What is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? What does it stand for, in terms of ideas?

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist political party in India that believes that Hinduism and Indian national identity are more or less synonymous.

For many in the party, Indian culture is quite simply Hindu culture. Given that Hindus make up 80 percent of the country’s population, BJP members believe India is fundamentally a Hindu rashtra (nation). Although there is a great variety of opinion within the party, its core philosophy of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) has often been criticized for being anti-minority in nature.

The party’s current incarnation dates back to 1980, but it was the natural successor to an earlier political party known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was formed after independence. The Jan Sangh, as it was known, in turn built on an earlier tradition of Hindu revivalist movements, whose roots date back to the British Raj.

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.
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The BJP, of course, represents more than just Hindu nationalism. It also espouses a muscular foreign policy and national security posture. It is generally more pro-business than most of India’s political parties, which tend to be left of center.

Like any big-tent party, it is hardly a monolith. You will find internationalists, isolationists, libertarians, and nationalists all residing under the general umbrella of the BJP.

Why has it become so popular?

The BJP came to power in the 2014 general election, when India was in the midst of an economic downturn. The ruling Indian National Congress, or Congress Party, was beleaguered by massive corruption allegations, slowing economic growth, rampant inflation, and a pervasive sense of “policy paralysis.”

The BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, cast himself as the right man in the right place at the right time. For more than a dozen years, Modi had served as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, which had enjoyed high growth and a reputation as an investment-friendly destination under his tenure.

Modi’s pitch to the electorate was quite simple: make him prime minister and he would do to India what he did to Gujarat. It did not hurt that he was a gifted public speaker with a compelling life story, having been born into a backward caste family of modest means.

Since 2014, Modi has been able to reshape the party in his own mold. He has drawn on his aspirational agenda to expand the party’s electoral footprint at the state level as well.

Today, the BJP and its allies control twenty of India’s twenty-nine states. That is more than double the number it ran four years ago. For comparison’s sake, its archrival, the Congress Party, runs just three states today.

But the party’s success cannot be reduced to Modi’s popularity alone. Under his watch, the BJP has also strengthened its electoral operations, engineered broad-based social coalitions, and struck useful alliances with smaller regional parties. All of this has improved its stature across India. 

How is it different from previous powerful political parties in India?

The BJP is distinct from other political parties in India in at least two ways.

First, there is the issue of Hindutva. Most Indian political parties are avowedly secular, in that they believe no one religion should be advantaged over any another.

In India, secularism means that the government maintains an equal embrace of, and equal distance from, all religious traditions. It does not mean a strict separation of church and state, as it does in the United States and Europe.

Recently, the appeal of secular parties has dimmed, as there is a perception that they have cynically used minority groups like Muslims as “vote banks,” rather than treating them as genuine political constituencies. Some on the right have also accused secular parties of catering to minorities, at the expense of the majority Hindu population.

The BJP makes no bones about its belief that it principally serves the interest of India’s Hindus. Within the party, there is a great deal of variation in terms of what this means in practice. There are those who are fundamentally anti-minority; those who want to see a more level playing field among faith communities (when it comes to things like subsidies and welfare); and those who are somewhere in between.

The second perceived difference is on economics. The BJP has traditionally espoused more pro-business policies than its competitors, who prefer a more center-left, social democratic posture. When in opposition, it criticized many of the Congress Party’s key social welfare schemes as being too costly and socialist.

However, since it came to power, the party has doubled down on nearly every such scheme.

In practice, the economic differences between the BJP and the Congress are probably overstated. Most political parties in India share what Indian economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia once called a “strong consensus for weak reforms.”

Is there something about India’s political system that makes it more prone to having one big party in control?

The BJP’s current single-party majority in the lower house of parliament actually represents a break with the past— or, at least, the previous twenty-five years before it came to power in 2014.

It is true that between 1952 and 1989, India was a one-party dominant system led by the hegemonic Congress Party. The Congress Party benefited from the reservoir of goodwill it inherited as the party that helped India achieve independence from Great Britain. It was a catchall party that prided itself on its pan-Indian footprint and multi-ethnic, cross-class composition.

With the exception of the period between 1977 and 1979—when a coalition of opposition parties briefly displaced the Congress in the wake of anti-democratic Emergency Rule imposed by the Congress Party under former prime minister Indira Gandhi—the Congress Party reliably formed the government in New Delhi.

But between 1989 and 2014, no single party was strong enough to form a government on its own, without the help of myriad coalition allies. Most analysts believed that coalition politics was here to stay—until the BJP’s electoral victory in 2014.

The 2014 result, in many ways, marked a break with the patterns of electoral competition that had prevailed for at least a quarter century.

What (if anything) might surprise people who don’t know Indian politics about the BJP?

What is unusual about the BJP is that it is not simply a political party. It is the political expression of a family of Hindu nationalist organizations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar.

The ideological guiding force of the Sangh is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a volunteer service organization made up of individuals driven by a common desire to unite Hindus under the aegis of a Hindu rashtra.

The Sangh’s constituent units range from a farmers’ union, to a women’s wing, to a nonprofit charged with bringing education to India’s most disadvantaged groups living in rural areas.

The RSS is arguably India’s largest nongovernmental organization, and it serves as a mentor to the BJP cadres.

How well do you think the BJP is dealing with India’s most pressing issues? Does it have a good track record?

One has to separate the BJP government’s record into at least three categories: economics, foreign policy, and social issues.

In terms of economics, I would say the government gets credit for instituting a number of reforms that have modernized the Indian economy. For instance, the government ushered in the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which helps to unify India’s fragmented network of indirect taxes. It has also put in place a new bankruptcy and insolvency code, which for the first time has established an orderly process for firms to exit the marketplace if they go belly up.

In my view, however, the government could and should have done more to fundamentally reset the balance between the state and private capital, which for too long has been tilted in favor of the former.

For instance, India is home to hundreds of state-owned enterprises, many of which lose money and are a severe drain on the treasury. When it comes to core sectors of the economy—from agriculture to banking—there is far too much red tape. Modi had a once-in-a-generation mandate to tackle these problems plaguing India’s political economy, but his government has preferred (in their own words) a strategy of “persistent and creative incrementalism.”

I think foreign policy has been one of the relative bright spots for the BJP government. It has broadened and deepened India’s relations with the United States in very productive ways, especially when it comes to defense cooperation. The Modi government has also spent a fair amount of political capital building diplomatic and economic bridges to the country’s east, in order to forge closer ties with the economically dynamic countries of Southeast and East Asia.

But it is on the social side that I have the greatest concern. In several instances, Hindu majoritarianism has whipped up social tensions in India. This has detracted from an agenda of inclusive growth and development. The BJP’s 2014 election slogan was “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas” (together with all, development for all). Creating new social divisions is fundamentally at odds with that mantra.