Table of Contents


This chapter draws extensively from a book the author co-wrote with Pradeep Chhibber entitled Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (Oxford University Press, 2018).


The role that ideas play in shaping the dynamics of India’s party system and, by extension, underlying voter behavior, has been surprisingly overlooked by most scholarly accounts of contemporary Indian politics. This chapter explores the ideological crosscurrents that have led to the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a heavyweight on India’s political stage by focusing on three key questions. First, how did the BJP become the sole voice of Hindu majoritarian politics? Second, given that parties operate within the competitive boundaries set by other political players, what limits and opportunities in the Indian party system shaped the rise of the BJP? Third, while the BJP has emerged as a dominant actor in Indian politics, what challenges does the party face in the short to medium run? This chapter investigates the rise of the BJP in the 1980s and 1990s, its brief stagnation thereafter, and its recent ascendance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP’s rise has been gradual and, in some ways, its victory in 2014 was a historical culmination of the battle over competing visions of Indian nationhood that has been waged for nearly the past two centuries.

Scholars have already presented detailed accounts of how the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS)—a party that was the precursor to the BJP, along with its ideological partners, namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates belonging to the Sangh Parivar—have used Hindu majoritarianism as a mobilizational plank in postindependence India.1 Building on this history, it is noteworthy that, since the 1980s, the BJP has been the principal carrier for two, sometimes overlapping, groups of ideological conservatives: those who strenuously object to the politics of recognition and social classes who harbor deep misgivings about the prevailing politics of statism.2 In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha, storming to power on the back of pro-Hindu majoritarian sympathies that were triggered by the divisive issue of building a Ram temple on the disputed site of a demolished mosque called the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. After ruling India from 1998 to 2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party was unseated by their archrival, the Congress Party from 2004 to 2014. The party’s electoral struggles led many observers to opine that the BJP might have hit an electoral ceiling; indeed, one prominent commentator penned a fatalistic column that mused whether the BJP was “A ‘Dying’ Party?”3 Therefore, it came as a surprise to many political watchers—not least many within the BJP itself—that the party roared back to power in 2014 with Modi leading his colleagues to India’s first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades. Since then, the party has managed to become the focal point of the entire Indian party system. Ultimately, the BJP’s 2014 victory was driven largely by the consolidation of ideological forces on two axes that govern party competition in India—the politics of statism and the politics of recognition.

Rahul Verma
Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi. He is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley; his doctoral dissertation examines the historical roots of elite persistence in contemporary Indian politics.

Going forward, the BJP has certain challenges to overcome. The party’s ability to maintain its preeminent position in Indian politics requires that it deal with emerging cracks within its diverse coalition. For much of the twentieth century, support for Hindu majoritarianism and condemnation of preferential treatment for historically disadvantaged groups were a winning (and mutually reinforcing) political combination.

However, there are nascent indications that change is afoot, as the voter blocs that favor Hindutva sensibilities and reject efforts to redress historical identity-based inequities no longer overlap as neatly as they once did. A recent nationwide poll of Indian youth indicates that some urban educated youth may still be opposed to caste-based quotas but do not hold anti-Muslim views.4 Party leaders appear to be making concerted efforts to balance this contradiction. Not only have they reached out to some Muslim groups, they are also trying to shift quota discourse from caste to class by announcing 10 percent reservations for the economically poor.5

The BJP’s 2014 victory was driven largely by the consolidation of ideological forces on two axes that govern party competition in India—the politics of statism and the politics of recognition.

Furthermore, the aversion India’s upper classes have typically held toward statism appears to be shifting from social concerns to economic and material ones. Some of these contradictions have become apparent in the run-up to the 2019 elections. Economic issues related to employment, agrarian distress, and efficiency in public service delivery remain salient, despite national security concerns stemming from the aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ideological Conflict in Indian Party Politics

To make the case that particular ideological policy preferences are important for understanding Indian politics, it is necessary to first dispel with some conventional wisdom about how the country’s political arena operates. The dominant view among leading scholars is that Indian politics is nonideological. This scholarly consensus has been based on the shared understanding that political parties of all stripes, unlike their counterparts in many long-standing democracies, differ very little on core economic principles.6 But, contrary to this conventional wisdom on ideological conflict primarily focusing on distinctions of economic ideology—those who favor free markets on the right, and those who look for greater state intervention on the left—arguably has had limited resonance in India so far.7 In reality, the process of state formation in India took place in very different circumstances from those that governed state formation in Western Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For that reason, debates about class conflict were less central to the formation of the Indian state.

In India, which is one of the most heterogeneous societies on the planet, the most essential political battles occur on fundamentally different lines. The first axis of conflict has to do with the politics of statism, or to what degree government actors should intervene to modulate societal norms or economic interactions on matters like marriage, inheritance, and the redistribution of private property. The second axis centers on the politics of recognition, or if and in which ways the government should make allowances to redress historical inequities suffered by disadvantaged communities and safeguard minority communities from the excesses of Hindutva majoritarian impulses. India’s political landscape is dominated by these dual concerns—government-directed attempts to reshape social customs and manage the economy, and state-led efforts to remedy the inequalities that exist between India’s diverse array of ethnic groups.8

Based on national election-related surveys done by the Lokniti Program of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) from 1967 to 2014, it is evident that core backers of India’s leading parties (the BJP, the Congress, the communist parties, and prominent regional parties) have empirically distinguishable views on how the state should weigh in on a range of economic issues and social practices as varied as marriage across caste or religious lines, inheritance, and property rights (see figure 1).9 When it comes to the politics of recognition, those on the right wing of the political spectrum have generally resisted identity-based reservations and betrayed Hindu majoritarian sympathies. By contrast, the left-leaning (communist) parties and the centrist Congress have favored minority rights and quotas to accommodate marginalized communities.

