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Towards Hegemony

BJP beyond Electoral Dominance

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator, and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party has contributed to the emergence of a new ideological framework to India’s democracy and public life in general. This framework might be better understood if it is seen as the crafting of hegemony. The politics of crafting a new hegemony did not emerge all of a sudden. Beyond the immediate context, the rise of the party needs to be understood in the broader political context that has shaped up since 1989.

Being an article originally presented at the seminar held at King’s India Institute, I have benefited from comments by the participants, particularly by Katherine Adeney and Louise Tillin. The present draft has also benefited from the comments of an anonymous referee who carefully read the draft and nudged me to think of a couple of complicated issues. I am thankful to the reviewer and to the participants at the seminar.

This article proposes to discuss the consequences of emergence of the new party system in India and the politics of shaping a “new India.” It is argued here that besides the electoral ascendance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (the steadiness of which is rather incontrovertible), political developments also indicate the gradual shaping of a new hegemony in India. Thus, the “second dominant party system” is more than a mere party system; it is a moment of the rise of a new set of dominant ideas and sensibilities that would provide ideological sustenance to the dominant party system. It is of course true that electoral politics is bound to replace existing governments and prop up new majorities in politics from time to time. But it is argued here that electoral uncertainties notwithstanding, the recent rise of the BJP has contributed to the emergence of a new ideological framework to India’s democracy and public life in general. This framework might be better understood if it is seen as the crafting of hegemony. Three years since the initial appearance, the newness of the hegemonic aspects emerging in the polity is clearer.

This politics of crafting a new hegemony did not emerge all of a sudden. While this article primarily looks at how this project has developed since the last leg of the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), it is useful to keep in mind the broader context that has made emergence of a new hegemony possible. Beyond the immediate context, the rise of the BJP needs to be understood in the broader political context that has shaped up since 1989. If one were to move beyond electoral performance, the post-1989 period is marked by the absence of an ideological theme that could bind politics together. Against the backdrop of the defeat of the Congress party in the 1989 elections, one could also witness its inability to command any control over the narratives that constituted key reference points for political contestations. This has been variously described as decline of the Congress party (Yadav 1996), or the “third life” of the Congress marked by challenge of survival (Palshikar 2015b).

Decisive Restructuring of Party System

In 2014, the BJP emerged as the dominant party not merely in numeric terms; it expanded its political presence to a large number of states, received support from a cross section of the society, placed the leadership factor at the centre of competitive politics and above all, set the tone for political debates. Since then, but also during that election, the BJP and Narendra Modi made every effort to set aside the state-specific factors, make them less relevant and bring about an all-India imagination that dominated the electorate. Throughout the 1990s, in spite of the initial success of the Ram Janmabhoomi mobilisations, the growth of the BJP was arrested by the then existing state-specific nature of politics wherein not just electoral contests but the language of politics and issue framing were mostly state-specific. But in the 2014 elections, the party managed to break this barrier and present an all-India imagination. This feature of its politics went against the established pattern of state-dominated competition.1 Besides the fact that the BJP was the first party to gain a clear majority since 1984, the 2014 outcome underscored its dominance in terms of the lethal defeat inflicted on the main competitor, the Congress party (19% vote and 44 seats). Thus, the distance between the BJP and all other parties who were separately opposed to it (or as part of the UPA, which polled 23% votes and won 59 seats), constitutes the core of the dominance and its capacity to frame issues and project images at the all-India level distinguished it from the politics of the previous decade and a half.

After coming to power in Delhi, the BJP has alternated between acquiescing into the dynamics of state-specificity and further strengthening an all-India paradigm of politics. The “Modi factor” continued to push state-specificity aside. Bihar was a rude reminder of the importance of state-specificity, but the BJP still persisted with its strategy of countering state-specificity by national or all-India factors. The “crusade” against black money and the hype over nationalism are both instances of this strategy. Modi’s address to the party after the election results of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly indicates this turn most explicitly. After UP, he was not talking only, or even primarily, about UP.2 The vision he talked about was the vision of new India. This shift away from the states may pose a serious crisis for state parties.

