The Rise of Hindu Nationalism in India

Since Narendra Modi first became prime minister of India in 2014, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has dominated Indian politics. Modi has led the BJP to single-party majorities in two successive national elections—a feat no leader has achieved since 1971—and made deep inroads beyond its traditional strongholds in northern and western India. The BJP currently counts nearly six times more members in the directly-elected lower house of Parliament than its chief rival, the once-dominant left-of-center Congress Party.

The BJP routinely outspends and out-organizes its rivals. Some scholars believe that the ruling party has grown so dominant—armed with a bulging war chest, captive government institutions, and a well-oiled propaganda machine—that it enjoys a structural advantage over other contenders for power. As the argument goes, even Modi’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic this spring may not be enough to dislodge him from power in national elections due in 2024.

At another time, the beliefs and behavior of an Indian political party would matter little to Americans. Over the past two decades, however, the rise of China and the growth of the Indian middle class has boosted India’s salience in Washington. Leaders of the two nations regularly frame their budding partnership as one between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. In Asia, the U.S. implicitly backs India as a democratic counterweight to authoritarian China. Yet outside of a handful of specialists, Americans know little about Hindu nationalism or the BJP. 

How did a once marginal party, dismissed by critics as an assortment of antediluvian cranks and religious bigots, come to occupy center-stage in the world’s largest democracy? To understand today’s BJP, you must first familiarize yourself with what came before Modi. Journalist and political scientist Vinay Sitapati’s fine book, Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, is an excellent place to start.

Sitapati tells the party’s story through the lives of its two most consequential leaders in the twentieth century: Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018) served as prime minister between 1998 and 2004. Lal Krishna Advani (born in 1927) piloted the BJP’s rise in the 1980s, and served in Vajpayee’s government as his home minister and deputy. This dyad, which Sitapati calls “the greatest political partnership in twentieth century India,” dominated Hindu nationalist politics for four decades.

The Roots of Hindu Nationalism

The most important ideologue of Hindu nationalism, Vinayak Savarkar (1883-1966), was a beef-eating Brahmin atheist who was educated in England and later jailed by the colonial authorities for his role in the assassination of a senior British official in London. Savarkar believed that India had succumbed to foreign invaders—first Muslims, then the British—for one main reason: a lack of unity in the majority Hindu community, divided into roughly 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, and speaking a Babel of dozens of languages and thousands of dialects, many of them mutually unintelligible.

Savarkar viewed India as an essentially Hindu nation, and Muslims and Christians as members of a kind of fifth column. They could not be fully trusted because their holy lands—Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem—lay outside the Indian subcontinent. This contrasted sharply with mainstream Indian nationalism, spearheaded by Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and the Indian National Congress, which strove to unite Indians of all faiths against colonial rule. “Those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion,” wrote Gandhi in Hind Swaraj in 1909. “If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dream-land.”

The 1920s, when Savarkar propounded his thesis, were a period of political turmoil. World War One and the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 had eroded British prestige and boosted Indian nationalism. The emergence of Gandhi on the political scene injected mass-mobilization into the independence movement. At the same time, the frequent eruption of Hindu-Muslim riots widened the appeal of religious nationalism in both communities. In several instances, most famously the Moplah rebellion in today’s Kerala in 1921-22, Hindus bore the brunt of the violence. As Sitapati puts it, Hindu nationalism was birthed “in part by the fear of effete Hindus being beaten up by tough Muslims on the street.”

In 1925, influenced by Savarkar’s writings, K. B. Hedgewar, a fellow Maharashtrian Brahmin, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or “National Volunteer Corps,” the mothership of Hindu nationalism. Its aim: to unify India’s disparate Hindus. Three years later, the RSS swore in its first 99 volunteers before an effigy of the monkey God Hanuman. It modeled its basic organizational unit, the shakha, on a traditional Hindu gymnasium used to train wrestlers. A shakha typically consists of 50-100 males instructed in self-defense and indoctrinated with the group’s distinctive worldview. By the late 1930s, the RSS counted about 60,000 volunteers.

Western commentators sometimes label the RSS as conservative. But in a caste-bound land, its founding marked a radical break from the past.

Like two other vast organizations formed in the 1920s, the Chinese Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, the RSS continues to exert influence to this day. Though its record-keeping is sketchy, it claims to be the world’s largest NGO with 5 million volunteers. (Independent scholars estimate that number as closer to 2 million.) About 6000 of these are pracharaks, or preceptors, typically unmarried men steeped in RSS ideology who dedicate their lives to the organization. Over the years, the RSS has also stood up dozens of affiliated organizations, including India’s largest labor union (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh), largest student union (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), and the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), an attempt to unite ecclesiastical authority under a loose “Hindu Vatican.” Together these organizations are known as the Sangh Parivar, or Sangh family.