Contestation over statism and recognition help explain the evolution of Indian party politics since the country was founded, including the Congress Party’s waning political influence since those early years, the electoral growth of state-level parties in many parts of India, and the more recent ascent of the BJP. These changes in the party system can be attributed to the dilemmas faced by the Congress Party, which has sought to occupy the center on the politics of statism and the politics of recognition alike, and to the slow confluence and marshalling of the political forces that are skeptical of statism and recognition.

After dominating Indian politics in the immediate aftermath of independence in 1947, the Congress Party faced increasing competition from both sides of the ideological divide. To take back the political narrative, then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi pivoted to the left of the political spectrum and enacted legal and regulatory changes that granted the state an enhanced role in directing both the economy and regulating social norms. Gandhi’s pivot outraged many Congress leaders who resented the shift on ideological grounds, and they eventually departed from the Congress ecosystem.

In the 1980s, the party came under heavy pressure from caste-based movements and parties to use state power to recognize marginalized groups—namely, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who had not benefited from quotas. The Congress Party’s dithering on this question further fueled the rise of regional parties that favored greater state recognition as well as the BJP, which opposed the broadening of ethnic quotas. The Congress, therefore, was squeezed from both sides. The end result was the heightened prominence of regional parties, the electoral emergence of the right-of-center BJP, and the continued erosion of the Congress Party’s influence.

The Journey From BJS to BJP

India’s evolution from a political system with a single dominant actor (the Congress Party) to a BJP-led dominant party system is marked by the right wing’s gradual efforts to mount a formidable opposition and competing version of Indian nationhood has gone through four significant phases.

The Era of Congress Dominance (1952–1967)

After India secured independence in 1947, a fierce debate took place within the Congress Party over its policy outlook. Although a minority faction of the party was receptive to the Hindutva’s social policy aims, their voices got marginalized by the emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as the party’s preeminent leader. One particular bone of contention between Hindu traditionalists and the secularists was a law known as the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to furnish “a unified system of law governing Hindu marriage.”10 While the Hindu traditionalist faction of the Congress strenuously opposed the measure, it was left without a voice after Vallabhbhai Patel, deputy prime minister and minister of home affairs, died in 1950. After his passing, no single figure in the traditionalist camp boasted as much broad political appeal as Nehru.

The Congress Party’s reluctance under Nehru to make allowances for Hindu traditionalists helped motivate the Hindu right to politically organize outside of the Congress umbrella. In 1951, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, a former member of Nehru’s cabinet, formally established the BJS as a Hindu nationalist alternative to the Congress secular establishment. With an assist from the RSS, Mukherjee struck out on his own after concluding that the Hindu Mahasabha and the recently formed Ram Rajya Parishad (RRP) were both ill-suited to serve as the basis for a formidable Hindu nationalist political organ. In Mukherjee’s view, both existing outfits were too rigid in their approach to accommodating social concerns and the political interests of non–upper caste Hindus. In its initial innings, the BJS was a relatively minor player. In 1952, the pro-Hindu BJS, Hindu Mahasabha, and the RRP collectively secured ten seats in parliament, earning a mere 6 percent of the nationwide vote.11

By 1967, however, the BJS (which later morphed into the BJP) had established itself as a significant political actor in its own right, claiming more than thirty seats in parliament and nearly 10 percent of the vote. In just fifteen years, it had siphoned off many of the Hindu Mahasabha’s and RRP’s voters.12 Across the states of the Hindi heartland, the BJS took the stage as the Congress Party’s chief foe, attacking it from the right. Despite the growth in the party’s electoral base, there were limits to how far the party could grow. The tight-knit relationship between the BJS and the RSS constrained the party’s capacity to galvanize widespread support from a diverse range of Indian social groups, in clear contrast to the broad appeal the Congress Party enjoyed across Hindu castes and minority religious communities.13

Aside from the Hindu parties, Congress faced another challenge on its right flank from a party opposed to its statist policies. In 1959, the Swatantra Party was formed to take “a decisive stand against government controls, taxation, and general economic policy, in the area of industry and agriculture respectively.”14 Just three years later, in 1962, the conservative Swatantra Party won close to 8 percent of the vote and quickly established itself as the third most numerous contingent in the lower house of parliament.15 The opening chapter of party politics in India closed in 1967 when opposition forces surfaced on two of the centrist Congress Party’s flanks. On the politics of recognition, the BJS opposed Congress’s accommodations of identity-based recognition while the socialist parties demanded more of it, even as the Swatantra Party stood firmly opposed to the politics of statism and the communist parties mobilized in favor of it. Although the Congress Party saw its grip on power weaken at the state level, it remained dominant in the national political arena.

Mounting Opposition to the Congress in Various States (1967–1989)

Buffeted by opposition to her party’s stances on both statism and recognition, the Indira Gandhi–led Congress Party decided to move in the direction of greater statism to keep its opponents at bay. Gandhi unveiled economic and social statist policies such as major amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act, and the political skirmish that ensued split the Congress Party in the late 1960s. The Congress’s conservative wing revolted, left the party, and set up a new political front known as the Indian National Congress (Organization), or Congress (O).

