The BJP’s Drive for Hegemony

The BJP’s Drive for Hegemony

Another electoral victory would enable Narendra Modi’s party to inscribe de facto Hindu supremacy into law.

Modi supporters at a 2014 rally in Rohaniya, India (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In 2014, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party captured national power in the world’s largest democracy. Under its controversial new leader, Narendra Modi, the BJP established India’s first single-party majority government since 1984 and became the only party besides the Indian National Congress to accomplish this feat since the country won independence, in 1947. In the 2019 general election, despite a disappointing economic record, growing communal strife, and disruptive policy decisions, the BJP increased its vote share and seats in Parliament. The victory emboldened the party to further its longstanding agenda to transform India’s secular constitutional democracy into a de facto Hindu nation. Modi remained popular throughout India’s terrible pandemic. Now, with a return of high economic growth and the unity of opposition parties in question, most observers expect him to win the 2024 general election, which concludes in June.

What explains the political dominance of the BJP? Where does the party fit among other right-wing forces in the world? And why does the BJP, despite its apparent ideological hegemony, seek to suppress any sign of opposition or dissent?


The Ascendant Right

The rise of the BJP under Modi reflects a wider trend: the emergence in democratic nations of autocratic right-wing populists.

According to the economist Thomas Piketty, Western democracies have experienced a dramatic change in their party systems in recent decades. Right-of-center parties have always received disproportionate levels of support from high-income voters, but those parties now court lower-educated workers in greater numbers too. At the same time, highly educated voters prefer left-of-center parties, which are losing the support of lower-educated workers, many of whom opt not to vote. Elections have shifted from what were traditionally class-based competitions to more multidimensional contests that revolve around rival elites—what Piketty calls the “Merchant right” and the “Brahmin left.”

In certain respects, Modi and the BJP have followed this trajectory. But Indian democracy has always fit uneasily into Western models, given its different historical roots, the prevalence of extreme poverty at independence, and the special challenges of its postcolonial formation. The tremendous cultural diversity and socioeconomic complexity of post-independence India produced many cross-cutting cleavages beyond occupation and class: there are divides along gender, caste, religion, indigeneity, and sub-nationalism, among other markers. Moreover, the salience of any particular identity has often varied across its states and over time.

The country’s electoral dynamics reflected this complexity from the start. The major conflicts that structured party systems in twentieth-century Western Europe—between capital and labor, center and periphery, landed and industrial elites, religious communities and the state—manifested themselves in India as well. However, two additional questions also shaped partisan competition on the subcontinent: whether the state should reshape social norms and redistribute wealth, and whether it should recognize and accommodate historically disadvantaged minorities.

The Indian National Congress, which dominated national politics until the late 1980s, galvanized support across many social cleavages thanks to its catchall character and the logic of first-past-the-post elections. But the country’s party system became increasingly regionalized in the wake of a mid-century reorganization of many Indian states along linguistic and cultural lines. From 1989 to 2014, neither the Congress nor an ascendant BJP won a majority on its own; during this period, a series of diverse coalition governments, ranging from center-left to center-right, ruled New Delhi.


A New Party System, a New BJP

Modi has reshaped these electoral divides and political dynamics. First, electoral participation has climbed. The 2014 general election saw 66 percent of the electorate—approximately 551 million out of 834 million citizens—cast a ballot, the highest ratio since independence. Previously, turnout hovered in the high 50s to low 60s, peaking at 64 percent in 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The participation of historically marginalized citizens, especially Adivasis—peoples indigenous to the Indian subcontinent—was even greater. In 2019 overall voter turnout reached 67 percent. India had entered a new era of electoral mobilization.

Second, the BJP became the dominant national party. It won just 31 percent of the national vote in 2014, the lowest share of a single-party majority government since independence. However, its popularity and margins of victory were generally much higher in the larger states where Hindi is predominantly spoken. The Congress won under 20 percent of the vote, and the dispersed nature of its support, concentrated in less populous states, led to fewer parliamentary seats. More than thirty other parties won parliamentary representation. But most had only a handful of seats. The splintering of the national vote, in a winner-take-all electoral system, magnified the ascendance of the BJP.

