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The fractured mandate in India’s 2024 national elections has shocked many. Hoping to secure an absolute majority as in 2019, the right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suffered a major setback. Even the opportunistic inauguration of a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya by Modi—a manifestation of his divisive politics—could not save the BJP candidate from losing the election there. Nationally, the BJP was reduced from 303 to 240 seats in the 543-member parliament, 32 members short of forming a majority government. Now, it will have to rely on its allies to form a new government.

Thus, it is doubtful that Modi, an authoritarian leader, will be able to rule India in his third term as prime minister in the same way he did until the end of his second term. The election’s outcome is likely to temporarily disrupt Modi’s Hindu nationalist (also known as Hindutva) project to transform secular India into an authoritarian Hindu state that rejects secular democratic values such as religious and gender equality while restricting individual rights.

The election’s outcome is likely to temporarily disrupt Modi’s Hindu nationalist project to transform secular India into an authoritarian Hindu state.

In the 2024 national elections, the Indian people have clearly rejected absolute Hindu majority rule in favor of a more socio-culturally inclusive liberal government. A fractured mandate may not provide strong political stability to the nation, but it may provide hope for the survival of India’s secular democracy, which is currently classified as an “electoral autocracy” and a “partially free democracy.” Since 2014, under Modi’s oppressive rule, India’s secular liberal values (religious pluralism, communal harmony, and cultural diversity) have suffered immense damage, especially among religious minorities and marginalized groups such as Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and women. The use of political Hinduism under the Modi government has reached new heights, leading to an increase in the hostility of the Hindu majority towards religious minorities.

Farewell secular democracy?

When India gained independence in 1947, it chose to be a secular democratic nation that gave equal constitutional rights to religious minorities, especially Muslims. Modi, as a Hindutva leader, rejects this idea of religious equality. Hindutva is an ethno-nationalism that affirms the supremacy of Hinduism and its cultural values over those of religious, ethnic or other kinds of minorities. It is inherently Islamophobic. It seeks to suppress dissent and eliminate religious pluralism and secularism from political discourse.

Since 1925, a Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a staunch promotor of Hindutva, has attempted to polarize India’s masses by stirring up religious hatred between Hindus and Muslims,  resulting in large-scale anti-Muslim riots. RSS is radically right-wing, hierarchical, authoritarian, and founded on the premise of Hindu supremacy. RSS has never accepted the Indian constitution and flag and did not participate in India’s freedom struggle. One of its members, Nathuram Godse, killed Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation.

Secularism and human rights are under serious threat due to the overt religious polarization of Hindus, especially during Modi’s first term as Prime Minister in 2014.

Currently, RSS rules India through its political front—the BJP—under Narendra Modi, who is a full-time member of RSS. Modi has imposed the ideology of Hindutva on almost every level of society, infecting the secular foundations of Indian society. As an ideology, Hindutva seeks to entrench and institutionalize Hindu symbols, values and beliefs as the only legitimate ones capable of defining the Indian nation. The goal of Hindutva is to transform India into a Hindu authoritarian state. In fact, secularism and human rights are under serious threat due to the overt religious polarization of Hindus, especially during Modi’s first term as Prime Minister in 2014. Secularism in the Indian context prevents the Hindu majority from dominating the religious minorities.

However, Modi’s election strengthened Hindu extremists who hegemonize the “public space” with Hindu religious narratives and aggressive nationalism. This led to greater penetration of the Hindu religion into the public sphere and its hegemonic influence in government affairs. The Hindu nationalist political narrative of past invasions by Muslim rulers and their atrocities against Hindus in the Middle Ages has made the Hindu majority hostile to the current Muslim population. Muslims are blamed for the partition of India in 1947 and for domestic terrorism. These Islamophobic narratives have normalized violence against Muslims, resulting in mob lynchings, public demonization, and the bulldozing of their homes.

Not only does Hindu nationalism sanctify caste and gender hierarchies and endorse violence against dissenters, it also inhibits reasoning, cultivating a sense of fear among its followers without the ability to challenge it.

