The political psychology of Hindu nationalism

Rajeev Bhargava
5 November 2003

Hindu nationalists think of themselves as a large Indian joint family, a parivar. And perhaps rightly so, for they are propelled by a family of closely-related ideas and, put together, all their networks and organisations constitute an enormous right-wing platform, a massive arena that showcases all known varieties of illiberalisms.

The movement brings together fundamentalists, traditionalists, anti-modernists, and right-wing conservatives who covet a form of modernisation radically different from the one begun by secular humanists such as Jawaharlal Nehru. Under its wings, there are proponents of old-fashioned terrorism, authoritarianism and fascism packed closely together with those who reluctantly submit to the constraints set by representative democracy. Present in the movement are people with a rigidly hierarchical cast of mind who fail to shed their strong upper-caste leanings as well as half-hearted egalitarians who, for strategic reasons, grudgingly include the lower castes within their fold.

Among its many organisations is the avowedly culturalist Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh [Association of National Volunteers (RSS)] whose members determinedly work deep in the undergrowth of civil society. But the movement also has political organisations like the Bharatiya Janata Party [Indian People’s Party (BJP)] whose sole purpose is to capture state power, and is affiliated to the religious Vishwa Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Organisation (VHP)]. Given these different strands, its actions are bound to be octopus-like: each tentacle appears to move independently and yet all come together to push the body in the desired direction.

It might be expected that a movement with such seemingly opposed tendencies would in the long run have split, if not collapsed. This has not happened because four features cement all the various groups:

  • First, abiding and pervasive anti-liberalism.
  • Second, repugnance for the left or to anything that even remotely smells of it.
  • Third, commitment to a distinctive and exclusivist variant of nationalism. Hindu nationalists aim to unite all those who are seen by them as part of the Hindu fold and to create (or, seen by their own lights, to reinstate) a strong, disciplined nation of such united people: the Hindu Rashtra.
  • Fourth, and above all, relentless antipathy to Muslims, and to a lesser extent, to Christians and to the secular-minded who desire equal citizenship for all Indians.

The pathology of ‘perverse comparison’

To explain why the Hindu nationalist movement took an extreme, largely negative, form centred around xenophobic religious identities, it is important to understand the mindset of the earliest protagonists of the movement. Like other anti-modern traditionalists, they were insecure and vulnerable in a world that they could not call their own. But unlike them, they were cursed with the need perversely to compare themselves with others.

It is of course true that identities are formed in relation to others, and that a constitutive link exists between identity and recognition which forces a frequent comparison with others. But also at play here is a pervasive pathology wherein people never perceive or understand themselves unless a comparison is made with others. Perverse comparison in such cases is a precondition for any self-understanding.

What is worse, these comparisons are mostly self-deprecating. A person can carry the crushing weight of these negative feelings only up to a point, however. Insecure selves, constantly in search of affirmation from others but burdened by over-dependence and low self-esteem, try to overcome this unbearable tension.

They attempt an escape in three ways. First, by being envious, jealous, bitterly competitive and eventually resentful of the very persons on whose affirmation they rely. They try to recover self-esteem by interpreting their deprivation as caused not by their own disability but by the actions of others, and by holding them responsible for their own failure. For them, envy and resentment are the means by which equality and independence is reasserted.

Second, they project self-hatred outwards, on to others, whom they saddle with a range of wildly exaggerated, negative qualities that function to justify this hatred. They manufacture a feeling of superiority by conjuring up a relentless, comprehensive devaluation of the qualities of others and by a cultivated blindness to any good they might possess.

Third, when hatred and impotence find no resolution, and negative emotions remain repressed, without an outlet, a horrible embittering of the personality occurs [on these points, see Max Scheler: On Feeling, Knowing, and Valuing, University of Chicago Press (1992), pp. 116 – 143]. This self-poisoning of the mind, precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment, is a pronounced quality infusing the modern, xenophobic nationalist mentality and movement. Its perversity brooks no rational arguments, nor any political alternatives.

