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Divisive Nature of Indian Politics

Jas Shah
Roll No. - 839
Subject – Foundation Course
Divisive Nature of Indian Politics
India is a diverse country. We have been taught for a long time that ‘unity in
diversity’ is the biggest strength of India. However, this ideology has been used by
most of the political parties for their electoral benefits. The word India or
Hindustan was never used by the politicians to represent a country as a nation with
strong cultural and spiritual unity. Political parties were always busy dividing India
and Indians based on language, culture, geography, and the most important – caste.
This is the first time in the history of India that majority of the voters have voted
with oneness in mind – India. All the attempts of the political parties, except BJP,
to divide Indians have been destroyed by the voters. We have several examples of
divisive nature in all the left-leaning parties led by the Indian National Congress.
The divisive ideology started from the British who quickly learned that it is
absolutely necessary to break India based on different parameters and unity among
Indians is the biggest threat to the British. The best way they found to divide India
is through education. British forced Indians to learn English in order to keep them
competitive on the global level. On the other hand, it was easy for them to
introduce their ideologies and divisive nature through English to every Indian. The
first major attempt is the introduction of fake Aryan-Dravidian theory to Indians.
Tamil Nadu is a live example of this division which is still suffering in dilemma
over this ideology. There are many other parameters used by the British such as
culture, language, etc. to divide Indians which acted as the ghee to the ‘divide and
rule’ fire.
Diversity in ideologies is always welcome. In fact, India and Hinduism are known
for their wide variety of ideological differences since Vedic times. However, the
difference is that this diversity was never used to break India or Indians on any
basis. The diversity was joyful. Now, there are thousands of political parties with
their own divisive ideology.
It is also important to understand that this divisive nature of political parties has no
base. It is the ideology that has been tested through trial-and-error method with one
agenda – power.
This is the first time in the history of India that Narendra Modi led India has
unified people. Hindus are happy, Muslims are happy, Hindi speaking people are
happy, Kannada speaking people are happy, Jats in Haryana are happy, Lingayats
in Karnataka are happy, the list goes on. This is also the first time in the history
that a political party has asked for votes for development and India and not for the
party or for their caste, religion, dynasty, culture, geography. This is the biggest
change Modi govt has brought about.
We can also observe the suffering in silence of the leftists. Their only weapon of
division has been destroyed forever. They have never fought elections with
development or oneness as the agenda and the good news is ‘They will never be
able to do that in future’.
In recent years, many politicians and political pundits have lamented what they
perceive to be growing political divisiveness in the United States. Public-opinion
polls have confirmed the reality of this growing divisiveness (Badger and Chokshi
2017; Hook 2017; Pew Research Center 2017). Nearly everyone who remarks on
this phenomenon views it as regrettable, and many offer recommendations for
alleviating it, especially by embracing a greater willingness to compromise in
Congress and among the public. Not many commentators, however, have evinced
an understanding of how the heightened divisiveness came about or of the
necessary condition(s) for reducing it.
To understand recent trends in political divisiveness, it might help to recall the
situation at an earlier time when such divisiveness was not so great—say, during
the 1950s or perhaps even as recently as the 1990s. In those days, the two major
political parties as a rule kept their squabbling between the forty-yard lines. They
and their supporters among the public agreed on the fundamental political issues
(e.g., anticommunism in foreign affairs, a sizable welfare state at home). Of
course, even within the accepted bounds of political dispute, disagreements and
conflicts might become heated from time to time in certain areas, yet, given the
broad agreement on the nature of the regime, politicians and their supporters could
fashion compromises that kept nearly all changes within the established bounds.
Indeed, politicians could brag about and take credit for their capacity to forge
compromises, and few held this flexibility against them or accused them of being
In more recent times, however, as the government has grown and extended its
involvement into more—and more important—areas of life (e.g., comprehensive
health-care insurance coverage and broad-gauge financial-rescue operations such
as those undertaken in 2008 and 2009), the perceived stakes have become greater
in the minds of political actors. With more at stake, people’s willingness to
compromise has declined: compromise may be too costly for them to tolerate. So
as government grows, extending its scope and power into more corners of
economic and social affairs, it pushes more and more people beyond their
thresholds of acceptance.
Now, whenever the government grows, it does not simply take an action and push
it onto an unwilling public or a large unwilling part of the public, telling those who
oppose it to “like it or lump it.” Such an overbearing imposition is well-nigh
guaranteed to increase and sharpen the existing resistance to the action and thus to
make the implementation of the government’s new policy more difficult. To ease
the imposition of an action on unwilling parties, the government and its supporters
always clothe it in attractive ideological garb, claiming that it affords great benefits
for the general public, necessary protections from foreign or domestic threats, and
so forth. Some potential resisters are likely to be persuaded by such ideological
cover stories—if they weren’t, the government’s propaganda would be pointless.
