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How the Hindu Right Triumphed in India

A razed mosque, a new temple, and the rise of Narendra Modi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening of the Ram Mandir, in Ayodhya, India.,Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the opening of the Ram Mandir—a Hindu temple—in Ayodhya, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh; this has been a long-standing dream for both Modi and the Hindu-nationalist movement he leads. “It’s the beginning of a new era,” he told a crowd of thousands at the temple’s inaugural ceremony. Several decades ago, he was a young Hindu activist helping raise funds for the temple, and now he is a Prime Minister in his second consecutive term.

India’s decisive break with secularism as a semi-official state ideology could be said to have begun in Ayodhya. It was there, in 1992, that the Babri Masjid, a four-hundred-year-old mosque, was destroyed by a mob aligned with both Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary organization he belonged to. (Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was also a member of the R.S.S., which has been involved in numerous cases of communal violence throughout its history.)

The B.J.P. and the R.S.S. conceive of India as an explicitly Hindu nation, despite the fact that the country has a population of more than two hundred million Muslims. (Both the B.J.P and R.S.S. consider the Congress Party, which ruled India in the decades after its 1947 independence from the United Kingdom, as overly committed to secularism.) In 2019, several months after Modi’s reëlection, the Supreme Court of India—after a prolonged legal dispute—allowed for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site, which many Hindus believe is the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. (Many Hindu nationalists also claim that the mosque was built on the ruins of a previous temple to Ram.) The conclusion of the saga this month, highlighted by Modi’s remarks, will almost surely be a centerpiece of the Prime Minister’s campaign in the spring, when he is expected to win a third term.

I recently spoke by phone with Mukul Kesavan, an essayist and historian who lives in New Delhi. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the roots of Modi’s popularity, the violent history of the Ayodhya dispute, and what makes India different from other countries experiencing right-wing political movements.

Do you think it’s overstating things to say that what we saw this week is the most important symbolic moment in the past several decades in India?

No, no, it’s not overstating things. Basically, there is and was a nationalist project other than the anti-colonial one that began in 1925 with the foundation of the R.S.S., an organization which explicitly had a kind of Hindu majoritarianism at the center. The R.S.S. always felt alienated from the Congress Party and anti-colonial nationalism, because it tried to create a unifying ideology for what is essentially a subcontinent that’s as large as Europe. And it did so by standing European nationalism on its head. Instead of arguing that there’s a kind of prior homogeneity which constitutes the nation, the Congress Party nationalism argued that the Congress represents the Indian nation because it represents its diversity. It’s a kind of zoological nationalism that says, Look, India is a human jungle. We are the zoo. We, in a sense, are representative of all these different communities.

It’s this peculiar, pluralist nationalism that’s detested by the R.S.S. and Hindu-majoritarian movements, which actually wanted to model themselves on a certain kind of conservative mid-European nationalism based on notions of homogeneity.

The reason that this is symbolically so important is that the Ram Mandir was the ramp which brought the B.J.P. to power. It allowed them to create this astonishing mobilization of Indians for political purposes. It helped the B.J.P. get into government, in the late nineteen-nineties, and then Modi ran with it. And, while he has achieved and consolidated his political power through two elections and an absolute majority, I think it’s always been the larger ambition of the R.S.S., which is in a sense Modi’s progenitor, to literally reconstitute the Indian Republic. There is a sense in which they think of the period between 1947 and 1950, when the constitution was written, as one where the soul of India was suppressed, and they would like to do it over again.

Can you take us back to the early nineties and the destruction? My sense, at least from reading about it, is that it truly constituted a shock. And now if you follow news in India, something like this would not seem shocking at all.

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The Ram-temple movement was activated in the eighties. The idea that the site of the temple was the birthplace of Ram, that there was a temple buried underneath it, that Hindus should be allowed to worship here, is an old argument going back to the nineteenth century. The organizations that lead the Ram Mandir movement are all formally affiliated with the R.S.S. And this includes the B.J.P., which was invented in the late seventies. And the history of the Ram-temple campaign is basically the history of provocations that aren’t addressed by the state either because dealing with them seemed to be too much trouble, or the matter seemed too sensitive.

In 1992, when the building is in fact demolished, it’s a shocking business because nobody actually thinks it’s going to happen. And, in any case, nobody actually knows what will bring down a large mosque. As it happens, it’s incredibly efficiently demolished with people using the crudest of tools. Essentially, it is brought down by hand, as [the B.J.P. co-founder] L. K. Advani and other luminaries of the B.J.P. and its affiliates watch. It’s a massive communal shock because the kind of violence it unleashes, both in North India and in Bombay, is just massive. It’s a shock to the extent that the principal perpetrators of this, the leadership of the B.J.P., all sort of fake shock that they didn’t want to do this because it was clearly a criminal act and none of them actually want to go to jail. But, historically, the shock is that its resonances are so deep.

