Argument

How Hindu Nationalism Went Mainstream

And what that means for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally in Ahmedabad on May 26.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally in Ahmedabad on May 26. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

On a hot day in May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a campaign rally in the central Indian city of Indore. Young men spread as far as the eye could see. Wearing bright orange T-shirts that said “NAMO AGAIN!” in comic-book letters, they scanned the sky for the helicopter carrying their superhero, the soon-to-be-reelected prime minster.

Patriotic songs from major Bollywood war hits played in the background. A particular favorite, from the film Border, was sung in the film by homesick soldiers on the battlefront, remembering the mothers and sweethearts who waited for them at home. The song was apt for what had become a national-security election, fought in the shadow of air strikes against Pakistan.  The young men at the rally were soldiers, too, of a sort—soldiers for the cause of a Hindu nation.

When Modi arrived, he lost no time in raising that banner. He opened his speech by leading the crowd in a salutation to India personified as a mother goddess: “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” To his right was a garlanded portrait of this mother goddess carrying a saffron flag, her figure stretched across a map of the subcontinent. The salutation is controversial, seen by many Hindus and non-Hindus alike as fusing Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism. But many in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including the prime minister, now routinely use the salutation themselves, and brand those unwilling to do so as unpatriotic.

In Indore, Modi went on to give a rousing speech in which he asked onlookers to think of and for the nation, rather than of personal and local preoccupations. “People say, ‘Why is Modi raising terrorism as an issue,’” he said. “You tell me, should there be a discussion of terrorism in this country or not? This is an election for Hindustan, not for a local election. In a local election, we can talk about electricity, poles, pipes, parks, sanitation, gutters, and the water supply. But this is an election for Hindustan, for the government of Hindustan, which makes a defense budget, which is responsible for guarding its borders.” In an election for Hindustan, the implication was, it was important to talk about the defense of the nation, tellingly referred to as the land of Hindus.

To be sure, other than calling India “Hindustan,” Modi did not explicitly use the word “Hindu” in his speech. That word was also mostly absent from the BJP’s 2019 manifesto. This is in marked contrast to previous election campaigns, especially in the 1990s, when the BJP routinely used the slogan “Garv se kaho ham Hindu hain” (Say with pride that we are Hindus). By 2019, after years of popular mobilization for the Hindu cause, and five years in power during which the BJP government firmly established its pro-Hindu credentials, the word “Hindu” no longer needed to be mentioned. Now Modi, and many in the BJP, proceed as if Hindu symbolism and national symbolism are the same.

The BJP’s change in rhetoric reveals the extent to which Hindu nationalism has won popular support and legitimacy. In 1947, when India was created, Hindu nationalism was an elite ideology—and a marginal one at that. In 1951-52, when the predecessor of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, contested its first election on a Hindu nationalist platform, it obtained only 3 percent of the vote and 3 seats in parliament. Now, the BJP has become a dominant party, with a majority of seats in the national parliament and in several Indian states. The ideology it represents has become dominant too, acquiring a degree of mass support that it has never had before.

A series of surveys conducted in almost all Indian states between 2016 and 2018 by Lokniti-CSDS and Azim Premji University confirm that a majority of Hindus support some of the key planks associated with the BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism. This support is remarkably broad-based. For instance, the largest and most recent of the three studies, based on 12 states and with a total sample size of 24,092, finds that a majority of Hindus from different caste and tribal communities believe that those who eat beef should be punished. A majority of Hindus across different castes (but not among India’s tribal communities) also believe that those who do not say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” at public functions should be punished. The majority of Hindus also believe most Hindus to be patriotic (to different degrees), but almost half are suspicious of the degree of patriotism among Muslims.

Majority support for the BJP’s Hindu nationalism does not translate into majority support for the BJP in India as a whole. But more Hindus now support the BJP than ever before. According to a survey by Lokniti conducted after this spring’s election, 44 percent of all Hindus voted for the BJP in 2019, 8 percentage points more than in 2014. In several Indian states, furthermore, the majority of Hindus voted for the BJP.

The support for the BJP is broad-based, too: 52 percent of Hindu upper castes, 44 percent of Hindu backward castes, 34 percent of Hindu Dalits (those who have historically been treated by Hindu society as untouchable), and 44 percent of Hindu Adivasis (tribal communities) voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections. For each group, those percentages were significantly higher than in 2014.

Among those who are broadly supportive of Hindu nationalism but do not support the BJP, there are at least two possible explanations. First, some voters may prioritize issues other than Hindu nationalism. Second, to the extent that Hindu nationalism drives voting decisions, the BJP is only one option among many. Several of India’s opposition parties have now also started to adopt pro-Hindu platforms to some degree.

For India’s young, no single party reigns supreme. But the BJP has done better among the young than any other party. According to the Lokniti post-poll survey, 41 percent of first-time voters (those between the ages of 18 and 22) voted for the BJP in 2019. Forty percent of those ages 23 to 27 did, as did 39 percent of those ages 28 to 35. (The percent voting for the BJP declined among older age groups.) The preference for the BJP over any other party is even more pronounced among Hindu youth, among all social groups except Dalits.

In the past, the BJP has done better among men from all age categories than women, and this was true in 2019 too, in which 36 percent of women voted for the BJP compared with 39 percent of men. But the gap is closing among the youngest voters. In the 2019 election, 40 percent of women ages 18 to 25 voted for the BJP, compared with 41 percent of men. The sea of young men who turn out at BJP rallies, then, is accompanied by an equally strong swell of support among young women, who are less likely to attend public rallies.

There are many reasons for the substantial and broad-based support for the BJP and the ideology it represents among Hindus. One is the longing on the part for many Indians for cultural authenticity. This is an old sentiment, born of India’s colonial past, which has reasserted itself as India now tries to take a leading role on the global stage. Modi, whose preferred language is Hindi rather than English, and whose speeches are peppered with references to Hindu festivals and historical figures, has also become for many Indians a symbol of that authenticity.

A second reason is the BJP’s response to the economic aspirations of India’s population. The most important of these aspirations is a search for jobs, on which the BJP has not delivered. Unemployment figures, released by the government only after the elections were over, are at a 45-year high. The BJP avoided mention of unemployment altogether in its election manifesto. But Modi highlighted his government’s efforts to promise Indians a better life in other ways, by providing housing and gas connections and electricity and roads and bank accounts. It is hard to say whether the Modi government actually performed better on these indicators than its predecessors. But it was at a minimum not perceived to have done worse.

A third reason is simply the organizational prowess of the BJP. The BJP is the only major party in India today which has an infrastructure capable of disseminating an ideology in a coordinated way from its central leadership all the way down to the grassroots. One reason so many Hindus have begun supporting its ideology is simply that the BJP has been more successful in reaching out to them than other parties.

Sooner or later, the young men who have been such fervent supporters of the BJP, the ideology of Hindu nationalism, and Modi personally will turn to their government for jobs. It is hard to see how these aspirations can be satisfied in the immediate future. The implications are ominous.  The principal way in which the BJP has tried to create and maintain a broad coalition of support among Hindus in the absence of jobs is to constantly stoke a sense of threat. In the past, it has treated India’s minorities, and dissenting Hindus, as one source of threat. In the 2019 election campaign, the BJP treated Pakistan, and unnamed terrorists, as another. The BJP’s challenge now, with the largest majority that any party has had in India’s parliament in three decades, is to demonstrate that it is capable of governing without resorting to the continuous manufacture of new threats in the future.

Kanchan Chandra is professor of politics at New York University.

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