Finally, the rise of the BJP renationalized the party system. Regional parties remained important players, but they had less sway over government formation than they had during the long coalition era, when national elections often reflected a summation of state-level outcomes. Indeed, popular surveys in 2014 indicated growing support for political majoritarianism. Over the past decade, parliamentary elections in India have turned into presidential contests.

The 2014 election also transformed the BJP itself. It was now led by a charismatic figure, whose image quickly saturated the public sphere. Modi stamped his personal authority on the party and cabinet, concentrating power in his office and subverting the collective decision-making norms that had previously characterized the party.

At the same time the BJP deepened its immense organizational capacity. Party membership reportedly grew to 100 million roughly a decade ago. Its leaders now say that it has reached 180 million. It is hard to verify this claim. Nonetheless, it is safe to say the BJP is the largest electoral party in the world. Under Modi’s lieutenant, Amit Shah, the BJP has become a highly disciplined machine, able to mobilize at the grassroots level. The party also developed a powerful social media cell, responsible for disseminating its messages and trolling political opponents and social critics.

The BJP belongs to a wider network of Hindu-nationalist organizations called the Sangh Parivar. The network’s fulcrum is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a disciplined, cadre-based organization with many functional affiliates. The RSS patiently established more than 50,000 branches across the country over the past century; Modi himself was a member in his youth. Hindu nationalists skillfully use religious processions, cultural festivals, fiery oratory, and Hindu symbolism to galvanize supporters and polarize communities. Extra-parliamentary agitation and the exploitation of local grievances to foment communal riots have long been part of the Hindu-nationalist arsenal.

Modi’s dominance of the BJP, as well as his larger personality cult, ran against the collective, hierarchical ethos of the RSS. Yet the RSS understood both the imperatives of power and the long, Gramscian game of sociocultural transformation. The new leader was a committed Hindu nationalist and more popular than his party, personally responsible for drawing in voters who otherwise would have backed other forces.

Who comprises the political base of this electoral juggernaut? Traditionally, it was made up of social conservatives who tended to be urban, male, educated, upper caste, and middle class. Then Modi emphasized his plebeian social roots in the 2014 campaign; his lower caste identity contrasted sharply with the dynastic leadership of the Congress and many other parties. As a result, the base of the party began to diversify. Women continued to prefer other parties, but communities belonging to the Other Backward Classes—made up of various lower castes, the  class positions of which vary—began, for the first time, to prefer the BJP over its rivals. Similarly, Dalits and Adivasis, the lowest strata of the caste system, voted for the party in unprecedented numbers. Historically, many of these groups had backed the Congress and state-level parties, fracturing the Hindu vote. But Modi eroded an ostensibly durable electoral cleavage, creating in turn a never-before-seen social coalition in Hindi-speaking states.

In addition, Modi attracted a greater ratio of younger voters in high-turnout constituencies. Historically, voter age had not been a consistent indicator of voting patterns; unlike their counterparts in Western democracies, younger cohorts did not lean to the left, for instance. But Indians born after 1986—who make up the bulk of the population and are more educated than any generation since independence—are more likely to vote for the BJP, regardless of their other social attributes.

These voters were shaped by the rise of Hindu nationalism, the upsurge of lower-caste parties, and economic liberalization. Hindu nationalism appealed to voters who believed that special provisions for minority communities and caste-based reservations undermined national unity. Many of these same voters, who have been influenced by more neoliberal policy rhetoric since the economy was liberalized in 1991, also supported the pro-business vision of the new BJP.

Unlike many autocratic populists in the West, who seized power in societies that have experienced decades of wage stagnation and swelling precarity amid deindustrialization, Modi rose in peculiar circumstances. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which governed from 2004 to 2014, achieved the best record of aggregate economic growth in India since independence. The UPA also unrolled a new rights-based welfare architecture that expanded social protections for the poorest citizens. But popular dissatisfaction with the Congress took hold after growth began decelerating in 2010, and major scandals erupted. A lack of political accountability as well as increasing administrative paralysis stoked a mass anti-corruption movement. Modi astutely exploited the crisis.

