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Defining, Constructing and Policing a 'New India'

The advance of neoliberalism is seen to have either resulted from or accompanied the accession to power of repressive and socially reactionary political forces (as seen in the UK and the US of the 1980s). However, in understanding India of the 1980s and 1990s, the nature of the links between neoliberalism and the Hindu right does not appear entirely obvious. This article explores the deeper, common political goals that neoliberalism and Hindutva share. Such sharing does not represent a complete merger of these forces nor is it a purely opportunistic alliance. On the other hand, such alliances represent common class interests by articulating shared notions of a bounded, unitary and individual-based conception of society, as opposed to a community-based society.

Defining, Constructing and Policing a ‘New India’ Relationship between Neoliberalism and Hindutva

The advance of neoliberalism is seen to have either resulted from or accompanied the accession to power of repressive and socially reactionary political forces (as seen in the UK and the US of the 1980s). However, in understanding India of the 1980s and 1990s, the nature of the links between neoliberalism and the Hindu right does not appear entirely obvious. This article explores the deeper, common political goals that neoliberalism and Hindutva share. Such sharing does not represent a complete merger of these forces nor is it a purely opportunistic alliance. On the other hand, such alliances represent common class interests by articulating shared notions of a bounded, unitary and individual-based conception of society, as opposed to a community-based society.


f all the changes that have swept India’s polity since the late 1980s, among the most significant is the nearly simultaneous rise of Hindutva forces and those favouring economic ‘liberalisation’. Both were once pariahs in India’s political scene, and both have now reached the centre stage, with the latter now regarded as unquestioned by both our national parties.

Despite the frequent rhetoric about neoliberalism being part of the march of ‘greater freedoms’, it is well known that neoliberal policies have often either resulted from or accompanied the accession to power of repressive and socially reactionary political forces (witness Reagan, Thatcher or the Latin American dictatorships). In this sense, the Indian situation is not unusual. However, the nature of the links, if any, between neoliberalism and social reaction – particularly the Hindu right – is not entirely obvious. Typically, these forces’ simultaneous rise is identified either as a reflection solely of common class interests or as the result of a one-way causal relationship. For instance, one common argument has been that Hindutva’s ‘emotive issues’ have either been a conscious diversion from or an unconscious result of the social stresses caused by neoliberal reforms.

I seek here to explore a different dimension, namely that Indian neoliberalism and Hindutva share deeper, common political goals and hence also share a potential project of political action. I explore the possible existence of a political alliance (though not a merger) between neoliberalism and Hindutva, particularly during the NDA period.

Conceptual Background

Such a question can have multiple meanings and hence requires some clarification. My concern is with neoliberalism and Hindutva as hegemonic political projects rather than purely as ideologies or policy packages. I understand “hegemony” in the Gramscian (2000:235) sense, where the pre-eminence of a “historical bloc” of dominant class actors is sustained by “hegemony protected by the armour of coercion”, or the combination of force with the assertion of “intellectual and moral leadership” that builds the institutions and value systems necessary to equate this bloc’s interests with the “general interest” of society [Mouffe 1979].

Such a hegemonic system is neither monolithic nor total; as Jessop (1982:148) puts it, “the maintenance of hegemony involves taking systematic account of popular interests and demands, shifting position and making compromises…to maintain support and alliances”.1

Consequently, to understand such hegemonic projects, it is not enough to assume that they are either immutable entities, fixed through time, or to deterministically derive their actions from the underlying class relations; one must also look at their political and ideological functioning. If one accepts that Hindutva and neoliberalism are indeed hegemonic projects, it is these aspects of their relationship that have received relatively less attention. To choose three instances, Vanaik (2001), Ahmad (2002) and Corbridge and Harriss (2000) all powerfully argue that there is a Hindutva-neoliberal link, but they largely confine their arguments to the question of the class interests they respectively represent. Thus, my question could be translated as: is it possible for an alliance of neoliberalism and Hindutva to have an ideological and political logic, and if so, can we see such a logic at work in recent Indian politics, particularly the NDA period?2

This article attempts to sketch an answer to this question. I do not attempt to a social or class analysis of these forces, and I do not measure or detail their impact on India’s polity. I am aware that this greatly reduces the scope of any conclusions that can be drawn, but I approach this fundamentally as a general exploration of possibilities rather than a conclusive argument.

Resonances and TensionsResonances and TensionsResonances and TensionsResonances and TensionsResonances and Tensions

Both supporters and opponents of Hindutva and neoliberalism frequently argue that they are unrelated or even incompatible. Such arguments are generally premised on these projects’ apparent policy contradictions; for instance, one hears frequent claims that neoliberalism cannot tolerate the effects of Hindutva violence, while Hindutva cannot tolerate neoliberal globalisation and its internationalising effects.

However, these contradictions, while all too real, do not preclude the existence of strong resonances and overlaps between these projects. In particular, Hindutva and neoliberalism share highly

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fellowships (of which one fellowship is earmarked for a teacher fellow) will be awarded for a period of
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    similar visions of the relationship between the state, society and the individual. This section outlines these resonances and tensions.3


    Reduction of social processes: Both ideologies reduce social processes to purely individual choices and decisions. This is particularly clear for neoliberalism, which relies on neoclassical economics’ reduction of all social behaviour to voluntary transactions between rational, utility-maximising individuals. As Lemke (2001:197) points out, citing Foucault: “the key element in the Chicago School’s approach is their consistent expansion of the economic form to…the social sphere.” Thus racial discrimination is modelled as individual taste, family relations as ‘marriage capital’ and religious devotion as a method of controlling ‘free riders’ [e g, Lazear 2000].

    In turn, as with most organicist ideologies, Hindutva reduces social processes to questions of individual morality. Thus the RSS aims to solve Hindu society’s problems by inculcating ‘correct values’ in upper caste men, as exemplified by M S Golwalkar’s declaration that “there is a ‘crisis of character’ in our country”; social problems are due to individuals’ “demoniac ways” [Golwalkar 1979:89]. Other Sangh parivar leaders have made countless similar statements.

