Over the course of six weeks, Indian voters are going to the polls to elect their next prime minister. It’s the first general election since 2014, when current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party uprooted the Indian National Congress, which had dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947. Observers see the election as a test of Modi’s staying power, his ambitious reforms and efforts to centralize power. At the heart of these elections, however, are questions over how to define India’s national identity for generations to come.
India is the world’s largest democracy, and its size and diversity present a number of governing challenges. Over its centuries of existence, its leaders have taken different approaches to managing the country’s diversity, which is illustrated in its myriad linguistic-cultural groups, each of which has its own history. The Constitution recognizes 22 languages, but there are thousands more spoken across the country. The most common – and often most effective – approach involved a decentralized federation, where the country’s leader solicited tributes from autonomous kingdoms, local authorities, or, in modern India, states and union territories. Rarely has a leader with centralized power managed to rule India, and certainly not for long. But in recent years, the idea of a more centralized model has re-emerged, especially with the rise of Narendra Modi.
In choosing between the INC and the BJP, Indians are also choosing between these governance models. The INC and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, advocate a decentralized government that relies heavily on public spending and cooperation between central, state and local governments. It is through this model that the INC believes it can best accommodate the competing interests and demands of India’s diverse population. The INC’s vision for India’s national identity binds these diverse groups together through a secular model. The BJP, on the other hand, seeks to centralize power and project it nationwide. To do so, the party needs to cultivate a single national identity that the entire population will subscribe to. The INC’s electoral tagline – do we choose inclusion or exclusion? – is applicable to both parties but with significantly different interpretations. The verdict is still out, but in the meantime, it’s worth exploring how India’s socio-political realities led to the rise of these divergent paths.
The Roots of Hindu Nationalism
Unsurprisingly, these competing models emerged in colonial India’s response to British imperialism and the subsequent independence movement. Clashes between colonizers and local populations were commonplace throughout the 1800s and, by the end of the century, were complemented by an intellectual rejection of colonialism. India’s thought leaders started movements across the country to reform and modernize the interpretation of Hindu texts and practices, a period that became known as the Hindu Renaissance. This was, in large part, a rejection of the imperialist rationale that Western practices were superior to local ones. These movements sought to present Hinduism and other local practices as defining features of the region, different from but equal to European ones. From this emerged the Indian National Congress, India’s first political party and one of the largest to this day.
Then World War I broke out. The British imposed conscription and new taxes in India to support the war effort. By the end of the war, India had suffered inflation, crop failures and flu epidemics that affected people across all social segments. During the war, India’s Muslims had been sympathetic to the Ottoman Empire, one of the Central Powers aligned against Britain and its allies. The INC used this as an opening to align Muslims with Hindus in its anti-imperialist, pro-independence cause. But by the 1920s, the INC had become more explicitly associated with Hindu nationalist groups, the movement of Ottoman sympathizers was in decline, and Muslims gradually became alienated from the party. As the Hindu-Muslim political alliance waned and calls for independence grew, the INC began building a coalition across socio-economic classes. The party’s efforts eventually paid off. India gained its independence in 1947, though not without significant bloodshed and further division of Hindu and Muslim groups during Partition, which created modern-day India and Pakistan and reconstituted the religious makeup of India.
When the INC came to power in an independent India, it adhered to a secularist ideology. The Indian notion of secularism differs from the Western version. While the West views secularism as the separation of religion and state, in India, secularism mandates equal treatment by the state of all religious groups. Religious demographics are carefully enumerated; minorities are identified, and a certain number of jobs and services are reserved for them to help ensure this equality. The composition of ethnic and religious groups differs widely across India’s states, and so the INC’s decentralized approach relies on local governments to implement policies that best suit their constituencies.
Not all members of the INC favored this approach, however. Spin-off groups that advocated a more centralized approach emerged. When Muslim groups left the INC, one faction established the Muslim League. Advocates of Hindu nationalism left the party to form various organizations and political parties, including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which pursed armed resistance to British rule, and Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing political group. In the 1940s, another spin-off group envisioned a united India held together by a shared Hindu identity; that group evolved into what is today the BJP.
The Rise and Future of the BJP
The word “Hindu” did not exist until the arrival of foreigners, including Persians and Europeans. In its early use, it described not a religion but rather the non-Turkic peoples who lived east of the Indus River. As Westerners became more familiar with the region, the word was used to describe South Asian religious trends.
In the modern concept of Hindu nationalism, a Hindu is anyone who resides in India and considers India to be the motherland. The man responsible for developing and popularizing this version of Hindu nationalism was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a self-proclaimed atheist and leading member of Hindu Mahasabha. For Savarkar, “Hindu” described a political and cultural identity rather than a religious one. His definition of “Hindutva” (meaning “Hinduness”) as the practice of the Hindu culture allowed for the inclusion of Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs along with Hindus, though it excluded Muslims and Christians. He imagined a nation (“Rashtra”) founded upon Hindutva; Hindu Rashtra thus set the foundation for modern Hindu nationalism.
It took nearly a century of careful management of Hindu nationalism and capitalization on the INC’s weaknesses for the BJP to finally gain power. In the mid-1970s, the BJP’s predecessor briefly gained popularity among the electorate only to quickly lose it again to the INC. The party relaunched as the Bharatiya Janata Party, centralized power within its own framework and reintroduced Hindutva to its rhetoric and policies. Those efforts increased the party’s popularity among the middle and upper classes. By the mid-1990s, the BJP had caught up with the INC, which had left unanswered the calls for Hindutva, lost favor among its Muslim backers and grown weaker because of infighting.
The BJP’s ascent culminated in Modi’s 2014 election victory. High inflation, unemployment and corruption had left voters disillusioned with the INC. The BJP courted disgruntled local INC supporters and castes and sub-castes previously excluded from the power structure. The party hoped to take advantage of groups that felt ignored under a system they saw as going out of its way to protect minorities at the cost of majorities, while also emphasizing its Hindutva platform to gain even more enthusiastic support from its base.
Despite the BJP’s electoral success, the notion of a non-religious, inclusive national identity based on a shared, ostensibly Hindu past is highly controversial. Regardless of its origin, Hinduism (and its derivations) is now largely considered a religion, making the jump from religious to socio-political identity extremely difficult. The caste system is still alive and well in India and while there are legal measures in place to mitigate its use, many individuals still closely associate with their own caste. It’s still hard to get broad buy-in for an identity that remains exclusive and caste-based, especially when minorities have at times suffered at the hands of the Hindu majority and when this ideology has historically excluded Muslims and Christians. Indeed, Modi’s government has increasingly centralized power and pursued Hindutva based on exclusive policies. Historical sites have been rechristened with Hindu names, the BJP has developed ties to local proselytist Hindu groups, and the government supports a widely protested citizenship law that streamlines immigration approval for Hindus, leaving other groups on the fringes of society.
India’s weight in world affairs is growing. It is already the world’s seventh-largest economy, with growth rates outpacing most countries. It plays a key strategic role in containing China, protecting oil and trade flows in the Indian Ocean, and supporting stability in both Central and South Asia. If India wants to capitalize on its position, it must find a way to act as a cohesive entity. For most of its existence, this has meant following a decentralized, secular approach to governance. Only very recently has the country experimented with a centralized approach that promotes a single national identity. These elections may not determine which of the two options will win in the end, but they show that whoever wins the debate will ultimately shape how India will govern itself and present itself to the rest of the world.