So ideology, it turns out, plays an essential role in the conduct of any government’s
operations, especially when it is expanding the scope of such operations.
More than thirty years ago I formulated a conception of ideology (a highly
contested concept among scholars) that I have found helpful in analyzing the
nature of government and its growth. In my conception, ideology is “a somewhat
coherent, rather comprehensive belief system about social relations.” Such a
system must have “four distinct aspects: cognitive, affective, programmatic, and
solidary” (Higgs 1987, 37; for an extended discussion of ideology viewed in this
way, see chapter 3 of the same source, “On Ideology as an Analytical Concept in
the Study of Political Economy,” 35–56). The key connection between ideology
and political action arises from the fourth aspect, solidarity among an ideology’s
adherents. This solidarity establishes an identity because affiliation with an
ideology defines the kind of person one is and wishes to be, and maintenance of
this identity requires that a person act as a faithful comrade of others who identify
likewise. An ideology thus defines and solidifies personal identity, but it
simultaneously defines the enemy—as someone has said, it tells the ideological
adherent whom to fear and whom to hate.
As government grows, pushing into more and more areas of social and economic
life and evoking an ideological rationale to justify its action and attract supporters,
it simultaneously causes its supporters to identify those who oppose the action as
“the other” and even as “the enemy.” When people come to view each other in this
stark fashion, social and political divisiveness is almost certain to increase. During
the past several decades, as a harsh and unforgiving view of political opponents
has grown, the fear and loathing of those who “are not with us” may well have
been the main avenue along which the willingness to compromise has declined.
If such has been the case, it follows that a necessary condition for the alleviation of
such divisiveness is the retardation or cessation—perhaps even the reversal—of the
government’s growth. Even if meeting such a condition should be proposed or
carried out, however, the problem is that a sort of Tullockian transitional-gains trap
(Tullock 1975) may impede such a turnaround. Many individuals and groups have
become deeply and variously embroiled in the government’s current scope and
power, and they are likely to resist fiercely any attempt to reverse the process they
helped to push forward in recent decades. They will fight any changes that would
require them to surrender benefits, policies, and programs in which they are deeply
invested not only materially but also ideologically. Such resistance constitutes one
of the important aspects of the ratchet effect in the growth of government, whereby
each major lurch toward greater government becomes at least in part irreversible.
The Rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party
From the highly fragmented Parliament produced by India’s 12th general elections,
the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led a heterogeneous coalition of smaller political
parties to form a minority government. Gradually but persistently moving out from
the wings of Indian politics, the BJP has proven itself capable of sustained
competition with the once dominant Congress Party (INC). The outcome of the
1998 general elections in which the BJP became the only party to claim more seats
than the INC twice in succession confirms its existence as a major political party in
the Indian system. Its rise is significant not only because it definitively signals the
end of the Congress system but also because of the Hindu nationalist character of
the party itself. While secularism is an ideological hallmark of the Indian state,
Hindu nationalism is not a new force in Indian politics: the political assertion of
the belief that India is a fundamentally Hindu nation, the central tenet of Hindu
nationalism, has its origins in the 19th century. But never before has a party
espousing such an ideology matched the BJP’s current level of popular support.
How and why has the BJP moved from the political fringe into the center? And
why are its politics of Hindu nationalism—overtly or insidiously expressed or so
salient now? Posing still more questions: does the success of the BJP in recent
elections signify a fundamental change of the Indian party system? how does the
ascendance of the BJP square with other trends in the system, and to what extent
are apparently distinct phenomena related? I shall argue that the sources of the
BJP's rise are found at the system level: in the dynamics of the party system and
the electorate. Its rise, however, also affects that system. The emergence of the BJP
as a major political party signals the end of INC dominance, the growth of a
fragmented multiparty system, and a reorienting of issue-dimensions in politics.
This article's analysis of the BJP and the Indian party system is divided into three
sections. The first section studies the Indian party system and national politics prior
to the rise of the BJP in order to establish a baseline from which subsequent
developments can be analyzed', the second focuses on party system dynamics and
identifies factors that have facilitated BJP ascendance; the third assesses the impact
of the BJP on electoral politics at the national level and examines the BJP-led
coalition government's recent assertion of India's nuclear capability.
Surveying the Political Landscape:
Indian Politics before the BJP
More than 80% of India's population is Hindu, so one might reasonably wonder
why earlier Hindu nationalist parties failed to command the level of support now
possessed by the BJP. Perhaps the most basic obstacle to the formation of a mass
Hindu nationalist movement and party lies in the religion's lack of formal
organization. Unlike the major monotheistic religions, Hinduism does not have a
hierarchical religious leadership or clergy and lacks a central text from which
common religious principles and history can be derived. Possessed with neither a
clear religious authority nor agreed upon fundamentals, the practice of Hinduism is
private and individualistic. In its basic configuration, therefore, Hinduism is not
endowed with a structure conducive to mass mobilization, religious or political.