To slightly restate my earlier argument about the emergence of the “second dominant party system” (Palshikar 2017b), this means that (i) Congress is unlikely to strike back in the near future; (ii) any coalition led by the Congress will remain only weak and nominal (together, both these points mean that there will not be a single node around which “opposition” to the BJP can shape); (iii) one by one, state parties that stood their ground in 2014 are likely to fall;3 (iv) most social sections, in terms of class, caste and location, would support the BJP in large proportion making it difficult to argue that it is a sectional party4 thus making its social profile flat but robust; (v) in the short term, there would be a delinking between its performance and electoral support because the voter would be willing to trust in promises rather than checking on actual performance; (vi) Modi would continue to be the central force within the BJP for winning elections, controlling the party and for acquiring popular acceptability.

Dominance in the Terrain of Ideas

But more than dominance in terms of the structure of competition, it is the ideological terrain where the emergent dominance needs careful attention. In tune with the true implication of the idea of a dominant party system, the rise of the BJP underscores the emergence of a new politics. While the BJP has yet to truly emerge as a dominant party by getting re-elected in 2019, the party is already busy ushering in a new dimension of dominance. The idiom and import of this new dominance are complex. The new politics of Modi’s BJP is going to be a blend of new Hindutva and the political economy of a new variety (Palshikar 2017a).5 Newspaper columns and unsolicited counsels to Modi keep hoping and advising that this moment be used by him to rein in Hindutva elements and focus on the economy (and governance). Indeed, a whole lot of the commenting crowd loves Modi as the messiah of development and governance, and thinks that the other Modi would fade into the background. What they conveniently ignore is the fact that it is unthinkable that the BJP and Modi have given up, or for that matter would ever give up, Hindutva.

New Hindu Nationalism

Hindutva is a century-old project. To be sure, it has travelled a long way from the ideas of M S Golwalkar. While opposition to Muslims (and minority religious groups in general) and the idea of homogenisation constitute the bases of Hindu nationalism, under M D Deoras during the 1970s and later in the late 1980s under L K Advani, Hindutva’s approach to religion and its social composition have changed quite substantially. This transformation has been variously described as neo-Hinduism (Vora–Palshikar 1990) and vernacularisation of Hindutva (Hansen 1996). Modi and contemporary Hindu nationalism are products of that transformation. While Modi has never pretended to proffer a new vision of Hindutva (much of his approach originates in the Savarakarite view of Hindutva that percolated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks through Deoras), his politics and that of his party have the ability of shaping the Hindutva rhetoric and also the popular imagination about what Hindutva constitutes.6

Modi’s Hindutva exhorts its followers to become Hindu politically and become “religious Hindu” by way of public manifestation of religiosity. Both these are the gifts of the Advani era which unfolded during the Ayodhya agitation. During the first couple of years of Modi’s prime ministership, there was much less explicit talk about Hindutva as such and more about nationalism. The conflation between nationalism and Hindutva has been the backbone of the new ideological dominance. That is why the BJP has been so happy with intellectuals trying to problematise the idea of nation. Such an ideological/intellectual stand places the BJP in a position of immense advantage and ensures that “anti-BJP” would necessarily be equated with the anti-national. Even without getting into the debate about Hindutva, the BJP has been able to discredit critiques of the idea of nation by creating an atmosphere of nationalist excitement. From there, it is not very difficult to implicitly suggest that being a nationalist is equivalent of being a Hindu and vice versa. The mixing of the registers of nationalism and Hindutva adroitly strengthens the BJP’s new hegemonic project because while many people may not have any emotional connect with the idea of Hindutva, a majority certainly has emotional investment in the idea of nation. Because the BJP succeeds in conflating these two, for the new recruits to Hindutva who come from a cross section of the society, being a staunch Hindu becomes a vehicle that expresses their nationalism.

Of course, from the beginning, Hindutva has claimed to be coterminous with nationalism. But since he appeared on the national scene, Modi has spoken less about Hindutva and more about nationalism. This tactical shift has helped him generate enormous support for not only his personal leadership but also the overarching nationalist narrative—a narrative that encompasses development, national power and Hindutva. This move, beyond all else, has been characteristic of a hegemonic project nearly achieved. Since coming to power, almost every single step of the Modi government has been presented as constituting the grand narrative of nationalism. In the early phase, two critical episodes erupted that placed a seal of finality on the emergent hegemony and the new nationalism that the public was willing to accept. One was the “JNU issue” (referring to the Jawaharlal Nehru University). The key point is that sections of JNU students could be projected as challenging India’s nationalism and the response from opponents could be dubbed as anti-national. While intellectual circles were aghast at the arrogance of nationalist fervour, ordinary citizens did not find anything wrong in privileging nationalism over everything else. A related issue that emerged then was the freedom of expression when the Modi regime argued that freedom of expression is subject to the idea of the nation. In the normative register of a majority of the citizens, this resonated: freedom of expression could not supersede nation and nationalism, it could be only next to and subservient to the idea of nation. Thus, the debate on nationalism was appropriated by the BJP to bring home the point that its opponents are “anti-national” in their approach.