The BJP, the most prominent RSS offshoot, was born in 1980. But the Sangh Parivar’s direct involvement in electoral politics dates to newly-independent India. In 1951, it helped found the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

The RSS and the BJP share a worldview rooted in a Savarkarite reading of Indian history as “plagued by a lack of unity that rendered it vulnerable to invasions.” They focus especially on a pivotal battle in 1761 outside Delhi in which the Hindu Marathas, who had risen in the mid-seventeenth century to challenge the Muslim Mughal Empire, lost to an Afghan marauder. The defeat weakened Maratha power and eased the way for the British conquest of India.

Western commentators sometimes label the RSS as conservative. But in a caste-bound land, its founding marked a radical break from the past. From the start, it viewed its role as unifying Hindus across caste lines against what it saw as the threat of better-organized Muslims prone to violence. The RSS espouses what Sitapati calls “defensive violence.” In the organization’s view of itself, it retaliates against violence, but does not initiate it. Many scholars dispute this characterization.

In politics, Hindu nationalists have long focused on three core concerns: the importance of maintaining an overwhelming Hindu majority in India, the threat to the nation’s “sacred territory” posed by Pakistan and China, and opposition to any differential political rights for religious minorities, such as the autonomy once enjoyed by the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and separate sharia-based civil laws for Muslims. At the same time, Sitapati points out that from the start the RSS had no principled objection to democracy. Universal suffrage advantaged the more numerous Hindus over Muslims.

The Odd Couple

The BJP’s current dominance owes much to Modi’s populist vote-catching charisma, but it rests on a platform built in large measure by Advani and Vajpayee. As young men in the 1940s—against the backdrop of the Congress’s effort to end colonial rule and the parallel mobilization of a section of Indian Muslims to create a homeland called Pakistan—both gravitated toward the RSS. The Hindu nationalist group vehemently opposed what it regarded as the vivisection of a sacred Hindu land. But it was a marginal force in British India, unable to prevent either the creation of Pakistan or the bloodbath that followed in its wake—an estimated one million people killed and 14.5 million people displaced in the largest exodus in human history.

Explaining the book’s Indian title, Sitapati describes a jugalbandi as an Indian classical concert “where two musicians perform together in a way in which it is not clear who the main performer is, who the accompanist.” If not for the upheavals of the 1940s, the odds of Vajpayee and Advani crossing paths, let alone sharing a political stage, would have been infinitesimally small.

Advani was born to privilege, the son of a prosperous Sindhi businessman who traveled in a horse-drawn Victoria carriage and enrolled Advani in one of Karachi’s most prominent English-medium schools. “There are two types of Indians,” an RSS veteran tells Sitapati. “Those who use Western toilets and those who use [squat-style] Indian toilets. We use Indian toilets. [But] we need some people who use Western toilets.” Early in his political career, the English-speaking Advani fulfilled this role.

Though a Brahmin by birth, Vajpayee came from humbler stock, the Hindi-speaking lower middle class in the princely state of Gwalior in central India. In the 1950s, the RSS deputed Vajpayee to the newly-formed Jana Sangh, where he quickly earned a reputation as a gifted orator in Hindi. Perhaps a tad hyperbolically, Sitapati calls him “the most hypnotic political speaker independent India has produced.” Within ten years of independence, Vajpayee entered parliament. At first, Advani, also seconded to the Jana Sangh by the RSS, worked as Vajpayee’s secretary—Watson to Vajpayee’s Holmes, as Sitapati puts it—helping him navigate his duties in a parliament dominated by India’s first prime minister, the anglophone Jawaharlal Nehru. But by the early 1970s, Advani had emerged as a prominent party leader in his own right. For the next four decades, until the rise of Modi, the duo dominated Hindu nationalist politics.

While Vajpayee was known for treating his political opponents with courtesy, his party rivals saw instead a skilled infighter with a talent for wielding the “sweetened knife.”

Vajpayee earned a reputation for moderation. As prime minister, he nominated a Muslim as India’s president. Vajpayee’s closest political confidantes came not from the RSS, but from the broadly conservative swathe of Indian society that mistrusted the socialist Congress without necessarily subscribing fully to the RSS’s retrograde views. Vajpayee frowned on the BJP opening its doors to assorted Hindu godmen in the 1980s, and looked askance at the party’s signature issue: the bid to build a grand temple in the northern town of Ayodhya at a site occupied since the sixteenth century by a mosque. Many pious Hindus believe the deity Lord Ram was born at that precise spot, and that the Mughal king Babar tore down a temple to erect the mosque.

