Caste and Class: The Rise of Hindu Nationalism in India

By Basu, Amrita | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Caste and Class: The Rise of Hindu Nationalism in India


Basu, Amrita, Harvard International Review


IN THE THREE YEARS from 1989 to 1992, India experienced the phenomenal rise in influence of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many observers assumed that the BJP's influence would be short-lived, for Hindu nationalism violated the principles of centrism, socialism, and secularism that had governed Indian political life since independence. But contrary to their predictions, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1996 parliamentary elections, far surpassing the mainstream Congress party that had ruled India almost every year since 1947. Although its electoral platform was broader than it had been in 1991, it continued to define itself as a Hindu nationalist party. In its rise to national power the BJP overcame the obstacles that have traditionally hindered the growth of religious parties.

The BJP's success lies in its having become the major voice of opposition to incumbent governments at national and regional levels. Beyond this broad generalization, most other explanations for the BJP's growth differ by region, constituency, and period. Indeed, one of the BJP's greatest skills is its ability to speak in many voices. In the early 1990s it was a vehicle for upper caste resentment at the growing political influence of the lower castes. It also gave voice to the economic aspirations of the industrial middle classes, who sought freedom from state control to collaborate with foreign capital. However, by 1996, the BJP had gained lower caste support in many states. It had also become an outspoken critic of the Congress party-led government's neo-liberal policies and had come to speak on behalf of the workers and small producers who were disadvantaged by the reforms. The BJP has increasingly occupied the space created by the decline of Congress.

The period preceding the BJP's rise in the mid-1980s was marked by considerable protest from below, directed primarily at the state. Groups in the Punjab, Kashmir, and the northeastern areas called for the devolution of power and resources, while agrarian movements sought more favorable terms of trade and lower castes demanded greater representation in state institutions. The Congress government's response to these demands reflected its greater commitment to its own survival in office than to democratic practices.

The BJP captured public fears of political instability and national disintegration. At the same time, it channeled public attention toward one among the many biases Congress displayed, namely its tendency to "appease" conservative Muslim groups. The issue that the BJP saw as symbolizing the Congress party's opportunism was the 1985 Shah Bano case in which a Muslim woman demanded alimony from her former husband. In April 1985 the Supreme Court granted her demand under the Criminal Procedure Code and issued some disparaging comments about Muslim personal law. Muslim fundamentalists were outraged. To assuage them, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi overturned the court's decision and passed a bill which denied Muslim women the possibility of redress under secular law. The Shah Bano case has become a symbol of the compromises Congress was willing to make to gain support from Muslim leaders.

The decline in Congress was in part the outcome of a long-standing tendency toward the erosion of political institutions; by the late 1980s, the bureaucracy, military, police, and the Congress party itself had all suffered a loss of authority. Although there are numerous reasons for these trends, the most important concerns Indira Gandhi's role as prime minister. Indira Gandhi steadily sought to secure her own leadership at the cost of political institutions. She centralized power in the executive branch of government, thereby weakening other branches of government. As she felt her popularity wane, she appealed to the Hindu majority for support. The BJP was quick to take advantage of the growth of majoritarian sentiment that Indira Gandhi had fostered by presenting itself as the rightful representative of Hindu interests. …

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