But besides name-calling and stigmatisation of opponents, the Modi regime has found it possible to slowly begin redefining Indian nationalism. While it has boldly begun to bring Savarkar’s ideas to the centre stage of nationalist discourse, it has also introduced controversial elements in the nationalist discourse at the level of practice. For long, the slogan “Vande Mataram” has been the bone of contention. To that, the more recent debates have added the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” The Supreme Court ruling on playing the national anthem in movie theatres became a useful ploy for the BJP to highlight the need to assert national sentiments and symbols. The cow is added to this as a matter of national pride and concern. Together, these newly assertive symbols have changed the discourse on the question of nation and nationalism beyond recognition. In a short span of a couple of years, the BJP has successfully shifted the meaning and importance of the idea of nationalism. This new nationalism is firmly based on the multiple bases of new symbolisms, supposed economic advance, the status of the country in global community and the militaristic policy articulated by the publicity accorded to “surgical strikes.” For ordinary citizens, each of these has become incontrovertible aspect of nationalism and hence it is easy to stigmatise those who oppose these measures and contest this particular variant of nationalism.

New Developmentalism

The other key component of the ideological dominance consists of the idea of development. The Congress party was the initial architect of this component but does not have the political courage and ideological sophistication today to capitalise on it. Thus, development as an idea emerges from a certain amount of consensus. However, throughout the decade since the late 1990s, the popular expectations fanned by globalisation and inadequately satiated by India’s political economy remained unattended. The BJP faltered in making haste on the platform of “shining India,” but no other party really took note of the potential of that politics of hope and expectation. Ironically, the Congress did have the past record of similarly tapping hope and expectation—through the audacious “Garibi Hatao” slogan! But the party has ceased to allow any political imagination and therefore, while it came close to capturing the public imagination through its “Aam Aadmi Ka Saath” slogan it failed in tapping the energy of hope. By then, the Congress party had completely lost the capacity to appropriate ideas and slogans for building a durable set of ideological apparatus that would ensure diffuse support beyond mere votes. Instead of seizing the initiative, it went on hoping that voters would be willing to support it only on the basis of a discourse of palliatives.

Modi took over from where Pramod Mahajan had left the politics of hope and received enough response to it to turn that into an integral element of his ideological offering. The second key element of the ideological dominance was thus carved out from the utterly innocuous but eminently evocative term of development. The BJP’s emerging ideological dominance seeks to deploy new shades of meaning to the idea of development and while these are yet unarticulated the efforts are visible to redefine development. Though during the campaign for Lok Sabha elections, Modi equated development with nationalism, and after coming to power, he floated three non-controversial elements to speak about development. Many observers were (at least in the first year of this rhetoric) impressed by the possibilities that Modi’s developmentalist rhetoric appeared to contain. These were the ideas/slogans of “Swachh Bharat,” “Make in India” and “Skill India” (to which “Digital India” has now been added). Subsequently, the imagination of “new India” is being developed in which the emphasis is on opportunity and achievement replacing key reference points such as welfare and redistribution. This direction is not entirely new—sections of policymakers have been pushing the country in this direction during the past couple of decades and the Modi regime has taken this forward.

The narratives of both Hindutva and development are presented as parts of the larger and more influential “grand narrative” of nationalism. Independently, both ideas—Hindutva and development—are potent political discourses. By weaving them together with nationalism, Modi has bound them into an arsenal of his political and ideological offensive.

