The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism
The BJP is unique among India's political parties in that neither it nor its political predecessors were ever associated with the Congress. Instead, it grew out of an alternative nationalist organization--the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS--National Volunteer Organisation). The BJP still is affiliated with the network of organizations popularly referred to as the RSS family. The RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Until 1928 a member of the Congress with radical nationalist political leanings, Hedgewar had grown increasingly disenchanted with the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Hedgewar was particularly critical of Gandhi's emphasis on nonviolence and civil disobedience, which he felt discouraged the forceful political action necessary to gain independence. He established the RSS as an organization that would provide training in martial arts and spiritual matters to rejuvenate the spiritual life of the Hindu community and build its unity.
Hedgewar and his successor, M.S. Golwalkar, scrupulously endeavored to define the RSS's identity as a cultural organization that was not directly involved in politics. However, its rapidly growing membership and the paramilitary-like uniforms and discipline of its activists made the political potential of the RSS apparent to everyone on the political scene. There was considerable sentiment within the Congress that RSS members should be permitted to join, and, in fact, on October 7, 1947, the Congress Working Committee voted to allow in RSS members. But in November 1947, the Congress passed a rule requiring RSS members to give up their affiliation before joining. The RSS was banned in 1948 after Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. The ban was lifted in 1949 only after the RSS drafted an organizational constitution that was acceptable to the government. Intensely loyal RSS members refused to give up their affiliation to join the Congress and, instead, channeled their political energies to the Jana Sangh (People's Union) after its founding in 1951.
The Jana Sangh grew slowly during the 1950s and 1960s, despite the efforts of RSS members, who quickly took control of the party's organization. Although the Jana Sangh succeeded in displacing the Hindu Mahasabha (a communal party established in 1914 as a counter to Muslim separatists) as the preeminent party of Hindu activists in the Indian political system, it failed to develop into a major rival to the Congress. According to political scientist Bruce Graham, this failure occurred because of the Jana Sangh's inability "to transcend the limitations of its origins," in particular, its identification with the Hindi-speaking, northern heartland and its Brahmanical interpretation of Hinduism rather than the more inclusive and syncretic values of popular Hinduism. However, the experience of the Jana Sangh during the 1970s, especially its increasing resort to populism and agitational tactics, provided essential ingredients for the success of the BJP in the 1980s.
In 1977 the Jana Sangh joined the Janata Party, which defeated Indira Gandhi and the Congress (I) in parliamentary elections and formed a government through the end of 1979. The rapid expansion of the RSS under Janata rule soon brought calls for all members of the RSS family to merge with Janata Party affiliates. Ultimately, intraparty tensions impelled those affiliated with the Jana Sangh to leave the Janata Party and establish a new party--the BJP.
The BJP was formed in April 1980, under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Although the party welcomed members of the RSS, the BJP's effort to draw from the legacies of the Ja-nata Party as well as that of the Jana Sangh were suggested by its new name, its choice of a green and saffron flag similar to that of the Janata Party rather than the solid saffron flag of the old Jana Sangh, its adoption of a decentralized organizational structure along the lines of the Janata Party rather than the more centralized model of the Jana Sangh, and its inclusion in its working committee of several non-Jana Sangh individuals, including Sikandar Bakht--a Muslim. The invocation of Gandhian socialism as one of the guiding principles of the BJP rather than the doctrine of "integral humanism" associated with the Jana Sangh was another indication of the impact of the party members' experience in the Janata Party and "J.P. movement."
The new synthesis, however, failed to achieve political success. In 1984 the BJP won only two seats in the parliamentary elections. In the wake of the 1984 elections, the BJP shifted course. Advani replaced Vajpayee as party president. Under Advani's leadership, the BJP appealed to Hindu activists by criticizing measures it construed as pandering to minorities and advocating the repeal of the special status given to the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Simultaneously, it cooperated more closely with other RSS affiliates, particularly the VHP. During the 1980s, the BJP-VHP combine developed into a dynamic political force through its brilliant use of religious symbolism to rouse the passions of the public. The BJP and VHP attained national prominence through their campaign to convert back to Hinduism members of the Scheduled Castes who had converted to Islam. The VHP also agitated to reclaim the Babri Masjid site and encouraged villagers throughout the country to hold religious ceremonies to consecrate bricks made out of their own clay and send them to be used in the construction of the Ramjanmabhumi Temple in Ayodhya.
In the general elections of 1991, the BJP expanded its support more than did any other party. Its number of seats in the Lok Sabha increased from eighty-five to 119, and its vote share grew from 11.4 percent to 21.0 percent. The party was particularly successful in Uttar Pradesh, where it increased its share of the vote from 7.6 percent (eight seats) in 1989 to 35.3 percent (fifty seats) in 1991, and in Gujarat, where its votes and seats climbed from 30 percent (twelve seats) to 52 percent (twenty seats). In addition, BJP support appeared to be spreading into new areas. In Karnataka, its vote rose from 2.6 percent to 28.1 percent, and in West Bengal the BJP's share of the vote expanded from 1.6 to 12.0 percent. However, the elections also revealed some of the limitations of the BJP juggernaut. Exit polls showed that while the BJP received more upper-caste support than all other parties and made inroads into the constituency of Backward Classes, it did poorly among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, constituencies that it had long attempted to cultivate. In Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, three state governments run by the BJP since 1990, the BJP lost parliamentary seats although its share of the vote increased. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP also won control of the state government in 1991, veteran political analyst Paul R. Brass cogently argued that the BJP had reached the limits of its social base of support.
The limits of the BJP's Hindu nationalist strategy were further revealed by its losses in the November 1993 state elections. The party lost control over the state-level governments of Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh while winning power in Gujarat and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. In the aftermath of the Hindu activists' dismantling of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the evocative symbolism of the Ramjanmabhumi controversy had apparently lost its capacity to mobilize popular support. Nevertheless, the BJP, by giving more emphasis to anticorruption and social issues, achieved unprecedented success in South India, where it won 28 percent of the vote and came in second in elections in Karnataka in November 1994. In the spring of 1995, the BJP won state elections in Gujarat and became the junior partner of a coalition with Shiv Sena (Army of Shivaji--Shivaji Bhonsle was a seventeenth-century Maratha guerrilla leader who kept Mughal armies at bay) in Maharashtra (see The Marathas, ch. 1). In view of the potential demise of the Congress (I), the BJP stands poised to emerge as India's largest party in the 1990s. However, it is likely to have to play down the more divisive aspects of Hindu nationalism and find other issues to expand its support if it is to win a majority in the Lok Sabha.
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