Redefining Modi’s India?

20 April 2017 Dr Auriol Weigold, FDI Senior Visiting Fellow Download PDF

Key Points

  • Prime Minister Modi’s election victory in Uttar Pradesh indicates the directions that his 2019 Election Manifesto is likely to take.
  • Conflicting ideologies may see paradoxes emerge between the government and India’s Constitution that encourage discussion about the Constitutional commitment to secularism and the practice of Hinduisation.
  • Revisiting the history of Hinduisation demonstrates a recurring theme that emerged from traditional roots to reach centre stage in the BJP’s 1996 Election Manifesto but which did not appear in Modi’s 2014 Manifesto.
  • An examination of key public documents, including the Constitution and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, illustrates the possible appearance of fault lines, as does Modi’s candidate of choice for appointment as the new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.


This paper attempts to determine the level of Hinduisation that is emerging in India under Modi’s leadership and the direction in which his 2019 Election Manifesto may steer the country. The level of Hinduisation is gauged through a brief history of the rise of the nationalist movement and is examined in the light of public documents including the 1996 and 2014 Election Manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the post-independence Indian Constitution and the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, currently before a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. Modi’s “Idea” of India is considered, as is his commitment to the Constitution as ‘the only sacred document’, against the wave of anti-minority actions and the controversial Chief Minister appointed in Uttar Pradesh.


Looking Forward

The question ‘Does India’s Hindu Heartland Still Love Modi?’ was answered overwhelmingly in the affirmative in Uttar Pradesh, where election results were declared on 12 March 2017. Assertions that his party is going through a “golden period” are not disputed. His appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister, a “saffron-robed” supporter of Hinduisation, moreover, in a state where the population is close to 224 million and some 80 per cent Hindu is controversial but appears to align with the Prime Minister’s 2019 election plan.

Whether a pro-Hindu or, in the overall picture, a secular move, Modi’s roll of the dice should either see Yogi Adityanath meeting his task to send 73 Modi-supporting members to Parliament in 2019, matching the record in 2014 and reigning in his hardline supporters or, as The Economic Times suggested on 19 March, letting his supporters loose with their Hinduisation agenda while their Party governed. The latter would derail Modi’s ambitious development and growth goals and mark the start of India’s definition as a Hindu Nation.

Modi’s goals, his 2014 election master narratives, are being only gradually implemented, building aspirations about opportunities for youth and for the poor in the recent state elections campaigns. A 2019 Election Manifesto is in the making where he will again seek a mandate from the Hindu middle class with big all-India economic policies and use his tea-maker background, with which the disadvantaged identify, to promote additional ‘pro-poor’ packages. He may also broaden his 2014 ‘Make in India’ rhetoric to encompass his elections slogan of recent months, ‘Collective Efforts, Inclusive Growth’.

Together with the “Enrol and Excel” education statement in the 2014 Manifesto, (p. 22, English version), the pathway and opportunity for youth emphasises national integration and national identity with religious and social inclusion – all-embracing. His focus on development may also energise specific policies for urban and rural poor that have been patchy in their implementation up to the half-way mark of Modi’s government.

The Preface to the 2014 Election Manifesto points to the need to arrive at a consensus about the ‘“Idea” of India … in consonance with the seekings and preferences of the Indian people’ (Manifesto, p. 2, English version). Unpacking Modi’s idea of India and the Indian people raises uncomfortable questions for the minorities. The BJP’s re-energised populism, still short of Hinduisation, is likely to leave some groups “beyond the pale” or outside the notional boundary of an undeclared Hindu India.

Ashutosh Varshney suggests that conflicting ideologies generate paradoxes. A Hindu nationalist government would have three imperatives: ideological, which seeks to turn India into a Hindu nation; political, sustained by electoral victories, not always won by Hindu nationalism; and the Constitution, which does not say that India is a Hindu nation. Modi, who sees India’s Constitution as the ‘only sacred document’, has not referred to India as a Hindu Nation.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that the Hinduisation of India, or Hindu politics, is part of Prime Minister Modi’s DNA and, that under his leadership, the BJP may redefine not only the idea of India but the way in which it is governed.[1] Varshney further notes that some political observers see a ‘dualism’ in the statesman-like Prime Minister and a party leadership that is ideologically rigid.

