Critical thinker and activist Noam Chomsky refers to America as a “corporate democracy” where no matter which party comes to power policies are always, as a norm, dictated by the corporate sector. In line with this, we saw that the recent shift from the republicans to the democrats in the United States did not make a difference to American policy. For instance, US President Joe Biden did not, as a social democrat, dither from bombing Syria.
Chomsky says democracy is being undermined even more directly in Europe: “Decisions are placed in the hands of an unelected troika: the European Commission, which is unelected; the IMF, of course unelected; and the European Central Bank. They make the decisions.”
So, the corporate model of growth and governance cuts across the political divide. This is akin to what happened with nuclear weapons during and after the Cold War: Capitalist United States and Communist Russia championed nuclear weapons cutting across their great ideological divide.
When political differences, ideological divides, and cultural diversity are undermined, democracy becomes difficult to sustain, even if we still have a semblance of “free and fair” elections.
Something similar is happening in India. It may not adopt the classical model of Fascism in Germany, of a totalitarian state that does not allow any Opposition and elections. Indian totalitarianism may well be in spite of the Constitution, Opposition parties and regular elections.
An initial hint of this came from former Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, who shared a shocking detail that IAS officers would not listen to his party’s senior leader Kamal Nath when he was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. This is what Gandhi referred to as the “RSS takeover of institutions”, and he asked, “How can one fight this?”
Recent developments in Indian politics signify the social and institutional hegemony of the RSS goes well beyond the influence of the BJP. In fact, the RSS is preparing the ground to stay at the helm of affairs even if the BJP stands discredited and thereby loses the national election in 2024.
The bureaucracy, which is considered the “permanent government”, is now being filled with “domain experts” through lateral entry. The issue with this is, what is the social background and ideological disposition of those who are entering government institutions through the lateral-entry policy? There are complaints that reservations for the OBC or backward classes are being violated by allowing such appointments.
Cutting across political formations, the RSS and its agenda have moved to the centre-stage politically. During the Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress party went out of its way to claim its commitment to gaushalas or cattle shelters, even putting this promise into its manifesto. More recently, the National Students Union of India (the Congress’s student wing), was campaigning to collect funds to build the Rama temple in Ayodhya.
Accepting Hindu religious identities, while distancing and even negating the religious symbols of the minorities, has become the new common-sense in India. For example, Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal did not only refuse to visit the site where protesters had gathered for months at Shaheen Bagh in 2019-20, but recited the Hanuman Chalisa a day before the Assembly polls.
In the current scheme of things, it would not matter if, for instance, Kejriwal took over from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a different matter that the RSS would prefer incumbent Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath over all other possible candidates. Yogi Adityanath is preferable since he fits the religious/ancient imagination of a Hindu state that the RSS-BJP are propagating—a state headed by a Hindu yogi who belongs to the Kshatriya caste.
Besides, many regional parties and large sections of the Congress would also not have a direct conflict with the dominant imagination of the RSS.
In this model, differences between political parties will stand nullified, just as differences over the model of economic development have been made to dissipate. Most political parties stand by the neoliberal model of growth with marginal differences over the quantum of welfare and some other details.
Similarly, the functioning of all parties would be marked by a consensus on how a Hindu state should be run—dominated by caste Hindus and replete with accompanying religious symbolism. Differences would remain solely in the belief systems that individuals may espouse.
The current regime has prepared the ground in accordance with this agenda. For instance, in the Bhima Koregaon case it has arrested a range of individuals who cut across political affiliations. This reflects the understanding that eventually, there might only remain disparate individuals resisting the unifying and monolithic imagination of the RSS.
This might fit with what historian Romila Thapar has described as the “autonomous individuals” in history who were free to criticise. Some such individuals might be “tolerated” but most are to be contained. In fact, even elected representative of opposition parties may not be spared in this imagination, which is waiting to be realised.
We have been witnessing hints of such a future in the spate of cases that have been filed against Opposition leaders, film stars, social activists, academics, and journalists.
The ecosystem of the economic model that suits this monolithic imagination has also been carved out. Monopoly-crony capitalists would be patronised, leaving out all the rest. After all, it is easy to control some rather than many, especially if there is no competition to the one pulling the strings. Here, economic imperatives are subsumed within the imperatives of the cultural model.
India may have a weak economy but it can end up with a strong cultural unification as long as the strongest corporate houses support the ruling imagination of a Hindu state. In fact, a weaker economy may be helpful to this worldview, for it will keep a majority of the population disempowered and vulnerable.
The RSS repeatedly makes empty nationalist noises while Public Sector Units are sold off to the corporate sector or a complete agrarian overhaul is carried out in the name of reforms but it offers no real resistance. Whatever resistance it puts up is mostly for public consumption—to keep its credibility intact.
Like the “hidden hand” of the corporate that controls policy, irrespective of which party comes to power in the United States, the RSS will call the shots organisationally in India. It will work only to progressively and cumulatively implement its agenda, irrespective of which party comes to power.
As part of the ancient Hindu imagination, the RSS will call the shots without being directly in power and remain a “cultural organisation”, just like the Brahmins of ancient India or “permanent government” of modern India.
In the final sense, parties, policies, processes and institutions will be subsumed within a single imagination and one organisation. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are not indispensable—this project is much bigger than them. In fact, it becomes authentic only when it goes beyond them and elections.
The author is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delh. The views are personal.