Crafting Discursive Dominance

The crafting of a new hegemony is a complex challenge related to both production of ideas and their dissemination. In this sense, it is a task comprising of repackaging the old and also packaging the controversial in an acceptable form. The dominant forces always need to ensure that elements acceptable both to large cross section and to sections of the intelligentsia and media are given a place of prominence. The more controversial ideas get acceptability through association with the accepted ideas, besides, of course concerted efforts on the part of the dominant powers. However, it is important that in crafting hegemony, new ideas are floated in the public domain which might generate only limited controversy and have the potential of becoming acceptable to cross section of the population. The present regime has done this with remarkable skill. In an effort to strengthen the hegemonic project, Modi and the BJP needed to combine the acceptable and the controversial. The present juncture is characterised by this exercise. In most cases, the idiom is from the repertoire of accepted ideas and labels but connotations and implications are new.

We can take a quick look at the debates and subsequent acceptance of some of the ideas that the new regime has sought to float.

Cashless: The Prime Minister unveiled demonetisation by addressing the nation and arguing that this was a move necessary to dig out black money. Subsequently, he even lamented the sufferings of the ordinary citizen on this account but appealed to their sense of national duty. In the course of the bizarre developments that continued to unfold, the arguments kept changing; the objectives varied from black money to terrorism to digital/cashless economy, to broadening the tax base. While economists have wondered at the economic wisdom behind the move, political commentators have wondered about the near-suicidal political wisdom (or lack of it) behind the move. But, the fact remains that Modi has shown the capacity to shift the discourse from a defensive argument to an aggressive one involving nationalism and making the idea of digital/cashless economy acceptable or at least “fashionable.” Taking off from the talk about black money that began with the 2011 anti-corruption agitation, the new hegemony seeks to introduce a set of values in terms of cashless transactions and the marginalisation of the informal economy in favour of a corporate-driven economy affectionately welcomed by the middle classes. The demonetisation discourse also legitimised a strong state-centred and vigilance/surveillance-driven exercise of authority. So, through the anti-corruption agenda, a new structure of the economy and a turn towards regulation-centred state authority actually emerged as elements of the new hegemony.

Electoral reforms: Right from the early days of the Modi regime, he has often talked of “electoral reforms.” Again, this is a beautifully consensual platform. That it can become part of the new discursive space is evidenced from the willingness of the Congress to also engage in discussion of “change in the electoral system.7 “A host of civil society organisations have always initiated debates over this issue. Modi latched on to that term, though he added his own meaning to it: holding elections to national and state legislatures simultaneously is his key electoral reform (remarkably, a pithy slogan has emerged: “One Nation-One Election,” thus connecting the initiative to the nationalist motif) and the Election Commission of India has dutifully subscribed to the wisdom of this move. The apparent argument is boldly populist, holding that such a move would reduce election expenditure. With all its robustness, India’s democracy is always seen by many as an expensive affair and this idea of reducing expenses quickly sets off a string of support among the larger public. It is also argued that simultaneous elections would improve “governance” because of the reduction in restricting governments from taking policy decisions. On the margins of this discussion of electoral reforms, there is occasional mention of the use of money and restrictions on that. Election and political funding in general are key issues for democracy in India but are buried under the new initiative to start “bonds” for political funding which can only make funding more hazy (Vaishnav 2017). Thus a new idea gets floated, it overshadows the core issues, and in fact, sets to change the basic principle of parliamentary system without raising any public debate on that aspect—and yet the space for arguing against it remains almost non-existent.

EPI vs VIP: A third instance is the popular decision to “end VIP culture.” The decision of the Government of India to do away with red beacons on VIP vehicles has been generally welcomed even by the grudging media. It is another matter that this is not exactly the initiative of the Modi regime—it flows from a court case. But the way it has been appropriated showcases the capacity of the architects of new hegemony to accommodate factors that would make the emergent set of new ideas morally superior, acceptable to the general public and politically difficult to counter. In fact, Modi has shown extraordinary agility in connecting his own discourse to the removal of red beacons. When Modi was campaigning in 2014 and even after he became the Prime Minister, he often referred to not only his austere background, but the fact that he was an “outsider” to Delhi’s power circles. This claim replaced Arvind Kejriwal’s claim against the “political class” in general. Modi’s claim was promptly endorsed by some commentators, shifting attention from the political class to Lutyen’s Delhi (see, for instance, Dasgupta 2013). It has been argued that Modi intended to not only break that power grid in Delhi but also ensure that the state apparatus works for the ordinary citizen.8 In his characteristic manner, Modi coined a term for this “Pradhan Sevak.” So, using the red beacon ban, he reminded the public of his resolve to remain only a servant and that he upholds a new culture wherein “every person is important” (EPI) as against the “VIP” culture. It is necessary not to merely discount these as gimmicks or cosmetic measures or wordplay, but to note that such “small” measures do resonate with the popular imagination and expectation. The initiatives such as discarding red beacons show that there is a basis of public resentment, a context in the form of anti-corruption mobilisation, a skilful political appropriation of the anti-elite (or anti-establishment) sentiments and more sophisticated explanations of what Modi symbolises—all contributing to a crafting of a new dominant discourse.

