Table of Contents


In recent years, religiously inspired nationalist movements have gained prominence in several countries around the world. Few cases are more worthy of greater study than India—thanks both to its size and its democratic longevity. As the world’s largest democracy, India is home to one-quarter of the world’s voters and one-sixth of humanity.1 Political developments in India, therefore, are likely to have broader repercussions throughout South Asia and across the democratic world.

India is not alone in facing the challenges that accompany religious nationalism: many democracies worldwide are witnessing a rise in such political movements. The widespread use of religiously inspired political appeals can be detected in places as diverse as Turkey, Latin America, Western Europe, and the post-Soviet states.2 For instance, in the 2018 Costa Rican presidential runoff election, voters for evangelical populist candidate Fabricio Alvarado reportedly rallied behind the mantra that “if a man of God can’t govern us, then nobody can.”3 In his recent successful bid for the Brazilian presidency, right-wing populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro similarly campaigned on the slogan, “Brazil before everything, and God above all.”4 In Indonesia, meanwhile, Islamic nationalists allied with anti-Chinese xenophobes and economic nationalists to oust Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and convict him on blasphemy charges.5

While religious nationalist movements exhibit considerable variation, they appear to share many common attributes. First, most religious nationalist parties possess a puritanical streak that colors their electoral platforms—and subsequent methods of governance—with a moral cadence. Second, in many countries, religious nationalists use moral appeals and rhetoric to advocate for economic austerity or draconian anticorruption measures. Third, religious politics often betrays a majoritarian nationalism, which seeks to redefine the basis of national identity in a manner that excludes or marginalizes religious minorities.

Milan Vaishnav
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast at Carnegie, where he focuses on India's political economy, governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
More >

In the case of India, the commingling of religion and politics is hardly novel. This mixing first began with state patronage of the Brahminical Vedic tradition in which state backing of religion ensured that clerical leaders would, in turn, protect the state.6 In India’s earliest state formations, the rajas (kings) wielded political power but were reliant on the legitimation of brahmins (priestly caste) whom they compensated with guarantees of safety and material resources. One unique aspect of India’s development is the degree of moral authority brahmins enjoyed independent of the power of the state—a stark contrast to China, for instance, where religious authorities were subservient to elites possessing coercive and economic power.7

When India obtained independence following the ouster of the British Raj in 1947, the country’s new constitution established a secular republic that did not feature a strict church-state separation, as in many Western democracies, but rather a “principled distance” between religion and the state.8 The government, under this rubric, endeavored to maintain a measured embrace of India’s disparate religious communities without unduly favoring any one group.

The BJP’s electoral resurgence of late has once more brought an alternative nationalism to the fore, one based not on secular principles but rather on the premise that Indian culture is coterminous with Hindu culture.

Over the decades, politicians frequently have violated this (admittedly blurry) line, often cynically and out of calculated political compulsion. The leadership of the Indian National Congress (or Congress Party), which ruled India for much of the postindependence period, traditionally has championed its commitment to secular nationalism. But, in practice, the Congress Party often has invoked religious sentiments to suit its changing political interests—a tendency that grew in intensity under the reign of former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Since the late 1990s, India’s electoral milieu has seen a surge of religious content with the electoral success of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although the BJP’s star dimmed for much of the 2000s, it has undergone a renaissance over the past five years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP’s electoral resurgence of late has once more brought an alternative nationalism to the fore, one based not on secular principles but rather on the premise that Indian culture is coterminous with Hindu culture. This departure from India’s secular tradition, which itself was initially damaged by the self-inflicted wounds of the Congress Party, raises difficult questions about India’s political future and its long-standing commitment to the credo of “unity in diversity.”9

Dueling Nationalisms

A key axis of political and cultural conflict in modern India pertains to competing visions of nationalism within the overarching framework of India’s democratic governance. When India’s constitution was being drafted, and even before, there was a robust debate about India’s national identity and the values and norms that should underpin the “idea of India.”10 Thanks to the political dominance of the Congress Party and with due deference to the country’s extraordinary diversity, secular nationalism came to define India’s post-1947 identity.

Under the tutelage of the country’s inaugural prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s postcolonial leadership embarked on an ambitious project of nation-building by refusing to privilege any one religion above all others—as they feared that favoring one religious group could upend India’s nascent social compact.11 Because India’s secularists achieved such a dominant victory in the early years of the republic, it is easy to forget that there was a dueling nationalism that may have been defeated, but which hardly disappeared from the scene entirely. The alternative conception of India’s identity, Hindu nationalism, has a lineage that actually pre-dates its secular competitor, and today Hindu majoritarianism is ascendant.12

According to political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, three competing themes have fought for political dominance since the emergence of the Indian national movement. First, there is the territorial notion of India, which emphasizes the fact that the land between the Indus River to the west, the Himalaya Mountains to the north, and the seas to the south and east comprise India’s “sacred geography.”13 A second conception, the cultural notion, is the idea that Indian society is defined by the values of tolerance, pluralism, and syncretism. The final theme stresses religion, which is to say that the land known as India is originally the homeland of the Hindu community. While different religious communities may call India home, proponents of this third viewpoint see India as fundamentally belonging to the Hindu majority.14

The two nationalisms prevalent in India today largely stem from different combinations of these notions, Varshney argues. While both are committed to India’s sovereign territorial boundaries, they diverge thereafter. Secular nationalism combines a commitment to territorial integrity with the cultural notion of political pluralism, while Hindu nationalism blends territorial unity with Hindutva, or the belief that India is fundamentally a polity by, for, and of the majority Hindu community.

Secular Nationalism

In brief, proponents of the secular nationalist vision of India maintained that the multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups that call the country home should find a place within its sovereign boundaries without being subject to any discrimination or prejudice. Yet India’s variant of secularism differs quite significantly from prevailing Western notions, which enforce a strict separation between church and state to foster civic peace and equal rights for all citizens. As political theorist Rajeev Bhargava has argued, the Western manifestation of secularism does not define the totality of secular doctrine the world over; the notion of a strict church-state separation is but one possible manifestation of secularism in practice.15 The form of secularism India’s constitutional framers chose to pursue is one that forgoes a strict separation but instead imposes a “principled distance” between religion and the state.16

On the one hand, the Indian Constitution possesses many of the attributes of a classically secular state. It endows citizens with religious liberty and strictly prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, as well as caste, sex, place of birth, and other factors. The country’s constitution also grants every citizen universal suffrage without regard to one’s religion or station in life, thus departing from the practice in most democracies (including the United States), which extended the franchise only gradually to women, minority groups, and the lower classes.17

However, the Indian Constitution also provides ample grounds for the state to interfere in religious affairs. For instance, the constitution recognizes group rights as well as community rights, including the rights of religious minorities. Under the law, the state is committed to aid educational institutions administrated by religious organizations. Therefore, not only can the state legitimately interject in the country’s religious affairs, it can also do so without the constraints of neutrality. As Bhargava points out, the commitment to “principled distance” is not the same as “equal distance”; in other words, the state can take measures to tackle illiberal social aspects of one religion (for example, the caste system in Hinduism) without necessarily taking corresponding steps to address other illiberal practices in Islam or Christianity.18 While the state might strive to take equivalent action with regard to all faiths, its ability to do so depends on numerous factors that include prevailing political conditions, the ability of a given religious community to reform from within, the nature of the social ill to be remedied, and the competing obligation that the government faces to protect minority religions.