    For both ideologies, wider power relations – such as class, caste or gender – are entirely elided. Both presume that the only meaningful categories of analysis are individuals and, as we shall see, ‘society’ as a whole. The state as guarantor of an independent, supreme social principle: Both ideologies understand the state’s raison d’etre as the expression of an independent, supreme ‘principle’. Thus, in neoliberalism, the state’s purpose is to create the “legal, institutional and cultural conditions that will enable an artificial competitive game of entrepreneurial conduct to be played to best effect” [Burchell 1996:27]. ‘The market’ defines the basis for and the limits of government intervention: “it is more the case of the state being controlled by the market than of the market being supervised by the state” [Lemke 2001:200]. ‘The market’ is rarely clearly defined, allowing it to encompass a variety of actual institutions.

    In Hindutva, ‘Ram Rajya’ (the rule of Ram), ‘Hindu rashtra’ (Hindu rule), ‘dharma’ and other concepts play a similar role. Thus Deenadayal Upadhyaya (1979b:44) claimed that Hindutva believes “the state is brought into existence to protect the nation, and to produce and maintain conditions in which the ideals of the nation can be translated into reality”. These ideals constitute the nation’s “soul”, and the “laws that help manifest (this soul) are termed dharma.” In turn, a “state cannot be without dharma nor can it be indifferent to dharma, just as fire cannot be without heat” [Upadhyaya 1979c:53]. Dharma, too, is never defined in these lectures or elsewhere.

    In sum, the state is, in an analogy used both by neoliberals and by Upadhyaya (1979c), a ‘watchman’. Its sole purpose is to defend and guarantee ‘the market’ or dharma. Such conceptions are deeply anti-democratic,4 but this is only their most obvious aspect. They also imply that any processes related to state power

    – usually described as ‘political’ – are marginal, compared to the ‘real’ activities that depend on the ‘deeper’ principle. This harmonises with long-standing themes in Indian political discourse, which contrast the profane realm of ‘politics’ with the purer realm of ‘culture’ [Hansen 1999]. Social divisions as unnecessary and/or pathological: Having reduced social processes to individual decisions and the state to marginality, both ideologies then conclude that ‘genuine’ society has no inherent divisions. Thus D B Thengadi once claimed that “in our system… (social sectors) form an infinite spiral with no inner conflicts and no tensions” [Thengadi 1979:111]. Sangh leaders frequently draw analogies between society and the ‘harmony’ of the human body [e g, Golwalkar 1979; Jaffrelot 1998].

    Though neoliberalism ostensibly rejects the entire notion of ‘society’, it does in fact assume an autonomous ‘social realm’. Hence the frequent invocations of ‘civil society’ and the creation of “new forms of action” by which service functions can be taken over by ‘society’ [Burchell 1996]. A different example is the American ‘self-esteem’ movement, which the California government claimed could create a society where “every citizen… recognises the possibility for positively affecting every other person in every situation and relationship” (as quoted in Cruikshank 1996:239). In both cases, any social divisions are seen as artificial and/or pathological. Division of societies into ‘internal’ and ‘external’ realms: The actual existence of social divisions is then explained by identifying certain divisions as the boundaries of ‘society’ itself. Outside those borders lie ‘external’ entities, which produce ‘disharmony’ within ‘society’. As with most philosophies that postulate an ‘Other’, these discourses declare that those ‘outside’ must be ‘educated’ into the ‘understanding’ necessary for social functioning, or, if this is impossible, destroyed.

    Hindutva clearly uses the term ‘foreign’ in this fashion to exclude minorities, the Left, secularists, and so on. As mentioned above, a secondary boundary excludes the state and all things ‘political’. Hence Hindutva attributes all opposition to ‘vote bank’ politicians or malignant foreigners. To halt this ‘external’ interference, Golwalkar asked his cadres to “discourage people pursuing demoniac ways…[and inspire them] to develop their divine nature.” Education will not always be enough, though, and “we may have to use sanctions of force also in our endeavour” (1979:89, 88). ‘Outsiders’ have a clear choice: they can swear allegiance to Hindutva and thus join ‘society’, or they can retain their beliefs, thereby confirming their ‘foreignness’ and making them fit for destruction.

    Neoliberalism has been said to have no such boundaries, as it claims that all individuals are already rational. Yet neoliberalism nonetheless declares that certain political actors – welfare agencies, the bureaucracy, and the state in general – are ‘outside’ society and responsible for its divisions [Burchell 1996]. Thus, in industrial nations, the rhetoric of a state-created “dependency culture” is central to neoliberal discourse. As Hall (1983) evocatively puts it, Thatcherism created a “new folk devil …enervated by welfare state ‘coddling’, (his or her) moral fibre irrevocably sapped by ‘state handouts’.” The often coercive drive to increase ‘self-esteem’ similarly attempts to “vaccinate” individuals against this problem [Cruikshank 1996]. I explore the definition of these neoliberal boundaries in the Indian context in the sections below. Rhetoric of transformation and a ‘new society’: Finally, both claim that their social ‘principle’ will produce revolutionary transformation – if, that is, it is given its true importance. Thengadi (1979:111) declares, “in our (world) system… every nation will be free to develop according to its own genius…we will be one with the whole of mankind and whatever material progress we attain…will be offered (to) Humanity.” In 1998, the BJP declared that “[the party] embodies…a vision to see India, the world’s oldest cradle of civilisation, transform itself yet again into a benign global power, contributing her material, intellectual, cultural and spiritual energies…to save the world from the gathering civilisational crisis” [BJP 1998].

    Neoliberalism in turn seeks the “utopia of a pure and perfect market”, where all will be ‘free’ and prosperous [Bourdieu 1998]. Thatcherism has always insisted that it sought not mere policy changes but revolution and ‘freedom’ [Hall 1983; Nairn 2001]. Notions of a new, ‘developed’ and wealthy society are central to neoliberal rhetoric in India, as discussed below.

    All utopian discourses of this fashion define another boundary

    – between the their own ‘natural’, revolutionary dynamism and the ‘artificial’ stasis of the ‘old’. Thus the ‘old’ joins the ‘political’ and the ‘external’ as impediments to ‘natural’ social functioning, impediments whose assimilation or destruction is therefore both necessary and inevitable.


