Hindu Nationalism

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HINDU NATIONALISM Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, is centrally concerned with notions of social solidarity. Hindu nationalism has thus focused on questions of identity, and symbols and practices that link people and groups to the larger community. It is also concerned with notions of prestige and India's place in the global order. It is therefore not surprising that India conducted weapons-related nuclear tests during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's first Hindu nationalist prime minister.

Hindu nationalism was a force throughout most of the twentieth century, embodied especially in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group that historically has viewed its mission as the training of a cadre of nationalist activists. Most Hindu nationalists interested in the political process operated under the broad umbrella of the Congress Party until the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 by a former member of the RSS. In the wake of Gandhi's assassination, several Hindu nationalist groups were banned and their members prohibited from participating in the Congress Party and its affiliated organizations. The RSS responded by establishing counterpart groups, using full-time workers (pracharaks) to organize new affiliates to work with labor, students, teachers, and journalists. Organizations affiliated to the RSS, popularly referred to collectively as the Sangh Parivar, or "family," took some three decades to recover from their public condemnation in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination. Only since about 1980 have the RSS and its affiliates managed to recover their earlier self-confidence and substantial popular support.

The most dramatic example of the new prominence of Hindu nationalism is the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in many ways its political face. The predecessor party of the BJP, the Jana Sangh, was formed in 1951 when many Hindu nationalists were excluded from the Congress. As late as the 1984 elections to the Lok Sabha, Parliament's lower, popularly elected house, the BJP remained a party on the margins. In the 1984 elections, it won only 2 of 543 seats, with less than 8 percent of the popular vote. It has steadily increased its share of seats in almost every subsequent election, expanding to 85 in 1989, 120 in 1991, 161 in 1996, and plateauing at 182 in both 1998 and 1999. The BJP's gains came largely at the expense of the long dominant Congress Party, which dropped from more than 400 seats in 1984 to just 114 in the parliamentary polls in 1999, even while the BJP won a somewhat smaller share of the popular vote—24 percent to its rival's 28 percent. The BJP, recognizing that it needed a coalition to win power at the federal level, built an alliance known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that assumed power after the 1998 national elections. The coalition has proved stable; it remained intact during the 1999 national elections and the usually contentious cabinet selection process, and internally divisive issues have not resulted in any significant defections. During the coalition government (1999–2004), Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, and a majority of the federal cabinet were members of the BJP; many of them were members of the RSS. The BJP-led NDA lost to the Congress Party–led United Progress Alliance in the mid-2004 parliamentary elections, 187 to 215 seats (of 543), though there was very little difference between the popular vote of the two alliances. The NDA alliance has largely remained together, though there are signs that the BJP in opposition may adopt elements of its earlier strident Hindu nationalist agenda.

The BJP is just one of several dozen Hindu nationalist organizations that are loosely linked to the "family" of organizations associated with the RSS. The RSS thinks of itself as a school that trains men to be the cutting edge of social change that will revitalize Hindu society. Since the 1980s, dozens of new affiliated organizations have been added, specifically to work among a broad array of social groups, like tribal communities, the urban poor, and the Hindu ecclesiastical establishment. Perhaps the most well known—and controversial—of these is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization; VHP) because of its aggressive pursuit of the Hindu nationalist cultural agenda. This organization has had a testy relationship with Prime Minister Vajpayee.

Tension in the "Family"

The victory of the BJP in taking power as head of the national governing coalition in 1998 deepened strains within the RSS family of organizations. These other organizations insist on maintaining a commitment to principles no longer entirely possible for the BJP, which must make compromises to mobilize popular support and attract coalition allies. The VHP has harshly criticized the BJP for its agreement to remove the most controversial parts of the Hindu nationalist cultural agenda from the Common Agenda of the ruling NDA, several of whose constituents depend on Muslim support. The BJP's Hindu nationalist critics argue that the party will never emerge with a majority on its own unless it reverts to its unalloyed Hindu nationalist roots. They point out that the fastest growth of the BJP occurred in the 1991 elections, in the wake of strong party support for the traditional Hindu nationalist cultural agenda, especially a national campaign on behalf of the construction of a temple dedicated to the god Rāma in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh. The issue became heated and controversial because the construction was proposed on a site that was occupied at the time by a sixteenth-century Mughal mosque known as the Babri Masjid. The Babri Masjid was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992, and the question of ownership of the site and some surrounding land has been under judicial review. Other controversial issues within the RSS family are the opening of the economy to foreign investment, cooperation with the United States in the global war on terrorism, and the BJP's relatively conciliatory view, within the Sangh Parivar, on the issue of Kashmir.

