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date: 23 April 2024

The Inclusion-Moderation Thesis: India’s BJPfree

The Inclusion-Moderation Thesis: India’s BJPfree

  • Lars Tore FlåtenLars Tore FlåtenDepartment of Asian Security Studies, Institutt for Forsvarsstudier


In 1925, the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded. The main aim of the RSS was to make India into a nation state defined according to Hindu cultural and religious values, which in the RSS version reflected a distinct high-caste outlook. Internal enemies, namely Muslims, Christians, and Marxists, had no place in such a state. This ideology goes under the name Hindutva, which can be translated as Hinduness. Due to the large-scale and religiously based violence experienced in the final stages of its freedom struggle, independent India adopted democracy and secularism as its foundational values. Hindu nationalist parties were present, but never influential in the first decades after independence. This circumstance was about to change in the 1980s, as the newly founded Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with strong links to the RSS, decided to mobilize on the Ayodhya issue. According to the BJP, the Ayodhya temple had been demolished by the Muslim ruler, Babur, and replaced with a mosque. The time had come to rebuild the temple.

This campaign catapulted the BJP onto the political scene in India. The strategy, however, was not without its flaws, and the weaknesses connected to the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign summed up the party’s main challenges. It has been difficult for the BJP to promote the existence of a nationwide Hindu identity in heterogeneous India, characterized by religious pluralism, different regional political cultures, and caste divisions. Particularly caste has proved difficult for the BJP, since the party is associated with high-caste values. Moreover, the way in which the BJP has utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric and campaigns has alienated potential alliance partners. The BJP has managed to overcome most of these challenges and was elected to power at the national level in 1998 and then again in 2014. In addition, the party governs many different states. During several national election campaigns, the BJP has actually chosen to background the most contentious issues in order to attract alliance partners. Instead, the party has conveyed its message of Hindu cultural unity in more subtle ways, most prominently through educational reforms. The BJP has also managed to adapt to regional variations and conveys its ideology in different ways throughout India. The landslide victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the 2014 elections represents a new phase in the history of the party. With a majority of its own, one could expect that the BJP would implement its Hindu nationalist agenda. For the most part, Modi has kept some degree of distance from Hindutva. However, through a division of labor, it appears that Modi has left the Hindutva agenda to the states governed by the BJP as well to the well-organized and influential Hindu nationalist movement.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies

Hindu Nationalism in Heterogeneous and Democratic India

Scholarly attention toward the relationship between religion and politics in India has, for the most part, been concerned with the growing influence of Hindu nationalism from the 1980s to the 2010s. Spearheading this development is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently dominates the national government in India. The party was founded in 1980, but did not experience much electoral success until the end of the 1980s, which then heralded a decade of continuing growth, culminating with the BJP capturing power in 1998. In ideological terms, the BJP promotes a particular mixture of cultural and religious nationalism, known as Hindutva. The term Hindutva is often translated as Hinduness and was coined by the Hindu nationalist ideologue Veer Savarkar in his 1923 publication Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (Savarkar, 1923/2005). As the title indicates, Savarkar aimed to define the characteristic features of Hindu India. The perhaps most important of these characteristics was that a Hindu was one who viewed India as both his fatherland and his holy land (Savarkar, 1923/2005). Such a definition excludes religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam from Hindu India, and since its foundation, Hindu nationalist ideology has been concerned with conceptions of the alien “other,” a role often ascribed to Muslims. Moreover, it has been concerned with the depiction of Hindu cultural and religious unity, often based on a distinct Brahmanical, or priestly outlook (Jaffrelot, 1999). The movement seeks to include lower castes into the movement through a process of adopting and imitating Brahminical values, often referred to as “Sanskritization” (Srinivas, 1966/1995). The observant reader has probably already spotted an apparent paradox here. How can a party which is associated with a rather narrow, high-caste ideology experience success in promoting a unified Hindu identity? A majority of India’s Hindus do not belong to the higher castes. Moreover, Indian society is characterized by immense diversity: socially, culturally, and religiously, which poses an obvious challenge to the BJP’s project.

This article sheds light on this paradox and seeks to illuminate how the BJP balances promoting its Hindutva ideology, on the one hand, and its attempts to appear as a relevant, national party in heterogeneous India, on the other. This paradox has received considerable attention among scholars on Hindu nationalism and is referred to throughout this article. According to Christophe Jaffrelot (2005), perhaps the main authority on Hindu nationalism, the BJP tends to oscillate between ideological contestation in certain periods and at other times, it adopts strategies that are more attentive to pragmatism and alliance building. Focusing on the same delicate balance, Amrita Basu (1996/2006) argues that the BJP cannot be understood solely as a political party; it is also a movement—or at least, part of a movement. By that she means that the BJP cannot be viewed in isolation from the so-called Sangh Parivar—the family of Hindu nationalist organizations. There is thus a need to situate the BJP within these two contexts.

The expansion of the BJP has taken place in the same period as India has experienced a democratic revolution. Since the 1980s, the once dominant Indian National Congress (hereafter referred to as the Congress Party) has declined steadily, and other parties have entered the political scene. In the same period, India’s democracy has been characterized by a process of regionalization, meaning that the different Indian states have developed their own distinct political cultures (Yadav, 1997/1998). Thus, since the 1980s there have been several political parties with a strong voter base in one state alone. Many of these new parties can be said to represent particularistic interests, often connected to specific regions or to caste segments. This “democratic upsurge,” as it has been called, has contributed to integrating marginalized groups into the political system (Yadav, 1997/1998). The BJP can also be construed as a party representing a particularistic identity insofar as it claims to speak on behalf of Hindus. However, its particularism is of a different kind in that it operates on the national level and seeks to transcend both caste differences and regional variations. The democratic upsurge, as well as the regionalization of Indian politics, is also associated with the era of alliance politics. In 2017, there were 38 parties represented in the Indian parliament, and since the late 1990s to 2019, Indian governments have without exception been coalitions.1 This development, of course, has made political pragmatism an important virtue.

The BJP also has to be understood within the context of the wider Hindu nationalist movement. Within the Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is by far the most important organization. Founded in 1925, the RSS was inspired by ideas of national purity and discipline found in contemporary European fascist movements (Andersen & Damle, 1987; Jaffrelot, 1999). The key aim of the RSS has always been to promote the Hindu nature of India through military training in its youth groups and through a wide range of cultural and religious activities (Andersen & Damle, 1987; Jaffrelot, 2007). In 2019, almost a century after its foundation, the RSS is still the backbone of the Hindu nationalist movement. It runs its own educational chain and welfare centers and has a strong presence throughout India (Andersen & Damle, 1987; Jaffrelot, 2007; Sarkar, 1994). Most BJP members have a background from the RSS, including the current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, and previous leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. More importantly in the context of this article, the RSS is central to the operations of the BJP and influences political strategies and the appointment of party leaders (Jaffrelot, 2007). Moreover, during elections, it is vital for the BJP to secure the enthusiastic support from RSS members in order to achieve electoral success. This support, however, depends on the degree to which the BJP is true to the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Thus, the influence of the RSS often contradicts the logic of pragmatist alliance politics already noted.

The distinction between ideology and pragmatism also relates to a larger body of literature, namely the one concerned with how the inclusion of radical parties in democratic processes tend to have a moderating effect on these parties. It is common to distinguish between behavioral and ideological moderation, where the former denotes practices that are less confrontational, whereas the latter tends to include how such parties espouse radical ideas and aspirations (Brocker & Künkler, 2013; Tezcür, 2010). In recent years, this theory has been revised, particularly as applied to non-Western contexts. One interesting line of critique pertains to how moderation is not to be understood as a unitary concept. In some cases, it may be true, or permanent, while in others, moderation is purely strategic and temporary (Brocker & Künkler, 2013). Moreover, moderating impulses within particular parties may not be shared by all factions of the party, and it may thus be relevant to differentiate between party elites and lower echelons of the party as well as between different regional outfits of individual parties (Brocker & Künkler, 2013). Attention has also been devoted to external factors influencing the process of moderation. These may include the political and institutional structures in the countries under study, the electoral strategies of opposing parties, the preferences of the electorate itself, and the relevance of political alliances (Brocker & Künkler, 2013; Jaffrelot, 2013). This article pays attention to these contextual factors and it also addresses what moderation really entails. However, the article follows Christophe Jaffrelot’s (2013) insistence that the development of the BJP is to be understood in terms of an oscillation between pragmatism and ideological contestation rather than linear moderation. Moreover, the article will also show that the concept of ideological moderation needs to be nuanced. Some of the changes undergone by the BJP in recent years may appear as moderation, but this article rather argues that ideological alteration or ideological innovation are more appropriate terms.