    Thus, neoliberalism and Hindutva share very similar notions of the relationship between state, society and individual, and both assume the existence of a supreme social principle. Their frequently cited tensions revolve around their sharply opposed views of what that principle is. Given that these have been widely discussed, I will only briefly detail the two most basic ones here. The management of these tensions is discussed in the following sections. Individual autonomy and freedoms: The most glaring tension is the value each discourse places on the individual. Neoliberalism’s celebration of individual ‘freedom’ apparently contradicts Hindutva’s subordination of the individual to ‘society’ (and thus its corporatist and populist rhetoric).

    Yet this ‘contradiction’ needs to be qualified. Above I noted that neoliberalism holds ‘the market’ to be supreme. This ‘principle’ – like its saffron equivalent of dharma – constrains all action, not just state action. Those whose choices disrupt the ‘market’ by creating collectivities, such as trade unions, are apt to find their ‘freedom’ sharply curtailed [Bourdieu 1998]. Neoliberals have little hesitation in crushing those who challenge the ‘market’ itself. Role of the ‘global’: As an essentially transnational project reflecting the interests of finance capital, neoliberalism is a “free trade faith” [Bourdieu 1998]. It advocates the full, and if necessary coerced, opening of every country’s economy [Overbeek and van der Pijl 1993]. Indeed, as in the phrase ‘globalisation’, neoliberalism is often equated with external liberalisation.

    Hindutva, with its organic supremacist principles, is deeply uncomfortable with such global integration, and has instead historically invoked swadeshi as a vague form of economic nationalism. However, Hindutva does not fully reject integration. Thus, Thengadi (1979:107) claims that Hindutva transcends the nationalism-internationalism dichotomy, as “our motto (has always been)…we are cultured and will strive to share our culture and refinement with others…This thought forms the base of our positive nationalism.” In short, grandstanding aside, integration is acceptable so long as Hindutva forces’ projects are promoted by it. Hence, the peculiar permutations in the Sangh’s economic philosophy (explored below and in Hansen (1998)).

    The Political Context: A Shared AgendaThe Political Context: A Shared AgendaThe Political Context: A Shared AgendaThe Political Context: A Shared AgendaThe Political Context: A Shared Agenda

    But, as noted in the Gramsci quote above, such political positions gain their salience not only from themselves but also from the wider political background. Both Hindutva and neoliberalism truly emerged on to the national scene during the 1980s, a decade that saw a critical process of change in Indian political discourse. Behind this process was the rise of many seemingly new mass movements and political formations, including the ‘New Farmers’ Movements (NFMs), armed nationalist movements in Punjab, Kashmir and Assam, movements for dalit rights, and finally, the Mandal and Ayodhya mobilisations at the end of the decade. Pushed by these movements and driven by its own political collapse, the Congress Party in particular and other political formations as well began giving increasing centrality to the notion of ‘community rights’, including allusions to ‘Hindu’ communities, as the driving force of Indian politics [Vanaik 1990; Hansen 1999; Bhatt 2001].5 Central to this new struggle for political control was the notion of ‘communities’ battling for social mobility through the use of the state machinery (e g, subsidies, reservations or even the creation of one’s own state), a struggle exemplified by the Mandal mobilisations. Such claims reflected the realities of India’s political economy, where, as Harriss-White (2003) points out, the state is not the sole regulatory force, but is frequently the primary pathway for social mobility [also see Kaviraj 2000].

    It is as a response to this shifting discourse that the outlines of a possible shared political project between Hindutva and neoliberalism become much clearer. After all, these tropes of the 1980s mass mobilisations directly contradicted all the resonances I identified above. The result was that both Hindutva and neoliberalism, if their projects were to succeed, had first to achieve certain political goals: the definition and articulation of a ‘unitary society’, the redefinition of social mobility in an individualistic fashion and the displacement of the state from its central role in the polity.

    But the mere existence of shared political goals does not create an alliance, any more than the existence of contradictions dooms one. Creating a shared political project is a historical and strategic process of magnifying resonances and minimising tensions. The possibilities for this to occur became clearer by the end of the decade, due in part, I would argue, to the political fallout of the largest movement of that period: the Ayodhya campaign.

    This campaign had three facets that are of relevance to us. First, by claiming to be reclaiming ‘rights’ that vested interests (namely, politicians eyeing the Muslim ‘vote bank’) had denied the ‘Hindu’ community, it used the same vocabulary as the other mass movements of the time6 [Hansen 1999]. This gave it a foothold in the existing political discourse. However, at the same time, it exploited the new political terrain created by the boom in consumer goods markets among urban and rural elites, itself triggered by the combination of high public expenditure and import liberalisation that was Rajiv Gandhi’s hallmark [Rajagopal 1999; Ghosh 2004]. The Hindutva forces utilised the new prominence of branding and marketing strategies to promote an identification of consumption, particularly of a few specific commodities like bricks, tridents and Ram stickers, with political participation and ‘Hinduness’ [Rajagopal 1999].

    The Sangh parivar refined this dual thrust by including a third angle aimed at elites. The BJP, which took on this role, sought to invoke elite support by projecting this kind of ‘participation’ as the method of reviving the Indian ‘nation’ [Jaffrelot 1996]. Hence, said the party, the movement had no “sectarian or communal colour” but only sought “the vindication of our cultural heritage and national self respect” [BJP 1991]. Notably, of course, the ‘nationalist’ rhetoric of the saffron brigade displaced not just other communities but the state itself from its central position as the defining entity of Indian politics. Other movements defied the state machinery in order to pressure it; the BJP and the VHP, in accordance with Hindutva tenets, vacillated between demanding state intervention and claiming that the state itself could simply be replaced.

    This dual emphasis on state irrelevance and participationthrough-consumption was precisely the same vocabulary used by economic reformists of the time, and indeed of today [Hansen 1999; Vanaik 1990]. Elites could now support a movement that promised that, partly through a specific form of consumption, they could be both allied with the ‘masses’ and secure their own social position by displacing the state machinery from political centrality. This offered a potential bridge between their increasingly liberal economic rhetoric and the Hindutva brigade.

