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 piety and religious discrimination. No less consequential was that India’s main opposition, the Congress party, traditionally a voice for religious inclusion, chose as its candidate the charisma-free scion of a powerful political dynasty, whereas Jokowi’s party in Indonesia wisely desisted from running its own deeply unpopular dynastic leader into near-certain defeat. Banal as it may sound, tolerance wins only when its champions can manage to put forward strong candidates. The implication is that victories for religious tolerance, such as in Indonesia, tend to be fragile, contested, and therefore potentially short-lived. 

Still, a weightier factor can tip the scales: historical conceptions of nations, going back decades or centuries, help decide whether a message of tolerance will resonate or fall on deaf ears. From the moment of their nearly simultaneous founding as independent nation-states in the late 1940s, Indonesia and India both inherited pluralistic nationalisms from the leaders and movements that fought for independence. Crucially, neither country’s constitution favored the demographically dominant religion—Hinduism in India, Islam in Indonesia—over other faiths. 

On the whole, such a pluralistic understanding of the nation has been a critical democratic resource in both countries. It helps explain the resilience of Indian democracy since the late 1940s and the surprising democratic opening that followed military rule in Indonesia in the late 1990s. Inclusive nationalism is of enduring value for tolerant democrats, both in times of democratic transition and when confronted in elections by those with more exclusionary and discriminatory visions of the nation. And while formal inclusivity does not prevent politicians from appealing to the dominant religious community, Indian secularism and the Indonesian national philosophy of Pancasila, which mandates belief in a single but not necessarily Muslim god, regularly help legitimate the countries’ leading pluralist political parties and their inclusive messages. 

India and Indonesia both have the foundations in place for pluralism to defeat intolerance, but it is up to pluralist parties and politicians to make the most of them.

But if what unites the two countries is their inclusive brand of nationalism, why did tolerance just win in Indonesia but lose in India? Putting aside the campaign-related and candidate-specific factors, one might think that pluralist voices would have an easier time flourishing in formally secular India than in Indonesia, whose founding national creed makes nonbelief literally illegal. Because Indonesia has more closely identified its national identity with religion and always provided pious Muslims a central position in the national community, it might seem that the country is more vulnerable than India to religious intolerance infecting its electoral politics.

In practice, however, the religious quality of Indonesian nationalism can act as much as a vaccine for intolerance as a virus that spreads it. Because Indonesia’s national identity accommodates but does not prioritize Islam, politics is not fundamentally divided between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. Instead, nationalist Muslims allied with non-Muslims on the one side compete with more intolerant Muslims on the other side. Consequently, one can easily be both a pious Muslim and a pluralist nationalist in Indonesia. 

The 2019 elections conformed to this pattern. Indonesian nationalism’s historical embrace of religion made it easier for Jokowi’s pluralist party to form an alliance with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) the country’s largest Muslim organization. To be sure, Jokowi picked an especially conservative leader of the NU as his running mate, raising hackles among Jokowi’s more liberal supporters. But his vice-presidential pick helped him secure an overwhelming landslide in the heavily populous regions of Central and East Java, where NU has its deepest roots. Remarkably, Jokowi won the national vote by around 17 million votes, but took those two vital provinces by close to 20 million votes. The alliance of Jokowi’s party and NU, and their shared commitment to a nationalism that is at once Islamic and pluralist, carried the day for Jokowi more than anything else.

Not so in India. Hindu nationalism has long had an influential voice in Indian politics, but the country’s post-independence constitution emphasizes equal rights for all minority groups. Reinforced under the towering leadership of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, this constitutional structure led to the creation of separate legal codes for religions and a politics of caste recognition that defined Indian politics for decades. 

Over time, however, the bright line between the religion of the majority and the character of the state has led the forces of religious nationalism to consolidate on one side of the political divide—within the socially conservative BJP. The shift was gradual. Political scientists Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma found that fifteen years ago, virulent Hindu nationalists, who favored a statist embrace of jingoist nationalism and majoritarian policies at the expense of minorities, particularly Muslims, voted for the BJP by large margins whereas those who simply favored protecting Hindu culture voted equally for the BJP and the Congress party. But the BJP managed to popularize the idea that the Indian state should actively prioritize Hindu culture and that secularism was effectively a policy of minority appeasement. By 2014, pious Hindus had defected in large numbers to the BJP. Unlike in Indonesia, strongly identifying with Hinduism and embracing pluralist nationalism in today’s India is difficult. Modi’s ability to win the support of both aspirational young voters attracted to his dynamism and pious Hindu voters who support cultural majoritarianism delivered him the election.

India and Indonesia both have the foundations in place for pluralism to defeat intolerance. But it is up to pluralist parties and politicians to make the most of them. Despite Indonesia’s inclusive national heritage, an intolerant and authoritarian brand of political Islam is growing more popular. There is no guarantee that the country’s pluralist inheritance will not be upended in the near future. In India, Hindu nationalism may have won the day this time, but pluralism can prevail if opposition parties cast aside dynasts and promote more appealing politicians capable of exploiting ideological contradictions within the incumbent party’s support base.

The next time elections roll around in India and Indonesia, we could very well be telling the opposite story. What is certain is that the fight to defend pluralism against its challengers in Asia’s largest and most diverse democracies will continue.

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  • DAN SLATER is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED) at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia.
  • MAYA TUDOR is Associate Professor of Government and Public Policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. She is the author of The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan.
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