Conceptualizing Hindu Nationalism

Many labels have been used in order to conceptualize Hindu nationalism. Two of the terms most commonly used are religious nationalism (Copley, 2003; Veer, 1994) or a close variant, political Hinduism (Lal, 2009). Hindu fundamentalism has also been used by some scholars (Appadurai, 1990; Sarkar, 2002). The employment of such categories naturally reflects how scholars approach the political relevance of religion in India. Emphasizing the religious nature of Hindu nationalism naturally follows from studies that focus on the agency of religious leaders, institutions, and organizations (Copley, 2003; Lal, 2009; Veer, 1994) or local-level mobilization (Berti, Jaoul, & Kanungo, 2011; Zavos, Wyatt, & Hewitt, 2004). There are also good reasons for denoting the ideology of the BJP in terms of religious nationalism. The BJP’s efforts to define and promote Hindu identity have often taken the form of emphasizing certain common religious values and traditions and the party regularly employs religious symbols in its campaigns. Moreover, the BJP has often defined Hindu identity in opposition to other religious communities—namely Muslims and Christians. The very meaning of categories such as “religion” and “Hinduism” harks back to the colonial period and the intellectual stimulus stemming from the advent of European rationalism and Christian thought on the subcontinent. This encounter created an impetus among Hindu Brahmins—the priestly class—to purify those aspects of Hindu religious traditions that were deemed superstitious and barbarous (Bayly, 1998; Dalmia, 1997; King 1999). Other movements concentrated more on standardizing Hindu religious traditions, partly as a response to European interest in Hindu religious traditions (Bayly, 1998; Dalmia, 1997; King, 1999). It was in this context that the religion known as Hinduism was born, codifying a Brahmanical, high-caste version of Hindu religion (Dalmia & von Stietencron, 1995; Frykenberg, 1993). Two of the most influential scholars on Hindu nationalism, Romila Thaphar and Christophe Jaffrelot, have both put forth arguments pertaining to this topic. Thapar (1985/2001) has coined the term syndicated Hinduism—which refers to how Hindu religious traditions became more unified, coherent, and, one may add, singular. Syndicated Hinduism was thus distinguished from the multiple Hindu religious traditions that have existed throughout the centuries. In a similar vein, Jaffrelot (1999) argues that at the core of Hindu nationalist ideology is a process of stigmatizing and emulating threatening others. Emulating here refers to how Hindu nationalists tried to organize Hindu religious traditions in terms of a monotheistic religion—on par with Islam and Christianity—at the same time as Hindu nationalism is constructed through its contrast to these religions (Jaffrelot, 1999). Hence, both the constitution of Hinduism as well as the foundation of Hindu nationalist ideology can be viewed in terms of homogenizing Hindu religious traditions. To a certain extent, this would also explain the widespread use of the term Hindu fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism denotes religious movements that invoke conceptions of literal and irreducible truths that function as authoritative guidelines (Nagata, 2001). To some extent, this concept helps illuminate a key feature of the Hindu nationalist project as it strives for homogenization, unification, and, to some extent, standardization of Hindu religious traditions.

For the purpose of this article, however, which focuses more on the role of the BJP and how it balances between party politics and ideological contestation, the term Hindu nationalism is regarded as the most useful one, as it captures the main aim of the project: that India as a nation state ought to reflect its alleged Hindu nature. The term Hindu fundamentalism fails to capture how the BJP’s promotion of Hindu homogeneity has been constantly redefined and renegotiated in the face of Hindu religious diversity. Following the arguments put forth by Partha Chatterjee, the concept of Hinduness cannot exclusively be reduced to religious criteria (Chatterjee, 1992). Moreover, it also reflects one of the key slogans of the party: “one people, one nation, one culture” (Datta, 1999). In the following, Hindu nationalism thus refers to an ideology that seeks to make India more Hindu (Ludden, 1996/2006) and that promotes a unified Hindu identity defined according to both specific religious elements as well a more vague sense of civilizational unity.

The article discusses three periods, or tendencies, in the recent history of the BJP. Each period sheds light on the shifting strategies of the BJP when it comes to how it balances advocating Hindu nationalism and political pragmatism. The first of these periods—from 1989 to 1996—revolves around the Ayodhya controversy, which in many ways catapulted the BJP onto the political scene in India. The second period—from 1996 to 2014—is concerned with the choices the BJP had to make in order to emerge as a national and responsible political party. The discussion here is almost exclusively concerned with the period from 1996 to 2004. After its electoral defeat in 2004, the BJP experienced a decade of internal conflicts and standstill. This came to an end with the tremendous success of the BJP under Narendra Modi at the electoral polls in 2014, which also initiates the third period of this article. Although it is difficult to make assessments of the contemporary BJP regime, it appears that the theory of oscillation between ideology and pragmatism has lost much of its explanatory power, or at least has become much more complex.

Ideological Contestation: 1989–1996

The wounds of partition and the experiences with communalist violence during the freedom struggle could have suggested that Hindu nationalism would occupy center stage in the political life of independent India. However, this did not happen. One of the reasons was that the Congress Party managed to translate its movement into a broad and consensus-based political party that dominated Indian politics for decades. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) was founded in 1950 with a clear Hindu nationalist agenda. Apart from certain areas in western and northern India, however, the party did not experience much electoral success. By many Indians it was perceived as a north-Indian party, representing the interests of the higher castes (Jaffrelot, 1999). It is important to bear in mind, however, that although the BJS was not particularly influential in the decades following independence, the backbone of the Hindu nationalist movement, the RSS, continued to expand throughout India (Andersen & Damle, 1987; Jaffrelot, 1999). Jaffrelot (2013) has outlined the development of the BJS within an inclusion—moderation framework, and his key finding is that there was no gradual moderation on the part of the BJS. In fact, when the BJS entered the alliance known as the Janata Party, which assumed power in 1977, its party members still remained loyal to the RSS. When asked to choose between the Janata Party or the RSS, the BJS members opted for the latter. Thus, being part of a governing coalition did not have a sufficient moderating effect, and the Janata alliance disintegrated in 1979. Moreover, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was founded the year after, in 1980, the party adopted “Gandhian socialism” and “positive secularism” as its two main ideological pillars (Jaffrelot, 2013). In many ways, the first decade of its existence also marked the most moderate phase in the history of the BJP. This moderation did not pay off in terms of votes, and in the elections in 1984, the BJP managed to secure only two seats in the Lok Sabha. All that was about to change in 1989 as the BJP decided to throw its full support toward the temple movement in the north-Indian city of Ayodhya.

According to Hindu nationalists, the mosque in Ayodhya, known as the Babri Masjid, had been built by the Moghul emperor Babar after he had ordered the destruction of a Ram temple on the exact same spot (Elst, 1990; Goel, 1990/1998). Hindu nationalists now wanted to replace the mosque with a Hindu temple, and the issue soon came to encompass Hindu–Muslim relations in general (Goel, 1991/2000; Lal, 1990). The Ayodhya controversy also marked a significant increase in scholarly attention to Hindu nationalism, reflecting the importance of the issue and how it encapsulated the ideology and the political strategies of the party.

