Winning consecutive elections in India is not easy. The attention given to the BJP’s third consecutive triumph in Gujarat’s state assembly elections is therefore understandable. The party’s 2012 victory prompted a flurry of analyses of how the BJP’s prospects in the 2014 parliamentary polls might have shifted, and of the viability of Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. Modi’s three-peat also invites analysts to think about the electoral appeal of Hindutva, especially since his campaigns and tenure have been so infamously identified with an aggressive Hindu nationalism. For the past decade, most observers of Indian politics have believed the electoral appeal of Hindutva to be on the decline. Does the BJP’s Gujarat victory suggest this decline can be arrested, or even reversed? Or does it indicate that the BJP can only succeed by emphasising claims of “development” and “good governance”?
Any attempt to analyse the electoral salience of Hindutva requires thinking carefully through a number of thorny issues.
First, and most simply, it is important to remember that we cannot equate votes for the BJP with ideological support for Hindutva. Not all supporters of the BJP are supportive of Hindutva, and not all supporters of Hindutva let this preference determine their vote choice. Yet there has been a widespread and persistent tendency to equate these two phenomena, leading to “conventional wisdom” that Hindutva’s appeal can be measured by the BJP’s performance at the polls: rising during the 1980s, peaking during the early 1990s, and steadily declining since then. More systematic analyses of voter surveys trouble such linear narratives, and point us in the more productive direction of analysing the degree to which these two phenomena are related in specific places and periods.
For example, statistical analyses of data from Lokniti’s National Election Study have helped uncover considerable variation in the importance of Hindutva even within the BJP’s support base in a given election. Such analyses show that support for key Hindu nationalist positions (such as building a Ram temple at Ayodhya or banning religious conversions) do indeed consistently distinguish upper castes who support the BJP from those who don’t.
Further, the overall prevalence of pro-Hindutva sentiments among upper-caste voters has been quite stable since the mid-1990s. Therefore, broad pronouncements on the “decline of Hindutva’s appeal” appear somewhat overblown: among the elite caste communities for whom Hindutva is important enough to affect voting decisions, no such decline is apparent.
At the same time, this data suggests some strong limits to the degree to which Hindutva’s appeal affects the BJP’s performance. Even among upper castes, pro-Hindutva views are not the only, nor even the strongest, determinant of BJP support. Indeed, support for economic liberalisation has remained a stronger predictor of upper caste support for the BJP than pro-Hindutva views during this period. So has income, with the BJP enjoying greater support among a “creamy layer” of wealthy upper caste voters than among poorer voters from these caste communities. Finally, Dalit and adivasi backers of the BJP are not appreciably more communal than voters from these communities who support other parties. This result holds true across multiple elections, and even within states where the party has been doing increasingly well among these constituencies (such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh). Even the BJP’s limited electoral successes outside its traditional “Brahmin-Bania” base cannot therefore be assumed to be either a cause or consequence of growth in Hindutva’s appeal.
Evidence garnered from surveys can thus help us develop more nuanced conclusions about how the relationship between Hindutva and support for the BJP varies across caste communities, states and even electoral periods. Yet such evidence comes with its own important constraints. Most importantly, surveys necessarily use narrow measures of concepts, in this case defining Hindutva only through voters’ support for specific agenda items.
This limitation draws our attention to a second major issue: “Hindutva” carries variable meanings in different electoral contexts. To ask whether Hindutva’s political appeal is greater in Gujarat than in Chhattisgarh, or has declined from 1992 to 2012, in some sense assumes the term carries an unchanging definition across time and space. Such rigidity may seem justified by, and complementary with, the goal of Hindutva’s early architects. These founders sought to standardise the practice of Hinduism, in an attempt to overcome the divisions produced by internal caste hierarchies and varied local practices that stood in the way of their majoritarian ambitions.
Yet, in many respects, Hindu nationalism as a contemporary political phenomenon departs from the visions of these early ideologues. Hindutva’s interaction with democratic politics has produced many ironies, but perhaps none greater than the fragmentation of a doctrine of standardisation. These differences are apparent across states: the issue of religious conversions is far more central to the Sangh’s Hindutva agenda in Orissa than in Uttar Pradesh, while the issue of Ayodhya is far less so. Similar distinctions are also evident between Hindu nationalist organisations within the same state. For example, activists with the Sangh’s “service wings” (such as Seva Bharati and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram) are often uncomfortable with the polarising rhetoric and mobilisations, including violence, emphasised by the VHP and Bajrang Dal. Such disagreements are more tactical than philosophical. Many seva activists worry that episodes of large-scale violence highlight the most polarising face of Hindutva, and inhibit their own attempts to ingratiate themselves among Dalit and adivasis communities wary of Hindutva’s upper caste image. Finally, service activists themselves highlight different aspects of Hindutva, depending on to whom they speak. In fundraising efforts among upper castes, they emphasise Hindutva’s mandate to offer welfare as a political counter to similar efforts by Christian missionaries. Yet, when trying to recruit lower caste or tribal voters, these activists present themselves as politically neutral welfare providers. They have also shown an increasing flexibility in their willingness to subsume local rituals into the structure of Hindu practices they advocate.
The purpose of pointing out such distinctions is to remind us that a voter’s perception of “what Hindutva is” can vary depending on which state they live in, which caste community they come from, and which organisation has the dominant presence within their neighbourhood or village. Such variation cannot be captured through national surveys, and requires more localised surveys and ethnographic study. Yet even such studies will need to be careful in determining how to assess whether these local faces of Hindutva actually help or hinder the BJP’s electoral performance, and the channels through which they do so.
Finally, let me conclude where I began, by highlighting some implications of this discussion for the case of Gujarat. When thinking about Hindu nationalism, our national preoccupation with Gujarat is an understandable consequence of the BJP’s exceptional success in the state. However, it is precisely this exceptionality that should make us cautious about the degree to which lessons from Gujarat apply elsewhere. Second, even within Gujarat, we should avoid easy generalisations about Hindutva’s role in facilitating the BJP’s dominance. Currently, there are two such arguments: that Modi’s success has accrued from a “post-Hindutva” strategy based on “development”, or conversely, that this electoral dominance was produced and maintained through Hindutva’s most militant form of coercion and hate. Yet both arguments are usually proven by assumption, rather than rigorous evidence, and fail to explore more complex possibilities: the use of both coercion and claims of good governance with different segments of the Gujarati electorate, or even the blending of coercion, development rhetoric and unprecedented campaign pageantry into a distinctly Gujarati version of Hindutva. Whatever the context, we would do well to avoid the simplifications often used in discussions of the electoral salience of Hindutva, and pay a complex phenomenon the careful attention it deserves.
The writer, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, is completing a book on support for the BJP among Dalit and adivasi communities