Anindito Mukherjee / Courtesy Reuters A Narendra Modi supporter dresses as the Hindu god Hanuman to celebrate Modi's swearing in, New Delhi, May 2014.

Modi's Civilizational Moment

India's Prime Minister and the Rise of Popular Hinduism

Narendra Modi’s prime ministership represents, for many Indians, a civilizational resurgence on a scale not seen since their country’s independence. Modi’s sweeping victory, in May 2014, reflected not just a desire for better governance but also a larger shift in the Indian worldview. For Modi’s supporters, and for Hindus in particular, Modi’s rise showcased India’s renewed sense of self as an ancient civilization on the threshold of a global rebirth.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister born after independence, and his appeal among India’s youth can be best understood in generational terms. India’s rising generation, people under the age of 25, sometimes called the children of liberalization, constitute half of its current population. Their parents came of age after independence, when India was struggling to define its identity in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan partition. Their grandparents constitute the last generation of Indians to have been colonial subjects.

For each successive generation, Hinduism has become a larger part of public identity. For India’s oldest living people, being Hindu was once a hidden affair. As colonial subjects, Hindus learned to accept—or at least to not publicly contest—the basic premise of the British civilizing mission, which saw Indian culture as vastly inferior to its European counterpart. For much of the colonial era, Hindus held their religion back from the public eye, submerging it in private rituals—a far cry from the social eminence it once had as a philosophical and cultural worldview guiding Indian life. In the early twentieth century, the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi brought Hinduism into public life, using his understanding of the religion to advocate for Hindu-Muslim unity and caste equality. But with the ascent of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a staunch secularist, religion took a back seat to the pressing demands of nation building. 

For the next several decades, Nehru-style secularism pervaded India’s intellectual life. Despite the vibrant practice of Hinduism in temples, daily life,

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