In the middle of the 1980s, Hindu nationalist organizations—led by the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—initiated their campaign through several large-scale events. One of them, often referred to as the brick campaign, took the form of a religious consecration of the bricks that were to be used for the Ram temple (Hansen, 1999). Toward the end of the 1980s, the BJP threw its full support into the movement, and it experienced a rapid growth in the years to come, resulting in the capturing of 120 seats in the 1991 parliamentary elections (Varshney, 2002). The party since then has been associated with the issue. The BJP’s rhetoric operated on two main levels. First, the party claimed that India was a Hindu country, and through its agitation it defined and promoted Hindu identity as the primary frame of identification for India’s Hindus (Flåten, 2012). Second, the BJP argued that the Hindus of India had been subject to a double crime. First, they had suffered violent aggression from Muslim rulers throughout the centuries of Muslim rule. Moreover, this humiliation, the party argued, had not ended after independence, but was upheld by the Indian state (Organiser, 1990). Hence, the Ayodhya controversy touched upon questions relating to the definitions of religious identities and boundaries as well as the position of religion in Indian society, topics which have guided the approaches of most scholars. Finally, the BJP—and the intellectuals affiliated with the movement—managed to benefit from and integrate the existence of major social, political, and religious upheavals taking place in India in this period. Low-caste mobilization in particular had created a new dynamic that challenged both the Congress Party and the BJP. In addition to caste, the decade also witnessed increasing religious tension between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Connected to these tensions were the existence of several secessionist movements in Kashmir, Assam, and Punjab. Many scholars have referred to some of these contextual factors in their approaches (Hansen, 1999; Varshney, 2002; Veer, 1994). However, there is still a lack of systematic study concerning how the particular context of the 1980s impinged on the mobilization. Such research would certainly increase scholarly knowledge of why the movement managed to generate so much enthusiasm.

Homogenization and Polarization

One politician in particular came to symbolize the BJP’s involvement in the issue: Lal Krishna Advani. In 1990, Advani embarked upon a major campaign, known as the Ram Rath Yatra. A yatra is a ritual procession, and on his chariot, which was a rebuilt Toyota, Advani traveled to several states in northern and western India in order to promote the temple movement (Davis, 1996/2006). The yatra received enormous attention and revolved around Ram as a unifying symbol. To a considerable degree, the success of Advani and the BJP was aided by the airing of two immensely popular television series by the Indian national broadcaster, Doordarshan (Davis, 1996/2006; Rajagopal, 2001). In the middle of the 1980s, Doordarshan began showing the two popular Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both series gathered a massive following, and the latter also made Ram more familiar to many Hindus (Rajagopal, 2001; Veer, 1994). The importance of the television series in creating a sort of Hindu-imagined community has been brilliantly outlined by Arvind Rajagopal (2001). Richard Davis has also examined the relationship between Advani’s yatra and the television series and demonstrates how Advani employed visual imagery that had been used in the actual series (Davis, 1996/2006). Indeed, the employment of religious icons and symbols, as well as notions of holy territory since Advani’s yatra, has caught the eye of many scholars of Hindu nationalism (Brosius, 2005; Eck, 1999; Jaffrelot, 2010; Pinney, 2004).

The promotion of Hindu unity was at the core of the many historical works produced by Hindu nationalist intellectuals (Elst, 1990; Goel, 1990/1998, 1991/2000). These works cannot be approached in terms of a scholarly debate alone. They were integral to the political debate. On several occasions Advani referred to this material in his speeches, and many pamphlets containing historical arguments were circulated during the campaigns (Bhattacharya, 1991; Kumar, 2016). Shorter articles arguing the Hindu nationalist cause were often printed in RSS-affiliated journals such as the Organiser and Manthan. Longer essays and books were generally published by the Voice of India publishing house.

In India, the history debate was for the most part concerned with the truthfulness of the conceptions put forth by Hindu nationalist intellectuals. For the most part, these conceptions were referred to as fabrications in that they had more in common with myths than historical scholarship (Chandra et al., 1989/1991; Gopal, 1991). Other scholarly approaches rather focused on the narrative patterns that could be found in the historical accounts produced by Hindu nationalists and asked how these works invoked Hindu identity (Flåten, 2012; Pandey, 1994; Thapar, 1989). This identity was defined and invoked through the selection of a few religious elements that all Hindus allegedly shared. Both Advani’s yatra and the historical material produced by Hindu nationalists emphasized Ram as a symbol of Hindu unity (Dubashi, 1992; Goel, 1990/1998; Organiser, 1990). Moreover, he was held to represent an ideal Hindu king by encapsulating the universal law of dharma. In addition, through his yatra, Advani symbolically expressed the importance of pilgrimage (Flåten, 2012). In terms of identity politics, the emphasis on these “Hindu commons” alludes to the similarity aspect of identity. However, the BJP also invoked the difference aspect of identity, particularly by highlighting the contrasting qualities of Hindu India and Islam. The depiction of the Muslim other in Hindu nationalist discourse has been duly explored and was inextricably linked to the BJP in the 1990s (Basu, 1997/1998; Brass, 2003; Flåten, 2012; Nussbaum, 2007; Varshney, 2002).

Claiming Public Space

Ayodhya was not only concerned with Hindu–Muslim relations as such; it was also concerned with how the Indian state and the political establishment approached Islam and with the relationship between the Hindu majority and the state. These issues relate to the specific form of secularism that exists in India. In India, secularism is not practiced as a separation of state and religion, but in terms of equal treatment of all religions (Bhargava, 2010; Madan, 1993). Several scholars have noted that this particular understanding of secularism complicates the overall relationship between political and religious mobilization, on the one hand, and the workings of the state, on the other (Hansen, 1996b; Harriss-White, 2002) An argument often raised by BJP politicians and Hindu nationalist intellectuals was that India was secular due to its Hindu legacy, thus reflecting an understanding of secularism solely in terms of religious tolerance (Flåten, 2012; Varshney, 2002). The BJP rather accused the ones opposing the temple movement of pursuing “pseudo-secularism” (Organiser, 1990). This accusation denoted a perception among BJP politicians that other parties, particularly the Congress Party, gave the Muslims preferential treatment in order to secure their votes (Organiser, 1990). The BJP often referred to the Shah Bano case as an example of this policy. This issue was concerned with the rights of inheritance for a divorced Muslim woman (Varshney, 2002). In this particular case, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, representing the Congress Party, overruled the court’s verdict and allowed Muslim family law to rule in this case. The BJP strongly objected to what it perceived as catering to interests of orthodox Muslim interests and has advocated a uniform civil code for all Indians (Hansen, 1999; Varshney, 2002). This topic is still subject to debate, and critics fear that such a uniform code will only reflect Hindu interests (Widmalm, 2017).

According to the BJP, the Muslims benefited from a policy of so-called minority appeasement. By contrast, the BJP continued, the Hindus were not allowed access to their holy places (Goel, 1990/1998; Organiser, 1990). Moreover, the BJP asserted that most Indian parties actively sought to divide the Hindus along caste lines for political purposes (Organiser, 1990). It is interesting to examine the intimate relationship between Hindu nationalist discourse and how the BJP perceives its main political enemies. From the perspective of the BJP, its main opponents are parties such as the Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which tend to emphasize caste distinctions among Hindus rather than the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims (Basu, 1997/1998; Flåten, 2012). Such a view became visible in 1990 as the Indian government decided to implement the propositions of the Mandal commission of reserving 27% of jobs in public institutions for the socially marginalized group known as the Other Backward Classes. The BJP opposed this decision, as it was not in the interest of its supporters, many of whom belonged to the higher castes (Hansen, 1999; Jaffrelot, 1999; Vanaik, 1997). Moreover, the BJP has traditionally opposed any arrangement that emphasized caste distinctions. In fact, Advani’s yatra was launched right after the Mandal decision was made public, which explains why some commentators focus on the intertwined nature of the Mandal–Mandir [temple] issue (Muralidharan, 1990; Padgaonkar, 2005). Thus, a prevalent interpretation seems to be that the BJP tried to draw attention to Hindu cultural unity in order to counter caste divisions.

Another issue, which has for the most part escaped scholarly attention, was that the Ayodhya controversy reached its climax at the same time as Soviet communism collapsed in Europe. On several occasions, the noted Hindu nationalist intellectual Jay Dubashi (1992) referred to the developments in Europe as evidence for why nation states with no cultural or religious foundation were doomed to fail. The Indian secular nation state, he asserted, was equally artificial and would eventually follow the same route as the communist states in Europe (Dubashi, 1992). Hence, the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign can be construed in terms of symbolically claiming public space by advocating a cultural definition of Indian nationhood, or a Hindu rashtra. One final aspect of this controversy also needs to be outlined, as claiming public space can also be understood in a more physical sense.