Contrary to what critics may claim, secular nationalism does not seek to banish, dismantle, or privatize religion; in fact, India’s secular model explicitly recognizes religion.19 Supporters of the country’s distinct approach argue that neither outright separation nor a full embrace of the majority religion—Hinduism—would have been sustainable ventures in India’s diverse, democratic polity. Given India’s stunning religious and cultural diversity, granting preferential treatment to Hinduism would have come at the cost of ensuring India’s syncretic traditions. Taking into account the context of India’s birth amid the partition of the subcontinent (into India and Pakistan), appeals to separatism, and the threat of foreign meddling, a secular approach helped keep a disparate polity together at a time when the country was under great stress. At the same time, proponents of India’s brand of secularism also maintain that the constitution had to give powers to the state to remedy inequalities and oppressive social practices that emerged out of certain religious traditions.

Homegrown critics of the Indian variant of secularism take issue with its interventionist qualities, especially because the primary target of social reform—both in the constitution and in subsequent law—has been Hinduism. These critics question, for instance, why both Muslims and Christians have been allowed to follow their own personal law while the state undertook reforms of the Hindu civil code shortly after the country gained independence.

Hindu Nationalism

The Hindu nationalist vision of Indian democracy differs markedly from its secular counterpart. It begins with the notion that secular nationalism is a fraudulent foreign imposition, perpetrated by elites associated with the Congress Party at the time of independence, an imposition that obscures India’s true Hindu identity and associated cultural sensibilities.20 Proponents of Hindu nationalism believe that Hinduism—not the precarious balancing of all ethnic and religious communities residing in India—is the ultimate source of the country’s identity.

According to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the writer and political activist whose writings are considered foundational texts by many ardent Hindu nationalists, the Indian nation is at its core a Hindu nation. A Hindu, in turn, is anyone who regards sovereign Indian territory as both her fatherland (pitribhumi) as well as holy land (punyabhoomi). Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists fulfill both criteria, while Christians, Jews, Parsis, and Muslims do not since members of these religious groups do not regard India as their true holy land. In the eyes of Hindu nationalists, India’s Hindu identity is important on its own terms and also because it has the potential to foster the kind of coherent national community needed for both social stability and global recognition.21

To be fair, Hindu nationalists are far from a monolithic group. There is a great variety of debate about the practical implications of Hindu nationalist ideology. According to political scientist Kanchan Chandra, there are at least four distinct schools of thought.22 On the most moderate end of the spectrum are those who believe that Hinduism, by virtue of being the largest and oldest of India’s religious groups, should essentially occupy the role of first among equals. According to this viewpoint, Hinduism in India is akin to Christianity in the United States: it should not necessarily receive official recognition, but it should instead be accorded cultural superiority (in the same way that Christian holidays in the United States are widely recognized and celebrated while those associated with other religious traditions are not).

While this variant violates the Nehruvian secular ideals of maintaining principled distance from any and all religions, it is more accommodating than the second variant of Hindu majoritarianism. This approach would give Hindus legal superiority, effectively making non-Hindus second-class citizens. While non-Hindus would still have access to all of the guarantees provided under the Indian Constitution, they would have to accept the state’s endorsement of preferential treatment for Hindus.

According to the third and more strident variant, India is a Hindu nation that is the exclusive domain of the Hindu people. Non-Hindus would be forced to assimilate in ways that honored Hindu cultural customs to the detriment and, eventually, the dissolution of their own traditions.23 The fourth and final manifestation of Hindu nationalism, which enjoys very little currency today, posits that India should be made a Hindu theocracy guided by officially designated religious leaders. Although certain elements of the Sangh Parivar, such as some members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), also known as the World Hindu Council, may endorse this outcome, it finds almost no place in the political mainstream. (The Sangh Parivar is the broader family of Hindu nationalist organizations of which the BJP is a political affiliate, while the VHP is an ecclesiastical organization dedicated to the spiritual consolidation of Hindu society.)

The practical result of these four formulations runs the gamut from a culturally pro-Hindu polity to outright theocracy. But what is common to all of them is the belief that India is fundamentally a Hindu rashtra (nation). The territory universally recognized as modern India, they argue, is inextricably linked to an ancient religious and cultural Hindu tradition that deserves pride of place above all other traditions found within India’s present borders. The conflation of religion and culture, some scholars have argued, is intentional: the two cannot be separated according to most expositions of Hindu nationalist ideology. This mentality is at odds with the secularist approach, which views religion and culture as distinct concepts.24

The Evolution of India’s Political Hindutva

Although popular discussions of Hindu nationalism in the political domain often focus on the efforts of the BJP, the Hindutva movement has a long lineage that can be traced back hundreds of years. Although it has evolved considerably over time, and while it remains contested terrain given the diversity of views that individuals and groups within the movement hold, its roots date back to the nineteenth century.


The political manifestation of Hindutva dates back to Hindu reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj (1828) and the Arya Samaj (1875). These groups were concerned with the growing influence of Christianity and Islam on the subcontinent and worried that Hinduism, without undertaking significant reforms, would gradually be overtaken. These Hindu reform movements harkened back to a Vedic golden age and sought to revive this era of cultural greatness. To do so, they executed a dual strategy of stigmatization and emulation.25 To make Hinduism more orderly and organizationally robust, the leaders of the Hindu social reform movements used Muslim and Christian encroachment to prop up the bugbear of a dangerous “other,” which increased the perceived vulnerability of Hindus and provided a useful motivational threat. At the same time, these movements sought to reform Hinduism along modern lines by addressing issues such as the inequitable caste system, the maltreatment of women, idolatry, and polytheism. These reforms, it was believed, would help provide a bulwark against external challenges by modernizing Hinduism without sacrificing its fundamental religious tenets.

Eventually, these reform movements transitioned into pro-Hindu interest groups that exerted pressure on the Congress Party from within. While the more moderate faction continued working to influence the Congress Party’s ideological direction, those holding more extreme views grew impatient with the party. Leaders of this strident faction went on to found the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914, initially as a pressure group within the Congress Party and later as a separate political entity. India’s emerging pro-Hindu voices grew alarmed at the manner in which the British Raj seemed to be appeasing Indian Muslims through various concessions such as the creation of separate Muslim electorates in India’s provinces. While the group initially targeted its criticism at the British, India’s Muslim community increasingly found itself in the crosshairs, especially as calls for the partition of India grew in frequency and intensity.

The Crucible of Hindu Nationalism

Hindu nationalism, as it is recognized today, is typically traced back to the 1920s, when Savarkar began to crystallize his views on the importance of achieving congruence between India’s territorial and cultural/religious boundaries on the model of the European nation-state.26 Savarkar understood Hindutva to be a political community that was united by geography, racial connection, and a shared culture. As Hansen notes, Savarkar’s maxim of “Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan” essentially mimicked European-style nationalism based on religious identity, common language, and racial unity.27 Loyalty to the nation—in this case, the Hindu nation—was paramount in his conception of Indian nationalism.28

A critical milestone occurred in 1925 when Keshav Baliram Hedgewar formed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The organization began as an offshoot of the Mahasabha but soon developed its own independent identity. Among Hindu nationalists, opinions differed over the best way of revitalizing Hinduism. Hedgewar formed the RSS as a cultural, rather than political, body with the sole purpose of strengthening Hindu society by building civic character, unifying Hindus divided by caste, and enhancing their physical strength through training and exercises. In short, the RSS was established as a bottom-up vehicle for fortifying Hindu society.


