To understand the political change in India only in terms of a Congress-led government being replaced by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) one, would be to ignore the paradigm shift that is taking place. Several seemingly innocuous incidents suggest that the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are trying to change the meaning of being Indian.
Consider the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi standing in front of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. He was resplendent in a saffron kurta and a saffron shawl, wearing two strings of the holy rudraksha bead ("Shiva's eye", the seed of the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree), symbolically presenting 2,500 kg of yellow sandalwood to the temple authorities.
He performed "Rudra Abhishek" - a ritual performed to please Lord Shiva - at the fifth century temple. Devotees believe that it helps fulfil one's desires, intensifies the consciousness of love and nullifies negative influences on the mind and body. The question, however, is whether one should do so as a representative of a secular republic.
An intrepid reporter from Rediff.com questioned the cost of the ritual and the attendant gifts to the Pashupatinath temple of 2,500 kg sandalwood (worth Rs 4 crore at the Karnataka government's Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium rate of Rs 16,000 a kg) and of 2,400 kg of ghee (worth Rs 9.6 lakh at Rs 390 a kg). A government official told the reporter that this was India's gesture of devotion ("Bhaktibav se arpan") and visiting prime ministers regularly carry expensive gifts overseas for their counterparts and heads of state. However, Lord Shiva is not the head of the Nepalese state. Had the Indian government wanted to gift sandalwood to Nepal, should it have been linked with Modi's personal visit to the temple?
Contrast this with the stand taken by a nascent Indian state on the renovation of the Somnath Temple immediately after independence. When Sardar Patel and K M Munshi went to Mahatma Gandhi with the project, he blessed the idea but told them that people should contribute for the renovation and not the state. Jawaharlal Nehru distanced himself from the project. He reprimanded Munshi for writing to the Indian Embassy in Peking asking it to "send waters from the Hoang Ho, the Yangtse and the Pearl rivers, and also some twigs from the Tien Shan mountains" for the reconstruction of Somnath.
Nehru told Munshi, his Cabinet minister, "This letter has rather upset our embassy and I am myself equally upset at the thought that such letters have been sent to our embassies abroad. It would not have mattered so much (although even that would have been undesirable) if a private individual had made that request. But the request coming from the person connected with the government and with the president's name mentioned is most embarrassing for us abroad. I fear there is no realisation here of how other people react to some of our ways of thinking and action." Today, the state seems to believe that people will react positively to a public display of religiosity by the head of government.
Consider the public ceremonial around the ratification of Amit Shah as the new BJP president at the party's National Council. Both Modi and outgoing party president, Rajnath Singh, presented him not only with the usual shawl but also with an unhusked coconut. Also called a "Shriphal" or God's fruit, it is offered as a ritual gift after the completion of worship or to the elderly. The enactment of such ritual exchange on public television could only be to emphasise how deeply the party subscribes to a Hindu religious culture.
This was as much an ideological statement as Shah's explicit avowal in his acceptance speech of the need to change the political discourse of India, which for 60 years has grown under the influence of "western ideology and thought", equating that with the "Congress ideology". Tracing the continuity from the Jan Sangh to the BJP, he said the party's primary aim was to ensure that Indian polity grew in the "shadow of our ideology". That ideology is Hindutva, which guides both the RSS and its front organisations.
The statement of the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat that "the citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus" has also aroused some comment. It was only a public reiteration of the well-known ideological position of the RSS, outlined by V D Savarkar in the 1920s. Savarkar defined Hindutva as a cultural, ethnic and political identity shared by the inhabitants of the "Sapt Sindhu" - the land of the seven rivers. As such, it was a higher order category than Hinduism with its spiritual, ritual and religious connotations. Savarkar wrote, "Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race."
But will that definition of Hindutva have space for those who call themselves "Hindu" Christians as Goa minister of the BJP does or for even "Hindu" Muslims? One wonders - for at the heart of Savarkar's writing lies the question of pitrabhoomi (fatherland) and punyabhumi (holy land). Hindutva can embrace all those for whom they are one but will those for whom India is merely the land of birth, whose holy lands lie in Mecca or Jerusalem, come under its umbrella?
What we are witnessing is not just Hindu rituals in the public sphere but their use to create a predominantly Hindutva public sphere that marginalises others. Rituals are mere instruments. When Modi goes to Pashupatinath on an auspicious Monday of Shravan, it is an assertion of his Hindu identity. The gifting of coconuts, the project for constructing a Ram Temple at Ayodhya or declaring that all Indian citizens (irrespective of their religion) are Hindus is aimed at shifting the political discourse from one tolerant of diversity to a unifying and homogenising Hindutva. This is the larger project that has been initiated by the BJP government and its ideological organisations. It is a long journey on which they have embarked and it remains to be seen how resilient much-abused Indian secularism will be.