Thoughts on the AAP’s Hindu Gestures from Kerala’s History

I have been reading with interest the exchange between Aditya Nigam and Satish Deshpande on the AAP’s strategy of avoiding ‘politics’ – or rather, distancing itself mostly from the polarised ideological debates while making small moves to shape for itself a space, arguably fuzzy, in the hegemonic discourse of Hindu. I am also witness to the unbelievably egregious attacks by the CPM leadership in Kerala against Islamist organizations protesting the CAA — the free reign granted to an explicitly communalised police force, the appallingly soft treatment of Hindutva offenders, even when they make open threats that warn Malayalis to ‘remember Gujarat’, the wanton attack on internal dissidents in the CPM using the worst instruments of the security states such as the UAPA, and the threat to dismantle the pandal of the Shaheen Bagh solidarity satyagraha in Thiruvananthapuram, something even Amit Shah has not dared to do (thankfully withdrawn after public outrage), and its blatant caste-elite majoritarian thrust while claiming to be the (sole) guardians of secularism.

Therefore it is not surprising that some friends have asked me why I was not outraged by the AAP’s effort to avoid being identified with Muslims and its moves towards crafting a place for itself within the Hindu discourse when the CPM’s majoritarian tilt had clearly riled me. If we do not consider the AAP’s acts as merely strategic moves to win the elections, this question must be answered. And to answer this question, I propose, one must turn to the history of majoritarianism and welfarism in Kerala. Indeed, this calls for much more detailed, academic investigation, which I am not embarking on here; my aim is to merely show why such work might be necessary to get a sense of the strengths and limits of AAP’s strategy.

I am not worried by the AAP’s chosen focus on improving health and education, both content and delivery (it is important not to reduce this into just ‘governance’); indeed it heartens me because from the history of the states of  Travancore and Kochi in the 20th century (and historical experience elsewhere too), it appears that the establishment of public networks of health and education, even when done under the aegis of a Hindu state, as long as it did not blatantly exclude minorities, can form the basis of ‘public action’ for inclusion — for people putting public pressure upon the state for welfare and securing them. In a sense, these struggles forced the state to shift its basis to a considerable extent from the brahminical caste order of janma-bhedam ( difference by birth) to nationalist biopolitics. The networks of welfare established by the Hindu majoritarian rulers of Travancore and Kochi  proved to be the catalyst for democratic struggles that ultimately shook the foundations of majoritarian state power, for example, wielded by autocratic Dewan C P Ramaswami Iyer in Travancore. It formed one of the important bases of the durability of the communist movement as well and the discourse of ‘welfare as people’s right’ blunted the edge of bureaucratised biopolitics. In the mid-20th century, the left shifted the ideological basis of the state to a welfarism rooted in reclaimed myths of benevolent governance and its destruction by the caste elite — specifically, the story of Mahabali. EMS Nambutiripad explicitly referred to the myth as he shared his vision of the new modern Kerala that was to become reality through the work of the first communist government; and this vision was hardly contested by the Congress opposition.

What AAP is doing with the figure of Hanuman now is undoubtedly fraught with risks at a time of aggressive Hindutva takeover of human mental space, but for sure, it could well provide another foundation for imagining the state: Hanuman, is, after all, the perfect servant, moving mountains to serve his master; at just one remove is Kejriwal’s claim to be Delhi’s dutiful son whose life’s mission is serving his parents .  The real danger lies in the reaffirmation of unequal domestic ties that shape the ideal of the north Indian high caste Hindu family even if the master (Rama), and the head of the family in this re-vision would refer to the people of Delhi. Yet the dangers of such reaffirmation may well be exaggerated as the effects of inversion are always complex.

I do not mean to say that the stress on health and education by a state is always power-free. Far from it, we are surely wiser since the 20th century about the totalizing powers of nationalist biopolitics in a number of societies. However, in India and in Kerala too, neoliberalism has, in the new millennium, eroded welfarism seriously. Therefore I think that any fears about these biopolitical instruments turning into the basis of new totalizing state power and ideological impulse towards exclusionary society may be exaggerated. Indeed, the impression that I have from the state of public sector education and health expenditure and infrastructure in India is that Hindutva leaders are fully confident of re-affirming the order of caste as the basis of state power, and that the neglect of education and health is one way in which they are achieving this surreptitiously, through deepening what is essentially a continuing neglect. The deployment of the Hindutva state, as we can clearly see now, is in line with the brahminical theocratic state foundations that the RSS desires — it is of necropower, this is necropolitics.

Nor does it mean that opposing the CAA and promising to defend Muslim interests is always an opposition to aggressive Hindu majoritarianism and elitism and that such voices will not be Islamophobic. From Kerala’s experience, a silent turn to (Hindu) majoritarianism of the aggressive variety  may become necessary when progressive political space is taken over steadily by neoliberalism and crony-capitalism. In Kerala, ‘secularism’ is not just a code word for the interests of the Hindu caste elite; it is actually worse — now it indicates the mollification of the Hindu population prone to Hindutva ideas — defenders of such ‘secularism’ make Islamophobia respectable and justify the suppression of Muslim protests while  limiting their condemnation of Hindutva violence to words, largely.  The CPM lacks the confidence to declare itself the dominant voice of Hindus in Kerala ; rather, it clings tenaciously to the claim of being secular. This is despite the fact that it has had the extraordinary advantage of being located in the historical trajectory of the Great Opening in Hindu life made possible by Sreenarayana Guru. During the savarna riots of 2018 instigated by the BJP and the brahmin and kshatriya entrepreneurs who profit from the revenues from Sabarimala, the CPM could well have announced itself as the dominant voice of a Hindu community that had been transformed by the Great Spiritual Opening enabled by the Guru (which could well be interpreted as quite complementary to socialist morality), instead of claiming the seemingly-neutral space of secularism; that would have disarmed the BJP to a very large extent. However, this was simply not practically possible for the present leadership of the CPM, and not just because it cannot afford to fully alienate Muslim voters in a state where they are a substantial and powerful minority.

Secondly, in Kerala, we have seen  Pinarayi Vijayan’s tolerance of predatory and decentralized crony capitalism and (World Bank-inspired) post-disaster rebuilding driven not by engaged civil society but by technocrats and bureaucrats and global players like the KPMG. Predating this (but continuing alongside it now), is the steady replacement of  the left’s discourse of welfare as ‘people’s right’ with one centred on self-help and entrepreneurial drive, which is peaking at present. Much is made of the recent successes of public health in Kerala especially in the wake of the fears around the spread of the Nipa virus and Coronavirus. Yet it is a fact that such interventions — especially around vaccination — are being perceived by many minority groups as oppressive necropower — and this needs to be understood in the background of  people’s changing perception of the state itself which takes on more and more features of the security state, and of public health as driven not so much by people’s needs and choices as the interests of maintaining the state’s global image as the haven of  public health and socialism. Indeed, the CPM in Kerala has, over the past ten years or so, made an active effort to decimate the (limited, liberal) civic culture that was promoted by itself in the People’s Planning Campaign in the 1990s, and ignore — even attack — the moral community of the left, as an impediment to the predatory capitalism it now promotes. The secularism of the technocrat- supporters of Pinarayi Vijayan has a distinctly Ayn Rand-ish flavour to it; it is no coincidence that they are often staunch atheist individualists who worship laissez-faire capitalism. As for the CPM leadership, they profess a certain pracchanna-Hindutva in the name of the ‘secular’ simply because such a majoritarian base does not commit them to anti-capitalist goals, and only to a certain limited welfarism in securing electoral success.