The RSS’s abstention from politics was short-lived. Shortly after India secured independence, the catalyst that prompted this shift was the drafting of a series of Hindu code bills that aimed to reform Hindu personal laws governing issues ranging from marriage to property rights. Hindu groups, led by the RSS and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), the political party that was the precursor of the BJP, were vehemently opposed to the state’s interference in matters of religious faith, especially given the government’s inaction when it came to the personal laws of Islam and other faiths.

For much of its existence, the BJS was a minor electoral player—especially when compared to the dominant Congress Party—that struggled to connect with Indian voters on a pan-national basis. While the BJS’s electoral reach may have been limited during the 1950s and 1960s, the Hindutva movement nevertheless enjoyed an expanding reach through the establishment of new Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student organization; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a trade union; and the VHP.

The twenty-one-month period of emergency rule instituted by Indira Gandhi in 1975, in the wake of mass protests against Gandhi and Congress Party rule, was a critical turning point. Many key opposition actors, including leading figures affiliated with the Hindu right, were imprisoned or persecuted during this dark period in Indian history. When Gandhi relented and announced the resumption of elections in 1977, a coalition of opposition parties known as the Janata alliance—which included the BJS as a core member—were swept into power. It was the first time in India’s post-1947 history that a non-Congress group of parties held the reins of power in New Delhi.

From the BJS to the BJP

Within two years, the Janata experiment collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. The opportunistic alliance, whose members were united in their distaste for the Congress Party but divided on matters of leadership and policy, was plagued by factionalism from the start. In particular, top Janata leaders unsuccessfully sought to compel BJS members to break their intimate ties with the RSS. Although the coalition was a failure, this brief stint in power nonetheless gave BJS leaders their first taste of governing. In 1980, the BJS morphed into the BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Electorally, the BJP initially struggled to make much of an impression, winning just two seats in the 1984 general elections. The party was internally divided over whether it should adopt a more militant stance or moderate its views to cater to disaffected Congress Party voters. At first, the party adopted the latter posture, promising a return to “Gandhian socialism” and “positive secularism” (to highlight the contrast with what it called the Congress Party’s “pseudo-secularism”).29 Notably, the word “Hindu” did not even appear in the party’s constitution at this time.30 Disenchanted with the BJP’s incremental approach, the Sangh kept the party at arm’s length, investing its own resources in more radical efforts to rekindle the fires of ethnoreligious nationalism.31

The approaches of the two entities would soon converge, however. The Congress Party’s dalliance with religion and its willingness to intervene in disputes within and between religious communities created new opportunities for the BJP. The latter party soon moved away from its initial moderate stance toward a more purposive platform of Hindu identity-building that could exploit a growing sense of Hindu vulnerability.32 The continuing decay of the Congress Party’s organizational viability and the growing fragmentation of the Indian political system more generally induced the BJP to continue pursuing these efforts. The dawn of the coalition era meant that the BJP continually oscillated between more militant and moderate stances, depending on prevailing political conditions.33

A critical development in the 1990s was the ramping up of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to reclaim the place where the Muslim holy site, the Babri Masjid, stood in Ayodhya to make way for the construction of a mandir (temple) marking the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. In 1990, the BJP president at the time, Lal Krishna Advani, led a monthlong yatra (pilgrimage) intended to further stoke the Hindu majoritarian agitation surrounding the Ram mandir issue, which had been instigated by the Sangh. The yatra led to a groundswell of support in favor of the Hindu nationalist cause but also trigged a deadly set of religious riots across the country.34 In 1992, a roving mob of kar sevaks (religious volunteers) stormed the contested site and razed the Babri Masjid to the ground.

This sustained campaign of ethnoreligious mobilization by the Sangh and its many affiliates paid rich political dividends for the BJP, which saw its political footprint spread. The conflict over the mandir was just one of the many seismic events remaking India’s political landscape in the 1990s. Market reforms, instituted by the Congress-led government in 1991, and the controversial Mandal Commission—which extended the web of quotas for government posts and seats in educational institutions to the country’s Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—combined with the Ram temple agitation to fuel Hindu majoritarian political anxieties and create a disjuncture between democratic mobilization and democratic governance.35

In the late 1990s, the BJP finally catapulted to power in New Delhi. The party’s first two forays under prime minister Vajpayee, however, were atop rickety, short-lived coalitions—which lasted just thirteen days (in 1996) and later thirteen months (1998–1999). But, in 1999, Vajpayee again became prime minister, this time commanding a more stable coalition government that allowed him to complete a full term in office. Hindutva certainly did not disappear, but the coalition arrangement compelled the BJP to deemphasize many controversial social issues that might raise the hackles of its friends and partners. Once in power, therefore, the BJP found it was “no longer in their interest to stoke communal fires.”36

That is not to say that Hindu majoritarianism disappeared from India’s political agenda entirely. Gujarat, for instance, became a flashpoint for communal tensions as Hindu-Muslim riots engulfed parts of the state under the watch of then chief minister Modi. The carnage became a blemish on Modi’s record that later took more than a decade to overcome in the public eye, and Vajpayee at one time resolved to relieve Modi of his duties before reversing course. At the country’s political center, however, Vajpayee’s own emphasis was on economic reforms. These liberalizing reforms paid off handsomely for the Indian economy but less so for the prime minister and his party’s political prospects. In the 2004 general election, the BJP unexpectedly lost power, paving the way for a decade of renewed Congress Party rule in New Delhi.

The 2014 Election

At the close of that decade under the Congress-led government overseen by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, India’s 2014 election served as a watershed moment for the Hindutva movement. Between 2004 and 2014, the BJP occupied the opposition benches, prompting some supporters to speak openly of the party’s permanent opposition status. Given the high stakes and the deep reservoir of support for Modi among the Sangh’s rank and file, the RSS was mobilized on behalf of the BJP’s 2014 campaign in a manner that had not been seen since 1977, when the Janata coalition routed the Indira Gandhi–led Congress government in the wake of the Emergency.37

The 2014 electoral verdict represented a breakthrough for the BJP and the broader Hindutva ecosystem, the likes of which many insiders had doubted was possible.38 For starters, the BJP emerged as a significant player in new parts of the country—such as northeastern India and in Jammu and Kashmir—in a way that granted the party a pan-Indian character. Second, although the BJP only gained 31 percent of the vote, this was its highest ever vote share since the party’s inception in 1980.39 In the 1998 general elections, the BJP claimed 25 percent of the vote. After that, its vote share had steadily declined, slumping to 19 percent in 2009. The 2014 results not only reversed this decline but also marked the Congress Party’s worst performance in history: the party claimed just forty-four seats in the parliament off of 19 percent of the vote. While it is true that the BJP’s victory was concentrated in a small number of states—75 percent of its parliamentary tally came from just eight states—it is also true that it efficiently converted votes into seats.40

Third, the BJP constructed a broad-ranging social coalition in 2014 that moved beyond the party’s traditional upper caste voter base. This approach had the added benefit of bolstering the Sangh’s efforts to reach out to new constituencies across the country. To be clear, the party had made serious efforts to appeal to lower and backward castes for decades, including by incorporating them into the Sangh’s provision of social services, which emphasized welfare over ideology.41 What Modi did was use his own charisma, vision, and personal biography (including his status as an OBC) to translate these connections into votes like never before.

