The making of a ‘neo-Hindu’ democracy


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IF for the first time in a span of almost three decades, elections produce a ‘real victory’ for any one party, that is reason enough to take the development seriously. If a leader, more or less single-handedly, sways the election, we need to examine whether this reflects momentary infatuation or has long-term implications. Above all, if the leader and the party, having emerged victorious, take themselves seriously and begin to introduce a new script and grammar of politics, the development opens up the possibility of redefining the existing normative basis of competitive politics and democracy. The last year and a half – starting from the time when Narendra Modi was anointed the BJP campaign chief in 2013 – has produced changes that go far beyond ordinary electoral upsets and governmental shifts. So, what is happening in India’s political life?

I would argue that the parliamentary elections of 2014 have not merely produced an electoral majority, they have given rise to a political force that is likely to dominate competitive politics for quite some time. They have also given articulation to a new middle ground and, therefore, a possibility that a new hegemony might take shape in the coming decade. In effect, we are witnessing a moment when India’s democracy may well shift to a new phase that might aptly be described as a ‘neo-Hindu democracy’.

Let us first look at the election outcome. Three things strike even a casual observer. One, ever since the Congress party government of Rajiv Gandhi was defeated, a single party majority government has come to power for the first time. Two, even if, as is often the case under the first past the post (FPTP) system, the BJP got ‘only’ 31 per cent of the votes, this is the highest any party has polled after 1991. Three, and perhaps most crucially, the main opposition of the BJP, the Congress, finds itself hopelessly marginalized and demoralized. Together, these three features make the outcome of the 16th Lok Sabha election not only dramatic but full of possibilities. On the one hand, they indicate the arrival of a political dispensation that may become the new centre of competitive politics. On the other, they suggest that the nature of political competition itself will change. But just as these two developments craft a dominant party system once again, they also contain a possibility that the nature of India’s democracy would alter in a major way.

Traditional wisdom about India’s politics revolved around the Congress party; even the political strategy of most parties invariably centred on that party. This is best evidenced by the long life of the politics of ‘non-Congressism’, which emerged originally in the sixties and continued in the seventies. Much of the coalition making since 1989 to 1999, too, was a continuation of non-Congressism. That Congress-centric political calculation and political analysis is now likely to get a burial. In this sense, the outcome of the general election of 2014 has inaugurated a new phase of Indian politics.


For some time now, analysts have written about the decline of the Congress and the halting rise of a ‘post-Congress’ polity. That process of change has now culminated in the rise of the BJP. Ironically, this is not so much because the BJP won the election (which it indeed did), but more the manner in which the Congress lost! Going down to a historic low in terms of both seats and votes (44 and 19 per cent respectively) and getting wiped out in most states (including even seemingly invincible strong-holds like Andhra and Maharashtra), the defeat of the Congress marks a paradigmatic change in India’s politics.1

These developments have given rise to a new centre of competitive politics – the BJP. Before we turn to the question of just how durable the BJP victory may be, we need to appreciate that all assembly elections following the parliamentary election of April-May 2014 are likely to have the BJP as a central factor. Assembly elections in both Haryana and Maharashtra in October 2014 have indicated this trend. In Jharkhand and Bihar, the BJP is already a major player, and looks forward to gaining power on its own. In Jammu and Kashmir too, the BJP is set to replace the Congress and, thereby, change the inter-community and inter-region balance in the state.


Thus, both because the Congress has been convincingly defeated and because the BJP will now control not only the central government but also be crucial in a majority of states, it can claim the central space. Most political parties will now be characterized by their position and distance vis-à-vis the BJP. Following the YSR Congress, we might witness a spurt in the state level parties claiming Congress space, but operating from outside the Congress party (as has recently happened in Tamil Nadu). This will further add to the central position of the BJP. As seen in Bihar, the immediate response to this central position of the BJP would be feeble attempts to form anti-BJP alliances ‘to avoid a division of the non-BJP vote’. That such an approach would only enhance BJP’s central position is another matter.


The simplest and most direct evidence of the rise of BJP as a would-be dominant party is its vote share across states where it has traditionally been weak or non-existent. Table 1 makes it clear that the BJP has emerged as the truly ‘all-India’ party. While there are some fluctuations, partly a reflection of alliance arithmetic and partly due to the fact that the 2009 election was particularly bad for the BJP, the trend clearly is one of BJP expansion, not just in terms of vote share but in its critical presence in a greater number of states. As the Modi government settles down, the BJP would be aiming to become a dominant force in most states. As of now, the BJP is in power in Punjab and Maharashtra (in coalition), Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It has been in and out of power in Uttarakhand in the North and Karnataka in the South. These details only underscore the ‘all-India’ character of the party.