The presence of cleavages that cut across religion and the resultant exertion of
cross-pressures creates considerable political diversity among the Hindu faithful.
This heterogeneity helps explain why a Hindu nationalist movement did not
emerge more immediately in the wake of Independence. Crosscutting cleavages
create multiple poles of identity that inhibit incipient cohesion and preclude
formation of overarching unity in society. When these cleavages are politically
salient, they create cross-pressures that promote in decision and uncertainty, for it
becomes unclear where one's loyalties lie. The crosscutting-cleavages hypothesis
obtains within the Hindu community in India, which is divided inter alia by region,
language, and caste. Multiple cross-pressures created by these cleavages promote a
certain amount of moderation; cumulatively, they attenuate what otherwise might
become intense social divisions. While crosscutting cleavages and cross-pressures
are neither necessary nor sufficient to mitigate ethnic strife, their existence helps
confuse identity and shakes up identity-related issues. Thus, "Hindu" dominance of
India's population does not lead to the conclusion that mass-based Hindu
nationalism is either natural or inevitable, or that a party with such roots should be
expected to emerge. Seen in a theoretical light, the difficulty of forming a Hindu
nationalist movement or party constitutes a problem of collective action. At their
core, collective action problems are problems of aggregation. In the case of the
BJP, the problem of collective action is one of mobilizing individuals who belong
to a large religious group to support a party that proposes to advance the interests
of both the group and the individuals in it. The sheer size of the Hindu population
and the presence of crosscutting cleavages undercut the existence of a collective.
As they create identities that are many layered, cross-pressures generated by these
cleavages shuffle and reorder individual allegiances and interests. Cultivating a
politically unified Hindu constituency is at odds with the logic of cross-pressures.
A collective action problem, however, does not negate aggregation. The persistent
presence of a "Hindu fringe" in Indian politics demonstrates that even within such
a problem, limited aggregation is possible. At the same time, the problem is
precisely that aggregation is limited. Theories Of collective action frequently assert
that mobilizers or leaders are necessary to overcome competing demands for
popular support. The absence of religious authority among Hindus renders difficult
the task of ordering preferences such that they facilitate collective action. The
impediments to collective action, embodied by crosscutting cleavages, crosspressures, and the absence of a religious elite, underscore the conclusion that the
strength of numbers alone is insufficient to catalyze political mobilization. Rational
choice theories of collective action are conceptually useful in accounting for the
behavior of large groups; they cannot, however, explain the third and arguably
most significant obstacle to the ascendance of a Hindu nationalist party. the INC
behemoth. For three decades after independence, India's democratic political
existence was something of a paradox: competitive multiparty elections
successively produced one-party rule at the national level. In theory, of course,
legitimate alternatives to the INC might have arisen. In practice, significant
opposition was shut out. Under Jawarharlal Nehru, the INC successfully managed
its internal division and contained its external opposition "because it was internally
democratic and
and particularly sensitive to pressures and counter-pressures at the grassroots
level."2 Operating thus, the INC effectively precluded any real challenge to its
predominance. Just as the Congress system helped shape the Indian party system,
so too did INC ideology determine the nature of state ideology? Economic
development and secularism, hallmarks of Nehruvian nationalism, were
championed by Nehru's INC as integral to the definition of India. Following
independence, the INC hoped that cultivating state ideology around economic
development would transcend ethnicity by providing an ideal around which all
citizens could mobilize. Secularism enshrined and protected religious plurality and
was intended to reassure religious minorities that they would be secure in the
newly independent state. Any political party that challenged secularism
automatically became an antagonist not only of the INC but of the touchstones of
the Indian state. Through its grip on state ideology and its ability to absorb and
accommodate varied interests, the INC maintained itself as the rightful captain and
staunch guardian of the Indian ship of state.