Fourth, the presidential nature of the 2014 election and the popular mandate in support of Modi as a candidate gave the BJP and its allies in the Hindu nationalist movement a unique opportunity to shape policies in a way that previous BJP leaders at the state and national levels simply lacked.

It is true that the 2014 campaign was not primary fought on issues at the center of the Hindutva agenda.42 In the national theater of politics, the BJP’s campaign focused largely on issues of development, anticorruption, and good governance. The BJP made this strategic calculation to appeal broadly to Indian voters and help the party transcend its historically narrow base. Given Modi’s bona fides within Hindu nationalist circles, there was no reason to overly tout his Hindutva credentials. However, that certainly does not mean that Hindu nationalist themes were absent from the campaign trail; on the contrary, these messages were deployed in a targeted manner in contexts and geographies where the BJP believed it could benefit from using them. Modi himself routinely attacked the Congress Party for pandering to Muslims by promising them special treatment, and he often embraced Hindu symbols and personalities to extract maximum political mileage.43

In parts of Uttar Pradesh, especially in western areas around Muzaffarnagar that had witnessed ethnic violence between Hindus and Muslims in 2013, the BJP did not shy away from communally polarizing rhetoric. Similarly, in the border state of Assam, the party used the sensitive issue of Bangladeshi migration as a wedge to shore up its support. At the same time, it is also true, as Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle have pointed out, that Modi skillfully made economic development a central element of the BJP’s Hindutva approach. According to Modi’s pitch, a strong India requires a dynamic economy that can provide ample economic opportunities for ordinary Indians, as a way of cementing both social stability and a more muscular approach abroad. This emphasis on the economy also opened the door to new constituencies who may not have been attracted to a purely majoritarian BJP approach.44

Why Indian Religious Nationalism Matters

Despite the long dalliance between religion and politics in India, now is a key moment in the country’s contemporary history that is worthy of deeper scrutiny for several reasons.

First, while many political parties in India invoke religious symbols for political purposes, the BJP espouses a distinct worldview that intrinsically favors one religious community—Hindus—over all others. While Hindus comprise 80 percent of India’s population, the country is home to significant numbers of religious minorities, not least more than 175 million Muslims.45 This makes India home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population following Indonesia.46

Some scholars have argued that Hindu nationalism lends itself to populist discourse to the extent that it places a “high value on the general will of the Hindu community, and implied that existing institutions, including those of the state, were not expressions of that will and therefore lacked legitimacy.”47 With its twin emphasis on Hindu nationalism and a “new developmentalism,” the BJP has saturated the country’s ideological space at a time when the Congress Party’s legacy of secular nationalism has fallen out of favor due to an accumulation of largely self-inflicted injuries.48

Second, the BJP’s 2014 electoral victory was a watershed moment in India’s post-1947 history. For the first time in three decades, a single party earned an outright majority in the lower house of India’s parliament (the Lok Sabha). It was the first time since independence that a party other than the Congress Party had achieved such a decisive mandate. Since then, the BJP has methodically expanded its footprint across the country. In addition to running the central government in New Delhi, the party and its allies head governments in seventeen of India’s twenty-nine states, including in regions outside of its traditional stronghold of north-central India. To put this number in perspective, the BJP controlled just five states as recently as 2014.49 While India previously witnessed a rise in Hindu nationalist fervor in the 1990s—on the backs of which the BJP first came to power in New Delhi between 1998 and 2004—the party’s electoral fortunes plummeted thereafter. Furthermore, the party then never before enjoyed the popularity or reach that it does today.

The BJP’s rejuvenation cannot be separated from a third new feature—the unique stature of Modi himself. Proponents and detractors alike admit that the BJP’s 2014 victory was in large measure a result of the widespread popularity of its prime ministerial candidate. Within the confines of India’s parliamentary system, Modi managed to make the contest a presidential one in which his leadership and track record as the former chief minister of Gujarat (a position he held for more than a dozen years) was the defining feature of his party’s campaign. Exploiting an economic downturn between 2012 and 2014—which was compounded by allegations of grand corruption against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and a pervasive sense of policy paralysis—and touting a charismatic new leader in Modi, the BJP soared to new heights. Whereas Indian national elections had typically retained a strong federal character, especially over the past quarter-century, Modi’s popularity helped create a pan-Indian support base for the party for the first time.50

Since coming to power, Modi has remade the party in his image—with the assistance of his longtime aide and handpicked choice for BJP party president, Amit Shah. Modi and Shah quickly moved to cement their hold over the party apparatus by marginalizing any alternative power centers. Modi’s emergence and the centralization of his authority over the party renders this iteration of the BJP—what can be referred to as BJP 2.0—quite distinct from its previous incarnation (BJP 1.0), which was led by the tandem of former prime minister Vajpayee and veteran lawmaker Advani, and which operated under a more collegial, decentralized framework.51

Fourth, Modi’s relationship with the Sangh Parivar defies easy characterization. On the one hand, Modi dedicated many of his formative years to the Hindu nationalist cause. At twenty-one years old, Modi joined the ranks of the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the Hindu nationalist movement in India and the parent organization of the BJP, as a pracharak (campaigner). Modi spent decades working up the RSS ranks before transitioning to the BJP, as senior RSS members often do, to take up partisan political organizing. While the RSS and the BJP are legally separate entities, they share an especially close form of collaboration under the present dispensation. Many high-ranking ministers cut their teeth in the service of the RSS or other entities linked to the Sangh Parivar. In addition, there are regularly scheduled coordination meetings in which BJP and RSS officials meet to discuss policy issues of the day.52

On the other hand, many other actors within the Sangh bristle at the outsize leadership of Modi. As Christophe Jaffrelot has argued, the Sangh has traditionally given priority to institutional considerations over personal equations; its collectivist ethos and beliefs militate against a single charismatic leader placing himself over the organization.53 Furthermore, Modi’s ascendance within the party compelled many individuals to join the party who had no previous association with the RSS or the Sangh Parivar, a development that raises questions about the latter’s enduring influence.54 Those who have previously argued that the BJP 2.0 and the RSS would essentially be two sides of the same coin oversimplify the nuanced relationship between the two, which confounds easy predictions about the influence of the latter on the former.

Finally, as two veteran chroniclers of the RSS have noted, the Hindu right wing is now part of India’s political mainstream.55 In previous periods in the country’s postindependence history, the Sangh Parivar has often been a pariah. Since 1947, the Indian government has banned the RSS on three separate occasions for allegedly fomenting extremist sentiments and violating constitutional principles. After years of mobilizing against a political establishment that the Sangh Parivar accused of being inadequately attuned to the desires of India’s majority Hindu community, the Hindu nationalist outfit now is the establishment. Its affiliates, which officially number thirty-six (and informally dozens more), have grown in both size and scope, addressing issues from labor rights to women’s empowerment and the uplifting of India’s tribal community.56 Thanks to the BJP’s expanding political geography, the Sangh has a seat at the highest policymaking tables in the country, exerting both a direct and indirect influence on day-to-day governance. The Hindu right’s unique combination of state and nonstate power grants it unique powers to shape India’s political discourse.