    But there still remained considerable distance between neoliberal political discourse and the BJP. Moreover, the Ayodhya strategy could only last so long as the mosque existed; after its demolition, the Parivar faced a crisis, which was deepened by the liberalisation of the country’s economy.

    BJP’s Journey towards Neoliberalism

    Reflecting the interests of its historical base among traders and petty industrialists, the Jana Sangh had always advocated internal economic liberalism [Hansen 1999; Bhatt 2001]. But, while the 1991 reforms included considerable deregulation, the political focus was on external liberalisation. This squarely trapped the BJP in one of the tensions noted above, namely, Hindutva’s discomfort with ‘uncontrolled’ globalism, for it could not now oppose reforms without risking both its traditional and its elite support bases.

    The party’s response must be seen at multiple levels, particularly because of the intra-Sangh parivar fissures that this issue created. However, arguably one key element in its response was a deliberate displacement of the debate from the merits of globalism to the need for ‘national transformation’ through state rollback, an area of resonance between neoliberalism and Hindutva.

    An illustrative example of this was the gradual shift in the meaning of swadeshi. As early as 1992, the BJP was stressing that “swadeshi is not isolationism but development of confidence and capability” and that it desired the “swadeshi of a selfconfident, hard-working modern nation.” By 1994, it was including “the establishment of Indian companies and Indian brands in the world market” in the definition of swadeshi, and by 1995 it was contrasting the Congress government’s “faulty and halfhearted implementation of the reforms programme” with the BJP approach, for whom “reforms are a matter of conviction” [BJP 1994, 1995]. In 1998, the BJP subtitled the swadeshi section of its election manifesto “Making India a Global Economic Power” [BJP 1998].7 Thus, by this point, the BJP projected swadeshi as economic rejuvenation rather than economic nationalism, making it an alternative reform policy instead of an anti-reform one.

    During the same period, financial and pro-neoliberal elites were turning away from the Congress, then India’s main neoliberal political force. Between 1991 and 1996 it lost almost 40 per cent of its vote share among ‘high class’ voters [Yadav 2003].8 The party’s severe organisational decline undermined elite confidence in its abilities, particularly as its consistent anti-coalition stance pitted it against the rising regional parties, who were a potential threat to both neoliberalism and Hindutva (see below). Moreover, these parties’ adoption of neoliberal policies was a chaotic and inconsistent process that required a centre capable of managing their pressures. Thus in 1994 a reformist commentator claimed the Congress should now be “a protector of national unity, guarantor of security [and] a minimal level of law and order, … and a facilitator of globalisation of the Indian economy” (as quoted in Jenkins 1999:160). The party’s inability to do this alienated many of its elite supporters.

    Thus, the BJP’s projections probably began to find an increasingly interested audience. In addition to redefining swadeshi, the party now made other efforts to minimise the tensions between Hindutva and neoliberalism. The party’s appeal was increased by its post-1996 alliances with regional parties, which, paradoxically combined with its implicit invocations of a ‘tough centre’, demonstrated its potential for ‘managing’ the regional forces. The final step was the abandonment of the three ‘contentious issues’ of Ayodhya, Article 370 and a uniform civil code.9

    This increasing neoliberal-BJP symbiosis was reflected in both forces’ descriptions of each other. The largely neoliberal English press now described the BJP as ‘maturing’ into a ‘moderate centre-right’ party (by ‘accepting’ reforms and abandoning the three issues), while BJP supporters cheered the wider acceptance of ‘cultural nationalism’ [Hewitt 2000; Hanifa 1998; Mitra 1998; NDA 1999]. Each thus commended the other’s acceptance of the ‘historical inevitability’ of its own project.

    After 1996, the BJP consistently won the votes of approximately 40 per cent of ‘very high class’ voters [Heath and Yadav 1999].10 Election data for 1999 showed that no other party won such a high percentage of these votes, and no other economic sector voted for the BJP as heavily [Heath et al 1999]. With the creation of the NDA, the economic elite now formed part of a pro-NDA “new social bloc”, created “by the convergence of traditional caste-community differences and class distinctions” (ibid).

    Such changes did not, of course, take place without opposition. But these uneasy shifts nevertheless created the conditions for the formation of a joint political project, a step that was additionally facilitated by the NDA’s creation.

    The NDA Regime

    Indeed, the new alliance itself arguably made some of shared Hindutva-neoliberal goals possible. Most of the major NDA partners drew their support largely, though not solely, from regional propertied classes, the same classes that had driven most of the 1980s movements [Heath 1999; Desai 2004]. These social actors’ continued invocation of regional identities and state patronage still represented a potential threat to both Hindutva and neoliberalism.

    The NDA formation offered the possibility of deflecting this threat through a tentative, often unstable compromise between some regional elites, Hindutva, and national neoliberal forces.11 Thus both neoliberals and Hindutva leaders saw the NDA as a chance to ‘build a consensus’ or to generate “a national commitment on the part of all parties” (IE 1999; Seshadri 1998 respectively). This opportunity was arguably particularly important with respect to rearticulating social mobility and reducing the state’s role in this mobility, areas where these elites could be major obstacles to neoliberal and Hindutva efforts.

    With the NDA, long-term structural and discursive changes in this direction could now tentatively proceed. Neoliberal funding cuts and privatisation had already begun state deinstitutionalisation [Harriss-White 2003]. I end this section with two illustrative trends that may demonstrate how the NDA took further steps towards these goals.

    Redefinition of EducationRedefinition of EducationRedefinition of EducationRedefinition of EducationRedefinition of Education

    The NDA introduced new variations in public education, which is central to any system of social mobility. Higher education has been increasingly privatised [Ghosh 2002]. The 86th constitutional amendment indicated the government’s approach when it placed the onus for primary education on parents [Jha 2003]. In keeping with neoliberal policy, the amendment also “promotes privatisation …[and] franchises parts or whole of districts to corporate or religious bodies” [Kaur 2004].12

    Concurrently, however, the VHP and Vidya Bharati have expanded their school networks enormously in BJP and NDAruled states [e g, Sundar 2004]. Since 2000, more than 4,000 ekal vidyalayas have begun functioning in adivasi areas alone, while Vidya Bharati expanded from an estimated 6,000 schools in 1996 to 26,000 in 2003 [Dhar 2004; Ramakrishnan 1998; HRW 2003]. State support was important: “the Indian government supports (these schools) through official recognition and financial assistance…(they) receive government funds, use government buildings, take control of state schools, train state teachers and exert considerable influence over state education boards” [HRW 2003]. Vidya Bharati has thus become the largest provider of private education in the country [Taneja 2001]. Saffronisation of textbooks provided another angle to this transformation of education.

