The more Narendra Modi talks history, the more trouble he is likely to invite. A scholarly and open-minded study of the past usually has a moderating influence on an understanding of the present. Modi, however, is an ideological and political legatee of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whose ideologues seem to have rarely undergone a formal exposure to the humanities.
The founder of the RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, studied medicine in Calcutta and practised in Nagpur. His mentor B S Moonje was himself a doctor, a freedom fighter and a member of the Congress, very close to Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He, however, left the Congress in 1920 disenchanted by Gandhi's non-violence and pro-Muslim policy. Moonje's protege, Hedgewar was appointed deputy of the volunteer Bharat Swayamsevak Mandal, at the Nagpur session of the Congress in 1920.
The Khilafat Movement also convinced Hedgewar that the Congress had become excessively pro-Muslim. The subjugation of Hindus, he felt, was not only because of historical conquests but sustained by weakness in national character. This "flaw" had to be corrected by educating Hindus about their cultural and historical heritage.
Although the reassessment of the past was so central to their project, none of those who followed Hedgewar undertook to seriously study history. M S Golwalkar who followed Hedgewar as the head of the RSS did a masters in science and began a Ph D in marine sciences. His admiration of Adolf Hitler was evident in his book We or our nation defined.
He wrote, "To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races - the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by." The lesson he learnt and propagated from history was a justification for religious and racial intolerance.
He was followed as RSS head by M D Deoras, a lawyer by training. His successor, Rajendra Singh, was an M Sc in Physics and taught Spectroscopy at Allahabad University. He was followed by K S Sudarshan, who pursued a B Engg (Hons) in telecom engineering at Jabalpur. His successor and current RSS Chief, Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat was studying veterinary sciences and animal husbandry when he left to join the RSS full-time. He is surrounded by people of technical and scientific backgrounds such as Dattatreya Hosbole, Suresh Soni, and Indresh Kumar, among many others.
RSS leaders have, thus, always been short on formal training in history and high on anti-Muslim and anti-Congress rhetoric. The former followed from their understanding of Indian history as the conquest and subjugation of Hindu sons-of-the-soil by Muslim invaders. The latter arose from disillusionment with the Congress after Gandhi, when it was perceived to adopt a pro-Muslim stance. These are the central themes in the revisionist history of the RSS.
Perhaps this potted history is unquestioningly accepted within the RSS because of the organisation's strong hierarchical discipline. But it does not go down so well when presented by Modi to a larger public.
The gaffes in the Patna speech, though undoubtedly mistakes of historical fact, were intended to compliment Biharis from his standpoint. Since fighting foreign invaders and unification of India are central themes in the RSS-BJP ideology, Biharis were being eulogised for fighting a foreign invader, Alexander, and for having a king in Chandragupta Maurya, who first united India into a single state. The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru, the "what if" questions about Sardar Patel, the selective honouring of icons of the freedom struggle by the Congress, are also propaganda, that hold the Congress party guilty of historical wrongs.
His biggest blunder is in blaming Nehru and Congress alone for the creation of Pakistan. Modi forgets that the ideological guru of Hindutva, V D Savarkar, wrote in support of the two-nation theory saying: "I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah's two-nation theory. We Hindus are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations." The two-nation theory was eagerly embraced by Hindutva ideologues and shared by Islamic communalism elsewhere on the subcontinent.
Modi has so much to say about the past and so little about the present. Listening to him, one is hard put to know how giving up inclusiveness and religious tolerance will "unify" Indian society and whether "Akhand Bharat" can be a feasible aim of foreign policy when Pakistan has been a sovereign country in its own right for over 65 years.
He has little to say on issues of governance that are now central to public discourse in India. He is silent on corporate corruption. He has misused the bureaucracy in Gujarat. He has no clear policy on the use of natural resources, much of which he has distributed, virtually free, to corporations in Gujarat. And his inability to appoint an independent Lokpal for the last eight years shows disdain for accountability in government.
Modi's predominant concerns are about setting right the past and fixing the blame for what he perceives to be historical wrongs on his political adversaries.