India’s Receding Secular Tradition

As previously mentioned, one animating factor behind the BJP’s 2014 victory and the ideological ascendance of Hindu majoritarianism has been the weakened state of secularism in contemporary India. The BJP has long advanced the notion that the Congress Party and other so-called secular parties have engaged in pseudo-secularism rather than genuine secularism. In other words, they allege that secular parties have adopted a holier-than-thou approach as if they are above religious considerations. But, in practice, they have cynically engaged in religious pandering—especially with regard to India’s Muslims—to shore up their political base. Many liberal voices openly agree with this assessment: this state of affairs does not discredit secularism per se as much as it does the way in which secularism has been employed by opportunistic parties. For instance, Varshney argues that India’s secular politicians stand guilty of engaging in two kinds of behavior he characterizes as “secular arrogance” and “secular ignorance.”57

Secular arrogance describes the notion that political power can be used either to co-opt or to marginalize religious voices. The most evocative example of this is Indira Gandhi’s dangerous efforts to woo Sikh extremists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To defeat the popular Akali Dal in Punjab, a political party largely comprised of moderate Sikhs, she accommodated Sikh religious extremists, such as the fundamentalist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. When Gandhi lost control of Bhindranwale and his Sikh militants, she ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest site, where they resided. The denouement of this debacle was the eventual assassination of Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, which triggered bloody anti-Sikh pogroms across Delhi in which several prominent Congress politicians were implicated. In another example of secular arrogance, Indira Gandhi, in the lead up to the 1983 Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, stoked Hindu voters’ fears over a resettlement bill that promised former residents of the state who had moved to Pakistan the right to return and resettle. The strategy largely paid off as the Congress Party made big gains in the predominately Hindu Jammu region. However, the gambit ultimately proved costly as the cynical ploy helped sow further divisions between Hindus and Muslims in the troubled state.

Secular ignorance, on the other hand, refers to situations in which politicians can easily entangle themselves in religious debates even as they try to ensure an equal distance from all faiths. The textbook example here is the Shah Bano case. In 1985, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shah Bano, a Muslim woman who contested her husband’s divorce and sought alimony. Although Islamic personal law permitted the divorce, the court ruled that Indian civil law superseded sharia. Facing uproar from Indian Muslims, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi passed a law through the parliament that effectively rewrote Indian civil law on Islamic divorce to comply with sharia. This act prompted widespread outrage, which many have argued paved the way for Hindu mobilization over the Babri Masjid and its subsequent destruction.58

Whether secular-minded politicians have acted in certain instances out of selfish political interest or whether they have been genuine in trying to maintain a principled distance from all religions, the result has been a general souring of secularism’s reputation in India. This perhaps explains why there has been such little talk of secularism by political parties and politicians in the run-up to the 2019 elections. Fearful of being labelled minority appeasers and cognizant of the BJP’s pitch that it is the only party that represents the Hindu majority, leading secular parties like the Congress have instead pivoted to brandishing their own Hindu credentials to blunt the BJP’s appeal.

Many within the Congress Party contend that Hinduism is not the same as Hindutva; the Congress has no issue with the former: it is the latter that represents a threat to Indian democracy. As Congress member of parliament Shashi Tharoor has posited, Hinduism is fully compatible with liberalism as well as the protection of minorities; Hindutva is opposed to both.59 There are others who believe that the Congress Party is essentially engaging in a soft form of Hindutva itself and, in that way, ensuring that it remains subservient to the BJP. These critics worry that the traditionally secular party is essentially trying to beat the BJP at its own game, which will never work given the latter’s Hindu majoritarian bona fides.60 Furthermore, such critics fear that abandoning Nehruvian secularism essentially would legitimate the politicization of religion. While such a tact might make for good politics in the short run, it will eventually corrode the Congress Party’s brand and identity.61

Modi’s BJP in the Halls of Power

To help gauge how Hindu nationalism is reshaping Indian politics, it is instructive to examine how the BJP government has wielded power in both predictable and unexpected ways. The central challenge for a BJP government of any form is balancing its Hindutva agenda with promises of economic rejuvenation. Although many observers expected that a government led by Modi, a former RSS pracharak, would aggressively move to implement pro-Hindu policies, the reality has been far more complicated. For starters, while the Modi government has expanded its ties with the RSS, many Sangh leaders also view this BJP 2.0 government with a skeptical eye. Despite Modi’s long association with the RSS, the two often clashed during his tenure as Gujarat chief minister.62 Many within the Sangh bristle at Modi’s outsize personality, his charismatic persona, and the way he has rebranded the party around himself. This is not a uniform view within the Sangh, by any stretch; indeed, the conventional wisdom holds that Modi was, and remains, widely popular with the rank-and-file members of the Sangh Parivar’s affiliates.

Beyond Modi’s approach as a leader, elements of the Sangh also object to the incremental approach BJP 2.0 has taken with respect to the traditional Hindutva agenda. On the core social issues that have dominated the BJP’s cultural agenda for decades—the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the repeal of Article 370 (which grants Jammu and Kashmir special autonomous status), and the institution of a new uniform civil code—the Modi government has not taken bold action. It is true that the subject of the Ram temple is being whipped up as the 2019 general elections approach, with the Sangh urging the government to use its executive powers to create new facts on the ground as the subject remains under litigation before the Supreme Court. However, in a January 2018 interview, Modi categorically ruled out intervention prior to a judicial resolution, stating, “Let the judicial process be over. After the judicial process is over, whatever be our responsibility as government, we are ready to make all efforts.”63

Yet the central government in New Delhi has created space for majoritarianism to flourish.64 For instance, in BJP-ruled states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, the state governments have moved to rewrite history textbooks to downplay Islamic contributions to Indian history and culture.65 Textbooks in the state of Maharashtra scrapped an entire chapter on the Mughal Empire, an Islamic regime that dominated much of the subcontinent for three centuries prior to the British Empire’s formal takeover.66 After coming to power in the states of Haryana and Maharashtra, BJP governments there moved to strengthen laws on the books banning cow slaughter. In Maharashtra, where cow slaughter was already banned, the new law banned both the sale and possession of beef. The so-called beef ban carried jail time and financial penalties for would-be violators. In addition, the cow protection movement has pursued extrajudicial methods of enforcing its will, leading to a spike in vigilante justice, lynchings, and mob violence.67

Perhaps the most visible example of this majoritarian trend at the subnational level is the selection of Yogi Adityanath as the BJP’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh after the party obtained a three-fourths majority in the state assembly in 2017. Home to more than 200 million residents—not to mention Ayodhya and the disputed Babri Masjid site—Uttar Pradesh is also the metaphorical heart of the Hindi heartland and a state with a well-earned reputation of making or breaking general elections.68 Having won the election on the back of Modi’s popularity and unique standing, the party (with the assent of the prime minister) named Adityanath its choice for chief minister. Adityanath, a sitting BJP member of parliament, enjoys a reputation as a firebrand Hindu cleric who espouses an aggressive brand of majoritarianism that makes even some devout Hindus blush. In years past, Adityanath has championed the cause of love jihad—a conspiracy theory that alleges that bands of Muslim men target Hindu women for the purposes of converting them to Islam.69 He is also closely linked to the controversial ghar wapsi (literally, homecoming) movement, which aims to convert minorities to Hinduism on the presumption that they were all originally Hindus who had been manipulated into abandoning the faith.70 After coming to power, Adityanath ordered the police to institute what were dubbed anti-Romeo squads, ostensibly to prevent youths from harassing women, but these outfits often have been employed as a kind of moral police.71 Adityanath has also devoted his energies to renaming cities and administrative units that refer back to their Islamic heritage—whether it be Allahabad (Prayagraj) or Faizabad (Ayodhya).72 The Modi government’s five years in office, therefore, suggest a contradictory assessment. Although the party has refrained from using its perch in New Delhi to forcefully promote some of the most controversial elements of the BJP’s traditional social agenda, it has nonetheless given top cover for a range of Hindutva initiatives at the state and substate level.