India has witnessed several outbreaks of religious violence, both before independence and after (Varshney, 2002). During the Ayodhya controversy, western and northern India experienced a series of riots unparalleled since the bloody partition of the subcontinent. To a large degree, these riots were connected to Hindu nationalist mobilization, and many of them followed in the wake of Advani’s yatra (Hansen, 1999; Varshney, 2002). In 1992, the tensions culminated with the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya at the hands of Hindu nationalist activists and with the riots in Mumbai (then Bombay) a few months later. Many of the approaches to Hindu nationalism have focused on why such riots occurred (Varshney, 2002) and how they were organized (Brass, 2003). Although several parties have been responsible for instigating such riots, most studies tended to focus on the role of the BJP (Basu, 1997/1998; Brass, 2003; Varshney, 2002). Paul Brass, who has published extensively on the subject, shows that riots are not accidental, but that they are instigated through what he refers to as an “institutionalized riot system” (Brass, 2003). In several of his studies, Brass has shown how local political activists are instrumental in facilitating the outbreak of riots. Through concepts such as “fire-tenders” and “conversion specialists,” Brass (2003) demonstrates how local activists have an important role in maintaining some degree of animosity between Hindus and Muslims. This is mainly done through the spreading of rumors—Muslim men raping Hindu women is perhaps the most powerful one—and by mastering public debate so that local tensions are transformed into religious conflicts (Basu, 1997/1998; Brass, 2003). Rumors have also been spread by more prominent BJP politicians. Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Ritambra both became famous for publicly speaking about Muslim rapists. Several of these speeches were also circulated in the form of cassette tapes (Hansen, 1999).

Similar mechanisms are demonstrated in Amrita Basu’s study (1998) of the riots in the city of Bijnor, taking place at the same time as the Ayodhya mobilization was at its most intensive. Her interview with a local Muslim woman in many ways encapsulates the function of such orchestrated riots. The Muslim woman tells Basu that her low-caste neighbors, with whom she had friendly relations, suddenly became Hindus during the riots (Basu, 1997/1998). Basu’s approach reveals a highly dynamic relationship between caste distinctions and religious identities. In the aftermath of the riots, the BJP won the local elections, defeating the governing party, which had relied on a combination of Muslims and low-caste Hindu voters (Basu, 1997/1998). Ashutosh Varshney (2002), who has gathered an enormous data set concerned with religious riots, draws attention to the role of civil society when explaining why and when riots occur. Varshney shows that cities and villages where Hindus and Muslims engage each other on several civil arenas are less likely to experience religious riots (Varshney, 2002). Several of these studies emphasize the temporary nature of these riots. Other approaches have shown how riots create open wounds in local societies, which are reflected in how both Hindus and Muslims navigate their daily lives (Chatterji & Mehta, 2007). Hence, religious categories become embedded in the very physicality of cities and villages.

The Limitations of BJP’s Ayodhya Campaign

Scholarship on how the BJP was associated with the Ayodhya issue, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri mosque, has produced important insights. The BJP did experience considerable electoral success, but its appeal apparently had severe social and regional limitations. Jaffrelot (1999) shows that even though the growth of the BJP had been substantial, it suffered several setbacks in state elections in the period from 1993 to 1995. One possible reason was that the BJP was punished for its role in instigating religious violence in large parts of the country. It was also rather apparent that the BJP was still considered as a party representing the interests of upper castes (Gillan, 2003), even though the agitation in fact utilized religious language and practices from popular devotional Hinduism, known as bhakti (Jaffrelot, 1999). In geographic terms, it did not receive much support in southern and eastern India (Jaffrelot, 1999). In states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal, mobilization along religious lines has seldom proved to be an efficient strategy. The lack of success in southern and eastern India also reflects the way in which the BJP had selected particular religious traditions and symbols during its campaign. As A. K. Ramanujan (1991) has shown, there are many different versions of the Ramayana, and many Hindus did not approve of the martial portrayal of Ram that was so prevalent in BJP’s agitation (Brosius, 2005). In addition, as C. J. Fuller (2004) argues, in southern India, Ram is not as popular as he is in northern India. Thus, the BJP’s attempt to construct a coherent and unified Hindu identity did not resonate with all Hindus. The Ayodhya controversy was perhaps the moment in the history of the BJP where the focus on a uniform and standardized set of religious symbols was at its strongest.

A second aspect made visible in the aftermath of the Ayodhya controversy was that the BJP’s confrontational political strategy had frightened off most potential alliance partners. This was mainly due to how the BJP had employed anti-Muslim rhetoric in its campaigns and uncertainties concerning the party’s commitment to secularism. Although the BJP’s increase in parliamentary seats was substantial, it found itself rather isolated in the national parliament. In the national elections in 1996, the BJP emerged as the single largest party and was asked to form a government (Varshney, 2002). The government only lasted a few weeks and the ideologically like-minded party Shiv Sena was the only party offering support. It was obvious that the BJP had to make several adjustments if it was to emerge as a reliable political partner and form a more lasting government. To use Jaffrelot’s (1999) distinction between ideological contestation, on the one hand, and pragmatic alliance politics, on the other, the BJP had clearly emphasized the former. It had—with its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar—led an ideologically aggressive campaign. Thus, the BJP’s breakthrough on the Indian political scene was characterized by neither ideological nor behavioral moderation. Moreover, as the utilization of religious symbols and the many riots following in the wake of the Ayodhya campaign illustrated, participating in elections seemed to have a radicalizing effect on the BJP. This radicalization was also about to change.

The Transformation of the BJP, 1996–2014: Moderation or Alteration?

In the second half of the 1990s, the BJP adopted new strategies in order to establish itself as a national party. Some of the responses to the limited social appeal of the party are rather straightforward and do not require a detailed discussion. One of these was that the BJP consciously tried to recruit more low castes into its party apparatus. It also toned down its negative stance on reservations based on caste status. Jaffrelot (1998) has referred to this strategy as “social engineering,” denoting how the BJP attempted to widen its social base by recruiting low castes into its party apparatus. This also attests to a more pragmatic approach on the part of the BJP, as the party could not afford to alienate the large group of low-caste voters. However, the adoption of social engineering was not unproblematic. As Sudha Pai (2009) has noted, many Brahmins—who have constituted an important voter base for the BJP—began to feel a growing concern that the BJP no longer represented their views. A second important shift was that the BJP chose to tone down its ideological agenda in order to attract alliance partners. Although this strategic shift may be construed in terms of behavioral moderation, it did not imply that the party left its ideological agenda altogether. It rather suggests that the BJP became more concerned with banal, or “everyday,” nationalism (Billig, 1995), which also implied strategies that were more attentive to local variations. Following this shift, the scholarship on Hindu nationalism has to an increasing degree concerned itself with how the BJP has fared in different states.

Many scholars devoted their attention to how the BJP tried to establish a stronger presence in the different regional political cultures of India. One scholar who early on caught an interest in the regional dynamics of Hindu nationalist mobilization was Thomas Blom Hansen. Hansen (1996a) referred to a “vernacularization of Hindutva,” denoting how the BJP and its sister party—the Shiv Sena—developed a specific regional strategy in the state of Maharashtra. Furthermore, in their edited volume, Hansen and Jaffrelot (1998) were among the first to explore how the BJP adopted different strategies from state to state, reflecting the heterogeneous nature of Indian society. This approach has caught on, and as John McGuire (2007) has succinctly put it, these studies have illuminated how “the BJP has repackaged core elements of its national ideology according to regional characteristics.”

One of the contributions to Hansen and Jaffrelot’s anthology was authored by the political scientist James Manor (1998). His article is aptly titled, “Southern Discomfort: The BJP in Karnataka,” and represents one of many studies that tried to explain why the BJP struggled to establish a presence in eastern and southern India. With regard to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, both Harriss (2003) and Fuller (2001) have argued that although the BJP had limited electoral success, this result did not imply that Hindu nationalism as such had no presence in the state. Both the RSS and a more regional Hindu nationalist organization, the Hindu Munnani, had increased their activities in the state since the early 1980s (Fuller, 2001; Harriss, 2003). One example, Fuller notes, is the Vinayaka Chaturthi religious festivals, which has been appropriated by Hindu nationalists and promoted as a national festival (Fuller, 2001). As both authors have shown, this presence did not necessarily turn into votes for the BJP, underlining that the status of Hindu nationalism in India cannot be reduced to the electoral performances of the BJP. Several studies are worth mentioning in this context, as they have contributed to finding new ways of conceptualizing the BJP’s local strategies. In his approach to the BJP’s attempts to make inroads into West Bengal, Michael Gillan (2003) demonstrates how the BJP managed to convey its political messages within the framework of local political culture. This involved attentiveness to local issues and a political rhetoric that utilized local symbols and historical characters (Gillan, 2003). Although limited to the state of Uttar Pradesh, Badri Narayan’s (2009) approach is concerned with the expansion of the BJP socially rather than geographically. It depicts how the BJP attempted to integrate the Dalits—the lowest segment in India’s caste system—into its version of the Hindu nation. As Narayan shows, BJP politicians often tried to mobilize Dalits by appropriating historical and mythological Dalit heroes within its nationalist framework (Narayan, 2009). This again attests to how the BJP employed a greater degree of contextual sensitivity in its political campaigns.