The idea of the duality of Modi’s politics proposed by Suhas Palshikar in South Asia, however, identified a development-plus package that allowed a view of Hinduisation where ‘caste identity and economics are … skilfully interwoven’.

While Modi maintains his statesmanlike stance, his rapport with international leaders and his “Make in India” election rhetoric, he also maintains a distance from reported instances of discrimination against non-Hindu society, apparent in a revival of communally divisive politics, such as cow vigilantism, discussed below. Students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) marked Dussehra (11 October 2016) by burning effigies of Modi and other leaders to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government, governance and a lack of pro-student policies. Maintaining his distance but picking up the baton, Modi, in a speech to a Delhi college, spoke about governance, the economy, development and the hopes that students had for their futures. Such duality, widely recognised, encourages debate about the government’s Constitutional commitment to secularism and the visible moves towards Hinduisation. Yogi Adityanath’s role as Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh is now a part of this discussion.


There are a number of ways to examine any movement towards Hinduisation in India since Modi led the BJP to a landslide electoral victory in May 2014. Start points are key public documents, the Indian Constitution and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. Another is the Election Manifesto for the BJP’s successful election campaign in 1996 and its differences from that of Modi’s in 2014. A brief background history of Hinduisation politics illustrates its growth and recent media accounts allow views of present opinion.

Defining Hinduisation is a task that produces many significant answers. Taking a discursive approach as a first step, Hinduism has been seen as a unifying principle which can ‘preserve the unity and integrity’ of India. It may also be seen, as Barbara Harriss-White (2003) proposed in India Working: Essays on Society and Economy (p. 257), as an ideological response to what is perceived as a global “pincer” movement encircling India. One arm of the pincer is a threatening form of globalised secularism that has accompanied economic liberalisation. Another is an outcome of ‘the upward thrust of the hitherto underprivileged’ (Harriss-White, p. 256) into the political world. Hinduisation offers a solution in a loosely connected set of ideas including a degree of autarchy where the individual and society are the same promoting inclusion, from the “intermediate classes” down to small-scale industry, agriculture and low-rank occupations. Then there is Hinduisation’s aggressive face, perceived as a unique selling point in its communal agenda. Sometimes described as ‘the politics of hate’, it shapes conceptions of security and insecurity in local communities.[2]

The complexity of discourses about Hinduisation is thus briefly illustrated. In its political context, Hinduisation has been a recurring theme with roots in a pre-independence political party, the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha, and, since Gandhi’s assassination by members of the militant RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, now, in its modern form, the self-styled cultural wing of the BJP, Modi’s party.

As the Hindu nationalists’ philosophy of politics, it emerged from cultural and traditional roots to take the centre stage political platform at the 1996 general election that wrested government for Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the Congress Party. It advocated the unity and integrity of an India where the intensification of political mobilisation among the lower castes and, more particularly, the minority communities, was painted as, and perceived as, threatening, and galvanised millions of Hindus to respond to the BJP’s call.

In addition to English- and Hindi-speaking élites, such political mobilisation drew in groups ‘constituting the old intermediate classes’, which included civil servants, businessmen, industrialists and traders. ‘Not everywhere and not completely’, (Thomas Hanson (2003), The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India, p. 5), but the ‘saffron wave’ is again swelling. The reasoning is clear; less so are the directions that it is taking.

Key Public Documents

The Constitution of India[3], which Modi sees as the ‘only sacred document’, sets out on the first page of its Preamble a resolution, widely known and admired, that commits the people of India to a ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’ that ‘secures’ for all its citizens ‘justice, social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality … and fraternity ….’ This clarity refuses misinterpretation.

The Constitution goes on to state the rights of citizenship accorded to ‘a citizen of India’, which date from its commencement on 26 January 1950. It makes statements pertaining to ‘certain persons of Indian origin’ living outside India (Part II, № 8) and, importantly, includes Parliament’s right to regulate citizenship by law (Part II, № 11). This provision will be examined in the light of the 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

The Constitution’s Fundamental Rights for citizens of India, (Part III, № 15), forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and elaborates that no citizen on the grounds above ‘be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of any employment or office under the State’, (Part III, № 16 (2)). The same provisions regulate any form of discrimination or exploitation. Their possible relevance to amendments in the Citizenship Bill under consideration by the Indian Government is discussed below.

