Worrying unemployment rates, a sluggish economy exacerbated by demonetization, slow automobile sales, farmer woes: none of it prevented the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from securing a decisive general election win earlier this year. Many soothsayers predicted the end, but the Modi-led BJP came back stronger than ever. While there may be many reasons for its resounding victory, one thing is certain: the right nationalist repertoire hath been spun. This national narrative firmly convinced its largest voter base, the Hindu population, to back the party in bigger numbers than in 2014. This victory was significant also in terms of the spike in votes that cut across the caste spectrum: upper caste, peasant caste, upper and lower other backward class (OBC), scheduled caste (SC), and scheduled tribes (STs).
What is the BJP’s national narrative, on what issues does this narrative unfold, and, more importantly, how have voters reciprocated?
Nationalism is based on the core understanding that the nation is real and all its people share some commonality. This can be unruly in a country like India with so much diversity. A shared colonial history worked for both the Congress and the BJP, but the BJP brand is grounded on cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism draws from the idea of a pre-existing Hindu nation and a national identity proud of its linguistic heritage, culture, and territory. The BJP’s brand of nationalism is used interchangeably with the more popularly known “Hindutva” (loosely translated as Hindu-ness). The BJP government’s promotion of Sanskrit in schools and its efforts to spread yoga and Ayurveda in and out of the country serve as cases in point.
Numerous speeches and BJP manifestos are flecked with such references. While describing the leadership of L.K Advani, the 2009 manifesto pointed out that, “He led the Ayodhya movement, the biggest mass movement in India since Independence, and initiated a powerful debate on cultural nationalism and the true meaning of secularism.” The last phrase emphasizing the “true meaning of secularism” can be perplexing in this context of religious nationalism. But this is merely a strategic juxtaposition to the image of the Congress as an appeaser to minorities, at times over the interests of the majority Hindus.
This nationalist narrative has been amped up and played down over the years. The 2014 manifesto held different nuances from the 2019 version. Since the BJP was fighting the incumbent Congress in 2014, most of their pledges were alternatives to what the Congress was doing wrong in the country, namely corruption and high prices. This manifesto also allocated a section for minorities, calling for “equal opportunity,” “empowering the Waqf Boasts, promotion of Urdu, a permanent Inter-faith Consultative mechanism to promote harmony and trust.” These sections were missing in the 2019 manifesto and nationalist goals took centerstage.
Ram Temple in Ayodhya and Kashmir’s Status
Certain issue-areas remain important building blocks to this nationalist narrative. The construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya has been a top priority. The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi movement was a watershed movement for the BJP, changing the face of the party forever. The BJP has never forgotten this and the Ram Temple has made a constant appearance in all manifestos from 1996 to 2019. In 1999, the BJP manifesto proclaimed that “Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness,” thus the urgency of the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. The BJP stayed true to its word and finally, in November 2019, the Supreme Court passed a judgment that both the BJP and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization) heartily approved.
Seen almost as often as the Ram Mandir is the reference to Kashmir’s special status. The BJP referred to it 12 times in 2009, six times in 2014 and another six times in 2019. In particular, it emphasized the resettling of Kashmiri pandits, the rights of PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) refugees, etc. As soon as the 2019 elections were won, the BJP’s first big task was to put its pledges into action. Article 370 was removed and the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh were bifurcated into two union territories, now under direct central control.
National security looms large in most of the BJP electoral campaigns. The BJP 2009 manifesto was heavy on national security concerns, particularly the security of the largely Hindu populace. It tried to draw comparisons with the inability of the Congress to ensure the security of its Hindu population, pinpointing the scrapping of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This year, national security was again back with a bang. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in Haryana on May 8, 2019, “We conducted surgical strikes and air strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists to send our message to the world that India is well capable of defending itself.”
The message was not lost on voters. National security has always been a vote clincher. An overwhelming 76.2 percent responded that they were aware of India’s strike on terrorist camps in Pakistan after the Pulwama terror incident. This was in sharp contrast to around 50 percent of respondents for the 2019 post-polls surveys by Lokniti-CSDS who had not even heard of the Rafael aircraft deal, a controversial purchase deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets. The Congress Party had been mounting an election gambit against Modi as “chowidkar chor hai” (the watchman is a thief), in reference to alleged corruption on the Rafale. This slogan also smacked of the disastrous “Indira Hatao” (remove Indira) campaign in 1971 and as inheritors of Indira Gandhi’s legacy, the Congress really ought to have known better.
Retaining the “cultural and linguistic identity” of the areas near the border was another important agenda for the BJP this year. This issue is not new; back in its 2009 manifesto, the BJP was explicit that it would “launch a massive program to detect, detain and deport illegal immigrants” within 100 days of coming to power. This pledge toward combating illegal immigration was repeated in the 2019 manifesto alongside a promise to complete the National Register of Citizens. According to the manifesto, illegal immigration is creating “a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas” and “resulting in an adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and employment.” The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a list drawn up of all genuine Indian citizens and, at present, Assam in the northeast is the only state with such a register.
In the 2016 Assam post-poll assembly election survey, 50.8 percent of the respondents stated that updating the NRC would solve the “foreigner issue in Assam.” Also, 60.2 percent (28.2 percent fully agree and 31.4 percent somewhat agree) of the respondents replied that “people from outside Assam can spoil the culture and way of life of the people of Assam.”
The 2019 manifesto also pledged to enact the Citizenship Amendment Bill for religious minorities escaping persecution in their own countries, specifying Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Some of the local criticisms in the northeast region levelled charges against this bill that it is an effort to give citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh and thus change the demography of the region.
Over the years, there have been subtle changes in the nationalist tone and the BJP has tempered its Hindutva clarion call. The Vision Document 2004 and the manifesto released in 2014 stuck to developmental goals and, for what its worth, even had a section on minorities. This year’s elections saw a return to the winning national narrative, a narrative that transcends the material conditions of economy and where one’s identity as a Hindu and Hindustani are inextricable.