What will India look like as a Hindu rashtra?

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On Monday, India saw a sight that is rare in the modern world: a complete merger of religion, state and – perhaps most importantly – media spectacle.

The country’s prime minister took centrestage in conducting a religious ceremony to inaugurate a Ram Temple in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. He described the Hindu god Ram as India’s “national consciousness”. Monday’s ceremony was broadcast non-stop by all India’s Hindi and English news channels and many of its state language ones.

In attendance were India’s elite: movie stars, sportspeople, industrialists. This wall-to-wall coverage was accompanied by a host of markers that turned this into a quasi-national holiday. Many state governments, for example, declared it a holiday, as did some private schools and offices.

Modi’s image in the manner of a mediaeval Hindu sovereign, involved in a ceremony that melded state and faith, is the final sign that India is now a de facto Hindu rashtra or Hindu state. This moment has been decades in the making. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was its biggest victory. January 22 inaugurates a second republic for the Indian Union.

A new republic

Now that it is here, what does Hindu rashtra look like?

Unlike political Islam, which has a number of historical models to fall back on and a long history as state religion, the Hindu rashtra is a completely modern project. The idea that an elected prime minister, heading a government that rules over much of South Asia, would inaugurate a temple that was willed into existence by a court has no template in history. In fact, it is something that few people would ever have even dreamed about.

The outlines of the Hindu rashtra are, therefore, being sketched out before our eyes, fashioned by current events. However, a decade into the Modi age, we can discern its defining contours.

For one, quite obviously, it means a drastic shrinking of rights for its religious minorities, especially Muslims, who are the principal Other for the Hindu rashtra. Even something as banal as canvassing for Muslim votes is now decried as “appeasement”. In many states, basic law and order is a privilege for Muslims.

However, for most Indians – that is, Hindus – it means no drastic changes. Unlike radical political ideologies in other places and times in history, India has gone through no cataclysmic changes. The mass churnings that heralded the rise of the Nazi party in inter-war Germany or the bloody civil wars that saw communist parties take power in Russia and China are absent in India.

Passive revolution

In fact, the rise of Hindutva has very much been a passive revolution, effected through the ballot box. Even now, at its moment of crowning glory, Hindutva supporters do not speak of ending the electoral process. This is obvious, given that elections are what have awarded power to Hindutva. Any drastic change in the structure of the state might give rise to unintended consequences that even the Bharatiya Janata Party might be unable to control.

The rise of this right-wing populism, however, means that even as elections are maintained, almost all of the other trappings of democracy are significantly weakened. Checks on the executive – Parliament, the judiciary and federalism – are now weak or even ineffectual.

Remarkably, all of this has happened without any de jure changes. In the United States, for example, judicial control requires hectic politicking and politicians jostling to appoint judges of their choice. In India, judges appoint themselves by claiming that judicial independence would be impacted if appointments are controlled by elected officials.

How did current constition allow a Hindu rashtra?

Yet, in a process that is still shrouded in mystery, the courts have been the principal pillar of the emergence of Hindu rashtra. In fact, Modi in his Ram Temple speech on Monday made sure to thank the judiciary for its 2019 verdict that awarded to the temple the land on which the Babri Mosque stood. Indeed, the fact that the temple was a judicial award gave it far more legitimacy and power than if an elected government had decided it.

In a throwback to the movement against the Citizenship Amedment Act in 2019 and 2020, the Preamble was adopted on Monday by some of the small islands of opposition to the new temple. However, just like with judicial appointments, the Hindu rashtra has also been created without any changes to the Constitution. This is in stark contrast to similar transformations in other countries, where significant political changes are invariably accompanied by legal ones.

In Israel, for example, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted more power for himself, he attempted to change the laws to limit the power of the judiciary. Similarly, in Turkey, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a religious populist remarkably similar to Modi – cemented his power, he drastically amended the Constitution. But India has transitioned from a secular Nehruvian republic to Hindu rashtra with no significant legal changes. So even as opponents of Hindutva invoke the Constitution as a mark of resistance, it is oddly enough this very Constitution that is also the legal basis for Modi’s immense power.

Much of the current Hindu rashtra has been possible through the figure of Modi, who now towers over Indian politics. Monday’s religious ceremony, in which Modi was treated all but as a king, made this quite clear.

A contested rashtra

That Hindu rashtra has been willed into existence by mass politics, however, also puts its actual shape up for contestation.

As was clear on Monday, the principal opposition to Modi's Hindu rashtra came not from formal institutions such as the judiciary but mass politics. Politicians were, in fact, one of the rare blocs that did not line up for the temple inauguration: all major opposition parties boycotted the ceremony.

Both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, and the Trinamool Congress that controls the Bengal government, released statements reminding Indians of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee even went on an interfaith march on Monday, visiting temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras in a throwback to old-stye unity-in-diversity Nehrvian secularism.

How effective this sort of popular politics could be is discernable from the fact that the BJP-led Assam government prevented Rahul Gandhi from visiting a temple at the same time as Modi was conducting the Ayodhya rituals. This means that the effect of Hindu rashtra on minority rights could differ dramatically from state to state. The experiences of Bengali and South Indian Muslims, for example, are now very different from those in the Hindi belt.

In fact, the importance that the Hindu rashtra accords to politics is clear from the fact that Modi’s grand temple show was timed for the 2024 elections. (The actual temple itself is years away from being completed.)

Will the temple mean a sure victory for the BJP? Incrementally, it will add few votes for the BJP. It is unlikely that anyone who votes on the basis of Ayodhya is already not voting BJP. But the rise in Modi’s stature will, of course, help the BJP, given that Indian voters like to vote for winners given its winner-take-all first-past-the-post system.

With the rise in the stakes that now accompany elections – they are now a contest for the idea of Indian itself rather than simply to form the next government – Indians should be ready for more and more disagreements about voting procedures and norms. We can already see the beginning of this with bitter disagreements over voting machines and even allegations that BJP-led state governments are suppressing Muslim voting.

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