Electoral wins or religious peace?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s soft Hindutva strategy may be electorally successful, but it risks splitting the country along deep lines of religious hostility and conflict

Updated - April 02, 2016 11:13 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2015 03:07 am IST

As religion increasingly occupies the space of political discourse in India, there is a growing sense of insecurity among the country’s religious minorities. In the wake of a series of attacks on churches in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated for greater religious tolerance and vowed to punish religious violence. Yet, there are few takers within minority communities that things will change for the better.

Mr. Modi’s statement should not come as a surprise. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rarely speaks out against religious intolerance toward minorities but neither does it publicly defend it. This is very much a political tactic, part of the larger strategy — what we describe as ‘soft Hindutva’ — that was at play in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. At its heart is the idea that the BJP will do just enough to mobilise the majority Hindu vote in its favour without necessarily attacking other communities. It also enables the party to reach across the caste divide.

Before the midterm polls in the United States late last year, Nate Cohn of the New York Times published a fascinating article (‘Why House Republicans Alienate Hispanics: They Don’t Need Them’) explaining the Republican Party’s snub to Hispanic voters in the run-up to the elections, against the advice of most political analysts. Mr. Cohn found that the Republicans could perform successfully in the Congressional elections, retaining the House and even taking the Senate, without a single Hispanic vote. Thus, there was little incentive for the party to reach out to the Hispanics on issues such as immigration reform, even though the community comprises 17 per cent of the country’s population.

Maximising core constituency The similarity to the BJP could not be more obvious. Given that parties in India need less than 40 per cent of the vote share to win in most constituencies, the BJP has little incentive to aggressively reach out to Muslims and other minority communities. Even if it does, there is little chance that religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, will vote for the BJP, given the history of mistrust and suspicion.

Thus the BJP, like the Republicans in the U.S., chooses to maximise its core constituency of voters rather than risk alienating a portion of them to appease those that are unlikely to vote for it regardless of what it does. It does this through a soft version of Hindutva, which does not involve invoking widespread intolerance and hate towards other religions, but requires active mobilisation of Hindus on the ground.

The BJP cannot pursue a more radical version of Hindutva. Hardline Hindutva is guided by the idea that India is only a Hindu nation. It is often a violent strategy, which is vehemently anti-Muslim. Such a strategy would not only erode the party’s already low Muslim vote, but also alienate a significant portion of the more moderate Hindus who will denounce religious intolerance.

Hardline Hindutva leaders also often mobilise people around a particular deity within Hinduism. In a land of thousands of deities, this runs the risk of triggering conflict among the Hindus and splitting the Hindu vote. Thus, hardline Hindutva is not a winning strategy. Soft Hindutva, on the other hand, definitely is, and it has given the Modi-Amit Shah duo great success of late (it has been argued that the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindu mobilisation led to their rout in the Delhi elections, but there is no evidence to support this view).

Soft Hindutva is deeply damaging for India. Whatever its supporters may say, the strategy marginalises other communities. While most Hindus may believe that the religion is completely tolerant and open-minded, people from minority communities do not see it the same way. They are unable to make the distinction between hard and soft Hindutva. If there is no political party that can articulate minority interests forcefully at the national level, religious minorities will feel even more marginalised. The contrast with the U.S. is instructive. In the U.S., the Democratic Party represents Hispanic interests and provides a powerful voice for them. Whether the Republicans seek Hispanic votes or not, thus, has less of an impact, since their voice is represented by another national political party. In India, unfortunately, the party that could represent the Muslims, the Congress, has imploded, and a strong recovery in the near future seems unlikely. This leaves the minorities with no real national voice and a sense of vulnerability.

Accommodating hard Hindutva

The vulnerability also comes from the fact that those who believe in soft Hindutva are less willing to openly censure the hardliners. The criticism of the fundamentalists comes from elsewhere, primarily from the Left. This is not unique to India. Fundamentalist religions in other parts of the world also face greater opposition from the seculars, the atheists, and the Left rather than co-believers. This results in an ideological conflict between the Left and Right that often drowns out the voices of the less extreme (in this case the people who believe in soft Hindutva), and instead depicts a clash of two extreme, fundamentalist visions.

By accommodating hard Hindutva, soft Hindutva is also creating a political problem for itself. As the tension between different communities escalates, so does the possibility of religious violence, whether planned or unplanned. If such a situation arises, the less fundamentalist Hindus, who might oppose the hardliners’ use of violence and force, will likely be the first targets. Historical cases of ethnic conflict across the world have begun with the targeting of co-ethnics, that is, the moderates within a community who pose a threat to the extremist agenda. For instance, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, extremist Hutu leaders began their onslaught against the Tutsi population by first killing the moderate Hutus.

Though electorally successful, the BJP’s soft Hindutva strategy risks alienating not just the Muslims and Christians, but also the Sikhs, many of whom supported the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. More important however, it increases the chances of religious hostility and conflict. A strategy that is electorally powerful will leave India weaker. We have already heard from Prime Minister Modi. The real question is will Mr. Modi be able to reconcile his commitment to religious peace and tolerance with his party’s hunger for more electoral victories?

(Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.)

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