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 with the support of a wide spectrum of opposition parties. More such legislation is likely to follow.

The transformation of India into a Hindu nation, however, was set in motion not by the BJP but by the other great force in Indian politics, the Congress party. That process began in 1969, with a nearly forgotten event in India’s political history: a major split in the Congress party that pushed the present-day Congress toward a Hindu majoritarian position and paved the way for the eventual success of BJP’s more extreme ideology five decades later.

WHEN CONGRESS GOT RELIGION

The successful dissemination of an ideology by a political party requires an organization that links the leadership to the grassroots. The Congress party once had such an organization, forged under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi during India’s nationalist movement, and inherited by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was this organization that articulated and popularized the original pluralist idea of India in 1947.

Nehru died in office in 1964, and, after two short-lived prime ministers, Indira Gandhi took power in 1966. She quickly found herself at odds with the party’s powerful regional bosses, known as the Syndicate, after she tried to wrest control over the party’s economic policy, political appointments, and choice of candidates to stand for elections. As a result of this conflict, Congress split into two blocs in 1969. The bloc led by Indira Gandhi evolved into the present-day Congress party, while the one controlled by the Syndicate disintegrated over time.

The split destroyed the organization that had linked the party leadership to the grassroots. It left Gandhi with two plausible routes to political survival: she could find a galvanizing popular issue in order to forge such links temporarily, or she could avoid elections altogether. She tried both. In the parliamentary election of 1971, the first after the split, she won by campaigning on a populist antipoverty platform. Then, in 1975, she postponed elections by declaring a national emergency. After the emergency ended, in 1977, voters punished her party with a resounding defeat in the next parliamentary poll. So, ahead of the next elections, Gandhi returned to the tactic of finding a galvanizing issue.

Fatefully, she found one in the politics of religion. At first, she tried to play all sides of the country’s religious divide. In the early 1980s, for example, she extended covert support to the militant Sikh preacher J. S. Bhindranwale, who called for an independent Sikh nation and who had been implicated in violence against Hindus in Punjab. By supporting Bhindranwale, Gandhi sought to weaken her main opposition in the populous state of Punjab, the Sikh-led Akali Dal party, as well as prop up her own power base at the expense of other regional leaders within the Punjab Congress. In 1984, she reversed herself and sent the Indian army into the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, to root out Bhindranwale and his militant supporters, who had set up base there. Gandhi hoped that the siege, codenamed Operation Blue Star, would send Hindus a strong signal ahead of a parliamentary election that her government was capable of protecting them as well as safeguarding India’s territorial integrity. The army succeeded in ousting and killing Bhindrandwale, but the move antagonized many of India’s Sikhs who did not support Bhindranwale or his ideology but viewed the army’s entry into the Golden Temple as sacrilege.

Gandhi played for Hindu favor in Muslim-majority Kashmir, as well. In 1983, she aligned herself with the Hindu minority there during regional elections. But the Congress party lost, and a popular Muslim leader, Farooq Abdullah, was elected chief minister of Kashmir. A year later, Gandhi dismissed Abdullah and his elected government, to the fury of much of the state’s Muslim population.

In the end, such machinations would be Gandhi’s undoing. In October 1984, two of her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in retribution for Operation Blue Star. Hindu mobs retaliated by attacking thousands of Sikhs. Congress was complicit in the anti-Sikh violence: some of the party’s leaders even participated in it. When Gandhi’s son Rajiv took over as prime minister, he excused the violence by saying, “When a big tree falls, the ground will shake.”

Rajiv Gandhi followed in his mother’s footsteps by first trying to balance religious interests against one another and then moving decisively toward Hindu majoritarianism. In 1986, a Congress government allowed Hindus to worship at a disputed site in the north Indian town of Ayodhya that was home to a mosque. This gave a boost to Hindu revivalist organizations, which had launched a popular movement claiming that the mosque had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram and demanding that it be replaced by a temple. In 1988, Congress asked Arun Govil, an actor who played Ram in a wildly successful television show, to campaign for the party’s candidate in a by-election. Govil, dressed in saffron robes, asked voters to “take the name of Lord Ram and vote for the Congress.” In the 1989 general election, Gandhi launched Congress’ campaign from Ayodhya, promising to establish Ram rajya—literally, “the rule of Lord Ram”—if he won.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. In 1992, the national government led by the Congress party failed to protect the Ayodhya mosque from a Hindu mob that destroyed it—and with it, Congress’ secularist credentials. Since then, Congress has given up on making an ideological case for secularism. Instead, influential Congress leaders have argued that the party should be careful not to advocate too strongly for the rights of India’s religious minorities—in particular Muslims—lest it be perceived as anti-Hindu.

In the 2019 election campaign, in which Congress sought to regain power after five years of BJP rule, Congress dropped the word “secularism” from its manifesto altogether. The party’s then president, Rahul Gandhi (son of Rajiv and grandson of Indira), also pointedly avoided the term on the campaign trail. Instead, both Rahul and his sister and principal co-campaigner, Priyanka Gandhi, signaled their alignment with India’s Hindu majority by conspicuously visiting Hindu temples and avoiding mosques and other non-Hindu places of worship. Both were silent on the question of minority rights, including a spate of lynchings of Muslims under the BJP government.

LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS

Congress’s sustained move toward Hindu majoritarianism over several decades created fertile ground for the more extreme ideology of the BJP.

