June 20, 2024

IntelBrief: Modi’s Third Term and the Evolution of Hindu Nationalism in India

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Despite securing a third consecutive term in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a significant challenge in governing as part of a coalition for the first time in Modi’s political career.
  • This result marks a major shift in India’s politics, showcasing democratic resilience and challenging Modi’s carefully cultivated image of unassailable dominance and omnipotence.
  • Despite a strategy of polarizing anti-Muslim rhetoric in campaigning, the BJP faced surprising losses in the Hindi belt in the recent election, including BJP strongholds such as Uttar Pradesh.
  • The Indian election results show that while Hindu nationalism remains powerful, the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) campaign for a homogenous Hindu nation has faced strong challenges from enduring regional and caste-based politics.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections represent a pivotal moment in Indian politics. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained power, securing approximately 240 seats, it fell short of the 272 required for a parliamentary majority. As a result, Modi must now govern in coalition with smaller, regional, and secular parties. This coalition arrangement signifies a departure from the BJP’s previous ten-year dominance as a single-party majority, posing potential constraints on Modi's ability to unilaterally advance the Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP. This shift necessitates political compromises with coalition partners whose ideologies differ from those of the BJP. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a regional coalition partner in Andhra Pradesh, located in India’s southern coastal region, has already rejected the BJP’s efforts to eliminate affirmative action for Muslims in the state.

Historically, coalition politics in India have tempered the policies of ruling parties, and this scenario could induce moderation in the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. The current situation is reminiscent of the Vajpayee administration of the 1990s, where the BJP, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee - often viewed as the moderate face of Hindutva - significantly advanced Hindu nationalism within the framework of a coalition government. The need for political accommodation may limit the BJP's ability to pursue its hardline Hindutva policies, leading to potential internal discord between the party's ideological purists and pragmatic political leaders. There are also concerns that the ruling party's shift towards centrism could open up space for Hindutva hardliners to gain prominence in the Hindu nationalist fold, potentially paving the way for more extreme figures, such as Yogi Adityanath, to ascend in the future.

The 2024 election campaign was regarded as the most overtly communally charged to date, focusing intensely on anti-Muslim rhetoric and with Modi labeling the 1.7 million Muslims in India as "invaders.” The previous two Modi governments have overseen a systematic and persistent campaign of violence against religious minorities, leveraging both formal institutions and informal mechanisms. Hindutva vigilante groups associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) provoke violence against minority communities, including the targeting of Muslims by ‘cow protectors’ and the bulldozing of Muslim homes across India. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 was passed to render many Muslims stateless, leading to widespread protests. The 2020 Delhi riots, described by some as a pogrom, are a significant result of this policy. Additionally, BJP leaders at the state level have openly endorsed the lynching of minorities, contributing to a growing culture of impunity and tolerance for militant nationalism.

As such, the BJP’s loss of 63 seats, particularly in critical BJP-stronghold states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, underscores the declining efficacy of communal polarization strategies. Uttar Pradesh, with approximately 241 million inhabitants, is India’s most densely populated state, and is viewed as the epicenter of Hindutva politics. In this most recent election, Uttar Pradesh saw the BJP lose over half of its seats, including the politically significant Faizabad constituency. Intense campaigning occurred around the controversial demolition of the centuries-old Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Faizabad. Modi strategically inaugurated the Ram temple in January 2024 on the disputed demolition site. This electoral outcome challenges the assumption that communal politics is an assured and enduring mechanism for consolidating Hindu votes. The decline in BJP’s support in the north suggests that the electorate is increasingly disillusioned with the party’s reliance on religious nationalism as a substitute for addressing pressing socioeconomic issues.

Caste politics were pivotal in shaping the BJP's poor electoral performance in the recent elections. The debate over potentially eliminating caste-based reservations has heightened tensions, especially among socially marginalized groups. The introduction of Nitish Kumar’s caste survey in Bihar, one of India’s poorest yet politically crucial states in the east, in late 2023, along with the opposition's use of caste grievances in the elections led by TDP, has undermined the BJP’s attempts to forge a cohesive Hindu vote bank and establish a majoritarian state. Caste politics serve as an important bulwark to the expansion of Hindutva. This is further underscored by the BJP's loss of the significant Jat vote, a crucial agricultural caste in northern India, due to ongoing farmer unrest. This highlights the challenges of maintaining a cohesive electoral base amid diverse socioeconomic concerns.

The ideological project of Hindu nationalism, championed by the RSS and its affiliates, remains a long-term endeavor aimed at establishing a Hindu rashtra - a nation where Hindu cultural and religious values dominate. Despite the BJP's recent electoral losses, this broader agenda continues to shape the party's ideological framework. The RSS views the creation of a Hindu nation as a gradual process, unaffected by short-term electoral fluctuations. Despite Prime Minister Modi's campaign and political career being heavily centered on his cult of personality, the Hindutva project transcends his individual influence. If his popularity continues to decline, it is likely that the RSS will replace him to sustain their broader agenda.

The unexpected election results in India carry significant geopolitical and regional security implications that underscore the resilience of India's democratic system, and indicate a potential shift away from the BJP's majoritarian agenda. As a result, India's foreign policy, which has been assertive under Modi, may become more measured as the coalition government navigates internal and external pressures. This moderation could affect India's role as a strategic intermediary between Western nations and the Global South, particularly in trade and diplomatic relations. Furthermore, the coalition's need for consensus may lead to a more balanced approach to domestic and border security issues, reducing unilateral actions that could escalate regional tensions.