Secularism’: Alongside these ideas with greater and easy acceptability, the dominant ones also includes those that draw their sustenance more from prejudices of the majority than from their actual connotation. The Modi regime has always assured that it would not treat the minority in an unjust manner and in fact the regime prides itself on the question of “equal treatment” of majority and minority. The BJP has always—from Advani’s time—claimed that while it seeks to enforce true secularism, the Congress and most other parties indulge in pseudo-secularism.9 True secularism, according to this view point, means strictly equal treatment of all religious communities. Modi gave expression to this narrow construction of secularism when, during the UP electoral campaign he said that true secularism meant that whether Eid or Diwali, both communities would receive equal treatment in terms of uninterrupted power supply (Indian Express 2017a).10 Similarly, Modi and the BJP practically hijacked the progressive and reformist agenda on the question of talaq both during the hearing of the case and the SC ruling subsequently. In insisting on reforming Muslim personal law, the BJP seeks to attract the Hindu community on the basis of strict equality and believes that this is a path to true secularism and justice to women. The government’s drive to push for a ban on triple talaq naturally added to the popularity of the Modi regime among the majority community.

Organisational network: While relatively more acceptable ideas constitute the outer appearance of discursive dominance and ideas addressing the majority community’s prejudices constitute the popular elements, the real core is drawn from the most controversial elements—controversies surrounding the issues of cow and conversions are instances of these. Although there are many complicated issues involved in these matters, during the past couple of years, it has become tough to contest the “Hindu” viewpoint on these matters partly because of vigilantism that seeks to suppress debate and partly because public support is building up in favour of the Hindutva arguments on these matters. This intervention in the discursive domain and the shift in public attitudes have been possible because of the complex alignment of leadership, party, government and the allied organisations.

While the BJP indeed is busy as a party in coining new ideas and slogans and engaging in continuous campaign beyond merely electoral considerations, the real strength of the new ideological offensive lies in the realm of civil society. As I have argued (Palshikar 2017c), it is necessary to understand the contributions being made by the huge network of organisations allied with the RSS and also functioning independently of it. Critics of the BJP (and RSS) have often mentioned the Hindutva link between the two. However, it is necessary to appreciate the value and utility of the useful arrangement of being “separate and yet connected.” In an exercise of shaping the discursive domain, mere electoral support is not enough. The battle unfolds mainly in the arena of civil society and it is here that the large number of RSS-linked organisations matter. Even a cursory look at the Sewa Bharati website ( should acquaint us with the vast social territory occupied by the organisations that are either floated by or take inspiration from the larger Hindutva viewpoint generally and the RSS more specifically.

This unique organisational arrangement helps the ideological interventions in two different ways. One is to build diffuse support (as pointed out by Tariq Thachil 2014) and also intervene in public debates more directly. These “aligned” organisations come forward as and when necessary to extend support to the various decisions of the BJP government. Even in order to skilfully use social media and media in general, the regime requires not just money and a battery of employable trolls, it also requires independent interventions by social actors with their own base, legitimacy, and identity. The Modi regime faced three critical moments in past three years—different in scale, intensity and context. One, was the controversy surrounding retuning of awards by eminent intellectuals and artists, the other was demonetisation and the third, the Kashmir failure. At each of these times, many voices “outside” of the party have emerged from this larger organisational network and joined the debates on behalf of the regime. Sensing that the media, particularly English media, is not adequately enamoured of all aspects of the Modi regime, a slew of new writers and columnists is thrusting itself forward into the public domain just as many persons not directly associated with the party have been occupying the cultural space. The entire space of the public sphere is being increasingly occupied by the new entrants from various organisational backgrounds belonging to the larger Sangh network. The BJP government has been able to sustain ideologically, and generate and receive support for many of its risky initiatives through a range of pre-existing organisations and activists belonging to those organisations.

