Saffron extensionIn the recent Indian State Assembly polls, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) registered a sweeping win in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarkhand, thus forming BJP-led governments in five out of six states.
In the recent Indian State Assembly polls, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) registered a sweeping win in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarkhand, thus forming BJP-led governments in five out of six states. With a population of 200 million, UP is the most populous Indian state. Additionally, 20 percent of its population is Muslim.
UP has been known for its caste-based politics, spearheaded by leaders like the late Kanshi Ram over the last three decades. Now, UP has installed Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu cleric, as its chief minister.
Why are Muslim voters choosing pro-Hindu forces over professed secular parties, and why are the “untouchable classes” voting for so-called high caste Hindus instead of candidates from their own clans?
All of these seemingly paradoxical political outcomes have taken place on a nationwide scale, giving rise to a fresh prognosis that the pro-Hindu BJP is emerging as a new unifying force in the religiously and ethnically divided ‘identity’ politics of India.
The party has successfully transformed its soft secularism (read: hard Hinduism) into rock-solid nationalism that could bind the socially stratified populace. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of prosperity has also been credited for such a poll success.
The political success of the Modi-Yogi duo is astounding, whose reverberations can be felt everywhere. The West is awestruck at the prospect of a hermit becoming a chief minister.
The Muslim world is more apprehensive than the Muslims in UP. The pro-monarchists in Nepal hope to use the newpower seat of Yogi, a radical Hindu who has acquaintance with the Nepali power circle, as a springboard to reinstate the ‘Hindu’ monarch.
The reason for the ubiquitous acceptance of personalities like Modi and Yogi must be sought beyond straightforward political calculations. Perhaps these personality traits served as a common mascot to a population that has always thought itself to be so different in terms of culture and civilisation.
This population has not found a political voice to assert this distinct, yet highly suppressed identity, of the eastern, ‘oriental’ citizenry. The BJP must have provided an answer to the ‘quest for orientalism’. It certainly has deeper historical and theoretical underpinnings.
In his highly popular book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said contended that “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” The assertion of Said’s book—now with half a dozen editions and translated into 40 languages—is that Europe’s definition of ‘The Orient’ is limited to the area adjacently east to mainland Europe, or, what is not ‘occident’ in culture or civilisation.
Practically, the idea of the orient for them didn’t extend beyond the religious influence of Bethlehem and Mecca—the points of origins of Christianity and Islam. In other words, civilisations like Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and so on were either summarily dismissed as savage and backward, or were deliberately despised since these were the civilizations of their colonised and supposedly inferior subjects.
For Christian Europe, the only competing force in the East left to conquer was (and still is) Islam. Islam in turn expanded its influence further east throughout the last millennium.
Therefore, civilisations that spent over several millennia in the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Yangtze river deltas were pushed behind a dark shadow for over at least 500 years. Notable practices such as the system of knowledge and enlightenment, the system of governance and society, and the system of life and wellbeing developed much earlier in these civilisations.
However, these were not allowed to manifest themselves during the centuries of colonisation or during the latest half century of rampant, unidirectional globalisation.
The knowledge system of what can be called the extended East—as espoused by the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Upanishads—is based on lifelong rigorous learning. It advocates different value systems. Knowledge could be converted only to wisdom, not to profit. It is meant for ultimate enlightenment that can be applied for the public good by sages and seers who have effectively relinquished all worldly self-interests.
The imperative of such learning is immersion, not attendance to institutes.
The governance system demanded that the ruler be as selfless as an enlightened sage. The duties of the government, roles of ministers and their expected character traits are in clear contrast to what ‘the West’ has virtually institutionalised.
This is exactly the reason why electorates in this part of the world do not like their rulers hugging and kissing their spouses publicly. Socially, sages, seers, hermits and ascetics command a great respect for their scope of selfless service to the state and the society alike.
Yoga, brata (fastings) and brahmacharya (monogamy, if not celibacy) are accepted tenets of a healthy and peaceful life. Altruism and donations are considered means of self-gratification. The classical idea of making personal consumption non-intrusive to harmonious ecosystems mirrors the modern-day advocacy of sustainable development.
No doubt, all these beliefs and practices were not ultimate truths or ever-lasting models of socio-political management. But they certainly represented a fully functional and logical paradigm of statehood with palpably different milieus than those of the ‘occident’.
It is also the fact that many ‘eminent’ practices suffered aberrations, distortions and misrepresentations. Many of them have become ridiculous rituals instead of ways of life. Many authentic scripts like the algorithms for the invention of the ‘number zero’ might never be available again, but the essence of the identity in the form of folk culture, customs, hymns, or mantras has largely survived.
Therefore, characters like Modi and Yogi, who appear religious without direct preferences to indulgence and nepotism, have shone as the contemporary faces of ‘extended’ orientalism. But to sustain the new-found role of custodian to this extended stretch of ‘The Orient’, the saffron brigade of the BJP must invest hugely in substantiating and nurturing this passion for a common identity that encompasses a far wider horizon of the Hindu nomenclature.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst