Sanatan capitalism: How economic hardship and Hindutva go hand in hand

This regime let economic inequalities grow wider but managed to sell the dream of political equality among members of the majority community.

ByNitin Sinha

Published Apr 13, 2024 | 11:26 AMUpdatedApr 13, 2024 | 11:26 AM

Politics is the new arena of participation; an arena in which one makes oneself visible but as a mask-wearing clone of the leader.

This article was originally published in The Wire.

When a sizeable majority of the nation swoons over violent calls of religious majoritarianism, literally offered through a Hindutva DJ, on the one hand, and reels under unprecedented levels of unemployment on the other, a fundamental question arises: Why are economic conditions not influencing political choices? What holds this apparent contradiction together? Is this a contradiction at all?

One easy model to understand this phenomenon is to treat economic hardships as a cause for the rising fervour of the right. But how exactly this model works – beyond assuming a causal relationship between the growing economic misery and the right-wing rise as a fait accompli – is seldom explained.

The functioning of this model in India can be explained under three modes, which together can be defined as ‘sanatan capitalism’. In simple terms, it means forging a particular relationship between the economic system and the political programme, which allows the inequalities of capitalism to grow wider.

However, the political language of cultural and religious conservativism enforces a sheath of oneness over those inequalities. It is a design in which the status-quoist ideals of the sanatan are fused with the dynamic working of capitalism to perfect a complete monopoly over political power through the instruments of the state and media.

Also Read: ‘Quest for dominance of Hindi, Hindutva, Hindustan’: Shashi Tharoor slams BJP

1. The state-civilisation mode

A systematic effort has been made to project an incompatibility between social and political structures by pitching state and civilisation against each other. The social is presented as pristine and unchanging, and the political is rejected based upon imitation of Western values.

The current form of the state is disparaged for not capturing the essence of Indian civilisational depth. As a result, allegedly, a new configuration of political power is required.

Views around this are best expressed on themes of caste, reservation, and constitutionalism. So goes the argument: reservation is antithetical to the country’s political unity, which must celebrate oneness. It also threatens the social fabric of the nation because it divides the homogenous category of Indians.

Caste becomes a strong signifier of lawlessness. The politics of reservation becomes a fragmentary force in the life course of the nation. The truth is that caste and reservation politics unsettles the idea of the assigned ‘station’ of castes in the tradition-sanctioned system of hierarchy. It is pertinent to note that it is mostly the upper caste people who claim to be genuinely casteless.

The historical roots of social inequality are denied while a long tradition of democratic political culture is projected. The idea of the nation is cast along the long arc of civilisational uniformity derived through religion.

From there, it becomes an easy intellectual exercise to place Hinduism as the foundational core of that civilisational arc, with little concern towards the complexity of history, which includes the formation of various sects, contesting thought traditions, intellectual conflicts and heterodox ideas within it. In front of this deep civilisational foundation, constitutionalism is slammed as insufficient to drive the nation forward.

The current political messaging around this projected incompatibility is extremely smart: the caste identity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is often used for realpolitik purposes; caste identity played a crucial role in the selection of chief ministers and their deputies in the recently concluded state elections where the BJP won; and caste dynamics are in full use by the ruling regime in forging alliances in different states before the 2024 general elections.

And yet, the regime and its supporters see caste as antithetical to the development of the nation. They oppose the caste census as a tool to know the reality of development but use caste as a political tool to aggrandise power.

Using civilisation as the axis of political discourse, the view has been perpetuated that the social base is uniformly Hindu and the political culture is historically democratic.

The modern political form of constitutionalism could never do justice to this civilisational foundation. However, a glaring irony explains the workings of this regime.

Capturing modern state power can only achieve the so-called civilisational glory. Therefore, while the legitimacy of the modern state is constantly derided, its power to punitively govern all aspects of life keeps relentlessly expanding.

While politics based upon constitutionalism has been delegitimised, the state’s legal apparatus has been instrumentalised to define and criminalise dissent.

The supporters of this regime understand this design. They buy the argument of civilisational purity and uniformity. However, they also understand that the sanatan idealism of oneness and uniformity has an inbuilt system of social differentiation that would not be altered under this regime.

They partake in it because they are convinced the state will ensure its unchanging nature. However, for it to be perpetuated, a fundamental change in the political structure is required. Therefore, they comply with the making of the authoritarian state structure.

They probably don’t yet fully grasp that the pursuit of civilisational splendour will involve the state in every aspect of their public and private lives.

Also Read: References to Babri Masjid, Gujarat riots, Hindutva dropped from NCERT books

2. The temporal-technological mode

This regime has crafted an innovative timeline for the nation. Symbolically speaking, it has mixed the arrow, which signifies a linear, one-direction passage of time, with a cycle, representing the idea that time is cyclical.

On a lighter note, this irony can be captured in the thought exercise of boarding a bullet train to the much-hyped Amrit Kaal, introduced by the prime minister as the new temporal horizon of new India for the next 25 years. It is otherwise a divine, paradisical time—a quest to return to the past ethos of Indian civilisation—but attainable through modern technology in the future.

It can be read as blurring the distinction between the past and the future. The clarity of political messaging resides in this well-crafted design of fused timelines.

The power of money and media has hugely helped this exercise. The prime minister takes the lead in inaugurating every technological and infrastructural project whose images inundate all media platforms.

Amrit Kaal is an assemblage of technological futurism, curated visuals of the leader, and plaint media. The constant dissemination of the prime minister’s personal involvement through captured media has seized the collective mentality of the nation.

As it happens, technologies are often treated as indexes of progress. By prioritising technology for political manoeuvring, the regime has deftly warded off any stickiness that may arise because it continuously harps on the past’s greatness. Adherence to technology ensures that the regime appears future-oriented.

However, doing so has changed the meaning of progress. It has decoupled technology from the modernist sense of progress and tagged it to the project of re-invention of lost pride. Earlier, progress was stitched to the fabric of modernity and modernisation.

Now, these ideas and ideologies are discredited. In lieu of this, Amrit Kaal’s induced notion of progress has got a free hand in taming the future imagination of the nation along the invented trajectory of the past.

In the 19th century, new technologies created panic around the loss of social hierarchies. The railways, for instance, were claimed to eradicate the caste distinctions. The Amrit Kaal’s technology does not present any threat.

The practice of sanatan can happily flourish in a futurist, technology-driven smart city. The regime is favoured because of the well-crafted image of a technology-savvy leader. It is doubly favoured because the leader has convinced the people that no technology will go rogue to destabilise the social structure in the future imagination of the nation.


Using the past to project a future, using technology to attain ancient glory, and using the media to create a cult is part of the same design.

Also Read: Media freedom has disappeared under BJP rule: Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan

3. The economic-political mode

The third and final mode of explaining the current regime’s success is its ability to cement widening economic inequalities, at least momentarily, through politics.

The ever-expanding greed of getting things delivered home entails a network of delivery boys (mostly boys rather than girls) spanning across cities and towns of India. As the service sector has tremendously expanded, one way of understanding contemporary India is to see it divided into two halves: one which can afford to order, the other which is destined to deliver.

The expansion of gig work and the app-based service sector is not specific to India. It is happening worldwide. However, this is happening vigorously in India with the expansion of various low-end services. It is also happening in a deeply disturbing manner.

Maids, cooks, nannies, gardeners, peons, cleaners, and security guards are present in significant numbers in our private and public spaces. They are visible everywhere, but there are constant attempts to keep them invisible. Separate escalators, back-door entry, etc., are common features of middle-class residencies to which they are forced to subscribe.

The distinguishing feature in the growth of India’s service economy is not the potential for a few law and medicine practitioners to reap the benefits of participating in global digital consulting. In contrast, it is the ease with which the older hierarchies pervade the modern work and work organisation system.

For instance, in the 1960s debates in the Indian parliament over the regularisation of domestic work and workers, it was argued that with urbanisation and modernisation, this occupation would naturally disappear. In contrast, it has grown exponentially.

The middle class cannot survive without the ‘help’ workforce. Modern digital technology is fast organizing this workforce and implementing new surveillance methods.

This regime has let the economic inequalities grow wider but has managed to sell the dream of political equality amongst members of the majority community. A distrustful class relation from economic inequalities has been plastered with a rationally crafted political vision in which the language of duty has replaced the politics of rights.

Kartavya, the duty, as we have been reminded of time and again by Modi, defines nationhood and selfhood. As a result, social mobilisations based on rights have been delegitimised. In the arena of politics sans rights, the social invisibility of a huge workforce has been compensated by rousing them politically. Politics is the new arena of participation, an arena in which one makes oneself visible but as a mask-wearing clone of the leader.

The delegitimisation of social mobilisation along economic lines (the latest example is the farmers’ protest, in which they were called anti-national and terrorist) assures the capitalist and middle classes that the political rousing of Hindutva amongst the lower classes is not a threat to them.

It also assures them that as long as the duty-based idea of relating to the nation remains in place, the economic hardships of a large swathe of people will not become a political cause to worry about.

Let us end with a point to ponder upon. If the excess of the political marks the current period, what is wrong with it? This politics is, after all, not forged through formal dictatorship or imposed authoritarianism but through the exercise of the people’s will. The problem is that this excess is based upon a state-sponsored fractured and fragmented idea of people primarily along religious lines.

These fragments are unequal in power and consistently made so through the use of the law. The political aspiration of the nation is based upon duty and not rights. It is based upon supremacy and not egalitarianism. It is based upon hatred and not compassion. Finally, it is based upon the widespread use of the law to legalise a system of inequality.

Sanatan capitalism is as much a tool to keep the contradictions (outlined above) moving in a productive manner for the current regime as it is a modernist product of state power. But at best, it is an analytical lens to understand how the current regime has crafted a new script of power which uses people but simultaneously disempowers them.

(Republished with permission. The original article can be accessed here. Nitin Sinha is a historian and a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin.)