The Rise of the BJP: An Analysis
Thwarted by the logic of collective action and by a predominant party determmed
to avoid sectarian division, BJP ascendance was far from inevitable. It is the
product of shrewd political maneuvering by the BJP elite within a politicoeconomic environment that was ripe for change. As principal political mobilizers,
the role played by political parties and politicians is critical in the containment or
activation of ethnic cleavages. Elites in the BJP capitalized on the waning ability of
national issues to sustain pan-ethnic consensus. Through their program of Hindu
nationalism, the party aspired to overcome intra-religious cleavages and build a
broadly defined Hindu vote bank by filling a perceived leadership vacuum among
the Hindu population. Upon its founding in 1980, the BJP endeavored to become a
credible national alternative to the INC. To broaden its electoral base, the party at
tempted to distance itself somewhat from its predecessor, the Jan Sangh. The latter,
founded in 1951, also had national aspirations. A linguistic preoccupation with the
promotion of Hindi and a Brahmanic bias limited the Jan Sangh's support to the
northern Hindi-speaking states and largely to upper caste intellectuals. Determined
to avoid the constraints on expansion faced by the Jan Sangh, the BJP levied a
three-pronged challenge to the INC that also challenged the touchstones of postindependence India. First, the BJP contended that the economic development
undertaken by the INC threatened Indian culture. Second, the BJP accused the INC
of subverting Indian democracy through both an anti-democratic leadership and
political corruption. Third, it argued that the INC had debased the ideology of state
secularism as part of its strategy to appease minorities and win votes, and called for
a substantive redefinition of this principle. The BJP espoused an economic
ideology of Gandhian socialism to challenge the INC’s development strategy, a
Western-oriented Nehruvian socialism. Gandhian socialism’s emphasis on
indigenous development is particularly compatible with the BJP goal of presenting
itself as defender of a threatened Hindu culture. Furthermore, championing a
Gandhian ideal may have been an attempt to acquire, by association, the legitimacy
that Gandhian philosophy generally possesses for many Indians. Although the BJP
was one of the first parties to endorse neoclassical economics, it appropriated
swadeshi to define its economic policy and rhetoric as the more negative effects
associated with India’s program of economic liberalization made themselves felt in
the 1990s. This move, ideologically consistent with its overall political orientation,
was strategically calculated to garner the support and loyalty of Indian industry.4
Economic nationalism of the sort embodied by swadeshi is further consistent with
Hindu nationalism: both provide an indigenously based identity and security in an
environment of liberalizing change. The decline of the INC created an opening for
the BJP to enter the political arena as a legitimate contender for power at the
center. Cracks in the Congress system began to emerge in the late 1960s as internal
factions became increasingly unruly and external opposition less easily contained.
The centralization and personalization of power that began during the reign of
Indira Gandhi and continued under the leadership of her son, Rajiv Gandhi, fatally
undercut the INC’s internal disciplinary system of reconciliation and consensus. As
Mr. Gandhi and his party were implicated in a number of corruptions scandals in
the 1980s, cracks in the Congress system widened. No longer an invincible force in
Indian politics, the INC also lost its power to define internally the state’s
ideological principles. Seizing popular disillusion with the INC and an opportunity
to reshape national politics and state ideology, the BJP incorporated a call for
“value- based politics” into its party platform. The BJP thus set itself up in contrast
to the INC; the corruption of the latter indicated a lack of an ethical and moral
grounding. Moreover, rampant corruption demonstrated that the procedural justice
and rule-bound ethics of secular, rational-legal government failed to promote good
governance. The concept of valued-based politics, though hitched to an anticorruption platform, was endowed with powerful if insidious religious undertones.
The BJP manipulated the corruption issue not only to legitimize the twinning of
religion and politics in its own program but also to present religious values as a
panacea for the political ills of the Indian state. Like its economic policy, the
relationship between the BJP and secularism demonstrates schizophrenic
tendencies. In part, this is because the party itself lacks consensus on its position
vis-a-vis secularism. Moderates within the party such as current Prime Minister A.
B. Vajpayee downplay Hindu nationalism to avoid complete alienation of
minorities. This faction deploys the concept of “positive secularism” to define its
position on the appropriate relationship between religion and state.5 While it
acknowledges the importance of religious tolerance, it rejects special protection for
minority religions and calls for a uniform civil code that would apply equally to all
members of religious communities. In its substance, positive secularism eschews
enshrining cultural plurality through special protection of minorities. The BJP
argues that differential treatment of Indians on the basis of religion, entrenched by
the Hindu Code Act and Muslim Personal Law, compromises the equality of all
groups and citizens. The Shah Bano case, involving the right of divorced Muslim
women to seek alimony, provides the best evidence (and ammunition) for such
arguments. Despite a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that gave Shah Bano and all
Muslim women this right, the government of Rajiv Gandhi, under pressure from
Muslim fundamentalists, in 1986 effectively overturned the Supreme Court
decision through the Muslim Women Act. Secular principles in the Constitution
have forced change in Hindu practices: Hindu women have had alimony rights
since 1956. The political maneuvering that occurred in after-math of the Shah
Bano ruling, however, suggests that when these principles pose a threat to Islamic
religious custom, the INC is unwilling to rigorously enforce secular law.
