On May 31st, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared a landslide victory in the Indian general elections. Modi was re-elected as Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament. The BJP’s victory marked a significant change in Indian politics – Hindu nationalism went mainstream and could likely stay there for the coming years.
The BJP believes in propagating Hindutva, a brand of nationalism that prioritizes India’s Hindus over other religions. Hindutva’s ideologues advocate for a pure “Hindu Rashtra," a nation whose inhabitants all follow Hinduism or other Indic religions such as Jainism or Sikhism. Other religious minorities have no place in this hypothetical Hindu nation. Hindutva's proponents consider Christians and Muslims as "invaders" and have repeatedly called for their removal.
The BJP’s political ideology differs markedly from the Congress Party, which was India’s dominant political party, winning almost every general election from 1947 up until 2014. The Congress Party, at least on paper, has always emphasized India’s secularism. Since its founding, the party has advocated for a pluralistic India, where all religions are given their due rights and involved in the development process. The party endorsed numerous Muslim and other minority candidates, especially during the 1950s to 1970s. In 2005, Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh created the Sachar Committee to review the socio-economic conditions of Indian Muslims and prepare recommendations to improve their standard of living.
Nevertheless, the party has involved itself in its fair share of communal conflict. Congress Party leader Sajjan Kumar incited the infamous Sikh riots of 1984, which killed thousands of innocent Sikhs. The riots were in response to the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Much of the BJP’s ideology is derived from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS aims to spread Hindutva ideology through grassroots level volunteering and community organizing. The RSS wields considerable political influence over the BJP by serving as a feeder organization. Numerous senior BJP Ministers, including PM Modi, started out as RSS volunteers. Thus, the RSS can directly meet with senior BJP leaders and lobby for pro-Hindutva policies.
Although the RSS historically refrained from day to day politics, it has now increasingly involved itself in the BJP’s electoral strategy. The RSS realizes that Indian voters are now more receptive to Hindutva than ever before. What was once considered a radical ideology now appears as quite normal. Thus the RSS is capitalizing on this opportunity and disseminating its ideology through BJP candidates.
The BJP’s political strategy is a classic version of separating “Us” from “Them” as the party seeks to gain the support of Hindus by ostracizing Muslims. BJP political leaders have used tactics to question the patriotism of Indian Muslims and blame them for the nation’s problems. Politicians have accused Muslim men of forcefully converting Hindu women through marriage and have also said that Muslims contribute the most to overpopulation because they have too many children. Many BJP dominated states have also enacted anti-cow slaughter legislation that directly affects Muslims, who constitute the majority of slaughterhouse owners and workers. Numerous BJP politicians have also made vitriolic speeches in support of Hindutva. Most notably, Home Minister Amit Shah referred to illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites” during one of his recent campaign rallies. The BJP’s policies and rhetoric pit the Hindu majority against the Muslim minority in a potential cultural war.
This divisive rhetoric, however, is not entirely new to Indian politics. Numerous regional parties representing sub-ethnic or linguistic interests have often engaged in rhetoric that has maligned people who do not speak the same language or belong to another region. For example, regional parties in South India have criticized immigrant workers from the North, stating that people who cannot speak the local language are not welcome in the state. However, the BJP is unique because it engages in political division strategy at a national level. Historically, most national parties, including the Congress, have attempted to appease different groups by creating a sense of unity through their policies and election manifestos.
When the BJP government was first elected to power in 2014, it touted a pro-business agenda focused on deregulation and tax reforms. These promises never truly came to fruition, as the government focused more on cultural issues in line with its Hindutva leanings. In fact, the BJP continued to expand on social welfare schemes started by the previous Congress government, despite initially calling them "wasteful." The BJP’s lack of concern on economic policy highlights the cultural priorities of the Indian voter. Indians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Modi despite the economic backlash from Modi’s demonetization measures and the slowdown in critical industries. Many Indians, at least in this election, prioritized socio-cultural issues such as Hindutva over economic issues.
The Indian political landscape appears to be shifting rapidly rightward as the BJP has created a national platform for Hindu Nationalism. This resurgence of religious division has left many people asking the same question – will there be a place for minorities in modern India, or will the BJP accomplish its goal of creating a purely Hindu nation? The success of Hindu nationalism seems to be contingent on whether India’s secular parties can muster enough electoral support to halt its progress.