India's Missing Right

What the BJP's Victory Says about Indian Politics

A boy wearing a mask of Narendra Modi, April 28, 2014. (Amit Dave / Courtesy Reuters)

For the first time in independent India’s history, a general election has brought a conservative party with a clear-cut parliamentary majority to office. Although scores of analysts have weighed in about what that party -- the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- will do next, three other questions have gone unanswered. First, why has India never had a sizeable conservative party of any consequence? Second, why has it taken the country over six decades to elect a conservative regime? Third, what are the prospects for conservatism in India in the future?

To answer the first two questions, one must look back to the structures of the pre-independence Indian nationalist movement and its principal party, the Indian National Congress. Thanks to the INC’s dominance, there was little room for outside conservative groups to play a role in the nascent nationalist movement. That remained true even after independence. Things got worse for the conservatives in 1948, when Nathuram Godse, a member of one of the new India’s small conservative parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. He believed that Gandhi had contributed to the partition of India, which was anathema to Hindu nationalists. Thereafter, Hindu Mahasabha was discredited in the political arena; many of its key members were arrested and incarcerated, and the party withdrew from politics. Its militant arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was also banned for a year. Faced with such external opprobrium and internal differences, the party could not emerge as a feasible conservative force.

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