    As the state retreats, then, the Sangh parivar and the corporate sector have expanded their influence in primary education and higher education respectively. Each group thus controls the educational sector that is of greater ideological and social importance to them. It is notable that the new UPA government is only tentatively taking steps towards reclaiming this area, with the exception of the textbook issue.

    Social Institutions in GujaratSocial Institutions in GujaratSocial Institutions in GujaratSocial Institutions in GujaratSocial Institutions in Gujarat

    A much starker example is the situation in Gujarat, where social mobility has been thoroughly rearticulated. Since the 1980s, there has been a concerted effort to incorporate lower castes and dalits into Sangh parivar formations, while repressing any independent movements that form [Shah 1998; Puniyani 2003 and e g, Das 2002]. Similarly, Breman (2003) has described how parivar organisations displaced unions in providing security and solidarity to former textile workers. In adivasi areas, Christian institutions, often historically the only education providers, have been attacked, even as parivar schools and institutions have multiplied [e g, Bunsha 2003]. All of these processes were greatly accelerated during the 2002 pogrom.

    The BJP’s split in the late 1990s did not fundamentally challenge this framework. Indeed, even in directly electoral terms, the tremendous dominance of the Sangh parivar has meant that much of the effective opposition in Gujarat now comes from either within the parivar or from former parivar elements.

    But Gujarat is also India’s business ‘powerhouse’. For decades, state incentives, ‘open door’ policies and brutal repression of workers created a ‘pro-business’ climate, which grew after the 1991 reforms [Breman 2003; Dholakia 2002]. Conspicuous consumption has increased as the growth rate has risen, further enhancing the importance of wealth in social status [Chandrasekhar and Ghosh 2001; Vasavi 2002]. It is significant that, in the wake of the 2002 pogrom, Narendra Modi combined anti-Muslim hatemongering with business conventions emphasising Gujarat’s “unlimited potential, opportunities, talent and energy” [BJP 2003].

    One could thus argue that both political contestation and social mobility have now been mainly limited to this joint Hindutvaneoliberal framework. In a state of high economic insecurity, Hindutva groups discipline and repress alternative political contestation, forcing marginalised sections to accept the continuing power of Gujarat’s overlapping caste and financial elites – the dominant ‘historical bloc’, in Gramscian terms.13 In discursive terms, neoliberalism defines what it means to be a success in Gujarat, while the Sangh parivar defines what it means to be a Gujarati (or even to be a human being). Other political forces and the ostensibly democratic and constitutional institutions of the state now have little political weight.

    This is not a perfect symbiosis. The Sangh has not managed to repress caste tensions in Gujarat’s deeply unequal society, nor has it been able to fully maintain its organisational integrity. However, Gujarat remains in some senses the model of this shared project.

    Discursive Management of an AllianceDiscursive Management of an AllianceDiscursive Management of an AllianceDiscursive Management of an AllianceDiscursive Management of an Alliance

    My remaining discussion here focuses on the other area of shared priorities, namely redefining national political discourses. I have chosen three ‘case studies’: the discussions around the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’ conventions, the issue of reservations in the private sector, and the controversy over the fee cut at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM’s) during the tenure of former HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi. Each occupies a space where neoliberal and Hindutva concerns intersect. I use these as illustrations of how, first, neoliberalism and Hindutva defined boundaries through an area of discursive resonance; second, how they responded to contestation of those boundaries; and the third, how they managed a tension between their social principles.14

    The disadvantage of such a selection is that it highlights small discursive structures and leaves out broader trends during the NDA period. Some of these include the celebration of brahminical Hinduism and the projection of Vajpayee as an ‘elder statesman’ and brahminical poet-patriarch. In addition, as the ‘new India’ was exalted and consumption celebrated, the ‘old’ was attacked. Political leaders described – and continue to describe – public sector corporations and government employees as selfish, corrupt and apathetic. The rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ has become ubiquitous, and during the NDA period was used as a justification for the Gujarat genocide. Each of these case studies should be viewed against this broader background of twin efforts at inclusion and exclusion, ironically exemplified by the ‘India Shining’ campaign: by implication, those without ‘shining’ lives were simply not Indian.

    ‘The Nation’ and Its Heroes

    In January 2003 and January 2004, the NDA government held ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’ (PBD) conventions that aimed to allow NRIs to ‘reconnect with India’. Both conventions were given massive publicity and government support. These have been continued by the UPA, but it is important to note the relative lack of publicity for the 2005 PBD.

    The subject of these conventions, NRIs, are a key trope of both neoliberalism and Hindutva. For the Sangh parivar, NRI constituencies have been critical for decades; Sangh-linked NRIs are ostensibly carrying out Hindus’ “world historic mission” [Rajgopal 2001; Bhatt 2000]. For neoliberalism, in turn, NRIs are also a discursive resource: their ‘departure’ supposedly proves that India has not given them sufficient opportunities, because of the “utter failure of the Indian state…(and) its inefficiency and corruption” [Biswas 2003]. The prime minister’s welcome speech in 2003 encapsulated the latter concept: “[NRI successes] make us examine why the Indian is so much more innovative, productive and successful abroad…They prod us to create a business, investment and economic climate, which is as conducive to success” [Vajpayee 2003]. Thus both these projects see NRIs as a vanguard of ‘Indian society’.

    These strong NRI ties also have material grounding. The Sangh parivar receives massive amounts of NRI funding [Awaaz-SAW 2004; CSFH 2002]. Neoliberalism’s NRI links have been less direct, but no less important. NRI remittances helped cover India’s expanding trade deficit after 1991 [Corbridge and Harriss 2000], and NRI funds have supplied much of India’s forex reserves. Thus, both political projects have greatly benefited from NRI financial flows.

