The election victories of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) and its allies in India are in some respects the greatest moral and intellectual blow that Western liberalism has suffered in Eurasia since the end of the Cold War. That this fact has been so widely ignored by the Western media and commentariat is yet another testimony to their ability to ignore the inconvenient for the sake of US geopolitical priorities – because India is seen as an increasingly important ally against both China and Islamist extremism.
The drive of these parties for Hindutva, an Indian state and citizenship defined by their version of Hinduism, heralds what seem likely to be a key feature of the international scene in the coming decades: powerful national states led by governments that are elected (more or less depending on the case) but also have strong authoritarian tendencies, resting on a strong (though assiduously shaped and cultivated) popular sense not only of nationalism but of cultural distinctiveness, dedicated to national success through participation in global capitalism, but equally determined to resist the forces of globalization whenever they threaten the ruling order’s definition of national interests and national civilisation.
The shock to liberalism comes not only from the fact that the fundamental principles of Hindu nationalism are so completely opposed to those of liberalism (except in economics); even more importantly, the Hindu nationalists have been elected, in the world’s largest democracy, and by growing majorities. This sets the old liberal commitment to cultural freedom and rational progress in flat contradiction to the supposed commitment of liberals to democracy. Finally, India has been advanced by both US neo-conservatives and US liberal internationalists (in the end often much the same thing) as the lynchpin of proposals for a global “alliance of democracies” led by the USA.
Hindu nationalism is a genuinely popular force, mobilized from below. Its origins may lie in reaction against colonial rule and the threats to the position of the Hindu upper castes, but in recent years it has been associated with economic development. Unlike in Russia or China, the adherence of many Indians to this ideology cannot be blamed on manipulation by wicked authoritarian elites. On the contrary, for by far the greater part of the 70 years since independence India was ruled by the Congress Party, which stood (or claimed to stand) for a civic, pluralist version of Indian identity, was supported by the secular sections of India’s English-speaking economic, intellectual and bureaucratic elites, and was and is led by a hereditary political dynasty (the Nehru-Gandhis) drawn from those elites. Whatever else they are, Narendra Modi and his followers are not drawn from the elites, but from the lower middle classes and upper peasantry. Painful though it may be to admit it, these people are meritocrats.
In China, the rise of neo-Confucianism can plausibly be called a state project cultivated from above, with certain analogies to the way in which the Japanese state created very new form of Shintoism as part of the Meiji nationalist revolution of the later 19th Century. Political and nationalist Hinduism is also a modern project, but it is one that since the later 19th Century has been cultivated from below, as part of the Hindu response to British imperial rule, the westernization of culture, the Anglicization of higher education, and the real or perceived threat of the conversion of Hindus by Christian and Muslim missionaries.
This Hindu response was originally shaped by religious-political figures and movements like Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) and the Arya Samaj movement. From the 1930s, it took a more extreme and militarist form with Vinayak Damodar “Veer” Savarkar (1883-1966, the Hindu Mahasabha movement, and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Organisation of which Modi himself was a longtime member (it has been said that the present Modi administration is not so much one of the official Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, but rather of the RSS). In recent decades, Hindu nationalism has spawned an array of other political groupings, including the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and the Hindu Yuva Vahini in Uttar Pradesh, which formed the original base for Yogi Adityanath, elected as Chief Minister of UP in March 2017.
The modern political Hinduism created by these forces is at once archaic and extremely new. The newness lies not only in its tightly disciplined political organization, but also in the reforms that this tendency has sought to bring about in Hinduism. Ironically enough, a movement characterized by its savage hatred of Muslims and Christians has dedicated itself to making Hinduism more like Christianity and Islam: less diverse and pluralistic, more exclusive, monolithic, centralised and textual.
Like Mahatma Gandhi (but obviously without his tolerance for other religions and viewpoints), Hindu nationalism – though led by people from the higher castes - has also struggled to diminish caste distinctions in Hinduism – because of the recognition that discrimination against the lower castes is the greatest point of weakness in the claim that Hindus make up the overwhelming majority of India’s population and that India should be an explicitly Hindu state. In particular, the conversion of lower-caste Hindus to Islam and Christianity has always been the greatest single cause of fear among Hindu nationalists.
Since the growth of caste-based provincial parties in northern India has been one of the greatest drivers of the disintegration and paralysis of the political scene in India in recent decades, Hindu nationalism has therefore been able to claim for itself the image of a unifying and modernising national force, dedicated to achieving the universal ethno-religious nationalist goal of a homogenous (Hindu) national sovereign people. In economics, Hindu nationalism has attracted the support of culturally conservative but economically dynamic rising Indian middle classes. Modi has massive support in the highly successful Indian diaspora in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. So Hindu nationalism cannot be dismissed as the reactionary product of a declining and economically retrograde society.
At the same time, the greatest symbol behind which Hindu nationalism continues to rally, and which is one of the chief causes of religious violence and oppression in India, is also a historic cause of Western educated mirth, and a classic target of liberal secular scorn. That the government of an aspiring superpower, what will soon be the world’s biggest country by population, with some of the world’s highest rates of economic growth, can be passionately attached to the worship of cows – leading to a string of vigilant murders of alleged cow-killers by Mr Modi’s supporters – this is an affront to modern liberal assumptions deeper in its way than that offered by Communism, which after all stemmed ultimately from the same European secular, rationalist and utopian roots as western liberalism. The fact that agitation over cow-slaughter has also served the eminently modern purpose of political mass mobilization and electioneering does not really make it any better from a liberal point of view.
The ascendancy of Hindu nationalism also gives considerable support to the famous (or infamous) “Clash of Civilisations” theory of Samuel Huntington, one of the great hate-figures for contemporary liberals. For if there is one thing that Modi and Hindu nationalists insist on, it is that Hindu India constitutes a separate civilization, not only religiously and culturally but politically – and a civilization in actual or potential conflict with other civilisations.
Yet at the same time, Hindu nationalism also contradicts Huntington’s theory; because while its exponents certainly see Hindutva as a civilisational force, they also see it as embodied in a particular national state. Hindutva is inseparable from the idea of Indian national greatness, and the power of this idea comes precisely from its association with great power nationalism. Hindu nationalism in this sense does not support at all Huntington’s idea of the decline of state nationalism and state power – any more than it corresponds to the fading liberal myths of the abolition of nationalism through globalization. Hindu nationalism’s analogies would rather be with Shiism in Iran, Russian Orthodoxy, or Polish Catholicism. For that matter, in Huntington’s America, US Christian fundamentalists, far from seeing themselves (in some quasi-Medieval way) as members of a wider Christendom, are in general passionate, even pathological American nationalists, obsessed with the idea of the United States as the bearer of a divinely-ordained cultural, political and military mission in the world.
The prospect of a world divided along such cultural nationalist lines is not exactly a cheerful one, and brings with it terrible dangers. It may be however that it does at least correspond more closely to underlying realities than the myths that have dominated Western thinking since the end of the Cold War.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is the author among other books of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.