Several decades later, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to the building of the temple. What did that ruling do, and what do you think it says about checks and balances in India today?

There were two separate legal disputes about Ayodhya. One was the criminal action for the destruction of the mosque. But the dispute that was settled in favor of the Hindu party by the Supreme Court a couple of years ago was what is called a title suit. There were Hindu and Muslim parties who sued for control of the site where the mosque was. This pre-dated the demolition of the mosque, and it went on rumbling through. The title suit was decided by this unanimous verdict by the Supreme Court, and, in the course of their judgment, interestingly, the justices say that the destruction of the mosque is a criminal act and, therefore, it’s to be condemned and so on. But then, through a series of not-so-legal arguments, they came to the conclusion that all of the land of the temple, of the mosque, should be given to the Hindu party. Essentially, they make some of the right noises about the demolition of the mosque being a bad thing. But, nonetheless, they say, For the following reasons, we think that it should all go to the Hindu party, and we’ll give the Muslims five acres elsewhere. I think it’s basically the court capitulating to Modi and the movement. And, also, courts often think, What if we give a judgment that’s unenforceable? What if there is a sense in which what is just will not apply?

We have seen the rise of right-wing populism around the world, and one question people have is: Were these ideas always there, waiting to be unleashed, or did material reality change to allow political success for these movements? How do you think about that in the context of India?

After independence, Congress nationalism was based on three pillars. One was a kind of pluralism that the Congress called secularism, even though it’s not quite what Americans might mean when they say “secularism” or the French might mean by “laïcité.” But the second pillar is the notion of economic self-sufficiency: the sense that India, to be politically independent, has to be economically independent—the kind of old-fashioned notion that you should be industrially autonomous and not rely on the West for the tools of modern production. The third one has to do with India’s place in the world and foreign policy, the idea that, past the Cold War, we map our own destiny. The three ideas are sort of interconnected in the sense that you want India to be an internally inclusive country. You want it externally to embrace the world without taking sides. And you also want your newly found social independence to be boosted by economic independence, which is understood in a fairly narrow way as a planned economy and industrial capacity.

But, fundamentally, this promise breaks down because the new Congress governments don’t address the principal task of creating jobs. So, basically, India needs to produce industrial jobs to shift people over from agriculture. And this failure led to the collapse of the Indian economy in the nineteen-sixties. By about ’67 or ’68, Congress popularity was ebbing. And, by the eighties, you had Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party dabbling in opportunistic sectarianism. So Mrs. Gandhi even patronized the Shiv Sena, the very party that, in 1992, rampaged through Bombay, killing Muslims.

The entire conception of the Indian state, Indian society, Indian religion—it feels like something larger has happened than just the wearing away of Congress secularism and its popularity.

In his book on India, Perry Anderson argued essentially that the Congress was always a Hindu majority party, and that it represented upper-caste Hindu interests. He also argues something that is routinely argued by the Hindu right, which is that there was a kind of cumulative resentment over the centuries of the suppression of Hindus and their culture, and that it was inevitable that a nationalist project in India, especially after Partition, would in fact be a principally Hindu enterprise.

I think this is a facile argument. If you were to ask Muslims both rich and poor, north and south, whether they think that India in 2013 just before Modi’s ascension was a different place in terms of their place in it than it is now, I think they’d say yes. So I don’t think that’s a good historical explanation, because I can tell you existentially, and I speak as a privileged middle-class Hindu, but even I can tell, regardless of where your political sympathies are, you can tell that the tenor of India ten years after Modi has taken over is radically different.

The question is, How did he become so popular? What is it that allowed him to win an absolute majority? That’s the fair question. If you take 1984 as a kind of starting point, because it’s the first major pogrom in a big city, to argue that between 1984 and 2024, there was some inevitability about a gathering Hindu project, I would argue that you could certainly see the milestones. [In 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, thousands of Sikhs were murdered in communal violence in New Delhi and other Indian cities.] But, if there is a joker in the pack, it is Modi. Have you read Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy?

I have not.

There is a character called the Mule, who’s kind of a maverick, who throws predictions off course. Modi is that maverick, because, if you look at what he does after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, what’s interesting is that he doubles down on it, unlike Advani, who’s always covert about these things. [Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when hundreds of Muslims were killed in ethnic violence by mobs of Hindus; he was never convicted of allowing the attacks on Muslims, but he was banned from the United States for his role in letting it occur.]

Advani helped start the Ram Mandir movement, but he was constantly trying to retrofit what he did within the four corners of some interpretation of secularism or constitutional propriety or something. Modi does none of this. There is an interview in the BBC documentary about him where he’s incredibly intimidating and rude to this female BBC journalist. And you can see in him, even twenty-two years ago, a willingness to see this to the end in a kind of unapologetic way. And I think what is interesting about Modi is that he never backs down from the most brutal enunciation of what he’s doing. It’s either silence or reaffirmation of his project.

