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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 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

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