Why Religious Tolerance Won in Indonesia but Lost in India

It Turns Out Pluralistic Nationalism Isn’t Enough

Modi waves to his supporters in Varanasi, India in April 2019 Adnan Abidi / REUTERS

Asia’s two largest and most diverse democracies held national elections in recent weeks, and religious tolerance was on the ballot in both. Voters, however, delivered diametrically opposed verdicts. 

In Indonesia, the government of incumbent President Joko Widodo (widely known as Jokowi) won by broadcasting a message of pluralism. Jokowi preached an inclusive nationalism that transcended Islam, Indonesia’s dominant religion, and won reelection by a decisive margin. 

In India, victory also went to the incumbent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but on very different terms. Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won in large measure by invoking his party’s vision of an India of and for the Hindus.

Like all elections, of course, these were not simply referenda on a single issue. Jokowi and Modi owe their victories as much to their charisma, common touch, and pro-development reputations as to their stances on questions of

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