    This material aspect was central to the PBDs, whose main stated aim is “renew [NRIs] ties with their ancestral land and… explore new avenues of cooperation”, particularly through investment [PTI 2003]. Press coverage of the first PBD in the English press generally presented the issue as a conflict between NRI’s ‘sentimental attachment’ to India and their dislike of the ‘bad investment climate’ [e g, Indian Express 2003; Dhaliwal 2003]. In other words, ‘Indian society’ has doubly failed: it has given its best members neither ‘opportunities’, nor the compensation of a ‘good investment climate’ after they have left.

    These failures supposedly resulted from Indians’ flawed values. Thus, TheTimes of India approvingly quoted one Canadian NRI saying, “[Canadians] accepted us for our hard work…you, too [must] become good human beings” [Dhaliwal 2003]. Others said Indians lacked “integrity, attitude, commitment, ability” [Upadhyaya 2004]. Thus NRIs became ideal Indians, representatives of what ‘India’ could achieve if Indians were ‘good’ individuals following correct social ‘values’. There could hardly be any message that neoliberalism and Hindutva agreed upon more.

    But, in addition to criticising Indian ‘society’, the NDAs, PBDs also carried a clear message about that society’s boundaries. This emerged most clearly with the announcement of dual citizenship at the 2003 PBD [Jayachandran 2003]. Some critics pointed out the glaring contradiction of giving NRI’s citizenship rights while denying them to Kashmiris, Gujarati Muslims, and others [Bidwai 2003; Hoskote 2003]. But this was precisely the point. The PBD, after all, was a gesture of discursive delimitation. NRIs were to be ‘welcomed home’ even as other communities were driven out.15 Thus, this was one more effort to displace the historical norms of the Indian state and instead redraw Indian society’s boundaries around a supposedly unitary community, one whose individuals could strive to change their faulty ‘values’ to the true values of neoliberalism and Hindutva. The fact that this had no basis in India’s political, historical or constitutional institutions was exactly why it had to take place.

    Defining Pathways for Social Mobility16

    Such definitions of Indian society naturally have few takers in other political formations. One manifestation of opposition, which began during NDA rule and followed it as well, has been the demand for private sector reservations. In our terms, reservations proponents accept neoliberal notions of the private sector as the arena for social mobility, but claim that it must therefore follow the same political rules as the earlier state-driven arena. For Hindutva supporters and neoliberals, this is a direct threat to the boundaries I noted above. It threatens to puncture the ‘new’ India’s upper caste-dominated ‘unitary society’ and force it to recognise social divisions and grant a major role to the state. Intense hostility has hence greeted the demand.

    This hostility has followed the standard anti-reservations tropes: reservation advocates are accused of ‘vote bank’ politics and disregard for individual ‘merit’ [The Telegraph 2003]. But now reservation opponents link these claims to the need to maintain Indian industry’s supposed ‘global competitiveness’. Thus Arun Shourie, the former disinvestment minister, declared, “In a competitive world, jobs can’t be given on the basis of birth instead of capability” [Mukherjee 2004]. More dramatically, neoliberal proponent Gurcharan Das (2004) proclaimed, “Bajaj, Hero Honda, TVS and others will have to shut their Indian factories…and (start) importing their scooters into India”, while the Hindustan Times has claimed that reservations would “kill the golden goose” that is making India a “global economic powerhouse” [Hindustan Times 2004c]. An RSS-authored Organiser article best demonstrated the melding of neoliberal vocabulary with caste prejudice. It lamented the ostensible neglect of the “economically poor brahmin community”, who are “surviving by dint of their merit, diligence and honesty”, but also claims that with reservations, “(multinational) companies may develop second thoughts…(since they) would like to enter the world competitiveness [sic] to the satisfaction of their customers” [Madhava Rao 2004].

    In short, if this ‘new India’, a homogenous realm of individuals (for the Organiser, specifically brahmins and multinationals) competing on merit, is forced to accept the mechanisms and divisions of the ‘old India’, it will be destroyed. Without ‘global competitiveness’, its existence has no meaning.

    Two alternatives to reservations have been frequently proposed. The first is “upgrading skills (of SC/STs and OBCs) and giving (them) the right kind of training”, reducing the issue to individual ‘upgradation’ rather than caste discrimination [The Hindu 2004]. The second is economic reservations, given that supposedly “poverty does not recognise caste barriers” [Daily Pioneer 2003]. Thus the ‘real’ problem is poverty, not discrimination, and reservations should assist the poor in overcoming their ‘disadvantage’. By conceiving of poverty as an individual ‘disadvantage’ of birth rather than a collective or class status, this once again erases social power relations and reduces the matter to a paternalistic notion of “uplifting the poor”.17 This economic reservations demand has long formed a part of the Sangh parivar’s vocabulary, and neoliberals now increasingly advocate it as well. Thus, Outlook claimed most business leaders feel that “(any quota system) should be on economic and not caste basis” [Mukherjee 2004].

    In sum, opponents of reservations have defined a discourse that can equally well host Hindutva organicism, casteism and neoliberal claims. It defends the boundaries of the ‘new India’ by insisting that it will not recognise the existence of discrimination and divisions either within or outside itself. Entering this ‘new India’ should only be possible through the approved ‘meritorious’ channels; anything else would kill ‘India’ itself.

    Managing a Tension

    My final case study concerns the ability of these ideologies to manage their tensions during the NDA period, using the controversy around the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) as an example. I focus on how, in this instance, neoliberals responded to a Hindutva move that threatened their agendas.

    The IIMs are central to Indian neoliberalism, both concretely, in that they train many corporate leaders, and discursively, because of the salience of management as a central neoliberal concept.18 In October 2003, however, the human resources development (HRD) ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi imposed a steep fee cut on these ‘premier’ institutes [Lakshman 2003]. Joshi argued that the IIMs could not take such large sums without being accountable to the government and ‘the people’ [Indian Express 2004a].

    Though at first glance unrelated to the Sangh parivar, the move also reflected parivar sentiments.19 The Organiser said the move was an expression of “the government’s concern for social uplift” and that opponents were “insult[ing]… Indian society” since they implied that poor students couldn’t perform [Bhattacharya 2004a; Organiser 2004]. These were standard claims of Hindutva’s organic rhetoric, which argues that the wealthy must engage in charitable ‘social uplift’ [Golwalkar 1979]. This reflected the deeper Hindutva-neoliberal tension around individual autonomy (see above) and also violated the ‘division of labour’ described in the previous section on education.

