In the spring of 2019, nearly 900 million Indians will be eligible to cast their ballots in the country’s seventeenth general election held since independence in 1947.1 As is the case with each successive Indian election, this year’s contest will be the largest democratic exercise in recorded history. While the election will influence the direction of India’s economy, the country’s foreign policy, and the dynamics between New Delhi and India’s state capitals, the campaign’s outcome will also determine the contours of India’s future as a secular republic dedicated to upholding the country’s unparalleled diversity and committed to embracing ethnic and religious pluralism.
Around the world, there has been a resurgence of political movements inspired by religious nationalism in many democracies. This blending of democratic politics with religious fervor is apparent in settings as diverse as the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. India is a vital case in this regard, on account of both its size and its democratic longevity. The comingling of religion and politics is hardly a new development on the Indian subcontinent. When India’s founders framed the country’s constitution following independence and amid the horror of the Partition, they decided to commit the polity to a doctrine of secularism that differed from prevailing Western notions. India’s constitution did not establish a strict church-state separation but rather instituted a “principled distance” between religion and the state whereby the state would embrace all of India’s many religious faiths without unduly favoring any one tradition.2
Although this careful balance was largely preserved in the early years after independence, it did not take long for this blurry line to be crossed. In practice, India’s secular politicians often championed the cause of secularism but opportunistically manipulated religion when doing so proved politically expedient. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a party built on an ideological foundation of Hindu nationalism—came to power on the backs of the first single-party majority in India’s parliament in three decades. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who formerly served as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat for more than a dozen years, the BJP trounced the incumbent Congress Party, which had governed India for much of Indian political history since independence. Accusing the Congress Party of engaging in “pseudo-secularism” and appeasing India’s minority communities at the expense of the country’s overwhelming Hindu majority, the BJP experienced a resurgence that signaled a shift toward a muscular, pro-Hindu brand of nationalism. Building on its historic 2014 performance, the BJP has since methodically expanded its footprint across large swathes of India, snatching political territory away from the Congress Party and many of its regional opponents.
It is important to assess the role Hindu nationalism is playing in India’s democracy under the political leadership of the BJP 2.0, a term used to distinguish the current iteration of the party under Modi from its earlier avatar under the tandem of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and senior lawmaker L.K. Advani. As the political affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organizations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP was widely expected to implement pro-Hindu policies under the tutelage of its ideological affiliates. In practice, the relationship between the Sangh and the BJP has proven more complicated due to a mix of factors, from political pragmatism to Modi’s outsize persona. In power, the Modi government has deferred immediate action on several of the Sangh’s most controversial, long-standing priorities, choosing instead to allow space—mainly at the subnational level—for pro-Hindu social policies.
Ahead of the pivotal 2019 election, the outcome of which remains uncertain, five dimensions related to the ascendance of Hindu nationalism and its consequences for India’s political life are worth a closer look.
- What are the BJP 2.0’s core ideological beliefs? Although scholars have often bemoaned the lack of ideological content in Indian politics, it would be a mistake to label the country’s elections as ideologically vapid. While political parties in India cannot be arrayed on a simple left-right spectrum, as they are in many advanced democracies, Indian politics is deeply riven by differences of opinion on questions of state intervention and official recognition of identity-based status differences. Under Modi, the party successfully united economic and social conservatives, who together became the foundation of a powerful coalition. Maintaining ideological coherence will be an uphill task: BJP supporters who frown on state intervention in economic and social life do not universally embrace the party’s Hindu majoritarianism. Left unaddressed, these emerging fault lines could disrupt the party’s cohesion.
- What powered the BJP’s once-in-a-generation 2014 electoral victory? Since 1989, India has been governed by a series of unsteady coalition governments, many of which have struggled to complete their full terms in office. Against a backdrop of an electorate fragmented across caste and religious lines, the BJP succeeded in constructing a pan-Hindu vote in a small but critical number of electorally pivotal states. The party’s ability to efficiently translate less than a third of the total vote into a parliamentary majority was a testament to Modi’s own charisma and unique popularity.3 While the BJP’s national campaign focused on issues of development and good governance, it selectively deployed Hindu nationalist tropes in pockets of the country where it believed such appeals would resonate. The prospects of the BJP replicating its 2014 performance in 2019 seem unlikely, especially given the internal contradictions emerging within the party’s cross-caste coalition.