A discourse of resentment

Once the other is essentialised and inferiorised, and a Manichean world of good and evil is invented, a final manoeuvre to overcome negative feelings of acute inadequacy is sometimes deployed. A supplementary discourse is created which begins by asking why a self-evidently superior people with an infinitely superior civilisation have fallen into such bad times? Why do people with poor moral qualities advance and why those with better moral fibre lag behind? Why does victory fall easily in the lap of the mean-spirited and persons with high culture and noble spirit become their victims?

Such questions are answered in two ways. First, by admitting that the logic of power and worldly success is different from the high morality of world-transcending pursuits or even the simple moral requirements of ordinary life; and second, by accepting that in the current context the acquisition of negative qualities such as cunning and aggression, essential constituents of the personality of others, is paramount and unavoidable.

Thus, the good and the virtuous, they claim, are forced to borrow from the victors precisely those inferior qualities that they despise. To emulate the very people that are stigmatised is the pressing need of our times, they say. Other than this, what option do the weak have if they are to prevent evil from overrunning them? Resentful nationalism is constructed out of a discourse shaped by this radically other-dependent, negative mindset ready for virulent counter-assertion.

The politicisation of this mindset leads inexorably to a militant strategy that invests heavily in the construction of a pure culture, is sharply focused on a particular kind of narrow, hardened, identity-formation and uses uncompromisingly belligerent techniques to build a national identity grounded in the newly constructed and sanitised culture. It is in the logic of this thinking that Hinduism acquires a primarily negative form and is ultimately reduced to nothing but a set of anti-somethings.

For example, the first cow protection movement started at the end of the 19th century and sought to unite all Hindus against the alleged barbarian practices of Muslims who were positioned as a threat to the natural order of Hindu society. The cow, believed to be sacred by many, has long been a symbol of upper-caste Hindu identity and is therefore invested with great potential for mobilisation and political manipulation. However, the permanent subtext of such campaigns is their anti-Muslim character because the Muslim population are assumed to be the only beef-eaters and consequently a permanent body of cow–slaughterers.

Perverse comparison – feelings of inferiority, envy, resentment and negative stereotyping of the other – continues to propel extreme Hindu nationalism today.

The politics of prejudice

Yet, against these powerful tendencies, it can appear that the basis of the persistent psychological animus undergirding extreme Hindu nationalism has declined. After the partition of the country, Muslims constitute only 11% of total population. Other minorities are much smaller. British imperialism is present only in the traces it has left behind. The prestige of western culture has declined considerably in direct proportion to the growth in self-confidence of Indian culture and civilisation, something that was bound to happen after over half a century of democratic self-rule.

Comparisons with other cultures need yield feelings of inferiority and inadequacy no longer. Upper-caste Hindus dominate all political institutions in independent India and are economically and culturally powerful. Most of all, organisations that sustain Hindu nationalism have become considerably stronger since the 1980s. The power and visibility of the RSS and its associates like the VHP have grown. The BJP has gradually increased its voting strength against its main national rival, the Indian National Congress, and currently leads the coalition in the capital, New Delhi. Why then should the mindset typical of resentful, crippled and powerless people short on self-confidence still be around? Why do many members of the majority in India feel and behave like a persecuted minority?

Here, it appears that there is an instrumental but also dialectical relationship between psychological need and political strategies. Hindu nationalists have been quick to discover that their strategies do not merely fulfil pre-existing psychological needs, but help to resuscitate them just when the need for them appears to be vanishing.

Earlier, the mindset created the strategies it needed. Now, these strategies rekindle the mindset in turn – for instance, by reproducing the conditions that beget a minority-complex in the majority. Thus, from being a predominantly personal or collective device to overcome the simmering tension within the soul of a marginalised group, low on self-esteem, all the Hindu nationalist ploys have become the central axis of a grand political strategy to seize total hegemony and power in society.

Hindu nationalists now make a free, instrumental use of memory, emotion, prejudice, religious difference and generalised deprivation to militantly advance their extremist agenda. They are inventing a new anti-Muslim Hinduism, which helps them form a ‘vote bank’ first to capture and then to retain political power.

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