How the BJP Promotes Hindutva through a Nationalist Agenda

“Acche din” is defined as a non-inclusive India where dissent is dangerous to national unity.

At the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) 2019 manifesto launch, Narendra Modi said that the country would move ahead with “one mission, one direction for the country.” This “direction,” however, is troubling: the ruling party has been apathetic to people beaten and lynched by self–styled cow vigilantes or “gau rakshaks,” with the Prime Minister maintaining silence over these incidents.  Migrants have been attacked and even killed—occurrences that have received tacit and sometimes even explicit support from BJP party members. Under Modi, the BJP has espoused a more extreme ideology and used nationalism to gain support for right-wing policy, and to unite sentiments against religious minorities. 

This reading list explores the BJP’s rural and urban appeal, and the political strategy employed to sell Hindutva to the masses. 

1) Can Democracy and Hegemony Coexist?
The BJP’s core ideology is at odds with the foundation on which India’s democracy was built, writes Suhas Palshikar. Instead of the coexistence of democracy, nationalism and diversity, Palshikar argues, binaries are now being posed upon the populace: democracy vs nationalism and nationalism vs diversity. Palshikar contends that this has led to the emergence of a new political elite and political culture in India, which in the absence of an effective political counter, could cement this new hegemony. 

Hegemonies have a complex relationship with democracies. Hegemony represents the continuing battle between democratisation—the expansion of democracy—and elite efforts to keep the radical aspects of democracy limited. Thus, the coexistence of democracy and hegemony, though consisting of tensions, is not extraordinary. Most democracies often experience this coexistence and the tensions involved in it. In the case of India, the emerging hegemony also holds the possibility of altering the nature of India’s democracy as it was imagined and at least partially practised so far. In this sense, the emerging hegemony portends a distortion of democracy (Palshikar 2017d). 

2) How Has the BJP Framed Their Development Agenda?
A “politics of hate” can work to build a consensus for ruling class economics, writes Atul Sood, arguing that nationalism is often used by governments to hide their shortcomings, or to conceal fragmented social realities. 

We have often been mobilised in the past in the name of defending Indian pride or safeguarding some regional asmita; and the poor have been asked to tighten their belts, even when they barely have a waist, since “the ‘nation’ has been living beyond its means,” as Singh (2008: 190) said famously. The real issues of the people have been left behind.

Further, Sood contends that the BJP uses nationalism to appeal to the so-called “aspirational” class, whose impatience allows the party to make economic and social decisions on behalf of the nation.

Our perspective to evaluate the current regime has to be in sync with the perspective of the Indian people’s struggle for a better life. Very often, the idea of an inclusive India in this sense, where the governing outcomes are evaluated on the principle of including and benefiting the last person on the street, is counterpoised with the idea of “unity” of the nation, where no dissent is allowed, and scholastic critique is stopped at the gate of India’s national unity. This idea of a non-inclusive India is shared, in different hues, by a vast majority of Indian intellectuals within India or settled abroad.

3) Who Votes for Hindutva?
Ganshyam Shah, writing after the BJP’s assembly election win in Gujarat in 1995, argues that the BJP does not rely solely upon its Hindutva ideology to win votes, instead copying  the Congress’ electoral strategy by building a base among OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis, and also by fielding numerous OBC candidates for mass support. 

The party has co-opted tribal and dalit leaders in different districts and has also hijacked Ambedkar' s ideology and symbols. Th e BJP extended its support to NGOs in opposing the proposed forest bill, whic h is anti-tribal . The party also supported various struggles of tribal s demanding land for cultivation. It won more than 29 per cent o f the tribal votes in tribal and non-tribal constituencies. 

Despite this, Shah contends that the state’s urban middle class voted for the BJP to express their disapproval of the Congress’ pro–poor stance, and also due to the allure of Hindutva. Shah writes that while the Congress campaigned around the fact that the BJP was a communal party, they were unable to convince the masses why communal politics were dangerous to the nation..

A large number of otherwise non-committed urban middle class BJP voters said that corruption or price rise was not the issue which determined their voting behaviour. They felt that the BJP was no better than the Congress. "All politicians are the same... But what is important is that the BJP stands for Hindus and will build Ram mandir in Ayodhya." This was a common retrain.

4) What is the BJP’s idea of an ‘Ideal’ India?
As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi elucidated that the “Ram rajya” is a “welfare state.” However, Anand Teltumbde argues that the BJP's “ideal rule” includes introducing the Ramayana in school syllabus, and an out-of-court settlement of the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid dispute. Teltumbde writes that M K Gandhi first articulated Ram rajya as a concept during the freedom movement, but disassociated it from religion. Teltumbde contends that such a state under the BJP would exclude Dalits, Adivasis, and other minorities.

Ram Rajya, in practice, appears to have served as rhetoric for all political parties to appeal to gullible Hindus …  Ram Rajya is uncritically evoked as an ideal rule, as described in Ramayana. In the sixth book of Valmiki Ramayana, Lankakanda,  All [that is, Brahmins (the priest-class), Kshatriyas (the warrior-class), Vaiśyas (the class of merchants and agriculturists), and Sudras (the servant class)] were performing their own duties, satisfied with their own work, and bereft of greed. (canto 116, verse 89).

Further, Teltumbde accuses the Congress of pedlling “soft Hindutva” to reiterate that it is not “anti-Hindu.” While projecting Rahul Gandhi as a Brahmin should be condemned, Teltumbde says, it is instead being used by the Congress party to sell the idea of a secular India. 

During the recent Gujarat elections, Rahul Gandhi visited 27 temples to stress that he too is a Hindu. The Congress has interpreted its victory in the 18 constituencies where these temples are situated (wresting 10 from the BJP) as being due to this temple run. It is neither ashamed to see that even in such a surcharged anti-BJP atmosphere, as in Gujarat, it could not wrest power from the BJP, nor does it realise that it can never compete against the BJP on the Hindutva platform.   

5) Can the BJP be a Pan–India Party?
Can the BJP’s win in Tripura be replicated in other states? Writing after the party’s assembly elections win, which ousted the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from power, Radhika Ramaseshan argues that rather than this election result proving the party’s countrywide appeal, demography played a larger role, with only 9% of the population Muslim. Further, the Hindu agenda failed to make inroads in other North East states, where its vegetarianism drive and “save the cow” campaign failed to resonate with voters.

The “development” narrative is underpinned on the twin themes of “nationalism” and Hindutva, which are mired in the RSS’s ideology. While success was relatively simpler in Assam and Tripura because their politics essentially follows the trajectory of “mainstream” India, cracking the other states may be complex and a long haul. In the meantime, the BJP will make peace with the regional forces in the more problematic states and expediently forsake or dilute the Hindutva-specific agenda. It helps to have a government at the centre that can dangle and deliver carrots from time to time. But the BJP’s goal of a “Congress-mukt [free]” North East remains elusive.

Read More:

  1. How Autonomous Are the Branches? A Study of Narendra Modi’s BJP | Sylvie Guichard, 2013
  2. How BJP Appropriated the Idea of Equality to Create a Divided India | AjayGudavarthy, 2018
  3. BJP and the Ethnic Constitution of Nation | Ashok Chousalkar, 2000
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