BJP Vote Share in Key Non-BJP States (Lok Sabha 2014)


Vote %

Change from2009

Change from2004

Change from1999

Andhra Pradesh



-1.2 (for united AP)

-2.7 (for united AP)

Arunachal Pradesh















Jammu and Kashmir


















West Bengal





Source: Adapted from Appendix IV; Statistics – National Election Study, EPW 49(39), 27 September 2014, pp. 132-34; Appendix IV, EPW 44(39), 26 September 2009, pp. 204-06 and Appendix I(a), EPW 39(51), 18 December 2004, pp. 5540-43.

But more than becoming an all-India party, this would mean that BJP would constrain the scope for coalitions with and among the state parties. For some time now, most state parties have been alliance partners of either the Congress or BJP. We have already witnessed how the BJP snapped its alliance with the HJC; but far more dramatic was the decision to snap ties with its first ever ally, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra (only to form a post-election coalition which also happens to be a ‘post-humiliation’ coalition for the Shiv Sena!). That must have put the Akali Dal on notice. This also puts the state parties in a quandary: the BJP would be loath to enter into alliances and the Congress is not seen as a ‘coalitionable’ partner by most parties. As such, the politics of coalitions would now have a very limited role in shaping competitive politics. At any rate, the neat bipolarity of coalitions would certainly erode.


This also implies, in the third place, that state parties will play a limited role in national politics. They will not easily disappear, but their capacity to extract policy spaces has definitely reduced. Most state parties would be confined to their respective states in terms of strategy and perspective. And even on their home turf, many of them face a stiff contest from the BJP. In this sense, the party system will undergo changes in the days to come. Indeed, as in 2014, the state parties in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal may withstand the pressures of a resurgent BJP. But, the BJP is most likely to make an entry in these states in the near future and restrict local parties only to the ‘state level’.

It is likely that some states may still remain somewhat less affected by the BJP, but that need not deter the BJP from wresting the initiative and retaining its overall hold. Besides, the larger issue will be whether these parties can counter the BJP ideologically. In other words, the rise of the BJP to power and the sudden demise of the Congress has opened up possibilities of a new dominant pole in India’s politics that would define the scope and content of political competition in the coming decade, as also the contours of political discourse.

It may be tempting to expose the BJP’s weak spots. In most of the southern and eastern states, it does not have a strong presence, and in terms of seats won it has already reached saturation point in more than three or four states. Both these have limited relevance to the format of competition that a dominant BJP will force on the political system. We have only to remember that in Maharashtra and Haryana too, the party made a good showing despite poor organizational strength. Similarly, it is likely that were elections to be held tomorrow, the BJP would not achieve the sweep that it did in Gujarat, Rajasthan or MP. But surely it would compensate for that marginal dip from states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Odisha.


The real weak spot of the BJP, traditionally, has been its rather narrow catchment area, garnering votes mainly from the upper castes and some OBC sections. This was already attended to in the last general election. Despite the huge upper caste support that the BJP received in the 2014 election, it would be incorrect to accuse the party of being ‘a party of only upper caste/class’ voters. Its support was rather impressively spread across the OBCs, adivasis and scheduled caste voters, and also across the lower income groups.2 So, in all likelihood, the BJP will occupy a central place in competitive politics, smaller parties would gravitate towards it, state parties would not be willing and/or able to put up a real alternative and the fragmented and disunited opposition is likely to further magnify the dominance of the BJP.

The emergence of such a dominant force does not merely signify the changing nature of competitive politics, it also indicates that the emerging political dominance is likely to be based on more durable changes in the normative basis of politics. While the failings of the UPA government and the Congress party contributed to the 2014 outcome, the BJP victory is indicative of long-term processes rather than merely contingent factors. In a sense, the interregnum of around twenty-five years since 1990 is the period during which many characteristics of the earlier Congress system were displaced and a new consensus shaped.


The nineties witnessed intense contestation over three issues. One was the claim of the backward classes to power, another was the shift towards a more market oriented economy, and the third was the issue of religio-cultural basis of national identity. Of these three, the issue of economy was rather quietly set aside as most parties chose to adopt the same approach to economic policy during that period, the difference being one of scale, style and emphasis rather than the basic approach. On the other hand, the issue of OBC claims proved to be more durable and complicated.

