar by installing a Savarkar plaque in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where he had been incarcerated for more than a decade. It was after his clemency appeals that he had been released from there and confined in Ratnagiri, after which he decisively broke with the freedom struggle, of which he had been part in his younger days, and devoted his life to organising Hindus and, as he called it, "Hinduising all politics".
The present attempt to offer Savarkar an official place among India's greats is the clearest Hindutva pitch yet on the BJP's part. Savarkar's first phase as a revolutionary freedom fighter is proudly discussed by the BJP, without going into the shift his career marked after his release from the cellular jail.
Savarkar is also Hindu nationalism's clearest link with the freedom struggle, which still enjoys immense clout in India.
However, the present celebration of Hindutva is accompanied by moves that tactically dilute its stridency. Modi mentioned BR Ambedkar -- who was the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution and India's first Law Minister -- in the same vein as Savarkar, accusing the Congress of not honouring his memory over the past 70 years. The BJP has continued to make this point time and again, assisted by the fact that the Dalit leader was conferred Bharat Ratna when the Congress wasn't in power.
The combination of Savarkar and Ambedkar -- the former celebrated Hinduism and the latter was extremely uneasy with it -- is to an extent aimed at appealing to Maharashtrian regional sentiments.
Yet, it is more than that. It seems to be part of a strategy whereby some Hindutva icons are feted alongside figures outside Hindutva but having a lasting legacy. This not only makes the Hindutva pitch look inconspicuous but also mainstreams Hindutva as an alternative -- rather, the mainstream -- idea of India. The bid is to deprive secular nationalism its claim of being the "authentic" idea of India, something many left and liberal voices have claimed over the decades.
In this new scheme of things, Savarkar, Jana Sangh leader Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ambedkar are all celebrated, without going into the details of their mutual agreements or irreconcilable incompatibilities, as some observers have pointed out.
The claiming, or even appropriation, of cross-ideological figures is an attempt to mainstream Hindutva as the default fulcrum of Indian politics. The only Other in this scheme of things is India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with his family being seen as his legacy in Indian politics.
The "Congress-free" India under construction seems ready to accommodate all icons -- without going into the specifics of their thought and action -- while sidelining the Congress as a Nehruvian entity that India no longer has patience with.
Vikas Pathak teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, and is the author of the 2018 book Contesting Nationalisms, published by Primus Books.