How Durable Is the BJP’s Ideological Hegemony?

After five years in power, the BJP has accomplished an ambitious feat: it has cemented its role as a hegemonic political power. According to Suhas Palshikar, the BJP’s newfound hegemony rests on two pillars: elections and ideology.

In electoral terms, the BJP has become the central pole around which politics in India revolves.73 Its 2014 victory, coupled with an impressive string of state election triumphs and an expansion of the party’s social base, has transformed the party from merely competitive to markedly dominant. Like the Congress Party before it, the BJP’s present position has a system-defining quality. Both state and national elections are regularly fought in reaction to the BJP (either in favor or in opposition). As 2019’s general election approaches, opposition parties are hastily engineering a common anti-BJP front. These alliances contain little substantive content other than a shared desire to halt the BJP’s electoral juggernaut.

Second and just as importantly, the BJP has also managed to exert its dominance ideologically.74 On the one hand, the BJP has succeeded in legitimating what scholars John Harriss, Craig Jeffrey, and Stuart Corbridge call “banal Hindutva,” or the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalist views that were once thought to be outside the political norm but today are viewed as routine elements of everyday Indian politics.75 The BJP’s ascendance has had a qualitative impact on secular parties to the extent that a full-throated embrace of secularism is no longer seen as politically advantageous.

On the other hand, the BJP has also been intentional about the subtle conflation between nationalism and Hindutva. A hallmark of the first five years of BJP 2.0 has been a nationalistic call to arms. This rallying cry has infused the party’s economic program and its objective to build a “New India,” its landmark development schemes (which call for personal sacrifice on behalf of the nation), and the party’s foreign policy ambitions. Modi’s principal contribution to Indian foreign policy has been to infuse it with the new aim of recapturing India’s civilizational greatness through its bilateral and multilateral arrangements abroad. This recent pivot to nationalism allows the BJP to recruit new members without resorting to polarizing pro-Hindu rhetoric that might upset swing voters, members of the middle class, or business interests. However, Palshikar has argued that this tactic is effectively a bait-and-switch: once the party creates a mood of nationalist fervor, “it is not very difficult to implicitly suggest that being a nationalist is equivalent to being a Hindu and vice versa.”76

If the opposition manages to emerge victorious in 2019, it will also have to reckon with secularism’s failing brand. One electoral victory alone cannot be taken as evidence of a resurgence of secularism. And there also is likely to be deliberation within the Hindu nationalist movement about its future. For decades, there has been a debate about the definition of who is a Hindu. For instance, can the identity marker encompass Christians, Muslims, and other minorities, as those who favor a broad cultural definition have argued, or must the definition be more narrowly cast in religious terms?77 In recent months, current and former RSS functionaries have openly jousted in the country’s op-ed pages as to whether the RSS is ripe for glasnost (openness) and must execute a perestroika (restructuring).78 The 2019 election will not resolve the war between secular and Hindu nationalism in India. But it will undoubtedly be a pivotal battle.

Key Questions for India’s Political Future

Given the ongoing duel between secularism and Hindu majoritarianism in Indian politics, it is important to assess the role that Hindu nationalism is playing in India’s democracy under the political leadership of the BJP. This evaluation comes at an opportune moment, as India is on the cusp of its seventeenth general election; voting will begin in April 2019 and conclude in late May. This election, which will be the largest democratic exercise on record and in which nearly 900 million voters will be eligible to cast ballots, will shape the most pressing domestic debates in India.79 What once appeared likely to be a cakewalk for the Modi-led BJP government has turned into a fierce contest. Thanks to lackluster job creation, rural economic anxiety, a newly energized opposition, and India’s general anti-incumbency trends, Modi’s reelection is no longer assured.80

For India’s 1.3 billion citizens, there is a great deal at stake in this election. The BJP was voted into office in 2014, first and foremost, on a platform that revolved around reviving the economy. At the time of writing, India remains the fastest-growing major economy in the world.81 But, during the government’s tenure, growth has been uneven and subject to multiple shocks, both exogenous (such as volatile crude oil prices and the ongoing trade war between the United States and China) and endogenous (such as the government’s questionable 2016 demonetization gambit and the patchy rollout of a nationwide goods and services tax). Furthermore, there is a widespread perception among voters that the BJP government has not lived up to its lofty promises to rejuvenate India’s moribund private investment cycle, boost farmer incomes, or generate enough formal employment. In foreign policy terms, India has adopted a much more assertive eastward stance vis-à-vis China. Arguably, Prime Minister Modi is more in sync with the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy than any other major political leader in India today. However, if a non-BJP dispensation were to come to power after the next election, it is not obvious that the victors would necessarily share a similar strategic outlook.

Finally, this election will determine the contours of India’s future as a secular republic that embraces pluralism and adheres to the founders’ notion that India’s unity is strengthened by its unparalleled diversity. Across the political landscape, religion and religious symbolism have become entrenched. There are right-wing Hindu nationalists who argue that India’s future peace, prosperity, and stability can only be obtained under a Ram rajya (a harkening back to a mythical golden age under the Hindu Lord Ram); senior leaders associated with the country’s leading opposition force—the Congress Party—have also embraced their Hindu faith to try to blunt the BJP’s religious appeals. The competitive jousting over religion raises unsettling questions about India’s long-term commitment to secularism.

The competitive jousting over religion raises unsettling questions about India’s long-term commitment to secularism.

It is unclear whether the BJP will lose the forthcoming election or succeed in maintaining control of the central government in New Delhi. While the conventional wisdom is that the BJP will once more form the central government—albeit without a single-party majority—the legacy of the BJP under Modi’s leadership would not fade easily from the scene, even if that happened. Aside from the natural path dependency inherent in policymaking, some observers have argued that the ideological hegemony erected by the Modi-led BJP would remain relevant, even after an immediate electoral defeat, due to the degree to which it has penetrated society as well as the ideas that major political contenders have internalized.

The remaining chapters of this volume seek to answer a series of five questions that naturally arise from the ongoing political contest and competing national conceptions embraced by the Hindu nationalists of the BJP and the more secular-minded Congress Party.

First, what constitute the BJP 2.0’s core ideological beliefs? Although scholars have often stated that Indian politics is devoid of ideas and is instead preoccupied with identity-based considerations, political scientist Rahul Verma argues that this conventional understanding is misguided. Politics in India is deeply ideological, but the axes of conflict depart from the traditional Western notion of a single left-right spectrum. Instead, Indian parties and voters can be sorted according to their views on two dimensions: the politics of statism and the politics of recognition. To this end, Verma examines the ideological basis of the BJP’s mobilization and how the party has balanced its twin objectives—economic renewal and Hindu nationalism—over time. This balancing act is a precarious one: BJP voters who frown on state intervention, especially when it comes to social norms and individual liberties, do not necessarily endorse the party’s majoritarian agenda, which seeks to use state power to enforce pro-Hindu social behavior (from the content of textbooks to eating habits). While a charismatic leader like Modi may succeed in keeping both groups within the tent, the party’s internal contradictions pose a long-term challenge.

