On the Right:

Current Topics in Right-Wing Studies

On the Right is an academic blog that provides critical analysis and insight into contemporary right-wing politics and ideologies around the globe.

Thomas Hansen

Thomas Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University and the founder of Stanford’s Center for South Asia. His research focuses on political life, ethno-religious identities, violence, and urban life in South Asia and Southern Africa. Hansen's early work during the 1990s in India resulted in two books on Hindu nationalism and socioreligious conflict, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999) and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton 2001). In the early 2000s, he studied religious revival and racial conflict in a South African township, culminating in Melancholia of Freedom: Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa (Princeton University Press, 2012). Hansen's interests span political theory, psychoanalysis, comparative religion, and contemporary urbanism. He is currently completing a book on popular sovereignty and illiberal democracy and conducting a historical and ethnographic study of vernacular urbanism in South Asia.

Ayodhya, Hindu Nationalism, and India’s 2024 Elections

May 22, 2024

Thomas Hansen

On January 22, 2024, Narendra Modi inaugurated the new Ram temple in Ayodhya in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Modi had prepared himself for this occasion by an eleven-day tour visiting temples and shrines across India. Instead of having a Brahmin performing the consecration of the temple as would have been the traditional way, it was an elected prime minister who stated in a recorded message that “[t]he Lord has made me an instrument to represent all the people of India during the consecration.”

The crowd in attendance did not so much represent the “people of India” as the Indian state: the entire cabinet, hundreds of MPs, senior bureaucrats, top brass of the armed forces, and leading business tycoons (technically not part of the government but very close to it) were present. Other speakers at the event were Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak (supreme leader) of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), a right-wing, uniformed Hindu vigilante organization set up in 1925 with the goal of organizing and disciplining “Hindu society.” RSS members often refer to the RSS as the parent body of a large complex of organizations and movements called the sangh parivar (the RSS family), whose political wing is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP). In his speech, Bhagwat said that with this “new symbol” in Ayodhya “India’s self-pride has returned.”

 This occasion was indeed the conclusion of a long campaign that goes back many decades and was driven by a desire to create what Hindu nationalist leaders since the 1920s have called a  Hindu “Vatican City”—a symbolic center of India and the world of Hindus—that can generate “emotional integration” and national pride, two other supreme goals of the RSS.

The timing was undoubtedly designed to prepare the ground for the election season—currently underway and lasting until early June—but also to satisfy the base of the RSS and affiliates and to showcase the movement’s near total capture of all institutions of the Indian state.

The messaging of the BJP and its allies revolves around a very simple ideological message: Hindu pride must be retrieved from the humiliations of history at the hands of “Muslim invaders,” and Muslims must be shown their place as second-class citizens (at best) so that India and all Hindus will truly shine. This is a “thin” and highly flexible construct that can articulate with multiple local histories, grievances, and aspirations while also affirming the hierarchical social order as both natural and virtuous. This makes Hindutva—the ideological movement for Hindu supremacy in India—closer to the conservative Catholicism espoused by Opus Dei and expressed in the regimes of Francisco Franco in Spain, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, or Augusto Pinochet in Chile. All three emphasized social discipline and “integralism” in a manner distinct from Italian fascism or German National Socialism, which espoused a radical, secular transformation of society that would produce a homogenous, unified, and more equal people.

Integralism is a manifest part of Hindu nationalist ideology, albeit in a version adapted to Indian conditions and rendered as bharatiya (national) thought by Deendayal Upadhyaya, leader of the BJP’s earlier incarnation in the 1960s and 70s, the Jana Sangh. In his book Integral Humanism from 1965, Upadhyaya argued that the moral foundation of Hindu society is dharma, a Hindu ethics of oneness and harmony that should pervade all aspects of Hindu society and the nation.[1] Denouncing democracy, consumerism, and Western philosophy as premised on divisions and dualistic thinking, Upadhyaya argued that legitimate power does not flow from a simple numerical majority but only from dharma as it is expressed in a unified national culture, in bharatiya thought and policies rooted in a revival of age-old autonomous institutions based on consensus.

The program of Hindutva relies first and foremost on the mobilization of anti-Muslim sentiments and hatreds, and on the mass production of peculiar “ideological truths/myths,” such as the century-old idea of Muslims’ hostile demographic expansion. These are impervious to any falsification and many RSS members have over the years described them to me as “emotionally true”—that is, held as tenets that “feel true” when shared with others and enunciated and enjoyed in the peculiar hall of paranoid mirrors that now dominates public discourse in India. These ideological truths can have deadly effect when mobilized in mob or governmental action against minorities and opponents of the BJP.