The BJP faced a dilemma as it prepared for the national elections in 2004; it needed to activate its Hindu nationalist workers while simultaneously trying to expand its vote base and maintain a diverse coalition. The debate focused around a choice of campaign models: the successful Hindutva theme of the Gujarat state elections in December 2002, or issues of good governance, which the party used in subsequent state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. The BJP lost the latter set of elections, giving voice to criticism from its Hindu nationalist right that the party needed to reassert its traditional vision, in part to activate the RSS cadre, many of whom declined to campaign for the BJP. The party faced a similar apathetic response from many of the RSS cadre in the mid-2004 elections when it also emphasized the issue governance.


The RSS has traditionally emphasized internal consensus, and tries to maintain a culture of judiciousness, discretion, and prudence within the Sangh Parivar. Traditionally, the RSS achieved this by placing its most talented full-time workers (pracharaks) in key positions in the affiliated organizations. These full-time workers created an informal collaborative network that kept differences within manageable limits. Still another tactic was to emphasize issues with broad cultural and symbolic resonance, and to use these issues to paper over differences. Kashmir has long been an issue with resonance beyond the Hindu nationalist community, and is seen more broadly as an Indian national concern. The planned temple at Ayodhya is also an issue with broad Hindu backing and was employed by the BJP in the early 1990s to counter the efforts of the Janata government to mobilize support for job reservations applicable to historically disadvantaged castes. Increasingly, terrorism has also been used to mobilize activists and appeal to a broader audience, and has risen to the level of a major theme in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. With the attack in December 2001 on the Lok Sabha Parliament building in New Delhi, the RSS and some of its affiliates have begun to express their suspicion of Muslims in terms of the war on terrorism.

Yet, new developments have undermined the efficacy of the RSS's traditional management strategies. Success has bred its own problems. Full-time workers from the RSS no longer control the levers of power in the BJP below the very top; the party has grown in size and complexity and is thus more difficult to discipline, even if the leadership wanted to do so. The party is now too large to permit the revival of the office of organizing secretary, a position that had existed at each level of the party and was staffed by full-time RSS workers who constituted a parallel structure that enforced discipline. The question of reviving this parallel structure has been debated, but has been rejected as impractical. Other groups within the RSS family have also expanded rapidly over the past two decades. They too rely less on full-time RSS workers. In addition, the consensus on key cultural issues has also broken down. All this has undermined the ability of the RSS to maintain its conventional role of mediator.

RSS as Mediator

The RSS has perhaps recognized that conditions call for a new management style. The present head of the RSS, K. S. Sudarshan, who took control in 2000, has a very different style from his predecessors. He lacks their charisma, and is more the chairman of the board of the RSS executive than supreme moral figure of the whole organization and its affiliates. He must spend more time negotiating differences because pronouncements from the leadership no longer carry the same weight. Not only are RSS full-time workers less influential in many of the affiliates, but several of these organizations, including the BJP, now have senior leaders that outrank the RSS top leadership. Prime Minister Vajpayee and his deputy L. K. Advani are senior in age and experience to Sudarshan, who took on his first leadership role in the RSS (as pracharak) only in the 1950s, a decade after Vajpayee and Advani. The breakdown in consensus-building shows itself in the deep internal differences over several significant issues, especially the Hindu nationalist drive to construct a temple dedicated to Rāma at Ayodhya, an effort that combines nationalist fervor, religious conviction, and identity politics. Many religious Hindus believe the site is the precise place where Rāma took human form; many Hindu nationalists consider a temple at the site as a symbol of revived national pride.


The VHP has been the most vocal and uncompromising on the Ayodhya temple issue. In many ways the explicit religious face of the RSS family, the VHP takes a proprietary view of the issue. The violence connected with the campaign to build a temple, however, has aroused debate on the issue within the BJP and has made their coalition partners unwilling to compromise. The VHP nonetheless has continued openly to confront the government, calling for legislation to allow the construction of a Rama temple. The VHP viewed Prime Minister Vajpayee's caution as a betrayal of a key element of the Hindutva agenda, and regularly called for his resignation.

In an attempt to resolve the issue before the 2004 elections, Vajpayee encouraged the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, a senior Hindu ecclesiastical figure, to negotiate a compromise with the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. The effort resulted in a proposal calling for the construction of a Ram Hindu temple on an undisputed plot adjacent to the site of the destroyed mosque, and the construction of a wall separating the temple from the original mosque property. The VHP, which was excluded from those talks, rejected any effort at compromise. Caught in the middle, the RSS initially opposed the Shankaracharya's proposal, but then decided to support the proposal while still protesting the VHP's exclusion from the negotiating process. The situation then got very complicated, reflecting intense infighting within the Sangh Parivar that ultimately resulted in a revision of the original proposal. The Muslim leadership rejected the revised proposal. The VHP blamed Vajpayee for his involvement in the failed effort, and, supported by the RSS, immediately resumed calls for legislative action to permit the construction of a Ram temple, prompting the prime minister to threaten to resign.