The 1969 fragmentation of the Congress Party altered the political landscape for the party itself and opposition forces alike. The Congress’s divisions helped clear several hurdles that had earlier prevented the BJS and the Swatantra Party from forming an electoral pact. As one political scientist observed, “Swatantra leaders were hesitant to ally with Jana Sangh because of its anti-Muslim image and Jana Sangh leaders had reservations about the unabashed economic conservatism of Swatantra. The Old Congress provided a secular link for Swatantra and a less conservative economic program in line with the growing populism in Jana Sangh. The inclusion of the Old Congress also allayed Swatantra fears of being absorbed by the highly disciplined Jana Sangh.”16

To counteract the Congress, several leading opposition forces—including the BJS, Congress (O), the Swatantra Party, and some socialist groups—joined hands in an opportunistic alliance to challenge Indira Gandhi’s rump Congress faction known formally as Congress (R). The combined opposition proved no match for Gandhi, whose popularity led the Congress (R) to a historic electoral triumph in 1971: the party handily won a single-party majority (of 352 seats) in the Lok Sabha.17

Indira Gandhi’s sweeping victory did not deter conservative opposition forces, who continued to work together to take on the Congress Party. The Emergency (1975–1977) and two years of Janata Party rule (1977–1979) fall under this chapter of Indian political history. The Janata Party was an amalgamation of several opposition parties united not by a common ideology, but rather by a shared distaste of the Congress Party. Its constituent members included the BJS, Congress (O), the Swatantra Party, various socialist groups, and the Bharatiya Kranti Dal. It did not take long for the coalition’s contradictions to surface. On the one hand, the socialists moved to appoint a commission to offer specified conditions to help determine the allocation of reservations for the OBCs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, pro-Hindu members of the coalition wanted the government to take action on its pet priorities, such as a law to ban religious conversion. (Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion, and many Hindus in India fear their numbers will inevitably decline if Christians and Muslims are allowed to engage in religious conversions.) The ideological conflict within the Janata Party coalition led to its eventual disintegration and paved the way for the formation of the BJP in 1980. Although it took another decade for the BJP to emerge as a serious electoral player, this development was highly significant because it meant that a majority of right-leaning groups had converged under the BJP’s umbrella.

The newly emergent BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee pursued a moderate position, a decision that immediately provoked a response from the RSS and elements of the Sangh Parivar. Vajpayee’s decision to chart a middle path was most likely based on a strategic calculation intended to retain supporters of the erstwhile Janata Party that had joined the BJP.18 However, the RSS openly expressed its displeasure with the BJP’s moderate turn. Instead of catering to disparate demands and risk diluting its core ideology, the RSS instead depended on the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Sangh affiliates to galvanize its Hindu base.19 In fact, many observers have argued that the RSS failed to rally its cadres to the BJP cause in 1984.20 The BJP performed poorly in these elections, which were held after the tragic demise of Indira Gandhi, winning just two seats in the Lok Sabha.21

After the historic victory of the Congress Party in the 1984 elections, two issues factored prominently in shaping the contours of emerging politics in northern India. The first was the Shah Bano controversy,22 which opened up a political debate about whether India should adopt a uniform civil code that would apply to all religious groups (including Muslims, who have historically been allowed to retain the customs of sharia law). The second issue was the mobilization of Hindu voters dedicated to building a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.23 The BJP was initially skeptical about endorsing the Ram temple issue, concerned that an embrace of extremist politics might complicate its ability to attract coalition allies. However, it later decided to throw caution to the wind when its senior leadership sensed that the Ram temple agitation would offer a unique chance to consolidate Hindu votes.

The BJP Gains Ground Amid a Fragmented Party System (1989­–2014)

Thanks to voter mobilization on these two issues and charges of pervasive corruption against the Congress government headed by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the 1989 elections presented the BJP with a promising opportunity to consolidate its electoral position. The party entered into pre-election arrangements with the National Front (a bloc of several state-level parties opposed to the Congress Party). The BJP earned just more than one-tenth of the vote, far less than the Congress share (40 percent). However, this was enough to bag eighty-five seats and provided the BJP with the heft to offer crucial support to prime minister V.P. Singh (a former member of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet) and the National Front government.24

The issue of reservations for historically marginalized castes again proved to be a sticking point. The V.P. Singh government’s controversial choice to accept the Mandal Commission’s findings on granting OBCs reservations for government jobs prompted BJP leader L.K. Advani to take to the road to undercut the fallout from the issue of OBC reservations and create pan-Hindu pressure to construct a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid. When Advani was arrested in Bihar during the Yatra (the incumbent chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, represented V.P. Singh’s party), the BJP withdrew support from the Singh government, eventually paving the way for the 1991 general elections. In these elections, the BJP went to the polls banking on the Ram temple agitation, although it combined this outreach to Hindus with advocacy of greater economic reforms.25 The BJP managed to channel middle-class dissatisfaction by pushing for the government to be less involved in the economic sphere—a shift in Indian political discourse that the Congress also embraced at the time.26

Following this latest bout of agitation around the Ayodhya issue, the BJP “represented the twin (but often overlapping) constituencies of political Hindutva (or Hindu nationalism) and anti-Congressism.”27 Though the historic economic reforms introduced by the Congress government in 1991 limited the ability of the BJP to mobilize support on the grounds of economic statism, the party continued to grow with the help of a segment of the Indian population mobilized through the Ram temple agitation and opposition to the demand for Muslim reservations.28 The party’s rank and file also became more accommodating of a range of historically marginalized groups—including Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and OBCs.29