The BJP’s 1996 Election Manifesto rejected the Constitution’s values, was unashamedly discriminatory and delivered government to the party. Communal issues over past decades, a prime example being the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, which was defined as “Hindu-society-under-siege”, in this instance by the Muslim minority,[4] fed into the Manifesto. Its Preface makes clear its platform:

The BJP is committed to the concept of one nation, one people, one culture – our nationalist vision is not merely bound by the geographical or political identity of India, but defined by our ancient cultural heritage. From this belief flows our faith in ‘Cultural Nationalism’ which is the core of Hindutva. (1996 Manifesto, p. 12)

The BJP’s mantra in the mid-1990s, included in the Manifesto (p. 6), was ‘The BJP believes in one nation, one people and one culture’. Its 2014 Manifesto, however, in contrast, is at once open and subtle – but arguably includes possibilities for ambiguity around the “Idea” of India.

The Preface to the 2014 Election Manifesto, as noted, points to the need to arrive at a consensus about the ‘“Idea” of India … in consonance with the seekings and preferences of the Indian people’, (p. 10, Preface, p. 2, English version), and moves forward into discussion of “India First” by defining it:

India First simply means nurturing and protecting all the elements, which India is made of. It does not exclude anyone or anything – it only includes everything and everyone, which India is made of. It is complete India; without exclusion, without exception (2014 Manifesto, p. 10, English version).

The BJP’s core values were summed up in three points: the only philosophy and religion of the government should be “India First”, the only epic, the Constitution, the only power, that of the people (2014 Manifesto, p. 10), again endorsing Modi’s commitment to the Constitution. This was elaborated in a section titled Minorities – Equal Opportunity. Here, the BJP committed ‘to ensure that all communities are equal partners in India’s progress’ and that in ‘Unity in Diversity’ lies India’s strength, which was summed up again in three points (the order in which they are presented is not that of the document): ‘… preservation and promotion of Urdu; maintenance and restoration of heritage sites, and ensuring a peaceful and secure environment where there is no place for either the perpetrators or exploiters of fear.’ (2014 Manifesto, p. 25).

Returning to Varshney’s argument that such conflicting ideologies generate paradoxes, this appears the likely outcome. In its 2014 Manifesto, the BJP created a clear distance between its earlier extreme Hindu nationalism and Modi’s commitment to the Constitution – ‘nurturing and protecting all the elements which India is made of’ – despite his party’s historical and ongoing links to the Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in turn part of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations. Trying to draw a distinction, Shivam Vij argued, between radical Hinduisation and the government is useless as there is ‘no distance between them’. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, to amend the Citizenship Act 1955, is still before the Parliament, a joint report being prepared by both Houses, due in the last week of the 2017 Budget Session in May. The Bill’s provisions, as set out, appear to protect religious minorities from neighbouring states, but add a further ground for cancelling an Overseas Citizen of India’s registration. Each raises questions about it actual intention.

The first proposed change to the 1955 Act is a provision that makes illegal Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. (Bill, Part II, № 8, above). The Bill, in effect, relaxes residency requirements for people belonging to the six religions and the three countries listed.

A second proposed change is that the registration of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders may be cancelled if they violate any law (Bill, Part II, № 11, above). This provision covers all offences.

The Bill, analysed by PRS Legislative Research (PRS), an Indian independent research institute, and by Wamika Kapur in The Diplomat, who observe that Muslims (and some other minorities) are omitted from the list of illegal migrants eligible for citizenship.

On the first change in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, PRS asks if differentiating on the grounds of religion may be read as an infringement of the Constitution that states that no person shall be denied ‘equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India’, because the proposed Bill provides for different treatment between illegal migrants on the basis of their religion. The Constitution, however, includes Parliament’s right to regulate citizenship by law (Constitution, Part II, № 11), providing grounds to consider this amendment.

The first change also suggests infringement of the Constitution that forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and arguably applies equally to illegal migrants, and the second change, that the registration of Overseas Citizens of India may be cancelled for a minor offence such as traffic infringements. Any discriminatory application in the future would be difficult to establish or police.

Kapur argues that the Bill aims to protect religious minorities from blasphemy laws in the three states nominated, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, which are Muslim-majority countries. This is a cause for concern, as is the government’s emphasis on allowing citizenship on the basis of religion, both ‘in keeping with the Hindutva ideology popularly advocated by the current Government.’