Modi vowed to eradicate the cronyism that nourished political corruption. He also presented an optimistic, modernist image of the future and pilloried the failures of the traditional ruling elite. Modi promised to expand physical infrastructure and to create millions of good manufacturing jobs for the massive infusion of young workers entering the labor force each year, all in the name of “economic freedom”—a sharp break from the rhetorical commitment to swadeshi (national self-reliance) that Hindu nationalists historically espoused.

The pro-business tenor of the Modi campaign reassured upper-class interests; in turn, industrial titans and the corporate class, which had backed the Congress over the previous decade, helped the BJP amass a decisive war chest. Modi also appealed to the aspirations and attitudes of the emerging middle class, whose ranks have grown substantially since economic liberalization. Public surveys on the eve of the 2014 election revealed a general rightward tilt in economic policy, with support growing for foreign direct investment and waning for public subsidies for the poor. That said, despite Modi’s conventional right-wing denunciation of welfare, it mattered to many voters. Citizens who failed to receive the new entitlements introduced by the UPA, due to failures of implementation, or else did not know the UPA was their architect, because state governments ruled by other parties claimed it was their policy, swung their support to the BJP in 2014 after Modi promised to deliver them more effectively. Decent employment prospects and adequate social protection were equally valued. The ability of the new prime minister to represent the distinct aspirations of diverse social groups fueled his ascent.


Hindutva 2.0

The Modi government introduced a national sales tax and bankruptcy code, policies that germinated during the tenure of the UPA, and it pledged to expand physical infrastructure and basic social amenities. But the overall mantra of the new administration was “minimum government, maximum governance.” Modi championed entrepreneurial solutions, digital innovation, and an industrialization strategy that welcomed foreign capital. The government also expanded the use of direct cash transfers to deliver social welfare benefits, from scholarships and pensions to funds to purchase cooking gas cylinders and incentivize pregnant women to seek maternal care. It created new bank accounts for poorer citizens and seeded the transfers through Aadhaar, a contentious biometric identification apparatus unveiled by the UPA. Ultimately, though, the BJP’s most striking act was demonetization, removing 86 percent of all physical currency from a largely cash-driven economy. Modi justified the draconian move by saying it would remove black-market money from circulation and thus flush out corruption.

By 2019, India had experienced improvements in roads, electricity, and sanitation, and also in digital public infrastructure and banking access. India also scored higher on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index. But economic growth was declining in step with private investment, domestic consumption, and youth participation in the labor market. The manufacturing share of India’s GDP increased marginally, but there were 10 million fewer jobs in the sector; demonetization imposed great hardship on hundreds of millions of workers and thousands of businesses operating in the vast informal sector. Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth reached new heights. Modi had railed against cronyism, yet the fortunes of conglomerates with close ties to the prime minister—especially the Adani Group and Reliance Industries—boomed spectacularly thanks to state contracts and regulatory changes in rent-heavy sectors.

While charting this economic course, the BJP never abandoned its deeper ideological commitments. The party and its new leader maintained a majoritarian conception of ethno-religious nationalism that privileged a politicized understanding of Hinduness. Several key initiatives defined its program: constructing a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the ruins of the Babri mosque, which Hindu nationalists destroyed in 1992; creating a Uniform Civil Code that would supersede family laws for minority religious communities; and annulling special constitutional rights for the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. The larger agenda was to repress civil liberties and refashion everyday social norms.

The Sangh Parivar promoted a discourse of duty and sacrifice to a higher cause and expected citizens to enact public displays of religious identity to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation. Vigilante elements aligned with the BJP sought to break up interreligious relationships, reconvert Dalits and Adivasis who had become Christian, and enforce draconian bans on cow slaughter, which several BJP-ruled state governments passed. Attacks on Dalits and Muslims in the cattle trade increased, including lynchings, with few of the accused facing any penalties. Evidence that hate crimes had risen at an alarming rate led the government to stop collecting data altogether. In addition, the BJP appointed its stalwarts to leadership positions in universities, cultural institutes, and educational boards. Revised school textbooks and university curricula valorized Hindu-nationalist beliefs, leaders, and interpretations of history, while minimizing the contributions of secular forces and minority communities.