Modi comes across quite differently to many Americans than a lot of these populist figures, such as Trump or Bolsonaro. I don’t think that’s his image here.

I’m always a little shocked by that. Most of the time, Modi’s careful to project an image of gravitas. That partially passes within the Western media establishment as sobriety. As opposed to Trump or Bolsonaro, or people who are happy to shoot their mouths off because they feel it rouses the base. The problem here is this really radically misleading term “populism.” Essentially, what passes for right-wing populism, I think, sitting in Delhi, is majoritarianism. Whether it’s Bolsonaro or whether it’s Trump or whether it’s Orbán or Putin, essentially all of these people feed off a political environment in which they convince a nominal majority that they are under threat.

The reason that people don’t see the menace of Modi is because they look at him as a kind of organizational person. That he’s the head of a party—unlike Trump, who had to remake the party in his own image. Or Macron, who is not the same kind of person, but, again, who invented a party for himself. Modi sits at the head of a hundred-year-old organization and its affiliates. He is an organization man, but he’s also a charismatic demagogue. So he can out-Trump Trump when he’s on the campaign trail. If you hear him speak in Hindi when he’s campaigning, he’s much more demagogic and much more menacing than Trump is. Trump makes really bad, rude, and effective jokes. He has a kind of shtick, which is on the border of being funny. There’s nothing funny about Modi’s rhetoric when he’s on the campaign trail.

Why is this movement so much more popular within India than similar movements seem to be in other countries? Modi’s the most popular leader in the world if you look at public-opinion polling, and he’s almost certainly going to be elected for a third term.

Modi adds a lot to the B.J.P.’s vote. He is the B.J.P.’s banker when it’s a national election. If we had a Presidential form of government, he would be a shoo-in. But, even in a parliamentary form of government, he raises the B.J.P. vote by a margin that is sort of staggering. I don’t think there’s any other political leader in the world who makes such a difference to his party’s fortune. Sometimes this causes internal tension, because people don’t necessarily want a single charismatic individual to represent a project. But it also seems that Modi is exceptional as the kind of battering ram that they use to achieve what they’ve always wanted to.

To return to when he was chief minister of Gujarat: he was enormously popular within the business class, and he got a reputation for getting things done. You might disagree with his philosophy or economic development, but within those terms he was seen as a decisive economic manager. What he does alongside that is even more important; he essentially manages to convince the Gujarati electorate that his decisiveness in being a strong politician is joined at the hip with a nationalism that keeps troublemaking minorities in their place. And 2002 was really pivotal. The fact is that he first let this pogrom happen and he then stared down the people who were criticizing him. He had this combination of being a decisive, autocratic manager of economic affairs, of making visible improvements in the infrastructure, of being modern in a sense, and then he seemed to embody strength and decisiveness. And that strength and decisiveness were manifested both in the fact that he got things done and in the fact that he put Muslims in their place.

This idea that India was ruled by Muslim invaders for too long and that, finally, Hindus are asserting themselves seems like a much larger part of Indian public discourse now than it did ten or fifteen years ago. And this Ayodhya event seems like a metaphor for that. Do you see this as something that was always subterranean among Hindus in India, but just wasn’t talked about publicly? Or that it was merely stirred up?

Notions of national community are made through mobilization, and made through arguments and dreams and political victories and traumatic events. There’s always been this political tendency within India, even within the Congress in the fifties. There’s a kind of folkloric way in which it’s always been a part of political conversation. And I think, in any society, especially a society like India, which is gradually very slowly drawn into the great mills of education and syllabi and formal academic notions of history, the way in which they meld with folkloric history—there’s going to be a kind of unevenness in which people think of their past.

Here I’m going to be sort of reductive: nothing that you say will actually work unless you produce employment, unless you produce education. There was a sense in which Indian politics was ripe for the plucking by the end of the century because you don’t have a program anymore. You have parties marking time, making little coalitions. And into this comes Modi, who has a coherent ideology, which he’s willing to back up with decisive action and violence. So I think he harnesses a bemusement and a frustration. I think what he does is he turns a very modern and republican disenchantment with the republic into an endorsement for what has been a long-standing, time-honored ideological position. Except that he supercharges it.

You said in an earlier answer that, when the mosque was initially destroyed, thirty-one years ago, there was widespread condemnation of it even among people in the B.J.P. who were worried about their image or not wanting to go to jail. And now it seems that, looking at the celebration this week, there was almost no opposition politically at all.

It literally is the world turned upside down. Modi created a new notion of what it means to be respectable or demonstrated that respectability is not what you choose. What you choose is power and the will to power, and I think that resonates with people. The people who support Modi see him as a kind of redeemer. They vest in him hopes, which from my point of view is terrifying. 

Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.

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