The one incident that in many ways encapsulates this transition was the decision on the part of Lal Krishna Advani to embark upon a second yatra. This yatra took place in 1997, celebrating India’s 50th anniversary as an independent nation. Again, Advani’s vehicle, this time a bus, drew a lot of attention. It was decorated with a pantheon of historical figures that were all associated with the independence movement (Flåten, 2016; Gillan, 2003). As such, the bus itself represented the national level. In Advani’s numerous speeches in states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, however, Advani was much more concerned with the role of local historical figures, mythological themes, and cultural icons (Flåten, 2016). As such, his campaign mediated between the national and the local, and an underlying, yet vague sense of Hindu cultural unity constituted the link between the two. Advani has described these speeches in his autobiography (Advani, 2008), and they clearly reflect the employment of a large repertoire of local idioms in order to convey more or less the same message.

These studies all demonstrated how promoting Ram as the sole defining feature of Hindu identity was replaced with a strategy that took India’s cultural and religious diversity into account as the BJP formulated its political messages. To some extent, BJP politicians may even have profited from appropriating these local symbols insofar as it enabled them to convey their message of Hindu cultural unity more effectively to local audiences. One may argue that the BJP still aims to homogenize cultural and religious diversity, but the level of national unity was still more vaguely defined than during the Ayodhya controversy. The mediation between the local and national, and, one may add, transnational represents a highly relevant topic for further research on Hindu nationalism. Advani’s yatra in 1997 brought him to states such as Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh, and West Bengal and was carried out one year prior to the national elections in 1998. In hindsight, one can conclude that the BJP did not experience an increase of its vote share in these states. However, the party managed to establish a presence in these states, and it reflected a willingness to respect religious and cultural diversity and the existence of regional identities. Moreover, the BJP managed to include major parties from four of the five states listed in its emerging alliance. It was no longer shunned by other parties.

A second stream of theorizing takes a somewhat different point of departure, even though it also focuses on the importance of everyday arenas. These approaches tend to focus more on local dynamics and the role of civil society rather than on the mobilizational strategies of the BJP (Copley, 2003; Zavos, Hyatt, & Hewitt, 2004). One illustrative example is the anthology Cultural Entrenchment of Hindutva: Local Mediations and Forms of Convergence (Berti, Jaoul, & Kanungo, 2011). This volume contains a wide range of case studies from different parts of India. These studies have in common how Hindutva penetrates different regional contexts, either through the initiative of RSS, through the convergence of Hindutva and the ways in which people tend to organize along religious lines, or, in fact, through resistance to Hindutva discourse (Berti, Jaoul, & Kanungo, 2011). Hence, the volume attests to the strong presence of Hindu nationalist ideology throughout India, particularly as this presence is not explained with reference to any backing by the BJP. Similar conclusions have also been reached by both Bénéi (2001) and Froerer (2007a), who demonstrate how Indian nationalism takes on a distinct Hindu character. particularly in government schools. This, Bénéi (2001) argues, is not only visible in textbooks and rhetoric, but is transmitted in most activities pertaining to the school arena.

Another interesting case is how the BJP has managed to expand in central India. This is an area where there are many Adivasis (tribal populations) which are often viewed as outside the Hindu fold. The RSS has expanded its activities in these states and runs a vast number of schools and welfare centers. According to Froerer (2007b), to the Adivasis, local deities and spirits were more important than pan-Hindu gods, and she argues that RSS activists often emphasized that the two levels converged. This is certainly different from the orthodox and Brahmanical version of Hinduism often promoted by the RSS. The BJP politician Advani reflected similar ideas, as he claimed that there was no conflict between the BJP’s propagation of cultural nationalism and the local traditions of the Adivasi population (BJP, 2004). In many of these states in central India, Christians, and in particular missionaries, have functioned as Hindu India’s antagonists (Zavos, 2007). It is, of course, difficult to assess if the expansion of RSS activities locally results in a similar expansion of votes for the BJP. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the BJP has not experienced such a growth. In Central India, however, the BJP has experienced tremendous growth and has a strong presence in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkandh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha. Whether this growth is due to Hindu nationalist activities at the grassroots level is a topic that would require further research. It is highly interesting to note that many of these approaches to local Hindutva mobilization use terms such as banalization Bénéi (2001), normalization (Fuller, 2001), and vernacularization (Hansen, 1996a). They all point to the ways in which Hindutva vocabulary, narratives, and interpretative frameworks percolate the everyday arenas of civil society. A plausible hypothesis is that an expansion of such activities correlates with the growth of the BJP. The BJP toned down its anti-Muslim rhetoric as it tried to expand its voter base, resulting in behavioral moderation. However, this shift of strategy was rather characterized by increased contextual sensitivity more than moderation insofar as it has proved difficult to mobilize along religious lines in southern and eastern India. Moreover, it would also be inaccurate to describe this development in terms of ideological moderation. It can rather be construed as ideological alteration or innovation, reflecting that the BJP had to convey its message of Hindu cultural unity by adapting to local contexts. This alteration also characterizes the first national government led by the BJP.

The BJP and Educational Reform

Regardless of whether the strategic shift undertaken by the BJP was the main cause, the party experienced a steady growth throughout the 1990s. In 1998, the BJP won the national elections, and it had managed to assemble a large coalition of parties, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). During its reign from 1998 to 2004, the BJP managed to hold the alliance together, probably because it did not push its Hindutva agenda.2 If one looks at the election manifesto from 1998, the BJP clearly opted for a non-confrontational strategy. The aim to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the introduction of a uniform civil code, and the abrogation of article 370 of the Indian Constitution—giving special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir—are all examples of issues that the BJP chose not to pursue wholeheartedly (Flåten, 2017a; Jaffrelot, 2005). As such, in power, the BJP was for the most part characterized by behavioral moderation. The main exception was the riots in Gujarat in 2002, then run by the BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the subsequent speculations regarding his role during the violence. In terms of avenues where the BJP could pursue its Hindutva ideology, two topics stood out. The BJP took full control over two ministries. One was the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the other was the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD)—which included education. Clearly, the BJP emphasized controlling the transmission of popular culture and knowledge. With regard to the former, too little attention has been devoted to the workings of this ministry during the NDA regime. The exception was the topic of film censorship, which received many headlines in India when the films Water (Mason, 2007) and Fire (Marsh & Brasted, 2007) were prohibited due to their alleged flawed sexual morality. This topic is again high on the agenda in 2019, as allegations of spreading anti-national sentiments have exploded during the present Modi regime.

The second, and by far the most important arena through which the BJP promoted its Hindutva agenda was educational reform. This topic has also been duly explored (Bhattacharya, 2009; Flåten, 2017a; Guichard, 2010; Lall, 2005, 2009; Nussbaum, 2007). Scholarly interest in the relationship between Hindu nationalism and education also predate the NDA regime. Already toward the end of the 1970s, when the Janata alliance governed India, Hindu nationalists argued that there was an urgent need for new history textbooks that paid more attention to the domains of culture and religion (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1983/2008). Moreover, many scholars have shown how schools represent important arenas when it comes to transmitting ideas of Hindu nationalism, including the specific combination of disciplining and religious instruction in both RSS schools and government schools (Bénéi, 2001; Froerer 2007b; Sarkar, 1994). Hence, to most scholars of Hindu nationalism, it barely came as a surprise that the BJP initiated significant educational reforms when it seized power in 1998. In fact, these reforms could have been even more comprehensive if HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi’s first propositions had been implemented. Joshi wanted to integrate several ideas from the educational chain of the RSS and aimed to nationalize, spiritualize, and Indianize the election (Muralidharan & Pande, 1998). This notion was not well-received by the BJP’s alliance partners, who threatened to leave the coalition (Muralidharan & Pande, 1998). This incident illustrates clearly how the logic of alliance politics had a moderating effect on the BJP’s ideological agenda. Nonetheless, even though Joshi had to back down, Hindutva ideas soon became evident as the BJP introduced its reforms. The party restructured the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which is an important institution in India’s education system. In 2000, the NCERT published a new National Curriculum Framework, which laid down the official guidelines for the development of teaching material within most school subjects. In 2002, the NCERT published four new history textbooks in history.