Sitapati portrays Vajpayee as less admirable than the “right man in the wrong party” image that he cultivated. When push came to shove, Vajpayee was a political gymnast, not a man of principle. Sitapati describes him as “a Nehruvian liberal masquerading as a Hindu nationalist,” but he could equally be seen as a Hindu nationalist masquerading as a Nehruvian liberal.

This was evident from the late-1980s onward, as the BJP took on a more militant cast. The party enrolled a throng of anti-Muslim rabble-rousers while Advani aggressively championed the cause of the Ram temple in Ayodhya by crisscrossing the country in a Toyota pick-up truck dressed up as an ancient chariot. In party fora, Vajpayee opposed these developments, but ultimately he went along with them. For instance, in 1992 he made a rousing speech to party faithful the day before a mob razed the contested mosque, setting off widescale Hindu-Muslim riots. And while Vajpayee was known for treating his political opponents with courtesy, his party rivals saw instead a skilled infighter with a talent for wielding the “sweetened knife.”

Advani’s mass-mobilization of Hindus in northern and western India, accompanied by the BJP’s skillful cooption of so-called lower castes using a method called “social engineering,” led the party to power. But when it came to choosing a prime minister, Advani stepped back in favor of his old comrade-in-arms. The violence associated with Advani’s methods made him unacceptable to coalition partners who needed to appeal to Muslim voters. His image of moderation made Vajpayee the only BJP leader able to cobble together a coalition government.

In their final act together, Vajpayee again took the lead while Advani played second fiddle. For six years (1998-2004), they led one of independent India’s most competent governments. It declared India a nuclear weapons power, tilted the country’s foreign policy toward Washington, and championed market-friendly economic reforms including privatization. For the most part, Vajpayee and Advani kept the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian proclivities of their foot soldiers in check. The most glaring exception: the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which took place on Modi’s watch as chief minister. They killed about 1000 people, three-fourths of them Muslim.

Sweet Spot

Sitapati has hit a sweet spot with this book. He draws deeply from the well of scholarship, but is careful not to drown his reader in arcane academic debates. This is a riveting read for anyone with a deep interest in Indian politics, but it’s equally a useful primer for those curious about Hindu nationalism and the challenges that liberal democracy faces outside the West from illiberal ideologies. It is also a bit of a rarity—a work on Hindu nationalism that neither lionizes nor demonizes its protagonists. This will make Sitapati few friends among Hindu nationalists, whose house intellectuals and fellow travelers confuse hagiography for scholarship. Nor will it endear the author to colleagues in Western academia, where many experts on Hindu nationalism tend to adopt a tone of high moral dudgeon.

For contemporary observers of Indian politics, the story of Vajpayee and Advani is most important for what it tells us about Modi’s BJP. On the surface, Modi and his right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, share some similarities with the duo they replaced atop the party. Like Vajpayee, Modi is an acclaimed orator; like Advani, Shah is more of an organization man. But in a deeper way, Modi has changed the party and its culture. Vajpayee and Advani were co-equals; Modi is clearly Shah’s boss. Advani recruited rabble rousers; Modi has empowered them. Under Modi, the party no longer feels the need to dog whistle on religion: it explicitly attacks India’s 200-million Muslims and Pakistan in order to win elections. In the Vajpayee-Advani era, the BJP tried to project itself as above the pettiness of caste politics. Now it champions caste quotas in employment and education while still preaching pan-Hindu unity. In the Vajpayee-Advani era, Brahmins and other so-called upper castes dominated the party. Modi has substantially remade the party in his image as a vehicle for formerly subordinate Hindu castes.

For all his insights, Sitapati comes across as overly sanguine about the prospects for Indian democracy. He argues, for instance, that Indira Gandhi’s arrest of thousands of RSS and Jana Sangh workers during her suspension of democracy (1975-77) “made real [for them] the rights that only democracies guarantee; they learnt the value of civil liberties and freedoms.” But it’s not clear how well this lesson has been learned. On Modi’s watch, India introduced its first religious test of citizenship in 2019. Mobs have lynched Muslims over flimsy accusations of eating beef or stealing cattle. The government has pressured Facebook and Twitter to delete unflattering content and jailed activists under draconian sedition laws that date back to colonial rule. BJP state governments have passed legislation to restrict freedom of conscience and curb marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women.

This year, Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free.” Sweden’s V-Dem Institute now classifies India as an electoral autocracy, two notches below liberal democracies like the U.S., Japan, and Australia. In the end, Vajpayee and Advani may go down in history for managing to reconcile an illiberal ideology with a liberal constitution authored by Western-educated Indians eager to emulate Britain and America. Modi’s BJP—more populist, chauvinist, and authoritarian in its instincts than before—could end up burying that achievement. Americans looking for a liberal democratic bulwark against China in Asia may need to look elsewhere.