Second, what factors powered the BJP’s one-in-a-generation electoral victory in 2014? While many observers had expected the BJP to emerge as the single-largest party, few anticipated the size of its mandate. Although the BJP earned only 31 percent of the nationwide vote (collectively, its National Democratic Alliance garnered a 38.4 percent vote share), it won 282 seats (with its allies securing another 53 seats) out of the 543 on offer. Journalist Rukmini S. interrogates the available social science survey data to examine how the BJP constructed a winning coalition from an electorate that is deeply divided on caste and religious lines. Against the odds, the BJP was able to effectively construct a pan-Hindu vote in a relatively small number of states notwithstanding deep opposition from Muslims and other minority groups. However, she points out that the contest was a wave election uniquely driven by Modi’s unmatched popularity. Beneath the surface, there are multiple contradictions within the BJP’s caste and demographic coalition that pose a threat to the party’s continued electoral success.

Third, what impact is the ascendance of Hindu nationalism having on secularism in India and the posture of secular parties? Although national secularism was a hallmark of the country’s independence movement and the founding ideology of the Congress Party, it has fallen out of favor in recent years—due to external challenges (in the form of Hindu nationalism and the BJP) as well as self-inflicted wounds by politicians who have cynically manipulated religious divisions for short-term electoral gain. Some commentators have even suggested that “secularism is dead” in India today because it has been so badly tainted by charges of minority appeasement and opportunism.82

Veteran South Asia scholar Christophe Jaffrelot analyzes how secularism’s changing fortunes are influencing the mobilization strategies of parties, the symbols of campaigning, and the Indian government’s long-standing policy of maintaining a “principled distance” from religious groups.83 While Congress Party leaders have publicly embraced their Hindu beliefs to a limited extent as a way of reclaiming Hinduism from BJP-led Hindutva circles, the preeminence of bread-and-butter economic matters in 2019 could actually shift political debates in India away from religion and toward more secular themes.84 More difficult to predict is the trajectory of the judicial branch, argues Jaffrelot. While justices on India’s Supreme Court have largely adhered to a secular worldview, their counterparts in the lower judiciary—including state high courts—have in recent years either inadvertently waded into sensitive religious matters or betrayed overt communal sentiments in their judgments.

Fourth, what relevance has Hindu nationalist ideology had for economic policymaking under the BJP 2.0? The party is often described as a right-wing body, and many observers have interpreted this to mean that it is libertarian-leaning on economic policy. In fact, the ideological crosscurrents within the party and the Hindu nationalist movement are far more complex, argues economic analyst Gautam Mehta. Although many observers expected that the pro-business proclivities of the BJP government under Modi would clash with the more nationalist tendencies of the Sangh Parivar, there has been much greater convergence between the two than many once expected. The Sangh Parivar is not a monolithic entity; behind the scenes (and, on occasion, out in the open), there is an intense push-and-pull between a swadeshi (self-reliance) wing and a more market-friendly faction. The Sangh’s changing social composition and the pragmatism of its current leadership, combined with the political economy–related pressures the BJP has faced, have led to a surprising overlap in thinking on some of the most crucial policy matters of the day, Mehta finds. Furthermore, the relationship between the Sangh and the BJP is not unidirectional, but circular; just as the Sangh has pressured the government to modify many of its economic policies, the BJP too has influenced the views of top Sangh leaders.

Finally, how has Hindu nationalism come to shape the BJP’s foreign policy decisionmaking? International relations scholars Abhijnan Rej and Rahul Sagar trace the evolution of Hindu nationalist strategic thought through the decades and assess the degree to which the Modi government has adhered to its core principles. Like previous BJP prime minister Vajpayee, Modi has emphasized the acquisition of domestic capabilities and the importance of bolstering India’s image on the global stage. While Modi has worked tirelessly to strengthen India’s diplomatic outreach abroad, Rej and Sagar argue that he has been notably less successful than his BJP predecessor at reforming the domestic economy and strengthening India’s defense capacities. Where the BJP 2.0 under Modi has innovated is by infusing Indian foreign policy with an emphasis on civilizational values, reflected in initiatives from Buddhist diplomacy to efforts to use Hindu sociocultural terms to promote solidarity among developing economies in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015. While the intent of the BJP 2.0 is clear, Rej and Sagar argue that there is a danger that its domestic social agenda could undermine its stated foreign policy priorities, especially if Hindu majoritarianism weakens social stability and economic prosperity—undermining the very objectives of the party’s stated foreign policy.


The author is grateful to Bilal Baloch and Ashley J. Tellis for comments on a previous draft of this chapter. Jamie Hintson provided excellent research and editorial assistance, and Ryan DeVries offered thoughtful feedback on the organization of the chapter.


1 Milan Vaishnav, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

2 Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Marat Shterin, “Religion and the Rise of Populism,” Religion, State and Society, no. 3 (2018): 177–185.

3 Ben Raderstorf and Missy Reif, “A New Trend of Religious Populism in Latin America?” Dialogue, April 9, 2018,

4 Catherine Osborn, “Bolsonaro’s Christian Coalition Remains Precarious,” Foreign Policy, January 1, 2019,

5 Krithika Varagur, “The Improbable Rise and Blasphemous Fall of a Christian Politician in Indonesia,” Foreign Policy, April 25, 2017,

6 Peter Friedlander, “Hinduism and Politics,” in Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics, ed. Jeffrey Haynes (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016) 70–71.

7 Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011): 159.

8 However, it was not until the Forty-Second Constitutional Amendment, ratified in 1976, that the word “secular” was added to the preamble of the Constitution to describe the Indian republic.

9 Michael Gottlob, “India's Unity in Diversity as a Question of Historical Perspective,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 9 (March 3, 2007): 779–789.

10 Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).

11 According to Friedlander, Nehru’s understanding of secularism was reflected in the Hindi concept of dharmnirpeksa, which connotes a sense of “not being aligned with any religion.” See Friedlander, “Hinduism and Politics,” 74.

12 Historically, a third type of nationalism—separatist nationalism—has also jostled for political space with its Hindu and secular variants. Today, it remains a minor factor in the Indian landscape outside of Kashmir. For a discussion of all three nationalisms, see Ashutosh Varshney, “Contested Meanings: India’s National Identity, Hindu Nationalism, and the Politics of Anxiety,” Daedalus, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 227–261.

13 Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography (New York: Harmony, 2012).

14 Ashutosh Varshney, “Contested Meanings,” 227.

15 Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Indian Secularism and What Is It For?,” India Review, 1, no. 1 (January 2002): 2.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid. Also see Ornit Shani, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

18 Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Indian Secularism and What Is It For?,” 14.

19 Ibid.

20 Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999): 11.

21 Ibid.

22 Kanchan Chandra, “The Triumph of Hindu Majoritarianism,” Foreign Affairs, November 23, 2018,

23 According to Varshney, assimilation in this context means minorities agreeing to certain key core Hindu principles, such as recognizing the centrality of Hinduism to Indian political civilization, accepting the adverse impacts of foreign (primarily, Muslim) rulers in Indian history, and ceding any claims to special privileges such as personal laws. See Varshney, “Contested Meanings,” 231.