In the wake of the 1996 elections, the BJP earned a plurality of seats in the lower house of parliament and had an opportunity to form a government, but it failed to cobble together a majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha. A coalition of several state-level parties—known as the United Front—assumed power with the support of the Congress Party. The United Front government did not last long, and a midterm election was held in 1998. The BJP managed to form a pre-election coalition with several state-level parties largely opposed to the Congress Party—a bloc known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The party’s NDA allies secured a parliamentary majority and formed a government under Vajpayee’s leadership. Barely a year after the NDA government took power, a few NDA allies walked out of the coalition, leaving the Vajpayee government short of a clear Lok Sabha majority. The 1999 elections conducted in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan military conflict in Kargil helped the NDA to return to power once more.

Notwithstanding Vajpayee’s immense personal popularity and reasonably high degree of satisfaction with the NDA government’s performance, the coalition lost the elections in 2004. Instead, a coalition of parties headed by the Congress Party—the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)—formed a government and ruled India for ten consecutive years. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that while the Congress Party’s voting bloc began to show significant cracks between 1989 and 2014, the BJP’s core coalition of voters demonstrated notable staying power.30 Despite fumbling the 2004 and 2009 nationwide elections, the party kept making electoral gains beyond its traditional strongholds in northern and western India (see figure 2).

2014 and the Dawn of BJP Electoral Hegemony?

In clinching the 2014 general election, the BJP meticulously stitched together a unique coalition, drawn not only from its traditional upper-caste supporters but also from many voters belonging to marginalized communities, including OBCs, Dalits, and Scheduled Tribes (STs).31 How did the BJP assemble this coalition? The fact that social conservatives voted for the BJP was nothing new; such conservative voters, many of whom belong to the upper castes, have consistently supported the BJP.32 Rather, what made the 2014 election distinctive was the BJP’s ability to attract a wave of voters against statism into its tent. These emergent BJP supporters tend to be skeptical of government intrusion on matters of social norms as well as economic policy, and they tend to prefer a state that limits its involvement in the business sector.33

In stitching together this historic assemblage of voters who disfavor both statism and recognition, the BJP was greatly aided by the foibles of the Congress-led UPA government in the lead-up to the 2014 election. During its decadelong stint in power, the UPA government had unveiled a number of signature welfare programs (such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) designed to benefit the poor and historically disadvantaged groups like Dalits, Muslims, and STs. Unfortunately for the Congress, the UPA’s rollout of these policies was clouded by widespread accusations of venality and wastefulness, further fueling the emergence of anti-statism as an influential electoral force. To add insult to injury, the Congress Party’s foibles during its second term in office fed the perception that the party was not only statist, but that it was also driven by a “poli­tics of personalism” (that is, the notion that the state and its resources are the preserve of a select few)—diametrically opposed to statism.34 Statist politics are shrouded in a moral sense that the state is a joint enterprise held by all citizens to advance the well-being of everyone in the society. If and when a government becomes a refuge for only select members of society and venality becomes pervasive, a statist political vision loses its moral power of imagination and the ability to enlist citizens’ enthusiastic support. The Congress Party’s woes further reinforced the BJP’s attempts to rally voters against policies of recognition and statism.

It is difficult to overstate the role that Modi’s candidacy played in the BJP’s 2014 approach. After serving as chief minister of Gujarat for more than a dozen years, Modi had cultivated an image as a “socially conservative majoritarian” who was also a “pro-business reformer” with an aversion to the heavy-handed form of statism favored by the Congress and its allies.35 An analysis of 2014 CSDS-Lokniti National Election Studies (NES) data suggests that the BJP’s victory benefited hugely from a “Modi effect.” Modi’s vows to eschew “tokenism” and “special privileges” resonated with Indian citizens who resented the politics of recognition, and his track record of lofty economic achievements in Gujarat drew voters who disliked state intrusions into the economic sphere.36 The Modi effect was most visible from the fact that, in 2014, voters opposed to the politics of statism were drawn to the BJP because of Modi’s credentials as a leader who presided over an efficient, inclusive model of economic governance. In short, Modi singlehandedly added a new segment of voters to the BJP who otherwise likely would have not voted for the party. The 2014 NES survey posed the question of whether voters would have backed the BJP if Modi had not appeared on the ballot as the party’s choice for prime minister. One of every four respondents who had voted for the NDA said they would not have voted for it if Modi had not been its candidate.37 Interestingly, Modi’s candidacy had no discernable added effect on voters opposed to the politics of recognition; they favored the BJP regardless.