Kapur argues further that the citizenship provisions would support large numbers of Hindus migrating from Pakistan and Bangladesh to the Indian border states, adding to the vote for the BJP.

Is this Hinduisation in a seemingly humanitarian guise?


Kapur’s point that the 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is ‘in keeping with Hindutva ideology …’, sits alongside opinion expressed in the Indian media that secular India is being consistently undermined. Some reasoning for this claim is encapsulated in Vij’s January 2017 article, ‘2014, The Year India Became a Hindu State’.

Modi’s silence on acts that infringe India’s secularism has been frequently noted by the media as supporters of Hinduisation take actions against religious minorities. “Reconversion”, church burning and anti-Muslim riots are regular occurrences that do not draw government condemnation and, arguably, the most noteworthy has been cow vigilantism. While not new, since Modi’s election several Indian states have passed new cow protection laws that affect Dalits, whose living is made in their disposal. It also adversely affects tanning and leather businesses, and Muslims who process the meat.

Violence by Hindu cow-protectionists has increased and was not denounced by the government until mid-2016 when the Prime Minister warned people ‘to beware of fake cow protectors who are trying to create social conflict’. Modi, by expressing regret to those families who lost members to Hindu-led violence but without condemning the law enforcers who fail in their duty, or condemning law breakers, demonstrates either his convictions or his dilemma.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 appears to undermine the equality of Muslim citizens in the guise of making India ‘a natural home for persecuted Hindus’, overwriting sections of the Constitution – Modi’s “only sacred document”. How should amendments that discriminate against minorities be viewed by the Hindi majority?

Anti-social and anti-minority actions that may have been seen as versions of communalism under the previous Congress Government arguably have a different hue today with memories of the Vajpayee BJP Government’s Hinduisation platform, and the present government’s very different Manifesto and below-the-radar discriminatory activities. Newly-empowered “populism” claims a place, but does not guarantee safe passage under the Constitution for all minorities.

Modi’s appointment of a hardline Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh is a gamble. The appointment was arguably intended to stem any potential outbreak, or stall any overtly Hinduisation actions among the new Minister’s followers. Within days of Adityanath’s appointment, however, dressed in saffron robes, he described the BJP’s victory as a rejection of “Muslim appeasement” and strengthened cow protection laws with immediate effect on Muslim businesses. Any strong minority reaction to this initial extreme approach would come at great cost to Modi’s overt agenda and must, as a consequence, draw from the Prime Minister either support for a Hindu India or a confirmation of the secular Constitution.


[1] Rajdeep Sardesai, 2014: The Election That Changed India, Gurgaon: Viking, Penguin Group, (2014), pp. xvi & 350. Sardesai, born in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, is a journalist and political commentator who followed Narendra Modi’s electoral rise and the 2014 election campaign to the Prime Ministership.

[2] Dibyesh Anand, ‘The Violence of Security: Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Representing “the Muslim” as a Danger’, The Round Table, Routledge, Vol. 94, № 379, (2005), p. 203. The Taylor & Francis link may provide limited access.

[3] The Indian Constitution is updated by the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law and Justice, which requires than any user acknowledges their role in its maintenance.

[4] The quotation was drawn from Rita Manchanda’s ‘Militarised Hindu Nationalism and the Mass Media: Shaping a Hindutva Public Discourse’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 25, (2005), and referred to also in Auriol Weigold’s ‘The Indian Media and the Issue of Hindutva: An Outsider’s Perspective’, an unpublished conference paper. The Taylor & Francis link may have limited access to Dr Manchanda’s paper.

About the Author

Dr Auriol Weigold is an Adjunct Associate Professor in International Studies at the University of Canberra. She has been a Fellow and Honorary Fellow at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at old Parliament House, Canberra, between 2010 and 2015, publishing on Australian and Indian prime ministerial relationships. Previously, she was Convenor of the BA International Studies and an Editor of the South Asia Masala weblog, hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. In 2008, she published her first book: Churchill, Roosevelt and India: Propaganda during World War II. Since then, she has co-edited and contributed to two further books. Her research interests include the Australia-India bilateral relationship, India’s energy and security needs, and Indo-British Relations in the 1940s.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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