    The response was a firestorm of outrage in the IIMs, corporate lobbies and neoliberal press outlets. Initial responses included accusations of betrayal and claims that the HRD ministry was violating the NDA’s election manifesto [Roy 2004; Mitta 2004]. Other commentators demanded that Joshi should stay with primary education, his ‘real job’ [Majumdar 2004; FE 2004]. Columnist Tavleen Singh (2004) explicitly asked Joshi to follow the division of labour by focusing on ‘Indianising’ primary education rather than “wast[ing] time interfering in our finest institutions.”

    But, at the same time, such a small issue could not be allowed to derail BJP-neoliberal links. Therefore, the tension had to be managed. The first step was to treat the tension as if it was independent of both ideologies’ fundamental tenets, in this case by deeming it to be the result of expediency and ‘vote-bank politics’. Thus the cut was described as a sop for the “whining majority” or the “simple voter”, who would support “social engineering experiments” [IE 2004b; Mazoomdar 2004; Gupta 2004a; HT 2004b]. After all, said a neoliberal commentator, “social justice is a holy cow” in Indian politics [Indiresan 2004]. The parallels between this rhetoric and anti-reservation tropes are not accidental; they helped neoliberals identify the fee cut with the ‘old’ state activity that both Hindutva and neoliberalism opposed.

    Second, the threat was treated as organisationally limited as well. The entire controversy was equated with Murli Manohar Joshi’s personality (and secondarily with his staff). Thus, of the Hindustan Times’ two editorials on the issue, one concerned Joshi’s “selectivity with the truth” and the other claimed, “we have come to expect a certain kind of behaviour from Murli Manohar Joshi” [HT 2004a, b]. The ‘real job’ criticisms noted above focused on the failure of schools in Joshi’s own electoral constituency. Other commentators attacked the HRD ministry’s officials as “egomaniacal”, “meddlesome mandarins” suffering from a “colonial hangover” [Gupta 2004; Bhattacharya 2004b; Indiresan 2004]. As a result, the near unanimous recommendation was that the BJP should demonstrate its ‘moderation’ – here, its acceptance of neoliberalism – by eliminating Joshi [see, e g, Singh 2004; FE 2004].

    By reducing the issue to ‘vote bank politics’ and personal agendas, neoliberal commentators thus actually depoliticised a potential contradiction between their agenda and the Hindutva one.20 This reflected the pattern of most ‘controversies’ between the two projects. A prime though contrasting example, which unfortunately is too complex for me to fully discuss here, was the Gujarat pogroms. After Gujarat, one neoliberal commentator called on Vajpayee to forget communalism and now only speak of “business, trade, investment” [Baru 2002]. Further, some neoliberal press outlets converted secularists’ emphasis on chief minister Narendra Modi as an autocrat with command responsibility into a description of Modi as a madman. He was another individual who had failed to realise the BJP’s need to be ‘moderate’ [e g, Gupta 2002; Das 2003].

    But Gujarat could not be erased entirely. The issue continued to be a source of tension; notably, after the elections, some neoliberals blamed Gujarat for the NDA’s defeat [e g, Gupta 2004b].

    The Present DayThe Present DayThe Present DayThe Present DayThe Present Day

    The NDAs shock election defeat was a major setback for both neoliberalism and Hindutva. Clearly these projects had, for the moment, failed to achieve hegemony. Indeed, the voting pattern established “a radical shift in the social basis of political power”: an inchoate “alternative bloc” of socially marginal groups defeated the NDA’s “new social bloc” [Yadav 2004].

    Yet the very fact that such polarisation occurred could be a sign of the NDA’s partial success. It has shown that it is possible to build a ‘historic bloc’ of social actors around neoliberal-Hindutva priorities and to articulate a coherent hegemonic project for it. To use our terms, the alliance partly succeeded in building on these projects’ resonances, containing their tensions and coopting some of their most powerful potential opponents (regional elites).

    However, state power was an important factor in this bloc’s functioning, as is shown by the NDA’s and the BJP’s severe postelection decline. As well, the UPA – and specifically the Congress

    – is trying to project itself as the new premier neoliberal formation. With its rhetoric of winning popular support through ‘reforms with a human face’, the new government thus claims that it, unlike the NDA, can create a truly hegemonic form of neoliberalism.

    I would however be cautious about sweeping predictions that Hindutva and neoliberalism no longer share any agendas. The context that created a possibility of a shared political agenda are still present, and has been given new life through the UPA. The neoliberal press has showered scorn on any effort to reverse the NDA’s steps, even in instances such as the textbook controversy, where the same press itself had condemned the NDA. The persistence of such common agendas indicates that the political possibility is still very much alive; how the situation evolves, of course, remains to be seen.


    This argument has attempted to sketch the possibility that there is an area of shared political priorities between neoliberalism and Hindutva, an area that represents neither a complete merger of these forces nor a purely opportunistic alliance. Instead, these projects have shared a logic whose validity is not infinite – in the sense that it will eventually break down under the weight of its contradictions – but is also not entirely non-existent. It is a logic dictated both by the projects themselves and by their political context, as is arguably typical of any hegemonic project in real politics.

    Such alliances are often dismissed as ‘expedient’ by journalists and political analysts, given the ‘fundamental’ contradiction between the two political forces. This kind of dismissal, however, prevents us from recognising the reality that political alliances rarely require complete harmony between political forces; rather, they are shaped by historical circumstances. There is a large middle ground between complete harmony and complete dissonance.

    Recognising such middle grounds allows us to speculate on other possibilities as well. For instance, one might use this analysis to argue for another dimension to the alliances between neoliberalism and social reaction mentioned in the Introduction of this article, namely, such alliances express common class interests by articulating shared notions of a bounded, unitary and individual-based conception of society. These notions transcend the usual liberal-conservative divide over individual rights and focus on common opposition to the rights of communities, classes and political formations; for if there is one issue on which neoliberalism, authoritarianism and fascism all agree, it is the need to forcibly depoliticise society. The need for defining the boundaries of such a unitary society – an area where a transnational project like neoliberalism may particularly benefit from domestic reactionary forces – could be especially necessary where prior popular mobilisations have politicised social divisions and privileged the state’s role in social mobility, as in India after the 1980s, but also as in Argentina after Peronism, Chile after Allende, or Britain after the 1970s.