Two, the many organisations of the Sangh and beyond11 are “independently” raising many issues and shaping public debates. Just as the Sanatan Sanstha does not have any direct links to RSS, so also, the Hindu Yuva Vahini is unconnected with the RSS. Nevertheless, in the past three years, many issues have been brought to the forefront steering the debate unmistakably to the idea of Hindutva. Thus, for instance, “love jihad” or “ghar wapsi” were not formally pursued by the party in power, and for the record, the Prime Minister assured all minorities full protection. At the same time, public debates revolved around these sensitive issues because there was enough organisational space within Hindutva for such a “fringe” to exist and push its own agenda. The vigilantism associated with gau raksha is also an instance of the same space and confusion between mainstream and fringe. Again, the Prime Minister has chastised the vigilantes, but street action and the shrill rhetoric both proceed because of the organisational space available to them.

In other words, there is a very happy and convenient situation for the BJP. The party has a ready-made apparatus of voluntary organisations which supply humanpower, generate support for the regime but at the same time, also raise issues that the party may not formally want to be seen as raising. The formal electoral battle will be fought by the party where the organisational network will chip in, but the real battle is ideological and for that, the network is all the more important for expanding and complicating the agenda and thus overcoming the limits of the party.

Hold of Hegemonic Ideology

Given the combination of electoral strength and dominance in the field of ideas, is the BJP headed towards enjoying a hegemonic position?

Ever since the Congress party began facing difficulties following Indira Gandhi’s landslide victory of 1971–72, India has not experienced the hold of any hegemonic ideology. The constitutive elements of the previous hegemony had already begun to crumble by then. The post-independence hegemony had helped the Congress gain a position of political dominance in the electoral arena. The intervening period of the “decline of Congress” witnessed not just an era of multiparty coalitions, it also witnessed a phase where caricatures of old hegemonic ideas and glimpses of many newly emerging ones (including that of social justice) coexisted without any decisive confrontation. In other words, while the previous hegemony was crumbling, there was not necessarily any great war of ideas but an atmosphere of confusion and ideological chaos. Nevertheless, both electoral dominance and ideological ascendancy presided over by the Congress came to an end.

The BJP seems set to fill both these vacuums. The electoral dominance of the BJP has created conditions for hegemony to shape. That India may be headed towards a new hegemony is indicated by the strength gained by new values that are not necessarily in consonance with the foundational values on which democracy in India was built. This shift away from the foundational values is displayed more than anywhere in the field of diversity. The public approach to the question of diversity is marked by an uneasy acceptance of the value of diversity at best and normative reservations about it at worst. The heightened debate on nationalism represents this approach. Instead of the healthy coexistence of democracy, nationalism and diversity, new binaries are being posited: democracy vs nationalism and nationalism vs diversity. In other words, the present political situation is not merely marked by the relative electoral success of one party or the rise of a popular leader alone. Both these factors are indeed present but they are leading to something more than mere electoral victory.

In all probability, a new political idiom, a new political elite and a new political culture are shaping up in contemporary India. As the societal arena goes through more and more changes, the possibility of the present moment turning into a new hegemony becomes stronger. And if we take into account the complete absence of a political counter and an ideological counter to the emerging discourse, its hegemonic portents become more visible.

Modi’s steadfast pursuit of a new idea of development makes the current discourse all the more hegemonic because then, it does not remain only a political project of one organisation, nor does it remain restricted to the agenda of one political party. While majoritarianism and the changing political culture sustain dominant ideas and promise their durability, the associated idea of development makes sure that they would receive tacit (and even open) support from both middle classes and the corporate interests. What the current regime is set to do is to acquire approval of the corporate interests separately (that is, unconnected from the cultural agenda) for its economic agenda and at the same time, acquire approval for its sociopolitical agenda from the larger public by linking it to the economic agenda. The corporate classes are expected not to be interested in or concerned with the emerging debates in the arena of public political culture believing that irrespective of what political culture emerges, the economic agenda would be implemented vigorously and the erosion of diversity would not hurt the material interests of the corporates. On the other hand, the ordinary citizen is sought to be convinced that economic well-being is primarily a function of a strong nation and, therefore, the hurdles in becoming a strong nation (such as social schisms, minority appeasement, anti-national use of freedom of expression) need to be overcome.

