The Long March of Hindu Nationalism


From April to May, 2014, India, the world’s largest democracy, held its general elections, with a clear victory for Hindu nationalism at the polls. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, gained a remarkable success by securing the majority of seats in parliament. Historical significance of this electoral success needs to be considered in the light of the diverse political strategies that the BJP and the RSS have utilized since 1980s.

The BJP, established in 1980, is the successor of the Hindu nationalist parties Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951) and Janata Party (1977). The party advocated for Hindutva that emphasizes Hinduism as the basis of Indian nationalism. It is generally described as the ‘political wing’ (Hansen 1999:3) of a large family of Hindu nationalist organizations known as Sangh Parivar, established and led by a militant nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Although the party has no official association with the RSS, many leading actors of the BJP were recruited from the RSS.  For many scholars, the fact that many leaders and cadres of the BJP have RSS backgrounds shows the organic link between the two organizations (for RSS-BJP association, see Brass 1997:16-17; Nussbaum 2007:170; Basu 2001:182). One RSS leader described the relationship as one where these organizations are bound by ‘fraternal ties’ and share common goals (see Udayakumar 2005:127).

The BJP was not able to garner mass electoral support during its early years. Throughout the 1990s, however, the party increased its electoral appeal and managed to get more than 25% of the votes in 1998 general elections. Despite some setbacks throughout the 2000s, its popular support on the polls never went below 18%. Hence, since 1990s, the BJP succeeded to entrench itself as the largest opposition to the Congress Party in India.

In this period, Hindu nationalist movement used different hegemony building strategies. Subsequently, this two-decade long electoral popularization of the BJP in India was accompanied by nationalist mobilization on the ground as well. This was possibly because the BJP is not an ordinary populist nationalist party; being linked with the RSS enabled the BJP to be a ‘highly motivated cadre’ (Swain 2001:72) on the one hand, and a capacity to ‘assume the character of a social movement which can mobilize on a larger scale than any other political party in India’ (Basu 2001:181) on the other. This peculiar organizational character revealed itself in the capacity of utilizing different action repertoires to gain the support for large masses for Hindu nationalism.

One of the most notorious forms of political action that the Hindu nationalist movement has utilized is the violent mobilization of the Hindu masses. Despite the large participation of ordinary civilians in ethno-religious riots, Hindu nationalist organizations, particularly the RSS and the BJP, visibly play a large part in these violent mobilizations. For instance, the religious rath yatra of 1990 in Ayodhya, which resulted in large scale ethno-religious riots, was initiated by the BJP leader Advani (Brass 1997). Different authors have argued that the Gujarat riots were not an organically occurring social reaction, but were ‘planned and organised events, coordinated by a relatively small group of people’ (Berenschot 2009:417; also see Brass 2003).

Mobilizing Hindu population for communal violence played a key role in polarizing Indian society along ethno-religious lines, which proved to be a key tool for Hindu nationalist movement to gain popularity among the country’s electorate. Through various ‘extra-parliamentary agitations’, the BJP/RSS was able to build a Hindu voting bloc that brought together various social groups with ‘divergent interests’ (De Leon, Desai and Tuğal 2009:204-205). Hence, violent mobilization became an effective strategy for the BJP to increase its electoral fortunes throughout 1990s (see Wilkinson 2004 and Hansen 1999). This electoral logic was also present in the deadly riots of Gujarat in 2002 (see Dhattiwala and Biggs 2012).

A rather less discussed aspect of the rise of Hindu nationalism has been the role of the ‘tactic of social welfare’ (Jaffrelot 1999). Various RSS-affiliated organizations, which receive significant amount of overseas donations/funds from the Indian diaspora since 1990s, provide free health care and education services among the poorer segments of the Indian society. This ‘quiet yet unrelenting grassroots social welfare work among urban slums’ increased the legitimacy of the RSS in a period of increasing economic vulnerability and informalisation of employment due to neoliberal economic policies (Chidambaram 2012: 304-307). Hence, the ‘tactic of social welfare’ proved to be an effective way to organize and mobilize marginalized groups that are beyond the reach of welfare services provided by the state.

By successfully utilizing these different strategies of political action, the Hindu nationalist movement succeeded in emerging as an alternative socio-political power in the last three decades. It remains to be seen whether or not being the ruling party of India will force the BJP to tone down its radical nationalist rhetoric and violent strategies.         


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Wilkinson, S. I. 2004. Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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