On both these counts, I think the AAP’s moves, for the time being at least, are different.  First, its attempt to create space in Hindu discourse through appropriating the figure of Hanuman is not cloaked in hypocrisy and cynical realism that uses ‘secularism’ in ambiguous ways to keep the Hindutva-prone Hindus and the Muslims believing that their interests are being protected, without easing the polarisation. There can be no real transformative dialogue unless the polarisation is eased. I do think liberal elite Hindus who imagine that their lives are not structured by the privileges accruing to members of the religious majority need to become more self-reflexive and work to ease the polarisation; there is no exit from the Hindu community except through outright conversion. Interestingly, even exogamy is not always an escape route now. Therefore those who stay in it and disagree with the violent and immoral Hindutva assertion have the responsibility to participate in the shaping of a more open, inclusive, convivial Hinduism. The CPM’s intervention in Hindu discourse  in Kerala is largely as an external voice (without really claiming ownership of it, a la Sunil P Elayidom, the CPM’s leading public voice on such matters, or by hosting such national figures as Swami Agnivesh); it however defends caste-hindu interests and even Hindutva against dalits and Islamists. The AAP appears to be making a bid to present a re-vision of faith perhaps in an effort to ease the polarisation and erase the image of the belligerent punisher- state that the militant Jai Sriram discourse has effected; I have not come across much evidence for its hostility to or harassment of religious Muslims.

Secondly, the AAP’s ideological thrust on governance and improving skills to expand job opportunities resembles the capitalist interpretation of Sen’s capabilities approach. This is unlike welfarism in mid-20th century Kerala which rested on the ideological foundations of socialist economics and building the moral community of the left. The capabilities approach is developmentalist, and its political orientation is ethical-individualist; the unit of well-being in it is the individual (or, in practice, the household) and so its assessment of public welfare can well cut across community boundaries; this also means that axes of exclusion like caste and gender can be more visible in its measurement of well-being. This can potentially empower religious and developmental minorities in agency and voice in the not-so-distant future. The AAP’s effort to create space in Hindu discourse need not necessarily impede this, unlike Hindutva. If the history of early 20th century Kerala is anything to go by, the present apolitical presentation of the AAP’s work should not be a reason to dismiss it as politically fruitless. All majoritarianism is potentially dangerous; I do not mean even for a moment that we should let down our guard. I also agree that it is possible that the AAP has not yet grown Hindu fangs and claws because it does not control the police. Still, going by what we are able to see now maybe the AAP’s experiment must be watched with critical interest.

As for critical intellectuals, we are clearly in for the long haul. We need to bring back the focus of public discussion (in Indian languages, also) relentlessly to issues and spaces that dilute the polarisation that helps Hindutva electoral success; those of us who are born elite-Hindu need to take responsibility for the mess we are in and intervene from within, from endogamy to everyday ritual practices that get passed off as secular concerns; we need to fight to expand health and education and the welfare system in general and refuse explicitly all attempts to pose it against growth. But more importantly, I think we should work tirelessly to shape a generation that will possess the moral and ethical fibre which will not wilt before nationalist hubris of any sort. This is perhaps our most important task — and I echo the lines of the Malayalam poet Balachandran Chullikad: I seek not the Love of the Nation/I seek the Nation of love/The the Empire on which Life never sets.


There were these countries long ago

The Kingdom of Vanchi, the Kingdom of Kochi

Where are they now?

Where is the Soviet Union?


No more are we stupefied

by the sight of one Germany

look like two.

Both are now

nailed down in time.

There was no Pakistan long ago.

There was no Bangladesh long ago.

In the Beginning, there were no countries.

In the Beginning was the Word.

Water, Life.

Countries are formed

Countries dissipate.

But love remains.

Which is the country of hunger?

Of lust?

Which is the Land of longing?

Of death?

Where are the borders of solitude?

Where lies the soul’s Line of Control?

I seek not the Love of the Nation

I seek the Nation of love

The Empire on which Life never sets.

[Balachandran Chullikkad, Rajyasneham, 2003)







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