In 2014, the BJP under Modi, as political scientist Suhas Palshikar argues, suddenly became a party of different meanings for different echelons of Indian society:

To its core constituency, it continued to be a party of Hindutva; to the OBCs, it represented a vehicle of political power, a vehicle articulating and absorbing their democratic upsurge; for power-seekers, it was a convenient platform offering the possibility of tactical use of the Hindutva weapon when required; for devout Hindus, it represented the religious assertion of the Hindu religion; to the new and upwardly-mobile lower-middle sections, the party represented new possibilities of economic benefit.38

The Ascendant BJP and the Future of the Indian Party System

With its landslide win in 2014, the BJP ushered in a far-reaching recalibration of the social coalitions that confer political influence in India.39 Following the 2014 general election, the BJP steadily expanded its electoral footprint across India, especially in states where the party was not previously considered a viable option; along the way, the party extended its reach across great swaths of the country. The BJP’s electoral juggernaut has prompted many observers of Indian politics to suggest that Indian politics is once more witnessing a dominant-party phase, but this time with the BJP rather than the Congress as the central pillar.40 Some analysts have argued that while the BJP may suffer losses in the Hindi heartland in the 2019 elections—a region it virtually swept five years earlier—it is poised to make gains in eastern India.41 Despite the party’s recent defeats in bastions such as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, the BJP still rules large parts of India. And the party still holds more state legislators (members of the legislative assemblies, or MLAs) than the Congress Party (see figure 3). Beyond a doubt, the BJP has supplanted its Congress rival as India’s top-flight political party. Now the political calculus that informs electioneering in India revolves around the BJP; nearly all political alliances are predicated on embracing or countering the leading party.42

Cracks Within the BJP’s Ideological Coalitions

While the BJP has emerged as the Indian political system’s singularly influential actor, to remain in that role, the party needs to deal with emerging contradictions that most parties face during their expansionist phases. Looking ahead, an important hurdle confronting the BJP is how to keep its diverse coalition together, especially as the overlap between two of its key constituencies—those who favor Hindu nationalism and those who disdain identity-based quotas—shrinks.

The flurry of protests surrounding the issue of reservations in educational institutions and civil service posts (such as the 2015 unrest in the Patidar community in Gujarat) demonstrates that many young Indians appear to favor a meritocratic alternative to the status quo. However, a CSDS-Lokniti poll indicates that the majority of these same young Indians do not openly support the excesses of Hindutva policies or political tactics that disparage or devalue Muslims.43 The party faces a similar challenge on the statism dimension. Statist policies, in the eyes of India’s burgeoning middle-class population of well-educated urban dwellers, have lost considerable currency. Instead, this demographic group backs a more progressive social policy platform and prefers a government that curtails the extent of its economic interventionism.

India’s urban population is surging, and its economy is becoming more driven by the private sector than state-directed entities. This sea change is reshaping Indian voting coalitions and their views on issues of statism and recognition. Modi’s party has retained its aversion to state intrusions on social normative issues when it feels the state is unduly disrupting Hindu interests (for example, the Sabarimala temple entry issue in Kerala), although it draws a firm line against some Muslim customs (like the Islamic practice of instant divorce known as triple talaq). Yet sometimes the BJP supports strong government intervention, like when it comes to outlawing the slaughter of cows; the party maintains that killing cows violates Indian social customs. Presumably, electoral calculus undergirds this policy position. In pursuing this strategy, the BJP is framing voters’ choice at the ballot box as a bid in favor of the country’s Hindu majority (by siding with the BJP) or the Muslim community (by siding with the Congress Party and other competitors).

While the party’s Hindu majoritarian bent may make for good politics in the short run, it will impose significant costs over the long run. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, many of the BJP’s voters—especially among young, urban, and middle-class Indians—do not support the BJP’s majoritarian rhetoric. Consider, for example, two nationwide opinion polls conducted by CSDS-Lokniti in 2013 and in 2016, respectively.44 The earlier 2013 survey indicated that young Hindu city dwellers espouse much greater support for secularism than their older counterparts. Furthermore, the 2016 youth survey reported a substantial plurality of upper-middle-class, urban-dwelling young people who have finished graduate school (a group that is historically more likely to vote for the BJP) stand opposed to both identity-based reservations and prejudices against Muslims. These trends are likely to deepen, if the available survey evidence is any guide. Comparing the readouts of 2007 and 2016 youth surveys, both conducted by CSDS-Lokniti, indicates that young Indian people are more accommodating than their parents toward social customs ranging from marrying outside one’s caste to drinking alcohol.45

A primary concern of India’s youth is middling job prospects. According to a 2018 CSDS-Lokniti poll, one-third of younger respondents identified a lack of job opportunities as India’s leading policy problem.46 This figure is much higher than even what was recorded in the 2016 youth survey.47 Indian young people’s trepidations on the employment front appear not to correspond to their views on social normative issues. For now, youthful voters may overlook the BJP’s excess Hindutva predilections for want of other suitable choices. But it would be unwise for the BJP to expect that this support will persist indefinitely.

The BJP undercut the Congress Party’s rendition of statism in 2014 because the public largely seemed to feel that the latter had descended into a morass of cronyism and corruption. The dynastic nature of the Congress Party was a central trope of the BJP’s election campaign; indeed, Modi kept on contrasting the entitled family politics of the Congress Party and other regional rivals with his modest beginnings selling tea (as a chaiwallah) and the BJP’s reputation as a cadre-driven party in which politicians climb the ranks based on merit. This allowed him to go on the offensive on the campaign trail, promising voters a future marked by greater egalitarianism irrespective of differences along caste, religious, or class lines. Empowerment, not entitlement, would be the hallmark of a BJP government. Many observers have argued that the Modi government’s central campaign promise related to statism—vowing to forge an economic model designed to improve the lives of all citizens—has not lived up to expectations. Though the BJP government has made gestures such as the decision to demonetize high-value currency notes to undercut corrupt practices, it has failed to offer an alternate economic vision that could be shared by most Indians.