Promulgation of a uniform civil code for all Indians, the BJP argues, is the only
way to restore integrity to the principle of secularism and achieve meaningful
equality of groups and citizens. Hindutva— “the Hindu way of life’—captures the
vision of India articulated by extreme Hindu nationalists and militants within the
BJP. Expressing this doctrine, a member of the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS) states: “Muslims are converted Hindus, but they have forgotten their
Hinduness. So, we will awake them to their Hindu-ness, and in time, they will
realize their mistake.” The ideal of Hindutva is clearly one of assimilation that
aspires to dissolve religious pluralism and constitute India as a religiously
homogeneous Hindu nation. The tension between the positive secularism and
Hindutva endures within the party. It is, however, highly unlikely that the BJP
would endanger its credibility as a party worthy of governing the country by
embarking on a proselytizing mission of the sort envisioned by Hindu extremists.
Faced with the challenge of expanding its electoral base in the early 1980s, the BJP
adopted a moderate position on secularism. In fact, one might argue that the party
was far more accommodating of divergent religious expression than Mrs. Gandhi’s
INC, which responded in heavy-handed fashion to claims for religious and cultural
autonomy in the Punjab and Northeast India. During the Golden Temple crisis in
the Punjab, the BJP officially supported Sikh demands for autonomy—a rather
unexpected position for a party that rejected “appeasement of minorities.” The
move to moderate its position on sectarian issues while maintaining the support of
its extreme core proved unsuccessful. Few significant inroads were made as a
result of moderation and the party’s new position only alienated the extremists.
Mrs. Gandhi’s hardline stance on the Punjab won her the support of Hindu
nationalists.” This success, however, did not motivate Mrs. Gandhi’s policy. More
likely, her use of an iron fist and mobilization of Hindu nationalist sentiments were
indicative of attempts to forcibly contain perceived disintegrative tendencies within
the federation. The fact that she was not powerfully motivated to outbid the BJP
helps explain why the outbidding that did occur did not spiral in intensity as it did,
for example, in Sri Lanka between the United National Party and Sri Lanka
Freedom Party.
Losing the support of Hindu nationalists to the INC after its dismal performance in
the 1984 elections, the BJP undertook a strategy of one upmanship, outbidding the
INC on the religious dimension in order to recapture its traditional base of support.
The party replaced the moderate Vajpayee with the more extreme Lal Krishan
Advani. As long as it remains an ethnically based party, the BJP’s issue base is
somewhat limited to Hindu nationalism and it continues to rely on the support of
the Hindu nationalists.’ Alienating Hindu nationalist supporters and losing its
animating principle to the INC could be catastrophic. Once lost, BJP credibility as
a Hindu nationalist party would be difficult to regain. The BJP could not afford to
lose “its” issue and “its” supporters to the INC; since the moderation strategy failed
in 1984, the BJP endorsed a more extreme vision of India in subsequent years.
With the resurgence of ethnic politics and conflict in the 1980s ethnicity became a
highly salient issue, increasingly subject to political manipulation. In the late 1980s
and early 1990s the BJP seized the controversial Ranjanam- bhoomi-Babri Masjid
issue to activate the sectarian divide and consolidate support for its Hindu
nationalist political program. Its seizure of the issue was also a calculated response
to the intense division created within the Hindu community by the V. P. Singh-led
National Front government. Implementation in 1991 of the Mandal Commission’s
recommendations, for example, was an attempt to contain sectarian tensions by
increasing the salience of caste relative to religion. The Commission report
stipulated that, since 27% of India’s population belongs to twice-born yet socially
backward castes, 27% of government jobs should be reserved for such castes, This
is in addition to reservations already in place for scheduled castes (former
untouchables) and scheduled tribes, thus increasing caste-based reservation to
nearly 52%. The action of the National Front government endowed caste politics
with a new intensity. Threatened by a significant narrowing of their opportunities,
the reaction of upper caste members was powerful and, on occasion, violent. In this
context, the BJP’s seizure of the Ayodhya issue was an attempt not only to gather
electoral support by appealing to Hindu nationalism but also to overcome the new,
reservations-based caste divide and define the ethnic agenda. The BJP succeeded
in reactivating communal fault lines, but at a cost: inciting communal violence and
religious extremism is inconsistent with the behavior expected of a mainstream
political party. In the wake of Ayodhya, BJP political responsibility is questioned
and its claim to be a viable alternative to the INC was cast in doubt. Since 1993 the
party has adopted a more cautiously chosen, moderate position on religious issues.
While the BJP is typically characterized as a Hindu nationalist party, it has
exhibited considerable flux on the sectarian issue-dimension. The sectarian divide
must be politically salient to mobilize a Hindu vote. Yet, by activating this
cleavage, the BJP courts extremism and risks becoming a pariah in main-stream
politics. Moderation, however, has risks of its own, such as internal outbidding
from its extreme core, splintering, or desertion. The balance that the BJP must
achieve to maintain and expand its support is, therefore, extraordinarily delicate.
