Earlier this month, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the assembly elections in the southern state of Karnataka by a significant margin. The party, which espouses a philosophy of Hindu nationalism, was defeated by the center-left Indian National Congress, which ostensibly advocates civic nationalism and secularism. What does this mean for Indian politics and could it spell the beginning of a rollback of Hindu nationalism in Indian politics? The answer is likely no.
There are some structural factors at work that favor the BJP at the national level as India nears its 2024 general election. Dissatisfaction with BJP state governments does not necessarily translate into dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership: he is the world’s most popular democratically elected leader, with an approval rating of 78 percent. The BJP furthermore remains popular throughout much of northern and western India, as well as in the northeastern states. But to understand Hindu nationalism’s future in India, it is necessary to go deeper than the BJP or the current cycle of elections.
To understand the future of Hindu nationalism in India, it is important to understand its nature. According to political scientist Kanchan Chandra, Hindu nationalism is a spectrum spanning four schools of thought. The most extreme – and least likely to pass – is the idea that India should become a Hindu theocracy: a state run by religious leaders, like Iran. This, however, may be what many in the West first think when they hear the phrase “Hindu nationalism.” A very small minority of Indians hold this position, and it has “almost no place in the political mainstream.” Indeed, the fact that modern India is a democracy has changed the very nature of Hinduism. A democratic ethos has spurred political and religious leaders to reinterpret the role of caste and gender in ways that differ from orthodox Hinduism, essentially creating a modernist Hinduism.
The next two categories on Chandra’s spectrum – in increasing order of moderation – hold either that “India is a Hindu nation that is the exclusive domain of the Hindu people. Non-Hindus would be forced to assimilate in ways that honored Hindu cultural customs to the detriment and, eventually, the dissolution of their own traditions,” or an approach that would “give Hindus legal superiority, effectively making non-Hindus second-class citizens. While non-Hindus would still have access to all of the guarantees provided under the Indian Constitution, they would have to accept the state’s endorsement of preferential treatment for Hindus.” These two approaches together constitute the political movement known as Hindutva, and what the Hindutva discourse and its activists advocate: not necessarily a religious state, but a majoritarian one. The latter of the two above schools of thought resembles Zionism and the way that Israel conceives of itself primarily as a Jewish state for the Jewish people.
On the most moderate end of the spectrum are “those who believe that Hinduism, by virtue of being the largest and oldest of India’s religious groups, should essentially occupy the role of first among equals. According to this viewpoint, Hinduism in India is akin to Christianity in the United States: it should not necessarily receive official recognition, but it should instead be accorded cultural superiority.”
The most extreme approach – of turning India into a theocracy – is impossible, because nobody has the stomach or desire for it, not even most Hindu nationalists. A traditionalist Hindu theocracy would be incompatible with a modern economy and society, and as many have argued, Hindutva is actually Hindu modernity, a project to remake India as an ethnocentric nation-state similar to that of the Meiji Restoration’s modernization of feudal Japan as a modern nationalist state. In a bid to forge unity among Hindus, Hindutva has stridently opposed divisions of caste, sect, and traditional ritual and purity boundaries. This is another misunderstanding many have of Hindu nationalism: the belief that it is an upper caste project opposed by lower castes whereas many individuals from such castes see Hindutva as a vehicle for uplift and respect within the Hindu umbrella.
The second-most extreme approach – the forced assimilation of non-Hindus into a Hindu mainstream – is also unlikely because Hinduism itself is so diverse and multifaceted that there is no one Hinduism to assimilate into. Moreover, the BJP has, to varying degrees of success, tried to reach out to other communities, such as Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, Christians in the Northeast, and even Shia and Pasmanda (lower caste) Muslims. India’s social structure and democratic system clearly do not lend themselves to an extremely hardline approach, and the BJP’s leadership often has different priorities than their more ideological bedfellows who do not have to win elections.
It is likelier that India will see-saw between the last two approaches. The Hindu nature of India will become more pronounced as modernity inevitably dissolves caste and caste politics. Individuals in a modern state get educated, travel, meet, and eat with people of all backgrounds, and work in a variety of professions. A recent poll registered a drop in the percentage of couples saying their marriages were arranged – almost always within the same caste – from 68 percent in 2020 to 44 percent in 2023. All this lends itself to people identifying less with castes and regions and more with umbrella groups such as “Hindus” or “Indians.” In this sense, Hindu nationalism will not disappear, because the majority of Indians are Hindu, but Indian society and mores are becoming more liberal, so the Hindu identity will be more cultural than religious.
Right-wing parties and groups would likely favor an approach in which the state leans toward preferential treatment for Hindus while guaranteeing the constitutional rights of other groups. For example, a recent draft constitution of a proposed Hindu nation by 30 eminent Hindu seers would guarantee Muslims and Christians all the same rights as other groups, except the right to vote, although it would be difficult to see this becoming an actual mainstream position. More likely, the right would seek to achieve this by playing up of Hindu history and heritage in the education, cultural, and media realms.
Most other parties and groups, on the left and center, whatever they may say about secularism, caste, and other issues, would channel a position that amounts to giving Hinduism – as a cultural identity – the place of first among equals in India. Most countries in the world, in fact, tend to give their dominant cultures such a role, including many democracies, such as France, and Japan, which promote elements of their culture, language, and cuisine through laws, subsidies, and social norms. Very few states are purely neutral arbitrators of the culture of their citizens, for otherwise, countries might as well be formed through drawing arbitrary lines on a map.
This most moderate position is already a fait accompli because the symbolism and phraseology of much of the Indian state and its political life already draw from the Hindu tradition. For example, India’s national motto “Satyameva Jayate” is taken from the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads. The Supreme Court’s motto “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah” likewise presupposes the belief in dharma and draws from the Mahabharata and Manusmriti, works associated with Hinduism. The flag of India contains a chakra, or wheel, a symbol of sovereignty in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Indian independence leader Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi borrowed heavily from Hindu philosophy in his political messaging, and often spoke of his wish for a Ram Rajya, the kingdom of Rama, using language often associated today with Hindutva. (Gandhi’s utopian version differs from the Hindutva version, but the conception of both is still rooted in the Hindu Ramayana). Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has recently recast himself as a tapasvi, an ascetic from the Hindu tradition, and framed his recent political march as a yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage.
Even a secular, moderate politics in India will therefore be infused with Hindu elements by way of osmosis from the culture of the population, which is saturated in religious symbolism. Therefore, India will always contain an element of Hindu nationalism. The question is not whether Hindu nationalism will be part of India’s political landscape or not, but whether and to what extent non-Hindus will be able to play a role. The question is whether India will become an ethnoreligious nation-state like Israel or remain a formally neutral state in regards to culture and religion, while also being deeply permeated by the majority group’s customs as is the case in France, Japan, and many other countries.