For PM Modi’s Icon, Dissent Had Little Meaning in A Democracy

“Upadhyaya disapproved of vocalizing protest, reflecting his discomfort with democracy & the right to dissent.”

6 min read
Deendayal Upadhyay ranks high among PM Modi’s most cherished ideologues. 

(The following is an excerpt from The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. Blurbs and sub-headings have been added for the readersease.)

That Wednesday was no ordinary day in the life of Narendra Modi. On 25 September 2013, he had been declared the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Prime Ministerial candidate, after tiding over his differences with party veteran, Lal Krishna Advani.

Eventually, the one-time strongman and senior leader of the party was persuaded to join Narendra Modi in Bhopal to address a public rally at noon. After the trio of Advani, Rajnath Singh (Minister of Home Affairs), and Shivraj Singh Chouhan (former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh) had finished with their speeches, Modi took centre stage to address a delirious audience.

After going past a major part of his speech, Modi reminded people of what Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founding president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh had once said about his colleague, ‘Give me two Deendayals, and I will completely change the face of the nation.’1 Modi had then added prophetically, ‘When the country shall celebrate Deendayal Upadhyaya ji’s birth centenary in 2015–16, the BJP will rule in most states in the country.’

Deendayal: PM Modi’s Biggest Icon

PM Modi’s assertion was indeed prophetic—in the first round of assembly elections in November–December 2014, the BJP won in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Jammu. By the autumn of 2018, and just before the assembly elections in five states, the BJP was in office, either on its own or as coalition partners, in more than two-third states, home to approximately seventy per cent of Indians.

On 20 May 2014, the day BJP had formalised Narendra Modi’s elevation as prime minister, he had once again invoked Deendayal Upadhyaya.

‘Antyodaya, the service of the downtrodden, was Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya’s mission. That is why I say our government is for the poor and the deprived. The coming year is important for us all. It will be his centenary year...we have to strive to fulfill his dreams. The party and government must decide how to celebrate the event.’
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister

Even before assuming office as India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had made his intent clear—Deendayal Upadhyaya had to be restored to his rightful place in the annals of Indian history.

Deendayal’s Disdain for Everything Western

As an RSS ideologue, Deendayal Upadhyaya continuously stressed on the need to Indianise ‘western concepts of the nation, western secularism, western democracy.’ For instance, he was skeptical about ushering in adult franchise prior to increasing literacy levels—curiously, a typical elitist argument that links political judgement with formal education, thereby serving as a tool for exclusion.

Deendayal viewed Indian democracy as a system which made it imperative for a ‘government to be run through mutual discussion,’ as enshrined in ancient Indian traditions, but reasoned thereafter that, ‘if we carry it to the other extreme, it could prove troublesome.’

Although he had studied European governance systems in detail, his overall hypothesis demonstrated little understanding of the delineation between totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, or even democracies – it stemmed from what was obviously simplistic, that everything western was alien, and therefore unacceptable.

His famous argument that ‘even dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin did not go against democratic principles,’ was not only self-contradictory, but left a lot to be desired in comprehending political theory.

Where Sadhus Crafted Public Opinion

His open endorsement of the ‘controlled democracy’ concept also led to his distinctive approach towards public awareness programmes.

According to Upadhyaya, building of public opinion ‘is a cultural process. In dictatorial communist regimes it is called brainwashing or depriving the dissidents of their so-called democracies, it leads to chaos...’ His unusual views on mass awareness programmes were however in perfect sync with the division of labor that he proposed – that the government must be entrusted with building democracy; campaigns for moulding public opinion should be the preserve of ‘selfless’ ascetics; and governance was the prerogative of an elected government.

Of the lot, the suggestion to entrust renunciates with the responsibility of creating mass awareness programmes was most telling, because that in turn minimized the onus on a particular government, in case its policies didn’t find favour with the group and vice-versa.

The principle of integrating ascetics or sadhus in official programmes was clearly driven by the intent to provide official sanctity to pursuits of faith and evolved from the idea of creating a system based on the ‘fusion of both materialism and spiritualism’ in contrast to ‘Western culture (which) is materialistic.’

Little Space for Dissent

Therefore, public opinion which was orchestrated by spiritual or religious leaders was to be honoured by a government after a ‘controlled’ dialogue. He further hypothesised that such an interaction or relationship was to be governed by three main principles: tolerance and discipline; selflessness; and respect for the rule of law. On the face of it, the ideas seem simply righteous, but on a deeper analysis, flawed and impractical as well.

For instance, what Upadhyaya said in reference to the first principle, ‘A disciplined person stands between a vocal person and a dumb person...democracy can be successful only (sic) when a citizen understands his responsibilities and discharges them to the best of his abilities.’ Upadhyaya clearly disapproved of vocalizing protest, reflecting his discomfort with democracy and the right to dissent.

According to him, for a democratic State to be successful, it wasn’t incumbent upon a government to ensure that the rights of its citizens weren’t violated in any manner.

But he was, however, silent about the options in case the government did not act according to its brief.

While pontificating about the electoral system, Deendayal argued that for it to succeed, good candidates, good parties, and finally good voters were mandatory. While political parties must be principled, and shun casteism, Upadhyaya held an odd viewpoint about ex-royals as electoral candidates in a democracy, who he said, ‘must be active in the country’s politics,’ but he contradicted it by saying that political parties should avoid nominating them solely for their princely status and wealth.

To Centralise or Not to Centralise?

For voters, Deendayal had a long list of suggestions as follows: do not vote for a party, but for its ideals; don’t support an individual, but opt for the party; and opt for an individual, and not for his or her money power, or be ‘misled by hype.’ In retrospect, these seemingly ‘good to do’ list seems ironical because much like M.S. Golwalkar, Deendayal didn’t consider democracy to be an ideal system of governance in the first place, but was of the view that it was the ‘least evil’ way of running a government.

Of all his theories, what stood out prominently was his rejection of India’s federal system and as a natural corollary, its administrative and governance structure. His recommendation was for a centralised system, and he objected to India being defined as a Union of States, and protested against the enactment of Re-organisation of States on linguistic principles. (He demanded the setting up of a commission to re-organise states, which was eventually established by the Nehru government in 1954.)

While he was in favour of centralisation, Upadhyaya also opposed a ‘unitary constitution’ and suggested that we should ‘decentralise our fiscal and other resources.’ It must be mentioned here that the idea of cooperative federalism, which forms a significant part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governance module, is an expansion of the premise.

Deendayal Upadhyaya shall be best remembered in history for the two seminal texts that he wrote within a span of seven years – The Two Plans: Promises, Performance and Prospects (1958), and Integral Humanism (1965).

However of the two, the latter which is essentially a detailed hypotheses on philosophical issues with a bearing on the larger economic vision, merits greater attention because it has survived for more than half a century as the ‘official’ philosophy of the Jana Sangh, and later, the BJP.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is a book excerpt and views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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