Can Hindutva win votes?

Narendra modi

The answer varies across castes, communities, and local contexts

Winning consecutive elections in India is not easy. The attention given to the BJP's third consecutive triumph in Gujarat's state assembly elections is therefore understandable. The party's 2012 victory prompted a flurry of analyses of how the BJP's prospects in the 2014 parliamentary polls might have shifted, and of the viability of Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. Modi's three-peat also invites analysts to think about the electoral appeal of Hindutva, especially since his campaigns and tenure have been so infamously identified with an aggressive Hindu nationalism. For the past decade, most observers of Indian politics have believed the electoral appeal of Hindutva to be on the decline. Does the BJP's Gujarat victory suggest this decline can be arrested, or even reversed? Or does it indicate that the BJP can only succeed by emphasising claims of "development" and "good governance"?

Any attempt to analyse the electoral salience of Hindutva requires thinking carefully through a number of thorny issues.

First, and most simply, it is important to remember that we cannot equate votes for the BJP with ideological support for Hindutva. Not all supporters of the BJP are supportive of Hindutva, and not all supporters of Hindutva let this preference determine their vote choice. Yet there has been a widespread and persistent tendency to equate these two phenomena, leading to "conventional wisdom" that Hindutva's appeal can be measured by the BJP's performance at the polls: rising during the 1980s, peaking during the early 1990s, and steadily declining since then. More systematic analyses of voter surveys trouble such linear narratives, and point us in the more productive direction of analysing the degree to which these two phenomena are related in specific places and periods.

For example, statistical analyses of data from Lokniti's National Election Study have helped uncover considerable variation in the importance of Hindutva even within the BJP's support base in a given election. Such analyses show that support for key Hindu nationalist positions (such as building a Ram temple at Ayodhya or banning religious conversions) do indeed consistently distinguish upper castes who support the BJP from those who don't.

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