The BJP, which was formally founded in 1980, traces its lineage to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). The BJS was founded in 1951 as the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a cadre-based organization devoted to the cause of establishing a Hindu nation. For decades, the BJS was the main advocate of Hindu nationalism in the electoral arena. Worn down by a lack of success, the BJS substantially moderated its platform and, in 1977, merged with the ideologically diverse Janata Party.

In 1980, BJS members left the Janata Party to form the BJP. They initially conceived of the BJP not as a Hindu nationalist party but as a centrist one. They had given up on Hindu nationalism after years of failure, having come to believe that it would never attract a popular following in India. Indeed, in the 1984 elections, Congress was the most pro-Hindu of all the major parties, and the BJP, as the political scientist James Manor noted, was “in the curious position of being more tolerant of minorities than Congress was.”

Congress won a large majority in 1984. In response, the BJP rapidly and gladly returned to its roots, having witnessed the popular legitimacy that Congress had managed to create for Hindu majoritarian politics. The BJP’s 1989 manifesto restored the emphasis on Hindu nationalism that had been missing from its 1984 platform. It also included a statement in support of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, an issue on which it had been silent in 1984.

The BJP was soon able to outflank Congress as the champion of India’s Hindus thanks to the one thing that Congress did not have after 1969: a strong grassroots organization. It also benefits from the formidable organizational networks of the RSS and its affiliates. Indeed, several BJP officials are considered to be “on deputation” from the RSS. The BJP has never undergone a nationwide split despite major disagreements among its senior leaders. In recent years, the BJP has also substantially extended and strengthened the links between the leadership and the grassroots by expanding party membership, pioneering the use of social media, and appointing thousands of new local functionaries to help connect the party to its target voters.

All of this has meant that the BJP could formulate and disseminate the idea of India as a Hindu nation—and market Modi as its chief advocate—with an effectiveness that Congress has not demonstrated for decades. In traveling across India during this year’s election campaign, I found that the BJP’s ideological message, in contrast to that of the Congress, was clear and consistent from top to bottom: the regional leader, the election candidate, and the party worker at the polling booth level said exactly the same things that Modi did.

The BJP’s organization also helped it further its ideological agenda by forging alliances with other parties: strong support from the rank and file allowed it to make concessions even to its former opponents. Congress, in contrast, was not able to strike deals with even ideologically proximate parties for fear of opposition from its party workers.

MODI’S MOVES

During Modi’s first term in office, most of the steps the government took in the direction of Hindu nationalism took place outside the legislative arena. The BJP appointed a Hindu religious leader as chief minister of India’s largest state, changed history textbooks to identify Hindus as the country’s original inhabitants, renamed cities and roads after places and figures from Hindu mythology (replacing Muslim ones), tacitly sanctioned efforts to convert Muslims to Hinduism (which the party called “homecoming”), and supported and even incited vigilante violence against Muslims.

But it did not have the mandate to introduce new legislation. The two bills associated with a Hindu nationalist ideology that it tried to pass lapsed for want of support in Parliament. The first of these criminalized the system of instant divorce among Muslims. The BJP cast this bill as an effort to protect women’s rights. But it was also aimed at eroding the autonomy of Muslims in matters of civil law. For Hindu nationalists, who have long criticized the protections afforded to Muslims (the largest religious minority in India) as instances of special treatment, downgrading these protections is as important as upgrading the status of Hindus. The second introduced religion-based preferences in India’s citizenship policies for the first time by relaxing eligibility requirements for non-Muslim migrants from some of India’s neighboring countries.

Even today BJP does not have the numbers to pass such legislation on its own: it holds a majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament but falls short of a majority in the upper house, even after taking into account the seats won by its alliance members. Yet it has won support for its ideological agenda among parties outside its governing alliance. Some of these parties are jumping on the BJP’s bandwagon based on a calculation that the electorate is now more receptive to Hindu nationalism than before.

The first bill that the new government introduced in Parliament revived the criminalization of instant divorce among Muslims. Some of the BJP’s allies opposed the bill, but they did not vote against it, and the BJP was able to win the support of some parties outside its alliance. The bill passed in both houses and was enacted into law in July this year. Days later, the BJP enacted an amendment in India’s antiterrorist legislation that allows the government to designate individuals as terrorists regardless of their organizational affiliation with a relatively low burden of proof. This law not only supports the Hindu nationalist vision of a muscular security state but also empowers the government to pursue its ideological enemies.

The following month, the government issued a notification curtailing the autonomy constitutionally guaranteed to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. Ending this autonomy is one of the oldest and most controversial tenets of its Hindu nationalist agenda. It also succeeded in getting both houses of Parliament to approve a bill that stripped Kashmir of its status as a state within the Indian federal union altogether. Remarkably, a number of regional parties within and outside the BJP alliance, who could reasonably have been expected to oppose attempts to curtain regional autonomy, supported the move.

Congress has in the meantime been engulfed in a fresh organizational crisis. Rahul Gandhi resigned as the party’s president immediately after its poor performance in the elections. After months without leadership, the party appointed Sonia Gandhi as its interim president. The party seems confused about how to respond to the BJP’s moves. Although Congress party leaders in Parliament opposed the BJP-sponsored legislation, some members not in Parliament tweeted in support of it. The gap between leaders and the grassroots, meanwhile, has widened. As a result, just when the vision of a secular, pluralistic India is threatened as never before, the Congress party—the original incubator of that vision—is at its weakest. And, to some degree, it has itself to blame.