How Did Hindutva Nationalism Become Popular?

This reading list looks at the history of growing majoritarianism in India in the last three decades.


While the headlines have been dominated by whether or not Rahul Gandhi should resign, there have been reports of violence against minorities that have been circulating on social media since the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were declared. 

One of the primary questions that have come up in the liberal public sphere has been: how was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) able to secure such a vast majority? This question leads to questions about what the Congress did wrong. A popular opinion among political pundits has emerged, that explains the BJP’s victory to the creation of a coherent narrative of the nation, which the opposition, in its entirety has failed to build since 2014. However, the work of building a new narrative of the nation did not happen overnight. In this reading list, we will see how the BJP and its allies have spent decades building a narrative of majoritarianism that has come to fruition only now.

1) A Response to the Emerging Global Order

Neera Chandhoke has argued that the rise in majoritarian politics in India can be read in the context of India’s position in international politics. She points out that “the nation” needs to be constantly re-imagined to reflect the aspirations of its people. As such, what passes as nationalism is therefore determined by what the narrative of the nation is at present.

The dissatisfaction of the Indian middle class in a globalised era necessitated the creation of a new narrative that could overcome their growing sense of powerlessness. Chandhoke argues that Hindutva offered such an empowering narrative which allowed the blame for India’s falling stature to be placed squarely on the shoulders of minorities.

Even if technically speaking the party is not involved in specific crimes against the minorities, it certainly is responsible for unearthing nefarious and distasteful trends in the polity. For undeniably the party along with the affiliates of the Sangh parivar has been directly implicated in whipping up hate campaigns against the religious minorities for the past decade or so. 

2) Synonymous with Development

The electoral success of the BJP in 2014 can be attributed to the narrative they built in which majoritarianism was made synonymous with the development agenda. Atul Sood argued that under the weight of this new narrative that favoured the "ease of doing business," we have forgotten to ask who is it easier for. Drawing on Randhir Singh’s contention that the ruling classes have leveraged nationalism to practice anti-people politics, Sood argued that the current narrative of the nation mobilises the marginalised while ignoring their interests in reality. He argued that this narrative has been so successful because it effectively eliminated the need to specify one’s “vantage point,” that is, one’s socio-political position, when evaluating the government. This narrative is inherent in slogans like “Saabka Saath Sabka Vikas.”

The Indian National Congress has done this as part of its secular politics, and by defining it as cultural nationalism. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has and is doing it as part of its Hindutva politics. Historically, both parties have done this for the same purpose, serving the same ruling class interests. In the 2014 elections, this process got much deeper, where the ruling classes took the big leap to fulfil their goals faster, supposedly riding on the support of the so-called “aspirational” class, who appear to be a bit impatient now and unwilling to take along those who have not benefited from or are not likely to gain in the immediate future out of the economic and social choices that the ruling classes make on behalf of the “nation.”

3) Not a New Phenomenon

In the aftermath of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Suhas Palshikar wrote that the victory of the Congress did not necessarily mean that it was a win for secularism. Instead, with the use of electoral data and post-election studies, he had inferred that the seeds of majoritarianism had been planted and that new “middle ground” was being negotiated in the narrative of the nation. He found that among highly religious Hindus, 42% support majoritarianism while the number is 26% among less religious Hindus.

The BJP’s ‘defeat’ in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections has been seen, albeit mistakenly, as a setback for communal forces. But though the BJP did not emphasise the ‘Hindutva’ issue during its campaign, as surveys cited in this article indicate, there is already some ‘polarisation’ among the electorate, with religion often deciding voter-preference. Moreover, the new ‘middle ground’ of Indian politics – shaped by commonly-held notions among the populace as to what constitutes a ‘nation’ and how it should be governed – reveals that sections of the populace are increasingly more ‘expressively religious’ and also attached to respective group identities. At the same time, this ‘middle ground’ traverses a very complex terrain and thereby defies any straitjacketing into ‘secular’ or ‘communal’.

4) Politics of Exclusion

The greatest weakness of Indian electoral politics, wrote Sukumar Muralidharan, is the reward it offers for the politics of exclusion. Therefore, he argues that when majoritarian rhetoric creates an atmosphere which suggests that entitlements that come with citizenship should be denied to certain sections of society, it effectively pushes those communities out of the consensus-building process that is required for democracy. The communities then become targets for coercive politics, which further normalises violence against them. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the number of incidents of violence against Scheduled Castes has been between 33,000 between 2008 and 2012, which rose to 39,048 in 2013 and then 47,064 in 2014. Muralidharan suggests that there are several electoral reforms that need to be instituted to ensure that polarised politics is not advantageous to majoritarianism.

Everyday lives are deeply affected by the politics that plays on social schisms, especially when amplified through a hydra-headed media. In the US, federal law enforcement authorities have reported a surge in hate crimes, as “heated racial rhetoric and actions have come to dominate the news.” In India, the two officially recognised categories of identity-based crimes, involving the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), display troubling trends.


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