- What impact is the ascendance of Hindu nationalism having on secularism in India and the posture of secular parties? The rapid success of the BJP in conquering new political territory has prompted many commentators to note that the party has become the new center of gravity in Indian domestic politics, replacing the once-dominant Congress Party. The BJP’s Hindutva agenda has become more acceptable in mainstream discourse at a time when secular nationalism has been widely discredited. Indeed, secular-minded parties such as the Congress and (nominally) apolitical arms of the state such as the judiciary—especially at lower levels—have gravitated toward more pro-Hindu positions, raising the question of whether there is a politically viable contender able and willing to reclaim the mantle of secular nationalism in the years to come.
- What relevance has Hindu nationalist ideology had for economic policymaking under the BJP 2.0? Given the party’s focus on economic reforms and good governance in the 2014 campaign, there was a great deal of speculation as to how the BJP would balance its economic agenda with the more nationalist preferences of the Sangh Parivar once in power. Ultimately—and to the surprise of many observers—there has been more convergence between the economic priorities of the two entities. For its part, the Sangh has adopted a more pragmatic approach in which it has selectively picked its battles, understanding that it must not overplay its hand if it is to stay relevant. The BJP government, on the other hand, has faced political pressures to temper many of its pro-market positions.
- How has Hindu nationalism come to shape the foreign policy decisionmaking of the BJP 2.0? Hindu nationalist foreign policy doctrine emphasizes the acquisition of hard power capabilities. Former BJP prime minister Vajpayee—as is evident from the 1998 nuclear tests conducted on his watch, his hawkish approach to Pakistan, and his pragmatic outreach to the United States—embodied the realist approach favored by Hindu nationalist thinkers. Lofty rhetoric notwithstanding, Modi has been less successful at enhancing India’s hard power capabilities—failing to undertake significant domestic economic reforms or plug gaps in India’s defense capacities. What distinguishes Modi’s foreign policy is the emphasis he has placed on India’s civilizational values, deploying religious diplomacy and soft power to bolster India’s place in the world. His efforts to transform India from a “balancing” to a “leading” power, however, will run aground in the absence of social stability and economic prosperity at home.4
1 Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson, “The World’s Largest Election, Explained,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/india-elects-2019.
2 Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Secularism For?” in Rajeev Bhargava, ed., Secularism and Its Critics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).
3 For historical data on India’s state and national elections, see the “Lok Dhaba” database. “Lok Dhaba,” Ashoka University Trivedi Center for Political Data, 2018, http://lokdhaba.ashoka.edu.in/LokDhaba-Shiny/.
4 Ashley J. Tellis, “India as a Leading Power,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 4, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/04/04/india-as-leading-power-pub-63185.
This compilation is the product of the hard work and scholarship of several individuals. The editor and lead author (Milan Vaishnav) is grateful to Christophe Jaffrelot, Gautam Mehta, Abhijnan Rej, Rukmini S., Rahul Sagar, and Rahul Verma for their contributions to this publication. He is also thankful to participants at a January 2019 Carnegie Endowment workshop—Jamie Hintson, Irfan Nooruddin, Pavithra Suryanarayan, and Ashley J. Tellis—for their comments on previous versions of the essays published here.
Ryan DeVries provided meticulous editorial assistance on this project, improving both the substance of the report in addition to sharpening the prose. The editor (Vaishnav) thanks Jocelyn Soly for graphic design support and Jamie Hintson for his editorial and research help. He would also like to acknowledge Samuel Brase and Rachel Osnos for their help with various aspects of this project.
This compilation was made possible through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The editor is especially grateful to Toby Volkman, director of policy initiatives at the Luce Foundation, for her support.