The search for a ‘majority’

How the BJP’s Hindutva demographic is founded upon splitting and depoliticising hereditary identities

May 23, 2019 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:39 pm IST

FILE PHOTO: A supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party flag during an election campaign rally being addressed by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party flag during an election campaign rally being addressed by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

Since elections were grudgingly introduced to India under British rule, they have put into question the existence of a nation. The British denied the reality of such a nation by pointing to India’s rivalrous diversities of caste, creed and culture, and introduced separate electorates for religious groups. Indian politics is still informed by an anxiety to define and maintain a national identity. The partition of India in 1947, to create a Muslim homeland in Pakistan, gave substance to this anxiety but was also meant to resolve it. Secessionist movements or Maoist insurgencies have subsequently questioned though never threatened India’s integrity.

Beyond diversity

These regional, religious or ideological threats are suspected of receiving the support of ‘foreign hands’, from Britain, America and Russia in the past to Pakistan and China today. Yet they are side-shows to the problem of India’s diversity: its lack of a European-style national majority defined by language, race, culture or religion. Not only does every social category in this vast country break down into ever smaller units, but the expansion of democracy ensures that each can set itself up as a political identity of its own.


This fragmentation peaked during the country’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s. An invigorated private sector and the proliferation of new political identities along caste and regional lines made Hindutva the only credible basis for a national majority. The state-defined nationalism of the past, which added up India’s diversities in a cultural hierarchy, crumbled in this new market of politics. But unlike Islam in Pakistan, there is nothing theological about Hindu nationalism. It is a secular movement for which religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.

A national future

Novel about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is its attempt to create not a political majority in the elections but a national one. This conflation allows it to turn the vote into a referendum about nationality. In the past, majorities were achieved arithmetically, by bringing together social groups not simply on an ideological platform, but by promising each some entitlement or share in power. The party able to attract more and larger groups formed the government. In 2014, however, the BJP shifted away from such electoral arithmetic, and achieved its national majority by a process of polarisation.


This entailed splitting existing groups not only from each other but also internally. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP was able to lure less entitled lower castes from more entitled ones to place them under the leadership of upper castes. By ignoring the State’s Muslim population, it was also able to collect Hindu votes in the name of Hindutva rather than caste. Instead of achieving its majority by consolidation, the BJP did so by fragmentation, appealing not to the largest number of voters but an effective and disaggregated core. Its national majority depends upon the dismantling of inherited constituencies.

Yet this national majority is not simply engineered by party strategy, illustrating rather the political disintegration of social groups in urban India. Low caste and Muslim voters, who in the countryside might never support the BJP, can do so when they migrate to towns and cities. This is not due to any privilege or protection they receive from the party, but perhaps because the national majority it represents is increasingly based on social fractions rather than units, on individuals rather than groups. This makes the BJP India’s most modern party, its fractions representing the future, while the Opposition’s whole numbers belong to the past.

But the past isn’t dead in India, and the future hasn’t yet come to pass, so there is no guarantee that Hindutva will win the day. In 2004 the BJP was turfed after its first full term in office by ‘traditional’ and often rural voters left behind by the new realities of urban India. But any repetition of this act is subject to the law of diminishing returns, given the country’s rapid urbanisation and the social change it produces. The BJP thus turns out to be less conservative than the Congress, and can no longer be described as an upper-caste party dedicated to perpetuating tradition.


Because it depends upon traditional groupings based on caste and creed, the Congress is marked by a culture of nepotism. While not immune to such corruption, the BJP’s more meritocratic and ideological style indicates a break with this past. That it can only achieve its majority by fragmenting and depoliticising social groups tells us how revolutionary the party is. It absconds with the supporters of its own caste and regional allies. Even middle and upper-class families that once voted for a single party have been split by the BJP, and thus rendered politically impotent as collective agents.

Although the BJP hasn’t fragmented all India’s social groupings, it has revolutionised the meaning of the majority there. The minority, too, has therefore ceased to be a politically transient form and come to represent an ‘anti-national’ force in BJP rhetoric. This means that the Opposition can now be identified with the two most important exemplars of treachery in nationalist narratives: Muslims and Maoists. While centrist parties like the Congress are therefore seen as favouring Muslims, leftist ones are understood as supporting a Maoist insurgency to divide the country.

Retiring minorities

Apart from their disparities of size, constitution and outlook, the most striking difference between Muslims and Maoists is that the latter are political actors, while the former appear to lack politics. As the country’s largest minority, Muslims represent not only themselves but every group that can be called one. Their depoliticisation thus heralds that of all India’s hereditary groupings. Muslims stand in for all that is traditional about India, from the tendency of castes and creeds to vote collectively in return for political favours (called ‘appeasement’ in the lexicon of Hindutva) to non-modern ways of life.


The fact that Muslims are no more likely to sustain ‘backward’ practices than anyone else is irrelevant, the point being to delegitimise the political identity of all traditional groups. Apart from the insurgency in Kashmir, however, and the existence of small parties in one or two regions, Muslims have no political presence in India and are under-represented in Parliament, the civil service and the armed forces.

Muslims have become models of political quiescence under the BJP, making a living largely as petty traders, artisans and labourers in the private sector that opened up with India’s economic liberalisation. They no longer seem capable of protesting against any grievance, which these days includes scattered episodes of mob lynching over accusations of eating beef or eloping with Hindu women in acts of ‘love jihad’. This depoliticisation may be due to their remaking as economic subjects outside the state as much to their abjection.

If economic liberalisation and the market it created allowed Hindutva to achieve power, it led Muslims to opt out of politics, no longer a ‘vote bank’ for any party. But upper castes have also abandoned public life for the private sector. Politics has increasingly become the preserve of the numerically dominant Other Backward Classes (OBCs), with upper castes funding and influencing political parties from outside. Muslims are unable to do this and have exited the system as a casualty of India’s democratisation.

Characteristic tension

The BJP’s majority is founded upon splitting and depoliticising hereditary identities. While these groups continue to exist as social entities, their members are recruited to the BJP’s strongly individualistic and anti-caste ethos, with Muslims and other minorities representing the backwardness of traditional loyalties. As long as inherited social structures exist, Hindutva’s national majority and its ideal of modernity remain incomplete. Yet in a tension that marks the politics of Hindutva, these groups are still required to win elections even as they are depoliticised in the process.

Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford

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