For a movement that for almost a century has worked patiently to unify and organize what it calls “Hindu society,” the dominance and capture of the institutions of the state has now become a key objective. Nothing illustrates this shift better than how the armed forces, advanced technology, and uniformed personnel are celebrated as symbols of the “new India”—in the media, in political life, and in Bollywood films. Another illustration is how India’s place in the world is projected to broad audiences as that of a rising superpower whose time has come. During the G20 meeting last year in Delhi, delegates were ferried across the country to visit more than fifty cities—suitably spruced up for the occasion. This was reported as an effort to showcase India’s size and burgeoning modernity but it was as much, if not more, a spectacle for domestic consumption that demonstrated India’s importance in the world. The massive coverage of these events certainly demonstrated how much the BJP and its allies have remade the public sphere, elections, and the perception of politics in India in the past decade.

The old adage that all politics is local and that Indian elections are decided by how well parties are able to aggregate local interests and caste alliances into a grand numbers game seems to be dead. What we see today is a gradual decoupling of a sphere of symbolic projection of pride, of emotion, and of conjuring up dangers and enemies of the nation from a sphere of expectations of governance, service delivery, and material interests. National elections in a country as large and complex as India were always prone to be influenced by what in India is often described as “waves”—that is, when a single issue or leader comes to dominate an election, creating the impression of an unstoppable force—and the projection of larger-than-life leaders. The projection of Modi as almost synonymous with the national government has taken this logic to a new and unprecedented level. As you will learn from most opinion polls and local and state elections, Modi’s popularity, and his credibility, is also very stable in situations and contexts where the BJP is less favored by voters. The new 2024 campaign slogan Modi ki guarantee (Modi’s guarantee) reflects this attempt to project Modi as the guarantor of a new and strong India, an image that needs to be shielded from any truthful depiction of a not very strong Indian economy, as is evidenced in the government’s systematic withholding of any reliable social and economic data.

There has been a systematic reversal in the policies that address the vast economic and material needs of the poor majority in the country. Under the Congress-led governments in the early 2000s, there was a substantial number of new schemes (MNREGA, RTE, National Health Mission, etc.) that sought to empower poor communities by offering a framework that guaranteed certain rights and entitlements. The idea was to enable poor people to avail themselves of these schemes to gradually improve their lives. Such rights-based policies aimed at empowering more marginal communities and recognizing deep historical inequalities in Indian society. Such policies and political empowerment along lines of caste and community are anathema for the RSS and BJP and their fundamentally integralist view of Indian society as an organic whole. Since 2014, the budget allocation for most of these schemes has steadily declined, although several of them provided critical support for the poorest communities in the country during the COVID-19 years. In their stead, the Modi government has introduced a range of schemes pertaining to housing, pensions, agricultural credit, and other issues that are projected as benevolent gifts from the government, with cards and documents emblazoned with Modi’s image. Some of them, such as the food distribution program known as Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana, are massive in scale, reaching more than eight hundred million people and recently extended through the election season. The emphasis today is on projection of care and benevolent gift giving by the leader and the government rather than on building rights and self-reliance from below.

The vast networks of loyal members of the sangh parivar across India are mobilized to win elections and to harass opponents and minorities, to enrich themselves, and to suppress any signs of dissent or deviations from what they see as a natural social order—such as friendships and marriages across caste and community lines. This stands in stark contrast to how networks of political activists for decades have framed themselves as pillars of social service delivery and material improvement of ordinary life—a model that has sustained progressive political party networks in the southern states of India for decades.

There is no such thing as a free gift, and Hindutva gift giving is always conditional on some future expectation of loyalty, and partisan in its distribution. It is well known that BJP accesses electoral data at the voting booth level to assess how votes were distributed in towns and villages, and they calibrate their service delivery, or lack thereof, accordingly.

In a country where there are few guarantees, and even fewer jobs for the vast majority, and where livelihoods and rights require constant protection from the vagaries of an exploitative and unequal social order, the BJP tries to project Modi, his gifts, and his stream of “emotional truth” as “the guarantee.” However, it seems clear that this regime of inflated promises and overheated nationalist projections continues to generate vast expectations and aspirations that RSS’s limited vision of Hindu society as an integral natural order, and BJP’s unwillingness to reform the historical inequalities of Indian society, simply cannot contain. Therein lies a glimmer of hope for the future.

[1] The title of this book, Integral Humanism: An Analysis of Some Basic Elements (New Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan, 1965 [2016]), is taken directly from the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s 1936 work, Integral Humanism, inspired by Henri Bergson’s philosophical vitalism and natural law principles. Interestingly, Upadhyaya does not refer directly to Maritain but refers to the need to develop an “integral man” and an economic system that promotes “social harmony.” Maritain parted ways with the more conservative integralism inspired by Juan Donoso Cortés in Spain and the radical conservatism of Charles Maurras and his Action Française, which supported the French collaborationist Vichy government during World War II. Toward the end of his life when teaching at the University of Notre Dame, Maritain developed a more open-ended Christian humanism.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not purport to reflect any position taken by the journal. Links are not updated after publication.