These efforts to polarize India along religious lines were part of a wider attack on civil society. Authorities used alleged violations of foreign-exchange regulations, as well as laws against terrorism and sedition, to harass, scare, and even jail scholars, journalists, and activists deemed too critical of the ruling party. The BJP and its corporate allies gradually seized control of the mainstream media. Nearly 2,000 nongovernmental organizations and many research institutes were banned from receiving foreign funds. Efforts to criminalize dissent rarely succeeded in the courts, but prominent activists suffered long detentions without bail all the same, and self-censorship rose.


From Political Domination to Cultural Hegemony

After the 2014 election, opposition parties began to dislodge the BJP in state-level elections, exploiting its lackluster economic record in particular regions. The creation of an anti-BJP coalition raised the possibility of a national defeat.

Instead, the BJP increased its vote share and parliamentary representation from 31 percent and 282 seats in 2014 to 37 percent and 303 seats in 2019. The party expanded its reach beyond its traditional bastions in the northern and western states, which it swept, and began to encroach on the east and parts of the south. It strengthened its new social bloc as well, deepening its hold over high castes and urban middle classes while also consolidating gains among Other Backward Classes, Dalits and Adivasis, and young—especially first-time—voters. And the BJP broke new ground among rural and women voters. The efficient delivery of various welfare benefits through initiatives named after the prime minister, from toilets and cooking-gas cylinders to houses for the poor, helped to boost turnout among women, which for the first time almost matched that of men. Strikingly, the party won greater support among every class.

The BJP benefited from a reconfigured electoral playing field. In 2017, the Modi government introduced electoral bonds, ostensibly to track campaign finances better. But the scheme allowed corporations to make unlimited donations anonymously. Moreover, the State Bank of India, which managed the scheme, gave the BJP the power to know which parties specific companies supported. An estimated 55,000 crore rupees (approximately $6.5 billion) was spent during the 2019 general election—a staggering amount, even considering that spending on elections had steadily increased over the prior two decades. Roughly 60 percent of donated funds made through electoral bonds went to the ruling party—about six times the amount received by the Congress—between 2018 and 2022. A recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the scheme as unconstitutional suggests that many companies supported the ruling party in exchange for special treatment.

The BJP sought to break the opposition by other means as well. More than two dozen parliamentarians and hundreds of state legislators defected to the party after 2016; afterward, the declared wealth of these turncoats reportedly grew by almost 40 percent on average. Investigations by central agencies into alleged financial wrongdoing by politicians have increased fourfold since 2014, and the overwhelming majority target the opposition. The BJP wanted to ensnare its rivals in both civil society and the political arena in criminal proceedings.

Following his reelection, Modi promised to govern in the interests of everyone. But the 2019 campaign was marked by unprecedented religious polarization. A terrorist strike against Indian paramilitary forces in the Kashmir Valley, which provoked the government to launch air strikes in Pakistani territory, made national security a major campaign issue. A strong plurality of voters defined political authority and state power in terms of democratic majoritarianism and raw coercion.

It is little surprise then that the BJP felt emboldened after the election. Three major decisions in 2019 advanced its Hindu-nationalist agenda. First, the Modi government annulled Article 370 of the Constitution, divesting Kashmir of its special rights. The move divided the state into two union territories, which brought them under the direct rule of the central government. A massive troop deployment, the house arrests of opposition leaders, and a suspension of internet access ensued. Second, the Supreme Court issued a controversial major ruling in a long-running dispute over Ayodhya. The court acknowledged that the destruction of the Babri mosque had violated the rule of law, but it granted Hindu plaintiffs the right to build a temple, arguing that the Muslim defendants could not prove exclusive possession of the contested site. Lastly, the Modi government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that allowed migrants who had fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to become Indian citizens. But the law explicitly excluded Muslims, violating the secular provisions and pluralistic character of the Constitution.

The passage of the CAA spurred the BJP’s opponents to protest. Their courageous resistance, along with broader opposition in key border states, compelled the BJP to delay the implementation of the law. Not long afterward, in the summer of 2020, the Modi government’s decision to ram through contentious agricultural reforms provoked farmers to mount the largest popular mobilization in India since the 1980s, forcing the government to shelve that bill.