Affirmative action for the OBCs was only a part of that complex debate. It was partly resolved by adopting the Mandal Commission recommendations within the scope of the Supreme Court ruling. However, the more critical aspect was the claim over political power. At least in most of North India, conceding the claims of OBCs meant displacing the entrenched power-holders belonging to the upper and middle castes. Being a powerful party, the Congress was more sensitive to this issue – most of its leaders from the northern states hailed from the upper castes and were not willing to give up control either of the party or the government machinery. That intransigence catapulted the ‘OBC parties’ to prominence in North India. However, as a party which was expanding precisely at that same moment, the BJP was quick to seize the initiative and allowed OBC leaders to rise to higher positions in the party. By the end of the 1990s, the process of ‘Mandalisation’ of parties was well under way and while the Congress never adjusted to this challenge satisfactorily, it ceased to operate as a pole opposed to Mandalisation. The OBC issue thus, did not remain contentious anymore.


The controversy over Ayodhya shook the foundations of national identity. Aggressive and militant Hindu nationalism became a common expression of that identity. Even as the Babri mosque-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy formally subsided through the nineties, the Godhra and Gujarat violence against the Muslims represented its presence in the psyche of the nation. It is significant, however, that the parliamentary elections post-Godhra (2004) partially skirted this most volatile issue. The non-BJP parties made appropriate noises against the violence but did not present a cogent response to the claims of Hindu identity as Indian national identity. More importantly, the elections were not won or lost on the issue of Hindutva.3 The electorate did not want to pronounce judgment on the contentious issue of Hindutva, nor was it forced to do so in the 2004 elections. And yet, a quiet middle ground had acquired legitimacy on this issue.


Over the years, the meaning of democracy has shifted from a consensual and accommodative approach to an exclusionary and militant assertiveness. Compared to 2004, a substantially larger population has tilted towards a majoritarian position today. In 2004, 35 per cent respondents could be identified as majoritarian4 while in 2014 it has gone up to 52 per cent (author’s calculation based on data from NES 2014, CSDS Data Unit). Though there is a sizable presence of majoritarian voters among Congress too, the BJP attracts a greater proportion of majoritarian voters. It has also been argued that socially conservative voters are more likely to vote for the BJP.5

This distinguishes India’s second dominant party system from the first one. The first dominant party system was somewhat neatly arranged along a left-right continuum where the Congress occupied the centre (some would say, left of centre) and faced a reasonably balanced opposition from both the left and right. But the second dominant party system will be different in that the dominant pole is no longer situated at the centre, but right of centre, and as such the opposition to it can only come from its left. However, the space to the left is either entirely unoccupied or occupied by parties and forces that do not enjoy a popular base. Thus, in the new dispensation, there will be no place to the right of the dominant pole and there won’t be anyone to occupy the space to the left either. This situation might allow the newly dominant party a smooth run as a ruling party and also as the architect of the new hegemony that would characterize the middle ground of India’s public discourse and contestations.


As ‘Mandal’ became non-contentious and the new economic policy was adopted by most parties, competitive politics witnessed the rise of a new convergence without hegemony.6 The rhetoric that Modi unleashed took off from that convergence and sought to fill the ideological void by aspiring to shape a new hegemony. The emergence of Modi as an acceptable leader across the country and his growing popularity through the election campaign and after, made it possible for him to both express and become the symbol of the new hegemony. And yet, despite this popularity, Modi has had to compete with two images (particularly after he became prime minister) – those of Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

In his actions and symbolic gestures, Modi is assiduously trying to combine both images in his person – a towering leader who can influence the party and the general public, one who is seen internationally as a force, a leader with ability to inspire and a populist who symbolizes a strong nation. Modi’s many well publicized appearances at various international forums, his Independence Day speech, or the speech on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, his supposedly ‘hard’ position on Pakistani firing across the LoC, have all contributed to Modi’s image as the new statesman representing developmental wisdom and national assertion. Such an image will undoubtedly be the basis of the new hegemony.

More substantively, the new normative regime is poised to popularize a political imagination that would have a majoritarian emphasis as its basis. The majoritarian shift we mentioned above is relevant in this respect. The Jan Sangh always nursed the ambition to shape India’s political personality around such majoritarianism. Its ideological position was characterized by two dimensions – one, a deep-seated suspicion of diversity and minorities and two, a fluctuating belief in conservative Hindu tradition as the ideological basis for Indian nationalism. Precisely the same claims are now emanating, not so much through formal efforts by the party and government but through scattered initiatives emanating from outside. Already, in the short time since the last parliamentary elections, claims have been made about ‘all residents of India’ being Hindus, and yet it has been argued that non-Hindus should not be allowed to participate in the Navaratri celebrations. Above all, we see the unleashing of a harsh rhetoric on inter-religious marriages. Such signals about boundary maintenance and a majoritarian construction of culture and nation intimate the arrival of a new hegemony.


