Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

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BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY (BJP) Generally regarded as the party of Hindu nationalism, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the largest, dominant partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government that rose to power in India after the general elections of 1990 and that governed in 1998 and again from 1999 to 2004. Although the BJP still has a significant political presence in the populous north and west of the country, it is weaker in the south and the east.

The BJP was formed in 1980, the successor to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), which was founded in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookherji. The BJS had been established with the reluctant acquiescence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had rapidly become the preeminent "Hindu-first" national organization after its creation in 1925. The BJS remained on the margins of Indian national politics until the RSS launched a renewed campaign against cow slaughter in 1966, under the aegis of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. That campaign proved rewarding for the BJS in the parliamentary elections of 1967. A decade later, the BJS merged with a disparate umbrella group of political parties that united to form the Janata Party. They defeated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party, following her "National Emergency" of 1975. The Janata coalition itself, however, swiftly succumbed to internal divisions soon after coming to power in 1977.

The Hindu nationalists of the newly formed BJP reentered the fray of Indian politics in the 1980s with new strategies, led by party president Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who later became prime minister. The Congress Party, which had led the struggle for Indian independence and had dominated national politics for three decades, resumed its decline despite a brief revival in fortunes, creating an opportunity for the BJP, which invoked "Gandhian socialism" and adopted the symbolically significant green, identified with Islam, as well as the saffron of the old Jana Sangh in its flag.

L. K. Advani, who later served as deputy premier and home minister in the BJP-led coalition government, was identified with a more traditional conservative, Hindu-first outlook. He took over the leadership of the BJP from Vajpayee in 1984. His invocation of cultural nationalism appealed to the growing Hindu middle class. The BJP called for a uniform civil code, which would end both Islamic personal law and the special status for the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir embodied in India's Constitution. In addition, the implementation in 1990 of sweeping affirmative action quotas proposed by the Mandal Commission for deprived communities angered upper caste Hindu voters, whose support for the BJP grew. Advani, as the new president of the BJP, combined his critique of the anomalies of secularism in Hindu-Indian society and politics with an espousal of religious symbolism that captured the public mood. He began his symbolic rath yatra (chariot pilgrimage) across northern India to rally support for the party. It culminated in the BJP's campaign for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya over the site of the Babri Masjid, which appealed to zealous Hindus.

The fortunes of the BJP advanced rapidly, its paltry two members in Parliament in 1984 rising to over 119 by 1991. It thus became the largest single party in Parliament. In 1991 the BJP captured of 21 percent of the vote in the India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and had more than a third in Gujarat state, as well as over 28 percent in its southern stronghold, the state of Karnataka. By 1998, when it joined a coalition government, it had over a quarter of the vote, but it fell by a single vote thirteen days later in a vote of no-confidence in Parliament. But the BJP-led government managed to carry out nuclear tests during its tenure, dramatically turning India into a nuclear weapons state and winning public acclaim. The BJP alliance regained power in 1999 after expelling Pakistani invaders from Indian bunkers in Kargil in a highly televised summer war. Prime MinisterAtal Bihari Vajpayee was then returned to power, with two additional seats, commanding a total of 182 in India's 540-member Lok Sabha.

During the following years, when the BJP led the NDA government, Indian politics experienced dramatic changes. The liberalization of the Indian economy continued in fits and starts, but with ever greater resolve, as it seemed to spur economic growth, structural transformation, and exports. The major change was India's abandonment of familiar foreign policy postures and its espousal of a new pragmatism that involved a much closer relationship with the United States and Israel. Relations with Pakistan remained tense, and the armed conflict over Kashmir continued unabated, worsening after India formally became a nuclear weapons state in 1998. Pakistan followed suit, and used its nuclear status to intensify covert warfare. But the BJP's reputation suffered a setback when its members and others from associated Hindu-first organizations were implicated in widespread attacks on Muslims in Gujarat.

Despite its ideological Hindu nationalist moorings, the BJP as a political party was compelled to make pragmatic electoral calculations. As a result, tensions arose with zealous Hindutva organizations, which had provided manpower for its election campaigns and had inspired Hindu voters. Historically, the RSS had preferred to engage with civil society to reform Hinduism, and generally disparaged political activity despite, inconsistently, arguing in favor of a robust modern Indian state.

Three interrelated factors complicated this tension between electoral imperatives and ideological issues. The first was the need to raise money, requiring distractions for government policy that constrained populist measures and disappointed voters. Another problem was corruption, fueled by the need to fund elections and finance the party apparatus, which compromised its members and the organization itself, and proved impossible to conceal from voters. The third was the growing criminalization of Indian politics, especially in regions experiencing economic stagnation, or indeed regression, making politics the most attractive vehicle for personal enrichment. The BJP has been unable to escape these hard realities, which threaten its identity more than does its narrow ideological vision. In the elections of 2004, the BJP was defeated by the Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi.

Gautam Sen

See alsoAyodhya ; Hindu Nationalism ; Hindu Nationalist Parties ; Hindutva and Politics ; Vajpayee, Atal Bihari ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


Banerjee, Partha. In the Belly of the Beast: The Hindu Supremacist RSS and BJP of India: An Insider's Story. New Delhi: Ajanta Books International, 1998.

Malik, Yogendra K., and V. B. Singh. Hindu Nationalists in India: The Rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.