Modi, Hindu nationalism, and the 2019 Indian general election

After more than a month of voting, on May 23, India will declare the results of its general election. Current prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be hoping they've done enough to secure India's Hindu majority, writes Rick Weiss. 

Since April 11, Indians have been voting in the national general election. It is estimated that nearly 600 million Indians will vote, making this the largest democratic election in history. As is the case elsewhere in the world, Indians cast their vote for specific parties for varied reasons. Perhaps the most important criteria include levels of employment, wealth and its distribution, perceptions about the economy, issues of corruption, the charisma of leadership, and how parties address issues of identity, caste, and religion.

The politics of religion is a crucial consideration for many voters in this election. The ruling BJP party and its leader Narendra Modi support a Hindu nationalist platform. In a country with about 200 million Muslims, nearly 30 million Christians, and large numbers of Sikhs and Jains, the equation of India with Hinduism has devastating implications for minority communities.

Modi and the BJP have advanced their Hindu agenda in several ways. Some of these are subtle, and some have global reach. At the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2014, Modi spoke with passion and conviction about the global benefits of an International Day of Yoga, speaking to its health benefits, both physical and spiritual. He called yoga “an invaluable gift of India's ancient tradition," effectively equating a Hindu practice with Indian tradition. The motion won unanimous support and the Assembly declared June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. This marked a major victory in Modi’s “soft power” offensive, effectively promoting a Hindu practice as epitomising the essence of Indian culture. 

Modi yoga

Prime Minister Modi takes part in a mass yoga event for International Yoga Day.

Closer to home, however, the implications of the equation of Hinduism with Indian tradition did not go unnoticed. School children and government officials around the country were expected to participate in celebrations on June 21. In response, Muslims and Christians objected to the compulsory imposition of yogic practice, and they protested against efforts to define Indian identity through Hindu symbols and practices.

Since coming to power, the BJP has also pushed for legal shifts that would support and protect Hinduism. One of the most controversial has been their promotion of laws that ban the production, trade, and consumption of beef. Muslims, Christians, and Dalit castes regularly butcher and consume beef, in part because it is less expensive than other meats. The BJP emphasised their support of cow protection laws in the lead-up to their electoral victory in 2014, and since then, several states have strengthened and enforced them. These laws complicate the secular constitutional legacy of India. For many Hindus, these laws provide legitimacy and legal cover for vigilante violence against people who are suspected of trading in beef. Since 2015, at least 44 people, mostly Muslim, have been killed by Hindu mobs.

The BJP advances a particular version of Hinduism, one that sees Gandhian non-violence as a threat to India’s strength and autonomy. After all, Gandhi was assassinated by a disciple of V.D. Savarkar, perhaps the most important ideologue of Hindu nationalism. To counter Hindu traditions of non-violence, Hindu nationalists promote Hindu texts and traditions that emphasise strength, aggression, and the legitimacy of violence. It is in this light that we can understand why, when the BJP came to power in 1998, one of their first acts was to initiate nuclear tests that effectively made India a nuclear power. This rhetoric of strength also was on display when Modi claimed to have the chest size of a body-builder.

Not all people who support Modi and the BJP are Hindu chauvinists. Indeed, the BJP will get votes from minority communities, who will support them for a range of reasons. Moreover, the choice between the BJP and the Congress Party is no longer one between Hindu nationalism and secularism, as the Congress Party has increasingly embodied a soft Hindu identity, promoting the support of Hindu gurus, publicising temple visits, and displaying Hindu symbols in their public appearances. They have stopped short, though, of equating Hinduism with Indian identity. Their calculation, clearly, is that soft Hindu identity will not turn their Muslim supporters against them, and after all, where can Muslim, or Christian, voters turn?

If the BJP wins the election, it will confirm what Modi and other leaders have hoped and calculated — that their equation of Indian identity and Hinduism appears natural enough, and innocent enough, to moderate Hindus, and that their more hard-line policies that discriminate against religious minorities will win the loyalty of Hindu chauvinists. This, combined with general perception that Modi himself is above corruption, is a powerful formula for electoral success in Indian politics today.

Main image: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) via Facebook

Rick Weiss is an Associate Professor at Victoria University of Wellington's School of Social and Cultural Studies. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. 

- Asia Media Centre