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The Roots of Hindu Nationalism’s Triumph in India

What the BJP Learned From the Congress Party

A supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party flag during a rally in New Delhi, India, in May 2019  REUTERS / Adnan Abidi

When Indians voted in parliamentary elections earlier this year, they did more than just elect a government. They also participated in the birth of India as a Hindu nation with a state to match.

India was established in 1947 as a pluralist nation, home to people of many religions, sects, and ethnicities. The country’s constitution provides no special claim over the state or its territory to any one of them—including the Hindus, who make up roughly 80 percent of the population. Moreover, Hindus themselves are hardly a monolith: they differ in the languages they speak, the beliefs they hold, the deities they worship, and the rituals and customs that shape their lives. As a result, Hindus have historically not thought of themselves as a single community or nation.

But to judge from the results of the election, the pluralist idea of India is receding into the past. At the polls, 44 percent of Hindus—a larger proportion than ever before—voted for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation. According to public opinion surveys conducted between 2016 and 2018 by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University, a majority of Hindus, including those who vote for other parties, now profess support for some of the BJP’s most important Hindu nationalist positions. This was also the first Indian election in which no major political party challenged the BJP’s position that India’s Hindu majority constitutes a single community that can rightfully claim ownership of the nation. Today, the basic struggle in Indian politics is not over whether Hindus and Hinduism should enjoy privileged status but over the precise legal and constitutional forms that privilege will take.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lost no time in trying to enshrine that status in law. Bills designed to further the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda—changes that once would have produced fierce debate—have already been enacted

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