Evaluating Outcomes: A Party System and Electorate in Transition
Electoral outcomes are more than the sum of individual preferences: the particular
distribution of votes reflects a myriad of complex and interrelated forces—
political, economic, and social—that, over time, act on the vote. Examining the
outcomes of recent Indian elections does not further explain why the BIP’s politics
of Hindu nationalism are so salient of late. It will, however, reveal who supports
the BJP and provide a clearer, if distilled, picture of the party’s impact on the
Indian party system. The rise of the BJP in the late 1980s and 1990s created a third
major pole in the Indian party system. The last four elections (1989, 1991, 1996,
1998) represent what some scholars have called a “realigning electoral era.” None
of these elections yielded a one-party majority government. Realigning elections
and the electoral eras they constitute signals a shift in long term party loyalties.
During such eras, electoral victory and defeat assume a new significance: they
initiate a more enduring changing of the guard. The INC’s poor electoral
performance reveals deep scars of autocratic politics, corruption, and factionalism.
The INC fall from its position of overwhelming dominance at the national level,
concomitant with the steady ascendance of the BJP and the proliferation of
regional parties, reflects an underlying realignment in the values and orientations
of the Indian electorate. The force of the ideas—particularly secularism—that
shaped the Indian state for much of the 50 years since Independence waned as the
vitality of the party that was their principal animator and guardian withered. In the
ideological space created by this decline, redefinition of national values becomes
eminently possible. Thus, the success of the BJP indicates that it is not only
usurping the center, but that the center itself—constituted by the prevailing
political values and orientations of the national electorate—is shifting. While
realigning electoral eras need not invoke a change in the party system, realignment
has transformed the predominant party system into one that is far more fragmented
and polarized. Electoral realignment and fragmentation of the party system
concretely express the breakdown of the Congress system and the emergence of a
new system in which the BJP clearly is a major party. The new system is also
notable for the profusion of regional parties seeking power and influence at the
national level. The regionalization of national party politics may be attributed to
both the linguistic reorganization of states and increased political consciousness
among formerly apolitical, and primarily underprivileged, groups. Regionalization
indicates that the
electorate is concerned not only with broad national issues but also with those that
are local and territorially specific.'! The legion of small parties is the product of the
increased scope of regionalism as a source of political mobilization within the
Indian federation. While the rise of the BJP and regionalization are distinct forms
of fragmentation, these two seemingly distinct phenomena are fundamentally
connected. The Hindu nationalism of the former and the regionalism of the latter
represent new forms of political identification that challenge the nationalism
forged in the independence movement and during the early years of independence.
This larger trend further reveals that changes are occurring not merely at the
systems level but within the electorate itself. In the 1991 Lok Sabha election, under
the leadership of L. K. Advani, the BJP presented itself to the electorate as a
flagrantly pro-Hindu party. It hoped that its Hindu nationalist platform would unify
the Hindu community and expand BJP support in rural areas and among the lower
castes, having been outbid by the INC during the 1980s on the issue of Hindu
nationalism, during this election it deployed the sensitive issue of the
Ranjanambhoomi- Babri mosque to regain the support of its religious constituency.
Despite the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the midst of the campaign, it
succeeded in winning 119 seats in the Lok Sabha with 20.2% of the vote compared
to the INC’s 227 seats and 36.2% of the vote.!? Primarily on the strength of 98
seats from the populous Hindi-speaking states of North India, the BJP be- came the
second largest party in the lower house of Parliament and the second largest votegetter after the INC.!3 BJP success in the 1991 elections proves that popular
support for a party espousing Hindu nationalism exists among the Indian
electorate, although support in 1991 came primarily from the Hindi-speaking
North, The results of the 1996 election produced no clear governing party: the BJP
claimed the most seats in the Lok Sabha but remained over 100 seats short of a
majority government. The BJP maintained its regional core of support in the
“Hindi-belt,” but it failed to expand its electoral base in the South. Its support was
also demographically concentrated, coming from upper caste, urban, male Hindus.
Nonetheless, the party won 161 seats and, for the first time, the president of India
invited the BJP to form a national government. The party failed to attract enough
allies to increase its seat count to 273—a bare majority in Parliament. The BJP’s
failure to win support across regions, castes, and, on another level, potential
coalition allies indicates that the depth of crosscutting cleavages and strength of
cross-pressures remains substantial enough to limit the size of a unified Hindu vote
bank. The BJP’s 161 seats made it the largest party in the Lok Sabha. However, a
simple seat count exaggerates the extent of the party’s popular support. It captured
29.6% of the seats in the Lok Sabha on the strength of 20.3% of the popular vote.