Cracks within the BJP’s Social Coalition

In the BJP’s early years, the party attracted supporters mainly from Hindu upper caste communities. Starting in the late 1980s, the political concerns of OBCs and Dalits took on added political salience as some political actors began mobilizing to give voice to lower caste concerns. The BJP sought to broaden its electoral footprint by positioning itself as a vehicle for these groups’ political ambitions. One prominent RSS figure advocated for the party to recruit leaders from lower castes, a tactic that allowed the BJP to make inroads in multiple corners of the country, especially in northwestern India. The BJP embraced this strategy for only a short while, however, before Vajpayee and other party leaders sought to reverse course and reassert upper caste dominance over the party’s higher echelons.

After a string of electoral losses in 2004 and 2009, the BJP stormed back to power in 2014 by simultaneously maintaining robust upper caste support and bringing substantial numbers of OBC, Dalit, and Adivasi voters into the fold.48 The electoral victory under Modi marked the culmination of a “slow transformation” that the party’s supporters had been undergoing for years.49 For the previous twenty years, the composition of BJP voters had been shifting as upper caste citizens made up an ever-shrinking percentage share of the party’s base (see figure 1 in chapter 2). The most sizable segment of the party’s winning coalition was OBCs, whose share of the BJP’s total vote share outpaced that of the upper castes. In other words, while the upper castes still lean heavily BJP, they make up a smaller relative proportion of the BJP’s vote than OBCs, given the latter’s share of the electorate. The BJP also attracted a greater share of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) voters than it had in previous contests. This political sea change is remarkable. Whereas in the mid-1990s 45 percent of Hindu BJP voters were from the upper castes, 35 percent were OBCs, and merely 20 percent were SCs and STs, in 2014, the BJP’s Hindu coalition boasted 44 percent OBCs, 31 percent from upper castes, and a full 25 percent SCs and STs.50

While what qualifies as the typical BJP voter shifted profoundly in 2014, upper castes are overrepresented in the party’s parliamentarian ranks.51 Two out of every three cabinet ministers hail from the upper castes as well, a figure that is at odds with the degree of electoral support that the party drew from that quarter in the most recent national election.52 To make matters worse, of the few ministers that are from other castes, nearly 50 percent of them are affiliated with various BJP coalition partners rather than the party itself. Likewise, most of the chief ministers in states run by the BJP and its NDA allies are from upper castes as well.

The BJP faces a monumental political quandary, a mismatch between a voter bloc that draws support increasingly from lower caste communities and an immutable leadership that has retained its historical upper caste tenor.53 The Congress Party’s inability to incorporate and integrate Indian communities beyond the upper castes into its leadership ranks in the 1960s eroded its political dominance over time. This logjam of depressed lower and intermediate caste representation in the Congress Party eventually prompted an exodus of those voting communities as they turned to other parties that would give greater voice to their political concerns.

Countless Indians who are not from upper castes are bound to harbor ill will over the fact that they are underrepresented in prominent positions such as parliament and state assemblies, lofty posts in government officialdom, private companies, and even less prominent public-sector jobs including the education sector. This could lead to a politically explosive debate and conflicting demands as some groups seek expanded reservation status to cover previously uncovered populations while other quarters call for the government to scrap the reservation system altogether. Many young Hindus are leery of quotas that single out specific castes or religious communities, though a significant share of them (even those who support the BJP) are open to such measures for economically marginalized groups, according to a 2013 CSDS-Lokniti tracker poll survey.54

Multiple Indian political parties have a history of pushing for identity-based quotas for poor pockets of India’s upper caste groups too, and the BJP government in the run-up to the 2019 election opportunistically introduced a new constitutional amendment mandating 10 percent reservations for economically poor individuals not covered under any other existing group-based quotas. Some argue that the BJP’s move is meant to appease upper caste voters who seemed unhappy with the BJP for many reasons, especially the Modi government’s action in the controversy over the SC-ST Act.55


When political parties seek to expand their reach, they often develop contradictory tendencies. If these contradictions are not adequately managed, they can become a key source of organizational degeneration. Can the BJP finesse its coalition’s emerging tensions? Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP and the RSS have aggressively tried to shepherd India in a more conservative direction on questions of statism and recognition. But this approach is a perilous one.

The BJP and the RSS have aggressively tried to shepherd India in a more conservative direction on questions of statism and recognition. But this approach is a perilous one.

The BJP’s decision to grant a 10 percent quota to economically weaker sections of the general population is an attempt to shift the discourse on quota politics from caste to class. While this may mollify disgruntled elements of the BJP’s upper caste base (who were previously untouched by reservations), it is simultaneously bound to alienate a section of the party’s lower caste base. This disjuncture will be further accentuated if the BJP fails to provide adequate representation to lower caste politicians within the party’s decisionmaking hierarchy—an area where it continues to lag. If the BJP tries to use its ideological machinery to nudge median voters to support majoritarian policies and to rely on the government as an agent of pro-Hindu state interventions on social norms, it may alienate a segment of the country’s (growing) urban middle class that holds a very different worldview. Indian norms on questions of marriage and romantic relationships, for instance, involve a deep-rooted tension: should the government permit conservative activists to place limits on whom citizens can marry, or should citizens be allowed to choose freely themselves? The more influential that religious figures become in the party’s coalition, the more policy influence they will seek to accrue; this will likely make the party stake out a more conservative social policy agenda than other Indians want, particularly middle-class urban dwellers.