For the scholars focusing on the publication of new history textbooks, the common point of departure was to explore the extent to which the narratives in the textbooks reflected the ideology of the BJP (Delhi Historians Group, 2001; Flåten, 2017a; Guichard, 2010; Jha, 2003; Nussbaum, 2007; Thapar, 2009). Religious and cultural values certainly dominated in the overall narrative structure of these textbooks. A unified set of such values created a sense of coherence to Indian history, incorporating different periods of time and different regions of India (Flåten, 2017a). Moreover, the textbooks depicted ancient Indian society as harmonious and prosperous, reflecting that India’s golden age was coterminous with a society ordered by the values of Hindu civilization (Flåten, 2017a). In these narratives, there was little room for inequalities and conflict connected to caste and gender. By contrast to the historical material produced by Hindu nationalists during the Ayodhya controversy, the textbooks did not demonize Islam. However, there was a clear distinction between Hindu India and Islam in the narratives, and they paid no attention to the existence of religious syncretism at the village level throughout India (NCERT, 2002b).

A second feature of the educational reforms was how they invoked the notion of pride. Both the National Curriculum Framework and the history textbooks emphasized that Indian civilization was among the oldest in the world and that its intellectual and philosophical traditions were highly sophisticated (Flåten, 2017b; NCERT, 2000, 2002a). Moreover, the BJP regime also encouraged and facilitated the teaching of subjects such as Sanskrit, yoga, and so-called Vedic science within its institutions of higher education (Nanda, 2006, 2009). Notions of assertiveness and pride have also been noted by several scholars of Hindu nationalism (Hansen, 1996b, 1999; Rajagopal, 2001; Vanaik, 1997; Zavos, 2000) who connect it to the effects of globalization and the rise of the Indian middle class, which almost exclusively consists of Hindus. The image of an assertive Hindu India claiming its place on the world scene is revisited in the section “The Modi Era: Transcending the Ideology—Pragmatist Divide?

A final aspect of the educational reforms has also received attention from scholars: the position of religious values in public schools (Flåten, 2017b; Lall, 2005, 2009). This was an important topic in the National Curriculum Framework, which claimed that value degradation, social fragmentation, and materialism constituted the main ills facing society (NCERT, 2000). As a means to counter this development, the BJP government emphasized that value education, for the most part defined as spiritual and national values, had to be integrated within all school subjects (NCERT, 2000). Hence, this integration would create a holistic and integrative framework—concurring with Hindu nationalist ideology—that would pervade the education system (Flåten, 2017b). Torkel Brekke (2012) has explored the educational reforms undertaken by the BJP, and he argues that they can indeed by construed in terms of fundamentalism. Brekke is concerned with how most fundamentalist movements can be understood as reactions against secularization and differentiation (Brekke, 2012). These processes imply a development where different spheres of society become more autonomous, and consequently religious values lose their integrating role. Brekke (2012) argues that fundamentalist movements seek to reverse this process by integrating what has been separated—what he refers to as dedifferentiation. This line of reasoning seems to capture the rationale behind the educational reforms during the first NDA government. What remains is a more thorough examination of how value education was implemented throughout the public schools in India. Moreover, there are few studies that have examined how the transmission and reception of BJP textbooks affected identity formation. Hence, Hindutva ideology was clearly conveyed through textbook narratives as well as in the overall reforms undertaken by the NDA regime. However, this undertaking was conveyed in a rather subtle way, which again attests to an effort on the part of the BJP to appear moderate, particularly to its alliance partners. Again, this effort reflects behavioral rather than ideological moderation. The BJP clearly opted for new avenues through which it could promote its ideology.

The defeat in the parliamentary elections in 2004 came as a surprise to both the BJP and most political analysts, and attempts to explain the results are many (Yadav, 2004). The BJP may have been punished for the riots in Gujarat in 2002, a state governed by the present prime minister of India as of 2019, Narendra Modi. In hindsight, the most convincing explanation is offered by the Indian political scholar, Yogendra Yadav. He shows how the outcome of the election was not decided by the BJP or its main opponent, the Congress Party, but by the performances of their alliance partners (Yadav, 2004). More relevant in the context of this article, another reason why the BJP did experience a limited decline was that the RSS did not campaign enthusiastically for the BJP. Many in the RSS felt that the BJP had left the Hindutva platform in its search for alliance partners (Harriss, 2015; Jaffrelot, 2005). After the electoral defeat, the BJP experienced a decade of decline, characterized by leadership quarrels and debates concerning the future direction of the party. The RSS was instrumental in these debates and agitated for an ideological revival (Venkatesan, 2004). The BJP managed to hold on to several of its key states in western and central India, and it was from one of these states that its savior emerged. Narendra Modi had served as chief minister in the state of Gujarat for over a decade when he was chosen as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate before the national elections in 2014. And Modi won a landslide victory, unprecedented in the history of the BJP. Modi’s victory initiates the third phase in this outline. The relationship between ideological contestation and political pragmatism as well as the meaning and relevance of moderation have become increasingly complex.

The Modi Era: Transcending the Ideology—Pragmatist Divide?

Modi’s electoral campaign in 2014 was not particularly concerned with Hindutva. As before, the BJP manifesto did mention the aim of building a temple in Ayodhya as well as the intention to abrogate article 370 of the constitution, which gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (BJP, 2014; Livemint, 2014). However, the manifesto paid more attention to the topics of inclusion, foreign investments, and a wide range of economic reforms rather than to any of the traditional Hindutva issues (Livemint, 2014). Nonetheless, it may be argued that many Indians associated Modi directly with Hindutva and that he did not need to focus on ideological issues in his campaign. Moreover, national elections in India are regional in nature and take place in 543 different electoral districts. Thus, the BJP locally probably employed traditional Hindutva issues where it saw fit. However, the 2014 election was in fact one of the few elections in the past two to three decades from the 1990s forward where the national level was highly present. Much of this was due to the very persona of Modi, who campaigned on a vision of unprecedented growth. He promised to nationalize the Gujarat model of development, deregulate the economy, bring in foreign investments, and create rapid economic growth in all sections of Indian society (Palshikar, 2015). This vision obviously had a resonance and the BJP actually secured a majority of seats on its own, although the BJP chose to stand by its alliance partners. The Modi government as of 2019 is still officially a coalition. Thus, the current BJP-dominated government represents an excellent case for studying the degree to which the BJP has emerged as a moderate party. Due to its majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, it is also possible to examine whether the BJP can be understood as a party that adopts temporary and strategic moderation during election campaigns, but while in power pursues a more ideological agenda.

Since he assumed power in 2014, Modi has prioritized economic issues. He was responsible for large-scale demonetization reform and has initiated several economic programs, such as Make in India, Digital India, and Skill India. Thus, Hindutva does not seem to be particularly high on Modi’s agenda (Palshikar, 2015). If one also takes into account Manor’s (2015) argument that Modi has had several clashes with the RSS and that influential leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement view him with suspicion—because he appears larger than the movement—Modi’s relationship to Hindutva is all but clear. However, India—perhaps more now than ever before—is dominated by Hindu nationalist ideas and values. This seems to be a paradox and reflects that the relationship between the BJP government and Hindutva may be more complex than it appears (Harriss, 2015; Palshikar, 2015; Nanda, 2009). In order to fully grasp this relationship, one needs to explore the position of Hindutva both within and outside the realm of party politics.

