The Temple Guardians: Is India’ Ruling BJP Becoming More Conservative?


The parliamentary elections in India are some four months away, and one of the more visible campaigns that the ruling party is undertaking at the moment is defending a temple from… women. The issue of allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple, a change that has been recently mandated by the Supreme Court of India against the wishes of orthodox Hindus, is something that I have addressed earlier. What I would like to focus on here is why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which dominates Indian politics by ruling at the central level in New Delhi and in many states, is adopting this position. Can the party be termed “conservative,” or is it putting on a mask of conservatism for the sake of the upcoming election campaign?

If the BJP’s ship is headed toward conservatism, I need to look not only at the boat itself, but take a dip into the sea: ask what conservatism actually is in the Indian context. While no measuring rod is sufficient to measure the ocean, here I will test only one approach to Indian conservatism (not that there were too many other ones). Swapan Dasgupta, a self-declared conservative and a person close to the BJP but also an academic, once roughly defined Indian conservatism in five points. These are: (1) “the preference of community wisdom over individual choice,” (2) “the importance attached to the sacred in maintaining life,” (3) the belief that “the authority of the state must be circumscribed by the will of society” as a result of which conservatism is inherently suspicious of state-sponsored cultural engineering, (4) the importance of character and self-control and (5) that conservatism “sees itself as an embodiment of the national identity.” These five fundamentals were outlined during Dasgupta’s 2015 speech at King’s College, which is available for viewing here, here, and here.

Point two is certainly something that we can see in the BJP’s narrative. This has not changed and is not likely to change. The reference to Hindu religious traditions is the bedrock of the party’s ideology. As for examples from its current rule in the center and the states, the BJP has, for instance, not only defended the Sabarimala temple, but once again pledged to construct a temple devoted to the Hindu god Rama at his birthplace in Ayodhya, initiated a project to revive the mythical/ancient Saraswati river (which the Hindus regard as sacred), gave certain important posts, such as those of ministers and one state Chief Minister, to religious leaders, and much more.

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Point one perfectly fits the Sabarimala case, but only if we assume that the community is a traditional Hindu one. The same applies to point three: If we are to claim that the “authority of the state should be circumscribed by the will of society” than in this case it will be assumed that the society mainly represented traditional Hindus. When the Supreme Court decided that the tradition of Sabarimala should be changed for the sake of equality – women should be granted entry to the temple just like men – a part of the BJP acted against the judgement, organizing protests. What one finds here is a near-perfect example of conservatism resisting progressivism.

But keeping to this example would be cherry-picking. Here is another cherry then, and a sweeter one. This year, the same party also pushed through an ordinance that ended the “triple talaq” custom, which refers to the tradition of Muslim men divorcing their wives by simply saying “talaq talaq talaq.” This practice is no longer legal in India. At this point, the BJP found itself on the same page with the Supreme Court, which earlier ruled against “triple talaq” as well. But India’s Muslim conservatives regarded this tradition as a part of their religion, just like the Hindu conservatives thought of the Sabarimala custom. And if a government and a court can force the gates of the temple open or ban a traditional form of a divorce, do not both actions represent “state-sponsored cultural engineering?”

One answer can be very simple: the BJP represents Hindu religious customs, not Muslim ones. This reply could suffice, but it does not bring us close enough to define its conservatism. For when BJP was calling to end the triple talaq custom – and not just now, as it had been opposing it for many years – it resorted to progressive ideas, such as gender equality, women rights, and women empowerment. When it came to the Sabarimala temple case, it has resisted exactly the same ideas in defense of religion.

Of course, one can simply say that this is just flexible party rhetoric, as it is bound to be in politics. Still more examples, both recent and old, can be added to this equation and the more difficult it becomes to put the BJP in one spot on the conservatism-progressivism scale. The party has, for instance, practiced fence-sitting when it comes to the caste system (not that it makes it much different from most of other Indian parties). During its current rule since 2014, the BJP has not initiated any larger reform that could be defined as countering the caste system, but it also has not started any project that can be defined as protecting it in a larger way. As for rhetoric, the party does continue with its outreach towards the lower castes. The tradition of BJP’s main leaders occasional dining with poor Dalits (untouchables) has been retained this year, being both more of a political gesture than real action but also a breach of orthodox Hindu customs, which regard the Dalits as impure.

Can the fifth point of Dasgupta’s outline help us out here? (I am skipping the fourth one.) Does BJP’s ideology see itself “as an embodiment of the national identity?” I would say it does, and the identity the party is anchored in is clearly not just Indian, but usually most specifically Hindu. The party has done a lot to uphold Indian pride and Hindu pride, and simultaneously mixed them, by, among other means, strongly promoting International Yoga Day or making certain changes in social science textbooks. This stance, admittedly, mattered more for domestic purposes than on the international stage. Yet, the BJP’s 2014 manifesto did declare that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” Indeed, recent years showed that Hindu refugees from India’s neighboring countries were welcomed more by the Home Ministry than those professing other religions. Such aspects underline the party’s Hindu element, but none of them have to make the BJP a specifically “Hindu conservative” party. Conservatism may, of course, regard itself as embodying the national identity, and it often does, but national identity can be claimed by other ideologies as well. Indeed, rather unsurprisingly and in line with most of the interpretations, I would claim that the party is more Hindu nationalist than Hindu conservative.

To paraphrase a succinct conclusion of one of the best-known researchers of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, the supreme idea for nationalists is that of the community (nation), while for conservatives it is institutions. When a state changes a religious custom, this may be done for the sake of nationalism or not, but it is certainly against conservatism in Gellner’s sense. The reforms that have done away with Sabarimala’s women entry ban and triple talaq were both against conservatism. But old institutions and the idea of a modern nation do not always have to collide. In other cases, they may be actually used to help in building that nation, and this is what often happens in India (depending on which idea of the nation we consider). It’s a bit like building a new house – some parts of the older structures need to be removed, because we have a different building plan to realize, but a lot of older bricks and construction elements may be still used.

The BJP is most often – and rightly – considered a Hindu nationalist party. Uniting the Hindu nation – the political community of Hindus (the religion), more than that of the Indians (all citizens of India) – remains its primarily goal. The old institutions may sometimes help in unifying this nation, but may be a challenge to this project on other occasions. The caste system is closely related to the Hindu religion, a repository of its traditions (and a political votebank), but it is also hindrance to building the unity of Hindus. Hence, the Hindu nationalists are trying to break or weaken some of its traditions and radical forms, but also let it be at many other times, and ever draw some power from it. As for Sabarimala and the triple talaq case, both actually served the same purpose: to unite Hindus, the former by rallying them in protection of a temple, and the latter by rallying them against an oppressive, conservative Muslim custom. Additionally, the cost of the first campaign could have been losing a part of the progressive Hindu women votes, but the second could have given the hope of garnering some progressive women votes. Thus, the BJP can be both nationalist and conservative with regard to some aspects, and nationalist against conservatism in other regards – but at the end of the day, it is nationalism that matters more.

The BJP’s ship is not entering the waters of conservatism more than it did before, nor is it steering away from them. It keeps navigating its zig-zagging course.

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