Even if the ideological position of the median citizen gradually does shift rightward, this would still pose serious risks to the BJP’s standing. Such a shift would increase the chances of discord between different religious sects and castes, an outcome that would imperil the BJP’s claimed mantle as a protector of citizens irrespective of caste or creed. This brand of religiously inspired politics will also affect the economy, as market actors are likely to respond unfavorably to a climate of mounting religious tensions. Such a backlash will probably create further pressures on the state to shoulder the burden of economic development. In such a situation, a substantial segment of the BJP’s support among the aspiring middle classes, trading communities, and youth could easily get disillusioned with the party’s economic agenda.

By dint of his unique charisma and image, Modi has skillfully navigated these tensions within the BJP’s coalition so far. The bigger question is how the party will handle these fissures if and when Modi’s personal popularity dips and the BJP’s electoral fortunes sour. In the next few months, the BJP’s challenges could become more evident. If the party fails to form the next central government and performs poorly in state elections in the months to come, the party’s newly created coalition could implode, leading to a premature demise of the BJP-dominant party system. However, if the party does return to power and maintains its electoral dominance in the states, then the unraveling of its coalition would instead take place more slowly over time.

About the Author

Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. He is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research centers on how history affects contemporary politics in India on topics like voting behavior, party politics, and political violence.


1 Bruce Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics: The Origins and Development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 1990); and Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India and Indian Politics: 1925 to 1990s (London: Hurst Publishers, 1996).

2 For a detailed discussion on the ideological conflict in India’s party politics, see Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma. Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

3 Dasgupta, Swapan, “A ‘Dying’ Party?” Seminar, 605, January 2010,

4 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Key Highlights From the CSDS- KAS Report ‘Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns,’” April 2017,

5 “Modi Govt Announces 10 Per Cent Quota for Economically Backward in General Category,” Economic Times, January 7, 2019,

6 K.C. Suri, “Party System and Party Politics in India” in ICSSR Research Surveys and Explorations: Political Science, Volume 2: Indian Democracy, edited by K.C. Suri and Achin Vanaik, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013), 209–252.

7 There are indications that with the burgeoning of the middle class in India over the last two decades or so, economic ideology may come to play a larger role in the coming years. See Chhibber and Verma, Ideology and Identity.

8 For a brief summary of the intellectual traditions that shaped these ideological conflicts, see Chhibber and Verma, Ideology and Identity. The book shows that the conflict on these two axes do not overlap conceptually and are also statistically independent.

9 Please see the 1996, 2004, 2009, and 2014 postpoll NES surveys by the CSDS Lokniti Program. CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies,” 2014,

10 Pradeep Chhibber, “Who Voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party?,” British Journal of Political Science 27, no. 4 (October 1997): 631–639.

11 Electoral Commission of India, “General Election, 1951 (Vol I, II),” 1951,

12 Electoral Commission of India, “General Election, 1967 (Vol I, II),” 1967,

13 The BJS’s leading founders were former Congress Party members who bristled at the party’s secular policy positions.

14 Howard L. Erdman, The Swatantra Party and Indian Conservatism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 66.

15 Electoral Commission of India, “General Election, 1962, (Vol I, II), 1962,

16 Hampton Davey, “Polarization and Consensus in Indian Party Politics,” Asian Survey 12, no. 8 (1972): 701–716.

17 Lloyd Rudolph, “Continuities and Change in Electoral Behavior: The 1971 Parliamentary Election in India,” Asian Survey 11, no. 12 (1971): 1119–1132.

18 Christophe Jaffrelot, “Refining the Moderation Thesis: Two Religious Parties and Indian Democracy: The Jana Sangh and the BJP Between Hindutva Radicalism and Coalition Politics,” Democratization 20, no. 5 (2013): 876– 894.

19 The VHP spearheaded a campaign by form­ing the Ram Janmabhoomi Action Committee on October 7, 1984. See Abdul Noorani, “The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi Question,” Economic and Political Weekly 24, nos. 44–45 (1989): 2461–2466; and Peter Van der Veer, “‘God Must Be Liberated!’: A Hindu Liberation Movement in Ayodhya,” Modern Asian Studies, 21, no.2 (1987): 283–301.

20 Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India and Indian Politics.

21 Electoral Commission of India, “General Election, 1984, (Vol I, II),” 1984,

22 Shah Bano, a sixty-two-year-old Muslim woman and mother of five, was divorced by her husband in 1978. She filed a criminal suit and was granted alimony by the Indian Supreme Court. Conservative Muslims opposed this ruling because the judgment was in conflict with their reading of Islamic law. To address their concerns, the Congress Party (which had a supermajority in parliament) passed a Muslim Women Act, which diluted the judgment of the Supreme Court. For an analysis of the political debates in the Shah Bano case, see Asghar Ali Engineer, The Shah Bano Case, (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1987); and Zoya Hasan, “Minority Identity, Muslim Women Bill Campaign and the Political Process,” Economic and Political Weekly 24, no. 1 (1989): 44–50.

23 Van der Veer, “‘God Must Be Liberated!’: A Hindu Liberation Movement in Ayodhya.”

24 For comprehensive data on India’s state and national elections, see the “Lok Dhaba” database. “Lok Dhaba,” Ashoka University Trivedi Center for Political Data, 2018,

25 The BJP declared in its manifesto the state would “retreat from commercial activities and instead, concentrate on basic functions such as maintain law and order, justice, welfare programme, infrastructure, etc.” The party also promised “a healthy investment environment so that entrepreneurs [will] find [the] domestic market more attractive and challenging” and pledged to “de-bureaucratise the industry, [and] cut down the plethora of controls which have mushroomed over the years and which breed corruption and dampen enterprise.” It would also “clear projects promptly and quickly.” Quoted in M.L. Ahuja and Sharda Paul, 1989­–1991 General Elections in India: Including November 1991 By-Elections, (New Delhi: Associated Publishing House, 1992), 181, 183.

