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I'm not very knowledgeable about Indian politics, save for the occasional news item on international media.

From what I can gather, the word "Hindu nationalism" has really been the defining term under the current governing party, the BJP (with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its leader).

Why is the 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.

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  • I think there is some ambiguity about using terms nationalism and religion here: one can possibly be ethnically hindu but a christian/muslim or adopt hinduism without being ethnically hindu. Perhaps, this could be clarified in the answers.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 14, 2022 at 8:53
  • @RogerVadim I take your point, can you help me rephrase the #1 question? I don't know how to phrase it accurately. Sep 14, 2022 at 9:01
  • @QuantumWalnut I would add, as point #0, asking for clarification regarding about ethnic and religious meaning of hindu - to what extent being religiously hindu implies belonging to a certain nation (and what is that nation - historically and politically).
    – Roger V.
    Sep 14, 2022 at 9:25
  • Voting to close - duplicate of Why is there a huge rise in Hindu Nationalism in India? and should be merged with it.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 18, 2023 at 9:16

5 Answers 5

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Why is Hindu nationalism such a powerful political force in India?

For historical reasons.

There are two streams in Indian politics:

  1. Indian Nationalism
  2. 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.

Ref:

  • 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.

Ref:

  • 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

  1. Akhil Bharat Hindu Sabha was formed in 1915 (Founder: Madan Mohan Malvya).
  2. 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.

Ref:

  • 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.

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  • In terms of mentioning the history, your answer is very biased; not to mention incorrect at many places. The maratha army had lots of muslim soldiers as well - infact Shivaji's father was named after a sufi saint. Meanwhile you make no mention of the fact that Aurangzeb and other Islamic invaders and rulers regularly plundered hindu temples, imposed non-muslim extra tax and killed many hindus and sikhs for refusing to convert to islam.
    – whoisit
    Oct 9, 2023 at 9:04
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Hindu nationalism is major because of Modi,
not the other way round.

To answer your question about "what changed" - it is the arrival of Modi.

If Hindu nationalism was powerful on its own, BJP should have won almost all elections since its inception, it wouldn't have to wait till 2014 - after all, BJP is the only major hindu nationalist party. However, BJP had famously lost the 2004 national election. BJP also still regularly loses state elections; and won less than half of the hindu votes overall - which means hindu nationalism is just one of the many factors affecting the elections.

The second Manmohan Singh ministry (known as UPA-II) was marred with controversies - majorly corruption, inflation and nepotism.
Modi's campaign of 2014 was based on his Gujarat Model of development, promise of corruption-free governance, promise of economic stability and promise of disbanding nepotism.
Hindu nationalism was not a defining feature of his election in 2014.

If you analyze carefully the trend in Indian elections of 2014 - in almost all states, the party that won the most seats was the major non-UPA party (TMC in Bengal, BJD in Odisha etc). That is, 2014 was more about opposing the then government than about Modi or hindu nationalism. Modi won because of his charisma originating from the Gujarat Model, and the fact that BJP was the major non-UPA party in most states - including Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajastan.

India witnessed much better roads and railways, and much better digital infrastructure post-2014. No major corruption allegation against BJP held any substance. There were also major schemes such as Ujjwala (Gas cylinder to every poor household). Thus, once Modi became the PM, he also succesfully convinced the people that he delivered his promises and that India had no other option but him.

This made Modi a revered figure in Indian households, and his charisma only increased. Modi's party began to project "nationalism" as their ideology - which was endorsed by military action thru Surgical Strikes. As 2019 elections drew near, they defined themselves through hindu nationalism. Modi made hindu nationalism mainstream, not the other way round.

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I can give a variety of different reasons which involve half speculation and half fact.

A wish for uniformity (?) : When India was made, there were too many different sub cultures in it with conflicting ideals. So, the solution by one of the founding fathers, Nehru, was to give the country a political system where every major sub culture gets their own laws. This is known as non uniform civil code. I believe there is a growing consensus in the country that these laws have hindered the socio political development of the country and there is need for unification. Now, a question comes, on what basis should India be unified? The simplest thing to unify on would be Hinduism as Hindus are 80% of the population of India.

However in reality it is not so simple because even Hindus have various sects with different gods and different practices, food practices etc. Have a look here for more details.

The face of India's Hinduism which we see publicily is representative of the version practiced by the hyper minority of Brahmins in India. Brahmins and other UC are also the largest caste group of BJP . However notable exceptions of lower caste in power include Modi and the recently elected President Droupadi Murmu.

Some shady reasons:

  1. It is found that BJP is buying members of opposing parties to absorb them into their own see here.

  2. Western interference by large social media companies who use their algorithms to bias public opinion. See here

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Nationalism has been a strong force in India since India's founding. Nehru wanted to build upon socialism in India but Gandhi galvanised the masses by his advocacy of a tolerant Hindu nationalism that far outran Nehru's socialist ideas. The strength of peoples reactions motivated Nehru to swing him towards nationalism.