Several scholars have suggested that the prevalence of Hindu nationalism, often in a soft form, cannot be reduced to the strategies of the BJP. Many also perceive this development in the context of the liberalization of the Indian economy, the rise of the middle class, and a wish to overcome feelings of subordination vis-à-vis the West (Hansen, 1999; Rajagopal, 2001; Vanaik, 2017; Zavos, 2000). This idea of assertive India is highly relevant when it comes to the relationship between globalization and Hindu nationalism. One scholar who has discerned this relationship in a series of provocative essays is Meera Nanda. Nanda refers to the “state-temple-corporate complex” in order to shed light on how both the corporate sector and the Indian state are instrumental in making India more Hindu (Nanda, 2009). Nanda (2009) argues that the growing impact of neoliberalism and globalization has been accompanied by a rise of popular devotional Hinduism as well as various guru movements. This development is perhaps a softer version of Hindutva, but it has caught on, perhaps because it is perceived as closer to the religious traditions of most Hindus. This soft Hindutva echoes the many approaches to banal Hindu nationalism, and it has been further aided by an increasing commodification of religion, for instance, in the form of religious tourism (Nanda, 2009) or through the help of Hindu nationalist values in popular films (Malhotra & Alagh, 2004). The tremendous growth characterizing India’s IT and software sector may also have strengthened the idea of superior Hindu values (Nanda, 2009). Moreover, Nanda continues, the Indian state is to an increasing degree also characterized by Hindu rituals and symbols in its everyday routines (Nanda, 2009), which has also been noted by the economist Barbara Harriss-White (2002) as she discusses the structural lack of distinction between private identities, on the one hand, and the norms connected to employment in the public sector, on the other. Thus, as most state employees are Hindus, the workings of state institutions are naturally affected. The relationship between state and religion in India also pertains to its peculiar form of secularism, and Nanda (2009) notes that there is a strong relationship between state institutions and Hindu religion (e.g., with regard to how the state supports temple maintenance). Further studies of these connections would definitely improve scholarly knowledge about the ways in which Hindu nationalist values influence different social spheres as well as state–society relations.

Although this development has taken place without the involvement of the BJP, the party has probably benefited from it and on several occasions also utilized it. As he tried to create enthusiasm for educational reforms during the first NDA government, the BJP politician Murli Manohar Joshi often referred to Indians as natural scientists and that a quest for knowledge was inscribed into the genetic software of all Indians (Flåten, 2017b). What appears clear is that Modi fits right into this picture. He seems to embody the image of an assertive and modern Hindu India making its presence felt on the world stage. He is the symbol of economic growth and success at the same time as he is considered a champion of Hindu cultural and religious values both at home and abroad. Modi has claimed that ancient Hindu scriptures reveal that many modern discoveries were actually made in India hundreds of years ago. Plastic surgery and genetic science are but two examples on a long list (Manor, 2015). When Modi visited New York in 2016, he was welcomed as a superstar by the Indian diaspora as he addressed an audience in Madison Square Garden (Times of India, 2014).3 Another example is his promotion of yoga, which was successful, as the United Nations in 2014 decided to establish an international yoga day (The Hindu, 2014). In his many speeches, particularly in Asia, Modi often emphasizes how Hindu cultural and religious traditions have created strong bonds between India and other countries.4 Referring to Hindu values and traditions in speeches and statements represents a soft form of Hindutva, which cannot be compared to the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign or attempts to foster a unified Hindu identity through textbook narratives.

If one only looks at Modi, who for many Indians represents the BJP, political pragmatism more than ideological contestation seems to characterize his reign. This would also suggest that both ideological and behavioral moderation apply to the current BJP-led government. Such characterizations are misguided and fail to grasp the complexity of the relationship between Hindutva and the BJP. Compared to the previous NDA regime, the BJP is not as dependent on maintaining good relations with alliance partners. However, this does not imply that Modi and the BJP can fully pursue a Hindutva agenda. Modi, perhaps more than any Indian prime minister before him, has prioritized bringing in more foreign investments to India. His economic visions thus rely on maintaining good relations with a wide range of economic partners. Such relations would be undermined if the BJP government had implemented a radical Hindutva agenda. In 2015, President Obama in fact voiced his concern regarding the state of religious freedom in India (Kim, 2017). At the same time, Modi needs to ensure the RSS and the VHP that the BJP is still committed to Hindutva. As discussed in the section “A Division of Labor?,” the BJP under Modi has not abandoned Hindu nationalist ideology; it seems to be promoted through a division of labor.

A Division of Labor?

Although Modi keeps a certain degree of distance from Hindu nationalist ideology, Hindutva issues have been advocated by other ministers in his cabinet, by the governments in states ruled by the BJP, and by Hindu nationalist organizations and groupings. The relationship between these levels can be difficult to discern analytically, particularly that between the BJP locally and Hindu nationalist organizations, such as the RSS and VHP. In his discussion of Modi’s government policies toward religious minorities, Heewon Kim (2017) notes that several ministers in Modi’s cabinet have supported Hindutva issues. Jitendra Singh, the minister of state for the prime minister’s office, made it clear that the government aimed to abrogate article 370 of the constitution, giving special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (Kim, 2017). In a similar manner, both Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, and the minister for tourism have voiced their support for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya (Kim, 2017). Furthermore, the law minister announced that it was time to implement a uniform civil code (Kim, 2017). Hence, all of the three “noisy” issues that the BJP chose not to pursue toward the end of the 1990s have found their way back into Indian political discourse. So far, none of them has been implemented, but the very presence of these issues is indeed significant. Although Modi tends not to comment on such issues, it is difficult to imagine that his ministers act against his will.

The BJP has clearly been able to expand its social base. In the elections in 2014, the party secured votes from an unprecedented number of low castes (Palshikar, 2015). Moreover, the BJP government has introduced several bills that aim to protect the interests of several low-caste groups, including the Other Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes (Kim, 2017). At the outset, this proposed legislation may appear as both behavioral and ideological moderation because the BJP has traditionally been associated with a high-caste Brahminical legacy. However, the BJP has always claimed that it represents all Hindus and has constantly tried to communicate that an underlying sense of Hindu unity is far more important than divisions connected to caste, class, and region. Hence, this development does not contradict Hindu nationalist ideology. Such an interpretation is further strengthened if one looks at how the Modi government has failed to introduce legislation that protects religious minorities (Kim, 2017). Moreover, it seems to be a deliberate strategy on the part of the BJP not to field Muslim candidates during state elections (Rehman, 2018). Although Kim argues that there are more continuities than discontinuities between the current BJP-led government and previous governments with regard to how they approach religious minorities, the Modi government has certainly not taken any steps to reduce frictions between India’s Hindu majority and religious minorities. On the contrary, the depiction of the Muslim other is still highly relevant. The year before the national elections in 2014, religious riots broke out in the city of Muzaffarnagar in the state of Uttar Pradesh (India Today, 2013). The role of the BJP in instigating these riots is uncertain. However, riots contributing to religious polarization have often benefited the BJP’s electoral performances, and the party did experience a significant growth in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. Religious polarization also characterized the state election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, which brought Yogi Adityanath to power as chief minister in the state (The Hindu, 2017). Yogi Adityanath is known as a Hindutva hardliner and headed the Hindu nationalist organization Hindu Yuva Vahini, which has been involved in several incidents of religious violence (The Hindu, 2017). The selection of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister was significant for several reasons. Uttar Pradesh has a large Muslim minority and has experienced several violent incidents along both religious and caste lines. Moreover, Yogi Adityanath, who had limited administrative experience, was selected to the post as chief minister after the election results were announced. This suggests that Modi and the BJP leadership supported the candidacy of a divisive leader in India’s largest state.

Several issues pertaining to the Muslim other have emerged with full force since Modi assumed power, particularly in states governed by the BJP. India has witnessed a renaissance of the cow-protection movement, and several BJP politicians have supported a ban on cow slaughter. This movement has often taken a violent form, and several Muslims and low castes suspected of distributing beef have been attacked and even murdered (Indian Express, 2016). In BJP-led states, such as Haryana, Jharkand, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, anti-cow slaughter laws have become stricter and strong forces within the BJP aim to introduce a nationwide ban (The Guardian, 2017). A similar movement, known as the ghar wapsi—or “return home”—has also experienced significant growth in the 2010s (Kim, 2017). This movement aims to convert or— in the vocabulary of the movement itself—to reconvert Muslims and Christians to the Hindu fold. Similarly, the notion of “Love Jihad” has been prevalent in public debates in India for several years (Brosius, 2005). The concept denotes what many Hindu nationalists hold to be a deliberate strategy on the part of Muslim men to procreate with Hindu women in order to produce more Muslim children. None of these campaigns seems to emanate from the central leadership of the BJP, at least not openly. They appear as initiatives stemming from the BJP locally in consort with Hindu nationalist organizations. Modi has felt obliged to criticize the employment of violence among cow-protection activists (Indian Express, 2016), but for the most part, the BJP leadership has abstained from criticizing these campaigns (Kim, 2017). Moreover, the very timing of this mobilization suggests that the BJP has been involved. As Kim notes, the ghar wapsi campaigns in Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand coincided with elections in these states, with the BJP emerging as the victor in all three of them (Kim, 2017).