This is where the ability of Modi to bring together the middle classes and corporate interests becomes crucial. This alliance is critical not only to his electoral prospects, but more so for the hegemonic project. Modi emerges as the extraordinary leader because of skilfully marrying an aggressive corporatised economy with an assertive majoritarian politics. This marriage is predicated on the acceptance by or turning of the proverbial Nelson’s eye by the corporate interests as far as majoritarian logic is concerned. To what extent and how long the marriage remains happy will determine whether the new hegemony would take roots and become a durable force. But at the same time, the political agency of Modi and shifts in political culture may convince corporate interests to live happily with majoritarianism. Therefore, India is at a historic juncture where direct support of corporate interests to majoritarian logic might not be required if there is a substantial shift in public opinion. Modi knows this and therefore strives hard to create a discursive domain where the logic of Hindu majoritarianism is skilfully camouflaged by impressive yet shallow ideas of a “new India.”

After the UP victory, Modi felt assured to inaugurate his idea of a “new India”—a land of opportunities rather than doles.12 Modi’s chale jao message (India Today 2017) similarly represents the determination to dictate the terms of discourse and win acceptability in the fields of ideas and ideals. There are gaping holes in the new set of dominant ideas that are gaining ground and surely, there is bound to be deep unease at the fundamentally inegalitarian and anti-pluralist populism informing these ideas. But the fact of arrival of this hegemony is not easy to contest.

Pursuing the Grand Narrative

There will be many factors determining how this project would take shape. Concerns of formal power may circumscribe the BJP’s zeal for pursuing the grand narrative; centralisation of powers within the party too may impose hurdles on the ability to build hegemony; tensions may build between the RSS and the party over critical aspects of the hegemony; overexposure of Modi may result into Modi fatigue resulting in limitations to function as the architect and builder of the new hegemony. Moreover, the Modi regime would need to handle a deeper challenge. Ideas and normative regimes become hegemonic only when they penetrate larger sections of the society and also sizeable sections of the intelligentsia. The Modi regime may falter on both these counts. One, it has had not only an awkward relationship with the intelligentsia and institutions of knowledge production, the regime often prides itself on its anti-intellectual stand as articulated by Modi in his juxtaposition between “Harvard experts and hard work” (Indian Express 2017b). Two, whether the Modi regime would be successful in extending its acceptability—of the norms it upholds—among geographic peripheries (as in the North East, Kashmir or Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and social margins (Dalits and Adivasis, not to speak of Muslims) will be a more critical factor in the onward march of the hegemonic project. But these limitations and caveats notwithstanding, the change that came about
in 2014 is a regime change, a change in the nature of party competition and above all, a decisive move to craft hegemony that would ensure long-term changes in the tenor and texture of democratic politics in India.

Hegemonies have a complex relationship with democracies. Hegemony represents the continuing battle between democratisation—the expansion of democracy—and elite efforts to keep the radical aspects of democracy limited. Thus, the coexistence of democracy and hegemony, though consisting of tensions, is not extraordinary. Most democracies often experience this coexistence and the tensions involved in it. In the case of India, the emerging hegemony also holds the possibility of altering the nature of India’s democracy as it was imagined and at least partially practised so far. In this sense, the emerging hegemony portends a distortion of democracy (Palshikar 2017d). The new hegemony may usher in a new “normal” as far as our collective imagination of what democracy means and what it should do is concerned. Just as the hegemonic project is bound to penetrate popular imagination, competitive politics too, could shape the success and intensity of the hegemonic project. That is what makes both the politics of hegemony and the politics of petty electoral competition so intertwined and so exciting to watch.

Paradoxical as it may appear, while electoral upsets might not easily forestall the shaping of the new discursive terrain, electoral defeat alone can puncture the BJP’s resolute march towards crafting a new hegemony.


1 For a discussion of many of these features, see Palshikar–Suri (2014).

2 This was reminiscent of Modi’s speech after he won the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections. Then too, he spoke more about the all-India than the Gujarat-specific context.