COVID-19 exposed other political vulnerabilities of the BJP. During the pandemic’s first wave, the government imposed a severe lockdown with minimal notice, abandoning millions of poor migrant workers. It then decided to lift public-health measures before there were mass vaccinations, leaving the urban middle classes exposed to a bigger second wave. India’s daily mortality rates and the estimated toll of its excess deaths were among the highest in the world. The economy suffered its greatest contraction since independence.

Nevertheless, the BJP racked up victories in important state elections in 2022. Opposition parties could not match its organizational abilities, financial resources, or media dominance. The BJP continued to deliver more social benefits effectively, which cemented its growing popularity among women, as it continued to foment communal divisions. Last summer, more than two dozen opposition parties forged the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, the acronym of which, INDIA, was chosen to reclaim the founding republican vision of the Constitution. But leadership rivalries, and disagreements over which parties in the coalition had greater strength in different states, led to cracks in the alliance soon after its formation.


Democracy on the Ballot

The BJP’s efforts to reconceptualize India’s Hindu majority as the country’s natural citizens have continued in the run-up to the 2024 general election. In January, Modi consecrated the site of the new Ram temple in Ayodhya, a task normally undertaken by Hindu priests. In February, a BJP-ruled state introduced a Uniform Civil Code, a move that might ostensibly promote gender equality but in this case draws significantly from Hindu personal law, which reignited fears in Muslim communities. Finally, in March, the Ministry of Home Affairs laid out rules for implementing the CAA, renewing civic protests.

Despite its ideological hegemony, the Modi government appears to fear a fair electoral contest. Seasoned observers argue that overcentralization in the BJP has weakened its organizational capabilities. Last year, a judge from Modi’s home state issued a two-year sentence to Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress during the 2019 election, on defamation charges, disqualifying him from standing in Parliament. The prosecution appeared to be motivated by a five-month, 5,000-kilometer protest march against Hindu nationalism Gandhi carried out in 2022 and 2023, winning him praise across the country. The Supreme Court stayed the decision. But over 140 opposition MPs were nonetheless suspended a few months ago for alleged unruly behavior in Parliament. Moreover, shortly after the 2019 general election was called, the Congress’s party accounts were frozen, while another major opposition leader, Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party, was arrested for alleged graft. The recent maneuvers suggest the ultimate aim of the BJP is to vanquish political opposition completely.

Many observers have documented the illiberal turn in India under Modi and the BJP over the last decade. A growing number question whether the country still warrants being called the world’s largest democracy. Regular competitive elections in the states allow power to change hands. But the BJP’s will to hegemony and its escalating maneuvers to avoid the possibility of defeat are ominous developments. A third straight victory for Modi would allow ideological hardliners in the party and Sangh Parivar to advance its long-held agenda. Social campaigns to infuse Hindu nationalist beliefs and police social morality in the public sphere would likely intensify, suppressing personal freedoms and minority rights and stoking communal tensions and violent conflicts in civil society. Another parliamentary majority would enable the BJP to inscribe the de facto Hindu supremacy witnessed in recent years into law. Securing a two-thirds supermajority would empower the party to revise the Constitution. Its historic aspiration to transform a secular republic into a Hindu nation would be complete. Given the deep linguistic, subnational and religious diversity of India, home to more than 200 million Muslim citizens, the stakes of the 2024 general election are high.

Yet they extend far beyond the subcontinent. The constitution of democracy in post-independent India represents one of the most powerful revolutions in our modern political imaginary. Conflicts, inequality and violence, and a brief period of emergency rule have challenged the country since independence. Yet its democracy survived. The example was particularly significant for the postcolonial world. The growing economic prosperity of India in the past two decades, which fueled its aspirations to be a leading power in the evolving post-Western order, offered a counterpoint to a more authoritarian China. Contemporary right-wing forces test the classic distinction between democracy and autocracy in many polities around the world. Few rival the ideological commitment, social coalition, and organizational might of the new BJP.

Sanjay Ruparelia holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Toronto Metropolitan University. He is currently a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa.