Why is Hindu nationalism such a powerful political force in India?
For historical reasons.
There are two streams in Indian politics:
- Indian Nationalism
- Hindu Nationalism
These two streams have been building up for a long time, starting from the early eighteenth century, and there were multiple events behind them.
(1) Hindu-Muslim conflict became a norm in the 1700s:
The Hindu-Muslim relations during Mughal rule were like a Cold War. I.e., they did not like each other, but there was no naked communalism. For example, there were many Hindu nobles in the Mughal courts, Hindu commanders in the Mughal army, etc. After the end of Aurangzeb's reign, the Mughal rule weakened and the Marathas were on the rise. As a result, the Hindus started to dominate the Muslims. The Hindu-Muslim conflict came to the foreground.
For example, the first Hindu-Muslim riot in the history of India took place in Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1714.
After that, Hindu-Muslim riots gradually became a norm under British rule. E.g., in Kashmir in 1719; in Delhi in 1729; in Bombay in 1786; in Benares in 1809; in Kail in 1820; in Moradabad/ Sambhal/ Kashipur in 1833; ..., etc.
- Kausar, Zeenath. Communal Riots in India: Hindu–Muslim Conflict and Resolution. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 3 (2006): 353-370.)
(2) Indian Nationalism — Brahmo Samaj and Congress:
During British rule, they introduced an education system in India that would infuse Indians with a British mindset and make Indians loyal to the British government. In addition to that, the Hindu wealthy and elite used to go to study in Britain. There they came into contact with Western thought and were introduced to the concept of "Nationalism". As a result, they began to see the Indian subcontinent as a single entity, which, historically, India never was.
E.g., Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Rammohan Roy in 1825, was aimed at bringing awareness and removing backwardness among Hindus. This indirectly led to the spread of Indian nationalism.
On the other hand, the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 by some Hindu lawyers who were educated in London.
Although completely suppressed in Indian history books, Congress' constant somersaulting against the Muslim League and anti-Muslim activities just after the 1937 provincial elections are well-documented.
- Ali, Chaudhry Muhammad, Emergence of Pakistan, Columbia University Press, 1967 (Reprinted in 1972 by the Research Society of Pakistan, University of the Punjab, Lahore) [Pages: 28-31]
(3) Hindu Nationalism — Arya Samaj and Hindutva:
Hindu Nationalism arose among the Indian native orthodox Hindus, much like the Brahmo Samaj among the elite.
The main idea of Hindu nationalism was — India is the homeland of Hindus and Muslims are outsiders; Muslims are harmful to India; So either convert them to Hinduism or keep them under pressure so that they don't overdo it. Hindu nationalism originated and spread through the establishment of Arya Samaj by Dayananda Saraswati.
Dayananda Saraswati first wrote a book by misinterpreting the Quran, Quran: Through Kafir's Eye. By this he tries to show that the Koran is an inferior scripture to the Vedas, Islam is a bad religion which speaks of killing and bloodshed, Hinduism is superior to Islam and a religion of peace,... etc.
On the other hand, another fundamentalist Hindu, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, inspired by the spirit of Nazism of Hitler in Germany and Fascism of Mussolini in Italy, developed the concept of Hindutva (year of conception: 1923).
The core idea of Hindutva is that Muslims are low-caste and pariahs, so they will not get equal rights to Hindus in India.
A number of militant and political parties were formed on the basis of this concept of Arya Samaj and Hindutva —
- Akhil Bharat Hindu Sabha was formed in 1915 (Founder: Madan Mohan Malvya).
- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS was formed in 1925 (Founder: Keshav Boliram Hedgewar).
- RSS is a militant group.
- It was banned several times during the British Raj and/or after India's independence.
To bring the RSS into politics, in 1951, an RSS leader named Shyama Prasad Mukherjee formed a political party called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). BJP's origins lie in the BJS.
An ideological alliance of political and militant organizations originating from the RSS is called Sangh Parivar. Needless to say, the current ruling party, the BJP, is part of the Sangh Parivar.
Why is BJP so successful at using Hindu nationalism to increase electoral support? I understand they were not always this dominant, so something must've changed within the context of Indian society to propel them into power.
By exploiting the religious sentiments of Hindus and cultivating Riot politics.
Just before a major election, BJP-funded and instigated Hindus will discover a communal issue that was either never heard of or was minorly existent, and they will attack Muslims, burn their properties, mosques, etc., thereby buying sympathies from Hindu voters.
For example, this tactic was successfully applied in 2002 in Gujarat and 2020 in Delhi.
- Berenschot, Ward. "Riot politics: Hindu-Muslim violence and the Indian state." (2012).
- Wilkinson, Steven. Votes and violence: Electoral competition and ethnic riots in India. (Cambridge University Press, 2006.)
Note: Please let me know if you need references or citations in favor of specific information and/or argument.