Differently stated, it won 33 more seats than it would have obtained if the
percentage of seats won equaled its percentage of the popular vote. Truly zerosum, the final electoral outcome also punished the INC: 28.1% of the popular vote
earned it only 25.2% (137 seats) of the seats in the Lok Sabha, approximately 16
fewer seats than it would have received in a
purely proportional representation system. The incongruous distribution of
electoral rewards and punishments is perhaps the principal idiosyncrasy of the
first-past-the-post electoral system, which favors parties with territorially
concentrated support and is indifferent to or penalizes parties whose support is
territorially diffuse. Magnifying and distorting three significant political realities—
the decline of the INC, rise of the BJP, and increased regionalization of national
politics—the electoral system itself helps shape the party system. In the 1998
election, the BJP further increased its support both in terms of seats (177) and
votes (25.5%).!4 Largely because of its strategic choice of allies, the BJP
succeeded in making significant regional gains in the south and east, increasing its
share of the vote in these regions by 22 percentage points compared to four
percentage points nationally, over the 1996 election. Demographically, the BJP
also expanded its support base. While it continues to win over half the vote of
upper castes, it is now also the largest vote getter among the lower castes, although
its support remains low among the scheduled castes and tribes. Unsurprisingly, its
support is lowest among Muslims: it obtained only 7% of Muslim votes in contrast
to the 39% and 30% achieved by the INC and the United Front, respectively. In
addition, the BJP is no longer a party of the urban, educated elite: it obtained the
largest share of the Hindu vote in both rural (35%) and urban areas (41%), and
among Hindus from all education groups.'® With its support no longer
concentrated in a specific section of Hindu society, the BJP has come far in
‘overcoming constraints on expansion imposed by crosscutting cleavages and
cross-pressures to religion as a source of political mobilization. These results
suggest that a broader section of the electorate is responding to BJP appeals. This
claim, however, must be qualified. First, the BJP’s regional expansion is largely
the product of alliances with regional parties and it is doubtful that the BJP alone
could muster significant support in these states. Second, cumulative support for
other parties still exceeds that for the BJP, both among Hindus and Muslims.
Nonetheless, inroads made into most of the major demographic groups indicate
that the BJP is now more widely accepted as a legitimate alternative to the INC.
That acceptance exists sug- gests realignment of the electorate toward a more
fervently nationalistic, if divisive, political party. The mainstream, it seems, is
changing its course. Although the BJP came closest in 1998, no party in the Indian
system appears to be capable of forming a majority government on its own in the
near future. The system is comprised of three major competitors—the BJP, the
INC, and the United Front coalition—with considerable ideological distance
between them. These parties are divided on both a right-left dimension and on a
sectarian-secular dimension, Horowitz contends that ethnic parties
in such “mixed systems” will displace multiethnic or non-ethnic parties as other
issue dimensions are overwhelmed by the primordial power of the ethnic issuedimension. A Horowitzian analysis, therefore, anticipates that the sectarian politics
of the BJP will either displace the INC and the United Front or force those parties
to reorient themselves along ethnic or sectarian lines. This prediction, however,
may not be fully borne out in the Indian case. The impact of a fragmented party
system in which even the major parties are compelled to form coalitions with
smaller parties will temper the extent to which the ethnic or sectarian dimension
will overwhelm others. Furthermore, in the large coalitions and the multitude of
small state-specific parties that help to comprise them, the 1998 Lok Sabha
exhibits pronounced regionalization. The pressure exerted by this division will
limit the intensity of sectarian polities. For the BJP, moderating forces within the
present Parliament endanger its ability to satisfy its traditional supporters. Forced
to bargain with other parties to forge unity in the coalition, the BJP must
compromise some of its fundamental goals. As a result of the process of
negotiation and accommodation, three of its own key controversial policies are
absent from the coalition’s National Agenda: a change in Kashmir’s autonomy
status, the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, and promulgation of a
uniform civil code. In the BJP’s present parliamentary position, the opportunities
and constraints of cultivating a religious constituency are clearly displayed. On one
hand, such a constituency provides the BJP with defined and, to some extent,
automatic support. On the other hand, compromise to achieve agreement within a
coalition might alienate the BJP’s own support base and invite internal outbidding
by more extreme parties or factions within the BJP. This ever-present threat
imposes constraints on bargaining and is a disincentive to compromise. If the task
of advancing the interests of its own supporters while bargaining with its coalition
partners is difficult, the subsequent imperative to prevent this heterogeneous
coalition from splintering multiplies the BJP’s challenge many times over, Indeed,
coalition theory does not predict a long life for a heterogeneous government: the
greater the number of coalition partners and the more unequal in strength and
resources, the shorter the coalition’s life expectancy. The mechanical implications
for the 21-member coalition are reinforced by the regional character of many of the
coalition partners: constituencies and goals of these parties barely overlap. As each
partner strives to advance its own interests, coalition stability becomes ever more
fragile. Into this vexed political situation, enter Pokhran—now synonymous with
India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. Analyses of international catalysts suggest that
these tests were a response to perceived security threats posed by Pakistan’s thensuspected and China’s declared nuclear capability, as well as to cooperation
between those two countries in military matters.!? While such analysis is certainly
relevant, the domestic dimension has not been fully explored: what domestic
political purposes did the tests perform and how do these squares with the BJP’s
program and ideology? Within government, the nuclear tests brought unity to the
fractious coalition by at least temporarily subduing the pursuit of individual
aspirations for power. Furthermore, the nuclear explosions have enabled the BJP to
avoid substantive debate within its government of economic, political, and social
reform issues that are far more divisive and potentially dangerous to the survival of
the coalition. Certainly, the decision to conduct nuclear tests cannot be reduced to a
strategy of diversion and avoidance. Indeed, achieving and fortifying India’s
nuclear capability has been an enduring feature of the BJP program and the larger
Hindu nationalist agenda since the mid-1960s. These domestic realities, however,
help account for the timing of the decision by a government still early in its term.