These are all symptoms of a neo-Hindu ideological manoeuvre. It is ‘neo-Hindu’ in the sense that it does not always follow religious orthodoxy but nevertheless resorts to it occasionally; it conveniently draws on Hindu religious tradition and symbolism, but moves away from the traditional culture and religiosity if tactically required. Rather than following only Guruji Golwalkar, it draws heavily on the nationalist vision of Savarkar. It is also neo-Hindu in the sense that its main votaries are the non-Brahmanical castes – mostly the OBCs. It mixes the modern nationalist imagination with popular belief in a glorious past and in Hindu mythology, and it adopts a militant, confrontationist posture vis-à-vis perceived adversaries of Hindu nationalism.7


It could, of course, be argued that since assuming office the new prime minister has not caused any controversy on issues related to Hindutva. However, he has decidedly stepped up a process of building hegemony by wresting the initiative on foreign policy and international image building. He has also prioritized Patel over Nehru and contributed to the appropriation of both Patel and Gandhi. In fact, the identification of Gandhi with the cleanliness drive was a masterstroke in draining Gandhi of the radical principles he espoused.8 Thus, the new hegemony would exclude both Nehru and Indira Gandhi despite adopting many of their strategies (e.g. speaking to children as Chacha Nehru would have and being active on the international forum). Ironical though it may seem, the tenacity of the old hegemony is such that architects of the new hegemony have to, at least initially, project themselves as the new Nehru!

Along with the personal popularity of Modi, the campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections was marked by multi-level rhetoric. Nationalism, hope and promise, appeal to youth, constant reference to development a la the Gujarat model, criticism of the dynastic cult in the Congress, Manmohan Singh’s passivity and corruption of the Congress-UPA government, were all important elements in that campaign and surely they will continue to have some resonance in the new hegemony taking shape now. However, in order to understand the core of the new hegemony, one has to take into account the crucial rhetoric of ‘Congress mukt Bharat’, i.e., India free from Congress. Much of what has passed on during the first few months of the Modi regime is most comprehensible within the context of this objective of freeing Indian democracy of its ‘Congressness’.


At one level, Congress mukt Bharat could simply mean getting rid of the Congress and pushing it into oblivion. In this sense, the post-Congress polity has already achieved part of that objective and the latest election actually underscored that fact rather dramatically. It is clear, however, that in Modi’s imagination, freedom from Congress is more than the mere removal of the party from power. Modi and the BJP correctly understand that ‘Congress’ is more than a party; it is an imaginary idea of nationhood and democracy besides being a party – and often the party has nothing to do with that idea!

Probably since the mid-seventies and more certainly from the mid-eighties, the party called the Congress has charted a course very different from the idea called Congress. However, many features of Congress-style politics continued to operate even when the Congress party was in decline. The new hegemony will confront those residual influences of the ‘Congress’ and there is unlikely to be much contestation over that. Neither the Congress party nor those who believe in a non-majoritarian democracy based on diversity have the ability or the will to fight an ideological battle with the BJP on these core issues. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise if the coming decade were to mark the rise of a new hegemony.



1. Suhas Palshikar, ‘The Defeat of the Congress’, Economic and Political Weekly 49(39), 27 September 2014, pp. 57-63.

2. Suhas Palshikar and K.C. Suri, ‘India’s 2014 Lok Sabha Elections: Critical Shifts in the Long Term, Caution in the Short Term’, Economic and Political Weekly 49(39), 27 September 2014, pp. 39-49.

3. Yogendra Yadav, ‘The Elusive Mandate’, Economic and Political Weekly 39(51), 18 December 2004, pp. 5383-98 and Suhas Palshikar, ‘Majoritarian Middle Ground?’, Economic and Political Weekly 39(51), 18 December 2004, pp. 5426-30.

4. S. Palshikar, ibid., p. 5427.

5. Pradeep Chibber and Rahul Verma, ‘The BJP’s 2014 "Modi Wave": An Ideological Consolidation of the Right’, Economic and Political Weekly 49(39), 27 September 2014, pp. 50-56.

6. Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, ‘From Hegemony to Convergence: Party System and Electoral Politics in the Indian States, 1952-2002’, Journal of Indian School of Political Economy 15(1&2), 2003, pp.5-44.

7. Rajendra Vora and Suhas Palshikar, ‘Neo-Hinduism: Case of Distorted Consciousness’, in Jayant Lele and Rajendra Vora (eds.), State and Society in India. Chanakya, Delhi, 1990, pp. 213-243.

8. Suhas Palshikar, ‘Cleansing Gandhi of Radicalism’, Indian Express, 7 October 2014,