It seems plausible to assume that Hindu nationalist activists feel more at liberty to pursue their Hindutva agenda when the BJP is in power at the central level, but shedding light on the connections between civil society, state politics, and the central government requires further research. It appears to be the case that the central government leaves Hindutva issues to the states governed by the BJP and to powerful Hindu nationalist organizations throughout India. Moreover, this division of labor seems to be a deliberate strategy. Thus, while the Modi government is characterized by some degree of behavioral and ideological moderation, this does not hold true if one includes state governments dominated by the BJP as well as the role played by the Sangh Parivar. The existence of religious tensions certainly strengthens the position of the BJP, but for Modi and his economic visions, a further escalation of religious violence may also prove damaging, particularly if it undermines the image of India as democratic and tolerant to the external world.

Given the first NDA government’s emphasis on educational reform, one may also expect that the BJP would visit this topic a second time. According to Achin Vanaik (2017), the current NDA regime has initiated more aggressive Hindutva changes within the realms of public culture and education compared to the former NDA regime. This assessment is somewhat difficult to understand. Admittedly, the current government has appointed new leaders to several important institutions, such as the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Nalanda University (Vanaik, 2017). Moreover, it has emphasized the importance of teaching and using Sanskrit within institutions of higher education (Govindarajan, 2016). However, the important NCERT has not undergone similar changes as those that took place during the first NDA regime from 1998 to 2004 (Flåten, 2017b). It was through the restructuring of the NCERT that value education and a Hindu-centric version of history were actually implemented by the BJP. By contrast, several of the states governed by the BJP have implemented such changes. In two of them, Gujarat and Haryana, Hindutva textbooks and religious texts have been integrated into the education system (Palshikar, 2015). Moreover, the RSS, which already runs tens of thousands of schools throughout India, is still fully committed to fostering an education system that reflects India’s Hindu culture (The Wire, 2017). Hence, a division of labor may very well apply to educational reforms as well. A plausible explanation is that it represents a deliberate choice on the part of the BJP leadership to leave this agenda to the different states and to the Sangh Parivar. Another possibility, which appears less convincing, is that the RSS and other Hindu nationalist organizations have grown frustrated with a lack of commitment to Hindutva from Prime Minister Modi (Manor, 2015), and thus have chosen to pursue this agenda more vigorously on their own.

The one incident that was associated directly with the BJP regime was when Human Resource Minister Smrti Irani held a speech in the national parliament of India in February 2016. The well-prepared speech was full of defamatory rhetoric as Irani addressed the protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University that erupted after the execution of one of the culprits involved in the terror attacks against the Indian parliament in 2001. Irani’s speech touched many facets of what she held to be anti-national behavior and sentiments, including the contents of school textbooks and the way in which certain groups celebrated the demon-god Mahishashura rather than the Hindu goddess Durga (India Today, 2016). A noteworthy feature of Irani’s arguments was that she criticized a religious form of worship often prevalent among low castes. The same can be said concerning the cow-protection movement, which has often also targeted Dalits. Thus, even if the BJP has changed considerably in order to attract the support of low castes, a conception still exists of what constitutes a correct and pure form of Hinduism. Apart from HRD Minister Irani’s speech in the Indian parliament, however, Hindu nationalist mobilization on this issue was mainly led by the student wing of the BJP (, 2015). The Jawaharlal Nehru University affair raised issues concerning religious offenses against Mother India, sedition, and anti-national sentiments. To some extent, this issue also reflects the Hindutva nature of the current BJP-led government. As several scholars have noted, India is characterized by an aggressive and majoritarian form of nationalism with little room for dissent (Palshikar, 2015; Vanaik, 2017). However, it is also significant that there have been few attempts on the part of the Modi government to initiate significant ideological changes. So how does the Modi regime fit into Jaffrelot’s theory of oscillation between ideological contestation, on the one hand, and pragmatic alliance building, on the other? At the moment, this theory does not seem to have much explanatory power. Modi does not really pay much attention to alliance building, probably because the BJP is more dominant now than ever. However, this does not mean that he is not pragmatic. His election campaign was visionary and appealed to large groups of voters, without paying much attention to Hindutva. As noted, Hindutva already percolates throughout Indian society and is constantly promoted by the BJP locally and by the RSS and other organizations of the Sangh Parivar. This situation implies that Modi does not have to associate himself directly with the Hindutva agenda. Moreover, this development also contradicts the main assumptions connected with the inclusion-moderation thesis. Modi may appear as a moderate leader, but this moderation is not visible if one includes all levels of the BJP. What appears to be a vague commitment to Hindutva on the part of the Modi government may in fact be a deliberate strategy, characterized by a division of labor that ensures that the Hindutva agenda is implemented without too much resistance and protests at home or abroad.


This article has discussed the development of the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) from its formation in 1980 to the current year of 2019. This development is from a peripheral party in the early 1980s to a party that in the 2014 elections won a majority of seats in the Indian parliament. So, has this development also been characterized by a gradual moderation of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, as the party has been included in democratic processes? The answer has to be no. As Jaffrelot (2013) notes, the recent history of the BJP is not one of linear and gradual moderation. It is rather to be understood in terms of an oscillation between ideological contestation, on the one hand, and pragmatic considerations, on the other. This history does not imply that the inclusion-moderation thesis is irrelevant when it comes to explaining the strategies adopted by the BJP, but that the theory needs to be nuanced and disaggregated. In particular, two episodes, or periods, exist that are noteworthy in this regard. The first pertains to how the BJP responded to challenges it faced in the aftermath of the Ayodhya controversy. In order to expand its voter base, both socially and geographically, and to attract alliance partners, the BJP had to tone down its confrontational style. The result was one of behavioral moderation, as the BJP chose to tone down its Hindutva agenda, particularly its anti-Muslim rhetoric. It would be misleading, however, to characterize this shift in terms of ideological moderation. It can rather be understood as ideological alteration or innovation, as the BJP found new avenues through which it could promote its Hindutva agenda. The party paid more attention to adapting to local variations, and while in power—between 1998 and 2004—the BJP prioritized educational reforms along Hindutva lines. The second example concerns the BJP-led government that assumed power in 2014. Even with a majority on its own, the BJP under Modi has for the most part emphasized economic reforms. Nevertheless, moderation does not seem to capture the BJP, as the party rather seems to have adopted a division of labor when it comes to its promotion of the Hindutva agenda. Thus, through its inclusion in Indian democracy, the BJP has been forced to adjust, modify, and find new ways to make India more Hindu. However, the eventual outcome has not resulted in moderation, at least not in an ideological sense. It rather appears that these challenges have improved the BJP’s abilities to promote its Hindutva agenda more efficiently.

Further Reading

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  • 1. The BJP actually won the majority on its own in the 2014 elections. However, it campaigned on a coalition platform (National Democratic Alliance) and in the government, as of 2019, parties from this coalition are represented.

  • 2. The Lok Sabha is elected for a maximum period of 5 years. There were new elections in 1999 as the party AIADMK left the National Democratic Alliance, and with that also its majority. The elections in 1999 resulted in a larger majority for the NDA.

  • 3. The growth of Hindu nationalism among the Indian diaspora in the United States is an important topic that falls outside the scope of this article. Hindu nationalist organizations, such as the RSS and the VHP, have branches in America, and many Hindus in the United States support the BJP financially. Moreover, university lecturers and professors as well as curriculum boards have been accused by Hindu nationalist organizations of harboring alleged anti-Hindu biases. Thus, many of the same cultural and intellectual battles take place in both India and the United States, which calls for more transnational studies. See, for example, Nussbaum (2007), Kurien (2009), Bose (2008), and Bénéi (2005) for discussions of different aspects pertaining to Hindu nationalism among the Indian diaspora in the United States.

  • 4. See the website.