3 State parties wold either get defeated—something that has already happened in UP—or be forced to join hands with the BJP—as in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. While the BJP poses a challenge before the BJD in Odisha, it may push JD(S) in Karnataka to a weaker position. One can also look carefully at BJP’s efforts to
neutralise the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Yet, a few key state-level players would still remain: TMC, Shiv Sena, DMK, TRS and TDP, etc.

4 The caveat about Muslims applies—and that makes the BJP a Hindu party in any case.

5 It is this political economy aspect, attractive to middle classes and profitable to the corporate interests that sustains the efforts to build a hegemonic project.

6 For a discussion of different phases of evolution of ideology of Hindutva, see Palshikar (2015).

7 A parliamentary committee chaired by a Congress MP has circulated a detailed questionnaire on the question of FPTP and the feasibility of shifting to alternatives (Indian Express 2017c).

8 As one pro-Modi commentator puts it, Modi is doing both: managing India and changing it; Dasgupta (2017).

9 The term “sickular” popularised by the social media spokespersons of the present regime also indicates the success in steering the discourse.

10 This is what Modi reportedly said: “Gaon mein agar kabristan banta hai, to gaon mein shamshaan bhi banana chahiye. Agar Ramzan me bijli milti hai, to Diwali me bhi milni chahiye. Agar Holi me bijli milti hai, to Eid par bhi bijli milni chahiye. Bhedbhav nahin hona chahiye(If a village gets a graveyard, it should get a cremation ground too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, there should be electricity during Diwali too. If there is electricity during Holi, there should be electricity during Eid too. There should not be any discrimination).

11 Many Hindutva organisations in fact do not even have a direct formal link with the RSS, see Dhirendra Jha (2017).

12 For full speech in Hindi:; for detailed report,; both accessed on 25 May 2017.


Dasgupta, Swapan (2013): “Congress vs BJP? No, It’s the Establishment vs the Outsider,” Time of India, 25 August,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

— (2017): “Three Years of Modi Government,” Hindustan Times, 31 May,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

India Today (2017): “Mann Ki Baat Full Text,” 30 July,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

Indian Express (2017a): Has PM Modi’s Diwali, Ramzan Bhed-bhav Remark Given More Fodder to Opposition?,” 20 February,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

(2017b): “Harvard vs Hard Work: With GDP Data, PM Narendra Modi Snubs Note Ban Critics,”
2 March,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

— (2017c): “First-Past-Post: House Panel Asks Parties if Poll System Should Change,” 21 August,,-2017#page/1/1,
accessed on 14 September 2017.

Hansen, Thomas Blom (1996): “The Vernacularization of Hindutva: BJP and Shiv Sena in Rural Maharashtra,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol 30, No 2, pp 177–214.

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Palshikar, Suhas (2015a): “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, December, Vol 38, No 4, pp 719–35.

— (2015b): “Congress in the Times of Post-Congress Era: Surviving Sans Politics,” Economic & Political Weekly, 9 May, Vol 50, No 19, pp 39–46.

— (2017a): “Half of Achche?” Outlook, 9 January,; accessed on 14 September 2017.

— (2017b): “India’s Second Dominant Party System,” Economic & Political Weekly, 18 March, Vol 52, No 12, pp 12–15.

— (2017c): “What Makes BJP Really Different?” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 19, 13 May, pp 12–13.

— (2017d): Indian Democracy, Oxford India Short Introductions, New Delhi: OUP.

Palshikar, Suhas and K C Suri (2014): “India’s 2014 Lok Sabha Elections: Critical Shifts in the Long Term, Caution in the Short Term,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 493, No 9, 27 September, pp 39–49.

Thachil, Tariq (2014): Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vaishnav, Milan (2017): “Finance Bill Makes Funding for Political Parties More Opaque Than Ever, Op-ed,” Hindustan Times, 29 March,, accessed on 14 September 2017.

Vora, Rajendra and Suhas Palshikar (1990): “Neo-Hinduism: Case of Distorted Consciousness,” Jayant Lele and Rajendra Vora (eds), State and Society in India, Delhi: Chanakya, pp 213–43.

Yadav, Yogendra (1996): “Reconfiguration in Indian Politics: State Assembly Elections, 1993–95,” Economic & Political Weekly, 13–20 August, Vol 31, Nos 2–3, pp 95–104.

Updated On : 17th Aug, 2018


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