Indian politics is headed in a most challenging direction, one which could have momentous implications for the country’s pluralistic society and the world.
This sharp political turn in India has been most starkly visible in the growing political success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), founded in 1980.
In 2014, the BJP won a landslide electoral victory, bringing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. In March this year, the party swept to victory again in local elections across India, including in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won over three quarters of the seats on offer.
The new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has attributed the party’s success to the prime minister’s strongman image and popularity. Supporters of Modi point to his focus on economic development and growth to explain his popularity. India was the fastest-growing major economy last year, posting a GDP growth of 7 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for China. Critics, on the other hand, claim the so-called “Modi-wave” is based on an appeal to divisive Hindu majoritarian politics.
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At the centre of this controversy is the BJP’s ideology of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” which is rooted in a belief that a Hindu majority in India is united around a common culture which forms the basis of the nation.
This claim is a contested one, and has its roots in the region’s encounters with colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, a Western, orientalist image of India as essentially religious was pervasive, and ushered in the birth of a public sphere in which different parts of the elite claimed to speak on behalf of distinct and competing religious constituencies.
The defining Hindu nationalist contribution to these debates was to envision the boundaries between the Hindu majority and the Indo-Islamic or Christian minorities as not only religious, but national as well.
This allowed for the reframing of upper-caste Hindus not as a powerful minority, but as part of an imagined national Hindu majority. The vision of a Hindu nation was built around ideas of Hindu unity and organisation, or Hindu sangathan.
One influential and controversial symbol of this vision can be seen in the contemporary politics of cow protection.
While the cow is considered to be a sacred animal by some Hindus, the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organisations have long presented beef consumption and cow protection as a dividing line between Hindus and non-Hindus.
During their electoral campaign in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP pledged to pass laws to end the “river of blood of cows, oxen and buffalo”. Abattoirs, many of which are run by Indian Muslims, have since faced a crackdown by state authorities.
At times, Hindu organisation has been accompanied by a violent activism directed towards anyone accused of eating beef or slaughtering cows.
Many leading thinkers primarily view the growing power of Hindu nationalism through its encouragement of Hindu and Muslim intra-communal conflict. Yet, this ignores the much-contested place of lower-caste groups within Hindu nationalism.
Addressing the politics sparked by these conflicting views provides another compelling prism through which to understand the significance of Hindu mobilisation and recent electoral victories.
During the course of 19th century debates, Hindu activist organisations such as Arya Samaj turned their attention to the issue of caste and, in particular, the position of lower-caste groups within the Hindu society.
This raised questions over where the boundaries of Hinduism were, considering that caste practices often cut across religious traditions, and “Hindu” as a religious identity was unfamiliar to many, who now found themselves categorised within it.
A central tenet of diversity in Hindu politics was the idea that numerically large lower-caste groups were a key part of the Hindu society, and it was this shifting consciousness which allowed for the imagination of a Hindu majority in the region. The BJP seeks to mobilise this diversity into a consolidated idea of Hindu identity and nationhood.
While the BJP’s campaigning in recent elections around symbols such as the cow have played a role in this, grassroots movements affiliated with Hindu nationalism that have been operating outside, politics and whose activism is often incorrectly seen as of little consequence to India’s social landscape, also played a role.
My own research demonstrates how these seva (service) projects, including approximately 14,000 schools and cultural societies, link the histories and heroes of lower caste groups into a broader story of Hindu society.
For example, in dramatic folk plays about the Hindu God-King Rama in Uttar Pradesh, lower-caste groups such as Nishads are placed at the forefront of the myth and celebrated for their masculine and ethical qualities, in a manner similar to the BJP’s presentation of an “angry Rama” in colourful badges, stickers and posters.
Alongside this incorporation, in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, tribal and lower caste groups use these ideas of moral comportment to shatter stereotypes and create a space for themselves in the Hindu nation.
These stories present the cultural ethos of marginal Hindus as central to building any Hindu nation, claiming that its decline is the responsibility of more powerful Hindu figures, whose actions, such as alcohol consumption, are corrupt and quite inimical to the demands of an ethical Hindu identity.
While these ideas of Hindu organisation and nationalism have been on the rise, they have been increasingly challenged by thinkers who assert an alternative and independent lower-caste identity.
These activists claim the legacy of BR Ambedkar, the principal framer of the Indian constitution. An important leader of the Dalit, or the former “untouchable”, caste, Ambedkar’s work helped inspire the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), or the “Majority People’s Party”.
Since the 1980s, the BSP has put forward a forceful critique of Hindu nationalism, and from this period onwards lower-caste politics have developed into a major aspect of Indian life.
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This brings us back to the 2014 and 2017 elections.
Of all the competing views of community, religion and nationhood offered during the campaigns, it was the BJP’s invocation of the symbols of Hindu unity which gained popular support and caused lower-caste parties to regress.
In the most recent polls, the Hindu nationalists successfully captured 69 of the 89 seats reserved for lower-caste representatives, compared to just two for the BSP.
Tracing India’s difficult and momentous turn towards Hindu nationalist politics allows us to consider an increasingly powerful paradigm at work in the world: one which twists the kaleidoscope to reveal not the messy entanglements of human history and belonging, but instead sharp divisions and monopolised spaces.
Ketan Alder lectures in religions and politics at Lancaster University. He is currently writing a book on Hindu activism in modern India.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.