Why the New Right’s quest for New India is neither Indian nor Hindu
The present right-wing surge is a symptom of a new wave of purported cultural conservatism that has nothing to do with conservation of living traditions: religious or institutional.
Two days back, while driving to office, I saw at least four cars with an ‘Angry Hanuman’ image on their rear glass during the 32-kilometre drive.
The image – made by a Kerala artist – has taken the country by storm over the last year or two.
Is it a sign of growing religiosity? Not quite. For, there is nothing like an “angry Hanuman” in mainstream north Indian Hinduism. Hanuman is depicted in the popular religious imagination as cheerful, lacking ego, deeply committed to Lord Ram, exceedingly strong and celibate. In fact, he derives his unmatched strength from his commitment to Ram. Even when he goes to Lanka to locate Sita and burns the kingdom down, he is believed to have been playfully cheerful.
So, the angry Hanuman fad – though it is part of the creative freedom of the artist – is anything but traditional religiosity. Rather, it is part of a new trend where those claiming to be religious must also claim to be angry. With the liberals, with the left, with intellectuals, with the Congress and perhaps with Jawaharlal Nehru. Most of the anger may not stand rational scrutiny, but that is another question. The most serene of gods should be reinterpreted to exude the anger and bitterness of the New Right.
It is a new wave of symbolism that claims to celebrate tradition but disrupts it. Not that those who celebrate this new wave are open to the general principle that traditions are constantly reinterpreted: they would perhaps still frown at alternative readings of the Ramayana, which were brought out by Ramanujan in his essay 300 Ramayanas. They draw from the “mainstream” in their claims, but are far from tradition in practice.
This, indeed, is a symptom of the new wave of cultural conservatism, which has nothing to do with conservation of living traditions -- religious or institutional.
This is different from the older conservatism that sought to nurture and preserve what it saw as living tradition, and sought to stall any social change.
What we see on the ascendant today is the New Right, which has taken the country by storm and is also reflected in the BJP’s surge.
In an article on the rise of the New Right in parts of the west, The Economist argues that “new conservatism” is in fact a threat to conservatism. It says, correctly, that institutional sanctity and unease with change are hallmarks of conservatism, while the New Right is disruptive of institutions and traditions.
The New Right in India is no different. If religion can be selectively reinterpreted – the left and liberals cannot, but the New Right can, in its own understanding – institutions that hold the nation-state also have no sanctity. There is no desire to preserve institutions that nurtured three generations of citizens in independent India or the ways in which the nation-state functioned. The desire for dismantling all of these is captured by a single term: “New India”.
While there is a stated pride in India as a continuity, there is also a deep unease with continuity – often seen by votaries of the New Right as a matter of shame – and a desire for “newness” in what is an “ancient civilisation”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often rejected the work done in the last 70 years in his speeches, something that resonates with this tradition.
The nation-state as it exists is bad, and needs correction, within this discourse. The correction must stay clear of institutional bounds, as institutions represent continuity with the recent past.
There is little desire to conserve anything. The urge is to disdainfully disrupt, notwithstanding loud claims to stand by tradition and the nation-state. And behind this urge is the claim that present cultural and institutional practices are a Nehruvian concoction and not “original”. The “original” lies in the hoary past and all living modes of thinking and practices must be dismantled before the “original” can be revived.
If the sign of a “continuous ancient civilisation” like India or China is the continuation of some practices that are very old – like the recital of the Gayatri Mantra, found in the Rig Ved, even today, though it was Orientalist scholarship that rediscovered ancient Sanskrit texts for the 19th century Indian middle class – the New Right seems to be see modern disruption instead of continuity all around itself. This makes it claim to be traditional and yet disrupt all institutional practices with glee, seeing it as part of a necessary dismantling before “national reconstruction”.
Angry Hanuman captures the imagination of millions perhaps because there is a break with the traditional in this imagery.
Similarly, there was much controversy when UP Chief Minister Adityanath decided to name what was known as the Ardh-Kumbh in Prayagraj (Allahabad renamed) as “Kumbh”, saying nothing was “incomplete” in Hindu religion. This, too, was seen as not tradition but a selective reinterpretation of it while claiming to defend it.
There is yet another difference between traditional conservatism and the conservative claims of the New Right. Conservatism was often interpreted in popular imagination as conservatism of content as also of form. To simplify, conservatives would not just defend living traditions – opposing any attempts at change – but also conduct themselves in ways that would be seen as conforming to the social roles tradition expected of them.
The New Right, however, is almost always bitter in its articulations, sometimes bordering on the downright abusive. Trolling – something that many old conservatives would perhaps frown upon as “uncultured” – is its default response to critics.
Recall the movie Mohabbatein, which represented the popular image of a conservative through the character of Narayan Shankar, played by Amitabh Bachchan.
Shankar uses three terms as pillars for a conservative social order: parampara (tradition), pratishtha (prestige) and anushasan (discipline). He would not budge from living traditions, maintain a stiff upper lip and also enforce a disciplined and regimented way of life. While it was a representation that exaggerated traditionalism, the character did capture the normative expectation from a conservative.
In contrast, the “liberal” Raj Aryan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) was open to contained disruption, albeit playfully rather than bitterly.
This binary has disappeared in the surge of the New Right. Not just is tradition selectively re-read, the social articulation of votaries of the New Right shows scant regard for behaviour that anyone valuing “prestige” will uphold. And as for discipline – the quality of conforming to a code of institutional behaviour – it seems to be in short supply among votaries and visible faces of the New Right.
One can see how the definition of being socially conservative has changed even in the profile of the BJP’s leadership. The Vajpayee-Advani-Joshi-Jaswant Singh era articulated right-wing ideas but in a language that sounded “polite” and “dignified”.
But this formal moderation has also disappeared, even as the content of the discourse of the New Right has become more bitter.
The New Right, clearly, is a quest for a New India that has no patience with social politeness, once called sanskaar by old conservatives. It is the enforcement of the “survival of the fittest” on a cultural landscape that never quite digested the dictum.
It seeks to create a new concoction that aims to fundamentally alter both modern and traditional institutions.