26 Pradeep Chhibber, Democracy without Associations: Transformation of the Party System and Social Cleavages in India (New Delhi: Vistaar, 1999).

27 Suhas Palshikar, “Congress in the Times of the Post- Congress Era: Surviving Sans Politics,” Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 19 (2015): 39–46.

28 Theodore Wright, Jr., “A New Demand for Muslim Reservations in India,” Asian Survey 37, no. 9 (1997): 852–858.

29 Tariq Thachil, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

30 Oliver Heath, “Anatomy of the BJP’s Rise to Power: Social, Regional and Political Expansion in the 1990s,” Economic and Political Weekly 34, nos. 34–35 (1999): 2511–2517.

31 The BJP attracted a large number of nontraditional voters as well. However, the data also indicates that the BJP’s social base is still quite narrow both geographically and socially.

32 Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India and Indian Politics; and Suhas Palshikar, “The Regional Parties and Democracy: Romantic Rendezvous or Localized Legitimation?,” in Political Parties and Party Systems, edited by Ajay Mehra, D.D. Khanna, and Gert Kueck, (New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2003), 306–335.

33 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies.” As the 2014 NES survey did not have questions concerning statism in terms of social norms, it is hard to diagnose the exact makeup of BJP’s ideological coalition, but a close reading of the BJP’s 2014 campaign suggests that the party wooed voters on both dimensions of statism in roughly equal measure.

34 Chhibber and Verma, Ideology and Identity, 41.

35 Ibid.

36 The 2014 NES pre-poll data indicate that a significant share of respondents perceived Gujarat to be a well-managed state. When respondents were asked an open-ended question about which state, in their opin­ion, was doing best on development indicators, 20 percent named Gujarat. Two additional data points are worth mentioning here. First, slightly less than 50 per­cent of respondents did not mention any state. However, when respondents did identify a state, Gujarat had five times as many responses as the next most popular state (Maharashtra, with 4 percent). The same perceptions were reflected in respondents’ stated electoral preferences in the 2014 NES pre-poll survey—the BJP was six times more likely to be preferred over the Congress Party by those who perceived Gujarat as the best performing state on development indicators. See CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study 2014 – Pre-Poll Survey Findings (21 States),” April 2014,; and Rahul Verma and Shreyas Sardesai, “Does Exposure to Media Affect Voting Behavior and Political Preferences in Indian Elections?,” Economic and Political Weekly 49, no. 39 (September 27, 2014): 84.

37 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “NES-Postpoll 2014-Findings (Weight by State Proportion and Actual Vote Share,” 2014,

38 Suhas Palshikar, “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38, no. 4: (2015): 719–735.

39 Suhas Palshikar and K.C. Suri, “India’s 2014 Elections: Critical Shifts in the Long Term, Caution in the Short Term,” Economic and Political Weekly 49, no. 39 (2014): 39–49.

40 Suhas Palshikar, “India’s Second Dominant Party System,” Economic and Political Weekly 52, no. 11 (2017).

41 Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson, “The BJP’s East Coast Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 15, 2019,

42 Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma, “The BJP’s 2014 ‘Modi Wave’: An Ideological Consolidation of the Right,” Economic and Political Weekly 49, no. 39 (2014): 50–56.

43 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Key Highlights From the CSDS- KAS Report ‘Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns.’”

44 Ibid. Please also see CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Tracker Poll: Round 1,” July 2013,

45 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Key Highlights From the CSDS- KAS Report ‘Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns.’”; Peter Ronald DeSouza, Sanjay Kumar, and Sandeep Shastri, eds., Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions (New Delhi: Sage, 2009); and Roshan Kishore, “Has the Rise of BJP Made India’s Youth Less Liberal?,” Livemint, May 9, 2017,

46 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018,

47 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Key Highlights From the CSDS- KAS Report ‘Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns.’”

48 This conclusion is based on data from the 2004, 2009, and 2014 postpoll NES surveys by the CSDS Lokniti Program. CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies,” 2014,

49 K.C. Suri and Rahul Verma, “Democratizing the BJP,” Seminar, November 2017,

50 Suri and Verma, “Democratizing the BJP.” The original source data comes from the NES surveys conducted by the CSDS Lokniti Program between 1996 and 2014. CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies,” 2014. Data also comes from CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey,” May 2017,

51 Mohit Kumar, Christoph Jaffrelot, and Gilles Verniers, “The Indian Lok Sabha Legislators and Candidates Caste Dataset 1952-Today,” Ashoka University Trivedi Center for Political Data, 2017.

52 See table 4 in Suri and Verma, “Democratizing the BJP”; and Chhibber and Verma, Ideology and Identity, 253.

53 Ibid.

54 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Tracker Poll: Round 1.”

55 In March 2018, the Supreme Court intervened in the Scheduled Caste–Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act) by introducing safeguards such as preliminary inquiry and anticipatory bail for the accused. This angered Dalit groups, who called these measures a dilution of the act, and their fierce protests prompted the government to introduce an amendment to the act that nullified the Supreme Court’s ruling.