    Such alliances are historically shaped – they are not inevitable. But they represent an expression of political possibility. Those of us who care about social justice can only ignore such possibilities at great peril.




    [I am indebted to Subir Sinha for helping me greatly in consolidating and building this argument. Chetan Bhatt’s incisive thoughts on these issues also provided me with several new directions of analysis.]

    1 A good example of a study of such a hegemonic project is the ‘authoritarian populism’ view of Thatcherism in Britain [Gamble 1988]. Accepting the general view of neoliberalism as the “politics constructed from … freedom of choice, the market society, laissez faire, and minimal government”, namely, the hegemonic project of transnational circulating capital, they argued that Thatcherism “translat[ed] economic doctrine into the language of experience, moral imperative and common sense, thus providing … an alternative ethic” [Overbeek and van der Pijl 1993:15; Hall 1983]. By refracting genuine social contradictions through the notion of ‘freedom’ for ‘society’ from ‘government interference’, Thatcherism utilised the resonances between a political ideology (conservatism) and an economic ideology (liberalism). The result had a coherent, systematic logic that went beyond the contingent or opportunistic combination of two otherwise unconnected ideologies.

    2 In the course of this article I often refer to ‘neoliberals’ or ‘Hindutva forces’ as if these are monolithic entities. I am aware that this is untrue, and that this argument perhaps suffers from selection bias in terms of choosing which voices to treat as ‘neoliberal’ or saffron. However, considering that this is indeed an exploration, the thrust of the argument might well be severely diluted if I attempted to analyse all the internal debates within the Sangh Parivar and Indian neoliberalism. Therefore, I use these terms as shorthand, and wherever possible specifically identify the actors that I am referring to.

    3 In this section, my primary sources for Hindutva are Deendayal Upadhyaya’s ‘integral humanism’ series of lectures and texts drawn from them, as these are often quoted as the core of the Parivar’s socio-economic ideology. For neoliberalism, I draw on Foucaldian analyses of the ‘Chicago school’ of economics (which largely defined the basic tenets of present-day neoliberalism), and on examples from Thatcherism and American neoliberalism.

    4 Upadhyaya makes this quite clear. At one point he declares that “let us understand very clearly that dharma is not necessarily with the majority or with the people…Therefore, it is not enough to say [that] democracy… is the government of the people. It has to be a government for the good of the people…It is dharma alone which can decide (the good of the people)” (1979c:56).

    5 Such a ‘community’ discourse was not new to Indian politics, though it now achieved even greater prominence. Hansen (1999) for instance argues that the notion of democracy in India has long been associated with the idea of equal rights for communities rather than for individuals.

    6 The notion of vested interests was critical to this shared vocabulary. NFMs, for instance, frequently argued that farmers were oppressed because the state was pandering to the interests of urban areas [Assadi 1995]. Similarly, the Assam and Punjab movements argued that they were being discriminated against by the central government, seen as pandering to Bangladeshi immigrants and Hindus respectively.

    7 The actual economic policies the BJP advocated until 1996 remained fairly constant: a mix of neoliberal reforms, mainly deficit reduction, privatisation, and tax cuts, and non-neoliberal policies such as full employment, subsidies and price freezes. Much of this was contradictory – the ballooning deficit was vehemently condemned even as the party called for tax cuts and restoration of subsidies.

    8 The definition of ‘high class’ includes professionals, businesspeople, landholders (more than 10 acres), skilled workers, middle and upper level government staff, and those living in ‘pucca’ housing. See Heath and Yadav 1999 for details.

    9 It should be noted that this shift only consolidated the pre-existing division of labour within the Sangh Parivar, where the BJP had never been regarded as either the sole or even the main mass mobilising force (that dubious honour being reserved for the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, etc). I am not claiming that neoliberal pressure was the sole reason that this shift occurred – indeed, in immediate political terms, the pressures of the regional parties were far more critical. However, these shifts opened the space for neoliberals to endorse the BJP as well.

    10 ‘Very high class’ includes professionals, businesspeople, farmers with more than 20 acres of land and those earning more than Rs 20,000 a month, see Heath and Yadav 1999.

    11 Again, I am not claiming that this was the sole reason for the NDA’s creation, only that it was among the consequences of its formation. Reasons for the NDA’s formation include much more complex political manoeuvres and state-specific factors.

    12 In themselves these are not new measures in Indian education policy, though they were now rephrased in increasingly neoliberal terms. I am indebted to Subir Sinha for pointing this out.

    13 It is interesting that this bloc does not necessarily include national capital, as seen in the mixed reactions of national corporates to the Gujarat pogroms [Roy 2000].

    14 This is not to say that numerous other issues could not have been taken up, and to some extent this selction is indeed arbitrary.

    15 The very word pravasi (or ‘paravaasii’) can be translated as meaning “[one] residing in another’s house for some time” ( Hence the beginning of Vajpayee’s (2003) speech: “Welcome home.”

    16 My effort in this section is not to enter into the actual validity or otherwise of reservations in the private sector. Rather, my goal is to interpret the positions that were taken by Hindutva and neoliberal forces on this matter.

    17 This, again, is an analysis of the discourse around this issue, not a criticism of economic reservations in themselves.

    18 Neoliberalism sees all forms of organisation, including the state itself, as enterprises – and thus their operation becomes a matter of ‘management’ [Burchell 1996].

    19 It may also seem that these moves reintroduced the state as an arbiter of mobility. However, the government’s other moves in education made it clear that, in this case, it saw the state only as a stopgap tool for Sangh parivar control. This was reflected in rumours that, for instance, the ministry wished to introduce compulsory Sanskrit courses as well.

    20 Out of more than 30 press pieces surveyed for this argument, only one – Jha 2004 – described the controversy as resulting from a ‘BJP regime.’


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