24 Varshney, “Contested Meanings,” 240.

25 Christophe Jaffrelot, ed., Hindu Nationalism: A Reader (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007): 9.

26 See Rahul Verma’s chapter in this volume for further discussion of this point.

27 Hansen, The Saffron Wave, 78.

28 Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar Damle, The RSS: A View to the Inside (Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India, 2018), 237.

29 Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma, Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018): 244.

30 Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996): 316.

31 Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism, 20.

32 Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, 369.

33 As Palshikar notes, this is a perennial challenge for the party. On the one hand, it must appear to be inclusive if it wants to expand its electoral reach. On the other hand, if it errs on the side of too much moderation, it might alienate its Hindutva base. See Suhas Palshikar, “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centralist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38, no. 4 (2015): 719–735.

34 David Blakeslee, “The Rath Yatra Effect: Hindu Nationalist Propaganda and the Rise of the BJP,” Working Paper, New York University Abu Dhabi, June 12, 2018.

35 Hansen, The Saffron Wave, 17.

36 Friedlander, “Hinduism and Politics,” 77.

37 Andersen and Damle, The RSS, 3.

38 Palshikar, “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism,” 724.

39 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,

40 On the concentration of the BJP’s electoral win in 2014, see Milan Vaishnav and Matthew Lillehaugen, “Incumbency in India: More Curse Than Blessing?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 13, 2018,

41 For an excellent analysis of the BJP’s use of social services to win over non-elite voters, see Tariq Thachil, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

42 See the chapter by Rukmini S. for more details.

43 Christophe Jaffrelot, “The Modi-centric BJP 2014 Election Campaign: New Techniques and Old Tactics,” Contemporary South Asia no. 2 (2015): 160–161.

44 Andersen and Damle, The RSS, 88.

45 Data on India’s religious composition comes from the 2011 Census. Indian Ministry of Home Affairs Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, “2011 Census Data,” 2011,

46 Pew Research Center, The Future of World Religions: Population, Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2015).

47 Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, 235

48 Suhas Palshikar, “Towards Hegemony: BJP Beyond Electoral Dominance,” Economic and Political Weekly no. 33 (August 18, 2018): 36–42.

49 Milan Vaishnav, Jayaram Ravi, and Jamie Hintson, “Is the BJP India’s New Hegemon?” October 8, 2018, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

50 After 1989, which marks the dawn of the coalition era in New Delhi, it was a truism among political analysts to state that national elections were the sum of distinct state-level verdicts. 2014 upended that traditional logic. For an encapsulation of the previously dominant view, see Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, “ Principal State Level Contests and Derivative National Choices: Electoral Trends in 2004-09,” Economic and Political Weekly no. 6 (February 7, 2009): 55–62.

51 Saba Naqvi, Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi (New Delhi: Westland, 2018). It is worth pointing out that resistance to Modi remains, within both the BJP and the RSS, although it has rarely surfaced publicly during his government’s first term in office.

52 For instance, the RSS leadership regularly reviews the performance of the BJP government in power with high-ranking members of the party and the government on hand to make presentations and receive feedback. See “RSS to Review Four Years of PM Modi’s Govt,” Asian News International, May 25, 2018,

53 Christophe Jaffrelot, “Gujarat: The Meaning of Modi’s Victory,” Economic and Political Weekly no. 15 (April 12–18, 2008): 12–17.

54 Suhas Palshikar, “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses.”

55 Andersen and Damle, The RSS.

56 Ibid.

57 Varshney, “Contested Meanings,” 247.

58 In an effort to contain the Hindu backlash following the Shah Bano imbroglio, Rajiv Gandhi unlocked the gates of the Babri Masjid, which essentially allowed Hindus unrestricted access to the sacred site.

59 Shashi Tharoor, “Dear Troubled Liberal, Don’t Fear the Congress Party,” The Print, November 30, 2018,

60 Meghnad Desai, “Out of My Mind: The New Normal,” Indian Express, December 9, 2018,

61 Suhas Palshikar, “Temple Entry, and Exit,” Indian Express, November 30, 2018,

62 Jaffrelot, “Gujarat.” As Jaffrelot argued in a later piece, the RSS faced a dilemma with regard to Modi. “On the one hand, the Sangh which works collegially and insists on the merger of egos in the organization resents Modi’s style and, on the other hand, he’s one of their best winning cards.” See Christophe Jaffrelot, “Gujarat Elections: The Sub-Text of Modi’s ‘Hattrick’—High Tech Populism and the ‘Neo-middle Class,’” Studies in Indian Politics no. 1 (June 2013): 79–95.

63 “PM Narendra Modi’s Interview to ANI: Full Transcript,” ANI, January 2, 2019,

64 John Harriss, Craig Jeffrey, and Stuart Corbridge, “Is India Becoming the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ Sought by Hindu Nationalists?” Simons Papers in Security and Development no. 60, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University (December 2017): 22.

65 Alex Traub, “India’s Dangerous New Curriculum,” New York Review of Books, December 6, 2018,

66 Mayuresh Ganapatye, “Chapter on Mughals Removed From Maharashtra Textbooks, Opposition Attacks BJP,” India Today, August 8, 2017,

67 Annie Gowen and Manas Sharma, “Rising Hate in India,” Washington Post, October 31, 2018,

68 Indian Ministry of Home Affairs Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, “2011 Census Data.”

69 “‘Love Jihad’ is a Dangerous Thing: Adityanath,” Times of India, October 4, 2017,

70 Manjari Katju, “The Politics of Ghar Wapsi,” Economic and Political Weekly no. 1 (January 3, 2015): 21–24.

71 Annie Gowen, “The New Leader of India’s Largest State, Yogi Adityanath, Launches ‘Anti-Romeo Squads’ to Protect Women,” Washington Post, March 22, 2017,

72 Alok Pandey, “‘Did What Felt Right, Will Keep It Up’: Yogi Adityanath On Renaming Spree,”, November 11, 2018,

73 Vaishnav, Ravi, and Hintson, “Is the BJP India’s New Hegemon?”

74 Palshikar, “Towards Hegemony.”

75 Harriss, Jeffrey, and Corbridge, “Is India Becoming the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ Sought by Hindu Nationalists?,” 28.

76 Palshikar, “Towards Hegemony,” 37.

77 Indeed, a well-regarded 2018 book on the RSS devotes an entire chapter to debates within the Sangh on the precise meaning of the term “Hindutva.” While precise definitions vary, the authors state that “nationalist patriotism” is a recurring theme. See chapter five of Andersen and Damle, The RSS.

78 See, for instance, Ram Madhav, “Glasnost in RSS,” Indian Express, September 25, 2018,; and Manomhan Vaidya, “RSS Doesn’t Need Glasnost,” Indian Express, October 17, 2018,

79 For more details on the 2019 general election, including the specifics of the electoral process, see Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson, “The World’s Largest Election, Explained,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2019,

80 Milan Vaishnav, “From Cakewalk to Contest: India’s 2019 General Election,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 16, 2018,

81 World Bank, Global Economic Prospects: Darkening Skies (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2019).

82 Prashant Jha, “How Does BJP Succeed in Relentlessly Acquiring Power, State After State?” Hindustan Times, September 16, 2017,

83 Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Secularism For?” in Rajeev Bhargava, ed., Secularism and Its Critics, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).

84 For one Congress Party politician’s view of the need to reclaim Hinduism from Hindutva, see Shashi Tharoor, Why Am I a Hindu (New Delhi: Aleph, 2018).