The nuclear tests have also succeeded in stoking the fires of Indian nationalism—
not an unintended consequence coming from a governing party that traditionally
relies on emotive appeals of “passionate intensity” to win and maintain support.
While the BJP has been forced to moderate overt appeals to Hindu nationalism, the
nuclear test’s function, in a sense, to preserve its core of Hindu nationalist support.
The blasts, and the political posturing that occurred in their wake, undeniably
contain a sectarian and chauvinistic element. This ultimate assertion of military
prowess appeals to strident Hindu nationalists. Yet, the nuclear tests carried far
broader appeal: a public opinion poll found that 87% of Indians support the testing
and 86% believe that India should now weaponize the bomb? The nationalism
embodied by this support—92% of respondents claimed to feel prouder to be
Indian—is religiously moderate compared to Hindu nationalism. It is, however,
considerably more extreme and, indeed, belligerent than Gandhian or Nehruvian
nationalism. The mass upsurge in nationalism that occurred in the wake of the
explosions is not linked with a religious vision of India as a Hindu nation. but a
more secular vision that celebrates the ideals of national prestige, strength, and
promise. The defiant assertion of independence made through this act in fact
continues an old nationalist tradition. Paradoxically, pacifism abandoned is atomic
At its outset, this article aspired both to explain the rise of the BJP and to assess its
impact on the Indian party system and Indian politics to date. The ascendance of
the BJP was, in large measure, made possible by factors located outside the party
itself. The social and economic disruption produced by economic modernization,
particularly in the seven years since India’s liberalization, helped lend resonance to
the BJP’s appeals for Gandhian socialism and a certain amount of economic
nationalism. More importantly, the breakdown of the Congress system provided an
opportunity for the BJP to emerge as a plausible alternative to the INC, although
the BJP is not directly responsible for that decline. Voters were more immediately
swayed by the manifestations of centralization and authoritarianism within the INC
and INC-led governments, combined with corruption and the apparent bankruptcy
of ethics in politics. While the sources of Congress decline were largely
endogenous, the BJP certainly hastened the process. Taking advantage of voter
disgust with corruption and waning support for secularism, the BJP hitched these
issues to its program of value-based politics and cast itself as a redemptive force in
Indian politics. The ascent of the BJP is, therefore, explained by exogenous factors
that created the political vacuum in which an alternative to the INC could emerge,
and by the political acumen of the BJP’s leadership for seizing this opportunity to
mobilize discontent among the electorate. I have argued that the BJP’s impact on
the party system helped transform the system of one-party predominance into one
that was more fragmented and polarized. The significance of this change, however,
extends beyond the change in the type of system. The rise of the BJP reflects an
underlying transformation in the disposition of the electorate. With the loss of INC
legit- imacy and credibility, more voters became amenable to the BJP agenda. No
longer the stuff that political pariahs are made of, its ideology of Hindu
nationalism and call for value-based politics succeeded in obtaining a level of
support that rivals that of the INC. The ascent of the BJP signaled a change in issue
dimensions as the sectarian dimension that was always present became more
politically salient. It is uncertain what net effect this shift will have on the polity in
the grand and complex scheme of Indian politics. Primordialist analyses predict
that, once such a shift begins, the progressive ethnicization of politics and
potentially conflict becomes more likely. To an extent, this hypothesis is borne out
in the Indian reality. However, it is doubtful that even a BJP government will lead
India toward the extreme end of the ethnic conflict continuum. John Wood
observes that “as ideologically principled parties get closer to power, they are
forced to abandon much of their ideological baggage and revert to moderate and
pragmatic policies.”2! Although the Indian electorate is no longer as moderate as it
once was, it is unlikely that the sectarian issue-dimension will grow to overpower
all others. Unless the BJP chooses to promote an extreme variety of Hindu
nationalism that currently is not feasible given the delicacy of its coalition, the
multiplicity of issue-dimensions and cross-pressures will help mitigate the extent
and intensity of sectarian conflict in the Indian polity.