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  • Evolution of a Hindu-oriented Political Party
  • Walter Andersen (bio)


My major proposition in this article is that India's governing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),1 has over the past three decades become increasingly focused on broad nationalist themes—and less on more narrow Hindu cultural/religious issues—in its successful drive to national power. India's powerful BJP Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, seems committed to the notion that economic growth is necessary to give India a seat at the high table of world diplomacy, to create a stable social environment at home, and to enhance the chances of his party winning the next general elections in 2019. This article argues that the rapid economic and social changes that have been taking place in India since the early 1990s have prompted the BJP and its affiliated organizations (collectively referred to as the sangh parivar—or family) to become, with a few prominent exceptions, more inclusive in their mobilization strategies to stay relevant in a socially-diverse, rapidly-changing India.

The Hindu Context

According to the government-administered census of 2011, approximately eighty percent of India's population is defined as Hindu.2 While religion plays an important role in Indian society, Hinduism as a religion has no unified public face and is characterized by deep linguistic, social, and sectarian differences. The BJP, the governing party in India since the country's 2014 parliamentary elections, does not address the metaphysical or theological concerns of any part of this Hindu religious mosaic. From its founding in the early 1950s soon after [End Page S-7] independence, the party3 has been open to non-Hindus and has never contested that India rightfully is a secular state. The political leadership of the BJP, however, does rely on a variety of images and metaphors rooted in the indigenous cultures of India that I will loosely refer to as Hindu.4

Even though the BJP is not a confessional Hindu party, it did evolve in the early 1950s from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),5 an organization whose primary goal since its founding in 1925 has been to unify the diverse community referred to as Hindu and to remove those traditional social practices, like caste, that it argues have stood in the way of Hindu solidarity. To carry out what the RSS refers to as "character building," it conducts a training agenda of daily meetings, periodic camps, and dozens of public service opportunities for the membership. It works to develop the organization's full-time workers through an extensive "officer training" process, and these full-time workers pledge a lifetime commitment to the RSS. Since independence in 1947, it has helped establish some three dozen affiliated organizations working in various fields (referred to as the RSS family or sangh parivar) that are heavily staffed by full-time RSS pracharaks (workers) on loan to them, usually on permanent assignment. These affiliated bodies all are self-governing, and the remarkable stability of the parivar's constituent members is almost certainly linked to the identification of their respective leaders to the social/occupational groups which they are attempting to organize and represent.

However, the RSS does involve itself with the affiliates when there are personnel or policy differences which the affiliates cannot resolve. In the case of the BJP, the RSS also provides campaign workers during elections and organizes consultative meetings between BJP leaders and affiliates—and now that it is in power meetings with cabinet officials—to exchange views on public policy issues that impinge on them. These affiliates work among such varied groups as small-scale entrepreneurs, labor, university students, politicians, farmers, journalists, etc. The issues addressed by these groups are increasingly important in a rapidly growing economy, particularly to India's massive, aspirational young population seeking jobs and a better life. There is, however, one influential affiliate, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), that does address itself specifically to Hindu clerics, Hindu religious organizations, and Hindu religious issues, but is frequently at odds with the BJP and has pushed it to take steps that could get in the way of the party's development agenda.

The success of these other affiliates...


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