Unfortunately, it blew back on him after India's independence with Gandhi being assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu brahmin who felt he had accommodated the Muslims far too much. Godse was an ex-member of the RSS, a volunteer paramilitary force, and often seen as a fascist organisation as they drew military inspiration from Italian fascist organisations. They were banned once during British rule and thrice post-independence. It's this faction of Hindu nationalism that has come to power with its political wing, the BJP. It's for this reason that a number of political analysts - not all Muslims - many Hindus as well - characterises Modi's india as proto-fascist or fascist.

The roots of this goes back to India's humiliation at the Western powers. In Gandhi's Autobiography he remarks as a child he would hear boys telling themselves "to eat more meat", as that would make them more "masculine". The South Indian Hindu was vegetarian, generally, and possibly more widely. Of course it's scientific nonsense, protein is protein no matter where it comes from. But then and there it was the psychology that mattered. But then again, it was a psychology that ended in Europe writing its suicide note in two World Wars.

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  • "They were banned on e during British rule"? "e"? Probably "once". Nov 9, 2022 at 21:59
  • It's unclear if Godse was actually ex-RSS. They said it was, but that smacks of plausible deniability. It seems clear that he was acting on their instructions. Also, banned once during British rule, and 3 times since independence? Do you have a reference? Nov 10, 2022 at 7:12
  • @FaheemMitha "I am definitely upset with the RSS for denying the fact that he was a swayamsevak. I understand that they do not support the act of killing Gandhiji but they cannot run away from the facts," he added. - Nathuram Godse never left RSS, says his family.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 9, 2023 at 20:33
  • It is worth observing that India was not the most natural candidate for a nationalist movement. It has more than a dozen major languages and far more ethnicities than that, and at independence wasn't united by religion either (and it is still the primary homeland of more than one religion). In terms of human geography it is closer to Europe collectively than to any particular European country that had a nationalist movement. And, it is huge in area and population which makes it hard to organize. Hinduism is one of the few things that unites Indians in the lion's share of India.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 9, 2023 at 22:52
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  1. What exactly is Hindu nationalism? Does it refer to nationalism based on ethnicity, religion, or something else?

Hindu nationalism on this date is Indian nationalism. It's not actually ethnic because in India, particularly in North East there is often frustration against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh entering our regions. We have Aryan ethnic people and also East Asian people. We are brothers. It's not based on religion as well. We have different religions. Even in North eastern India, even though many of us are Christians, we had our own religion before coming to the Christ. We have now incorporated those as traditions. Understand it as festival for harvest. Earlier, it was religious. Like praying for good harvest. Religious understanding is subjective.

  1. What is the overarching narrative that Hindu nationalists use to justify their policies?

To make India #1. We know it takes a long time. But one day we will.

  1. Why is religion such an animating force in Indian politics? Is faith actually just an analogue for Indian voters to channel deeper layers of tribalistic sentiment?

I don't agree. Though some points are:

  • High tensions between religious groups, often leading to accusations of bullying or anti-social behaviour.
  • wanting specific codes. In the US, the law is same more or less for everyone.
  • being representative of dharmic religions worldwide.
  1. What is the tension between Hindus and Muslim within the context of Indian society? Is there a long history tied with conflict over resources, status, wealth, etc?

More or less during partition.

  1. 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.

Yes. Many BJP supporters were frustrated at:

  • religious politics
  • caste politics

BJP supporters believe that the government is a force for good. They argue that the government has:

  • effectively taken down the drugs mafia
  • effectively eliminated groups linked with Islamic terrorists
  • stood strong for Kashmir which is rightfully and legitimately a part of India.
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  • .Isn't aryan invasion theory debunked? What do you mean many Indians are christians ? THey are like less than 5% of the population. To make country better is argument would be the argument of choice of any political party.... Sep 14, 2022 at 12:21
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    @TrystwithFreedom The wealth inequality is highest in years in India, the GDP is dipping, the unemployement is nearing 50% : These claims/observations do not conform with the actual on-ground reality. India's GDP is definitely not dipping; The wealth inequality is not concerning because everyone is getting richer (the rich are getting richer faster than the poor, but the poor are getting richer nonetheless). The unemployment claim you make is ridiculous to say the least.
    – whoisit
    Sep 16, 2022 at 23:58
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    @TrystwithFreedom The unemployment link given by you is for Indiana. The GDP decreased only in 2020 (when almost every other nation's GDP decreased), that too to save lives during the pandemic, GDP has registered strong growth after that, hitting +13.5% in the latest quarter.
    – whoisit
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:10
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    On unemployement : Other sources, Corrected link. |“The top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while *670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.” - Oxfam international Sep 17, 2022 at 7:24
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    Even your sources do not go anywhere near 50% unemployment rate.
    – whoisit
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:36

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