The issue flared again in the wake of a September 2003 government-commissioned archaeological investigation reporting evidence of a Hindu temple beneath and predating the Babri Masjid on the Ayodhya site. The report inspired the VHP to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters for a march in the city in mid-October. Vajpayee called on the organizers to keep the rally peaceful. The government of Uttar Pradesh, controlled by an opposition party, arrested the organizers of the march in an attempt to prevent violence. The VHP leadership charged that the Vajpayee was assisting the state government to quash the protest march. The proposed march did not take place, but the VHP promised to take whatever steps are necessary to build the temple.


The Hindutva critics have adopted a program of economic populism, once largely associated with the Indian left, opposing privatization and foreign investment on the one hand and arguing for economic self-sufficiency on the other. The labor affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, has strongly opposed globalization, and has received support for its stand from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, whose leaders are close to the RSS, and which has support from a broad array of student, farmer, and workers' groups. The Mazdoor Sangh organized rallies, some with unions and political groups opposed to the former BJP-dominated coalition government, to protest initiatives permitting the involvement of foreign companies in the life insurance sector and the sale of public enterprises to private interests. This criticism of globalization has a resonance among small-scale business, the traditional core support group of the RSS, which fears being overwhelmed by large modern enterprises, both Indian and foreign. This criticism also finds substantial support among workers in the organized sector of Indian industry; they fear that the rationalization of industry under private management would result in significant unemployment. The Mazdoor Sangh and other groups also argue that foreign investment is a threat to the nation's sovereignty. Prime Minister Vajpayee resisted this guerrilla activity against his government by appealing to still another traditional ingredient in the Hindu nationalist agenda, the building of a "great India." He argued that globalization is necessary for the 8 to 10 percent annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate that would make India an international power.


A dramatic example of the breakdown in consensus-building occurred during Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections in October 2002, when the RSS supported non-BJP candidates running on a platform of a "trifurcation" of the state. That plan, which has been on the agenda of the RSS family for decades, would divide Jammu and Kashmir into three separate states along communal/ethnic lines, thus constitutionally separating the Hindu-majority Jammu area from the largely Muslim Kashmir Valley and the largely Buddhist Ladakh. The BJP had not given the proposal serious consideration for two decades, and when the RSS brought forward the idea of splitting Kashmir along communal lines, the Vajpayee government rejected it as a violation of India's traditional commitment to the "one nation" principle. The only other instance in which RSS activists withdrew support from the BJP on a large scale was in the 1984 parliamentary elections, when the Congress Party made blatant appeals to Hindu nationalism. Despite the growing criticism of the BJP within the Sangh Parivar, the Kashmir rebellion is an exception because the RSS leadership continues to try to dampen criticism of what it still considers a friendly government. The rebellion against the BJP in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, however, reveals the deep opposition to the Vajpayee government's conciliatory efforts and also a weakening of the RSS's mediatory role.


The RSS and the Sangh Parivar spent most of the last half century in political opposition. The role of opponent fit an ideology that has been deeply suspicious of the government since the founding of the RSS in 1925, a suspicion exacerbated after independence by the periodic efforts of Congress Party governments to ban it. When elements of the RSS family were in power, that political power had a destabilizing impact. Never in the history of the RSS has there been such public bickering. Nonetheless, no senior figures have yet defected from the BJP; there has been no serious challenge to Vajpayee's political leadership, and no Hindus have set up a countering political organization. The only political figure in the BJP, other than Vajpayee, who has charismatic appeal is Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, who so successfully ran a tough Hindutva campaign in the 2002 state elections in the wake of communal violence there. Modi scored an overwhelming personal victory in the state, and is seen as the champion of the Hindutva agenda by many Hindu nationalists. Unlike Vajpayee, however, he has virtually no appeal outside the party. He is viewed by some BJP allies as a disruptive figure. Modi for his part is probably too much of a disciplined RSS member to rebel. He may also be conscious of the dismal fate of past party rebels. The most likely successor to Vajpayee is his deputy, L. K. Advani. The two have jointly run the party since the 1970s. They may have policy differences, but they are also close allies and Advani assumed control of the party organization after the 2004 loss of power. It is questionable if the RSS can ever again assert the influence it once had. The consequence is likely to be increasingly acrimonious relations between the BJP and other elements of the RSS family. The likely outcome of this is a greater distance between the BJP and them. Another likely consequence is a growing independence among some of the other larger constituents of the Sangh Parivar.

Walter AndersenDaniel Consolatore

See alsoBharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ; Hindu Nationalist Parties ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


Andersen, Walter K., and Shridhar D. Damle. The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism. New Delhi: Vistaar, 1987.

Hansen, Thomas B., and Christophe Jaffrelot, eds. The BJP and the Compulsions of Politics in India. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s. New Delhi: Penguin, 1999.

Ludden, David, ed. Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

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