Most of these attacks have been carried out by ultra-nationalist right-wing Hindu groups such as ‘Hindu Yuva Vahini, Hindu Jagran Manch, members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Visha Hindu Parishad.’ These groups are linked to the ruling BJP, which uses Hinduism to polarize and mobilize India’s Hindu majority. It is important to note that, not only does Hindu nationalism sanctify caste and gender hierarchies and endorse violence against dissenters, it also inhibits reasoning, cultivating a sense of fear among its followers without the ability to challenge it. In the current context, blind followers of Hindutva and Narendra Modi have been sarcastically referred to as “andh bhakts” who simply follow and spread misinformation promoted by the BJP’s Information Technology Cell and the BJP’s media.

The Deadly Use of Hindu Religious Populism

The use of religion and populism in Hindu nationalism has exacerbated religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Hindu religious populism is the use of Hindu nationalism and religion as a basis for populist politics. Hindu nationalists spread propaganda that Indian Muslims are taking over India by populating and appropriating its economic resources and that Christians are converting Hindus to Christianity, thus posing an imminent threat to Hindu religion and cultural identity. By creating a “divisive binary” of “insider” and “outsider” among the Hindu majority, right-wing Hindu religious populists “sacralize” the Hindu people by appealing to Hinduism, thereby weakening secularism, which protects the rights of religious minorities and allows them to maintain their distinct religious identity. The elements of populism in Hindu religious populism, such as its ‘anti-pluralistic’ attitude towards religious diversity, and tendency to eliminate civil society, present a true danger for secular Indian democracy and the rights of religious minorities in India.

The RSS and extremist Hindu organizations expand the scope of Hindu identity from religious to political by linking Hindu sentiment to power politics. In this process, Hindu religious symbols, in the hands of Hindu fundamentalists, became a tool to mobilize Hindu sentiments against “enemy others” in a conservative Indian society where Islamophobic narratives have long existed, and which have resulted in the social and political marginalization of Muslims. Studies have shown that religious strife politically benefits the BJP, and this has encouraged violence against religious minorities and their sacred sites.

Now that the Ram temple has been inaugurated, the controversial Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi appears to be the BJP’s next target, in an effort to win the national election in 2029. This means that religious polarization and the vilification of religious minorities are likely to increase in the coming years. In the first eight months of 2023 alone, there were 525 attacks against Christians in India. According to a report by the United Christian Forum (UCF), Christians are legally harassed, despite being victims, and the police have failed to prosecute perpetrators of mob violence. The increase in such incidents has coincided with the rise of Hindu nationalism and various forms of violence against minorities by both state and non-state actors.

Illiberal moves

Under the Modi government, the Hindu nation is constantly being “imagined,” “reinvented,” and routinely “reproduced” in everyday life through the Hinduization of places and in violence against minorities. To make India a Hindu-dominated state, the BJP leadership has taken a number of measures, such as revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and securing the Babri Mosque site for a Hindu temple, plus amending the Citizenship Act (CAA). Protesters are labeled by BJP leaders as anti-nationalists, urban Naxals, and “jihadists.”  The criminalization of peaceful dissent is becoming the legal norm in Modi’s India. 

Under the Modi government, the Hindu nation is constantly being “imagined,” “reinvented,” and routinely “reproduced” in everyday life through the Hinduization of places, violence against minorities, and the rewriting of history books.

On another front, the rewriting of history books and the deletion of chapters (in government school textbooks) on secularism, democracy, and social movements is a sinister method used by the Hindu nationalist government to suppress and manipulate the facts of Indian history. Those who speak out against structural human rights issues such as caste discrimination are labeled anti-Indian; Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar are examples who have been demonized for their opposition to Hindutva ideology. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit activist and Ph.D. scholar, ended his life due to discrimination and humiliation at the hands of university authorities in Hyderabad.

To control dissenting narratives, the Modi government leaves no room for alternative interpretations of history and silences dissent and criticism. Professors are being fired for questioning Hindutva, students are being attacked for resisting Hindutva ideology on university campuses, and scholars known to be critical of Modi have been disinvited. Spaces for dissent in public and private universities have been significantly reduced due to fear of Hindu vigilante groups, student organizations, and pressure from the Indian government. 

Dangers ahead

Following the outcome of the 2024 national elections, a resurgent political opposition and members of civil society offer strong resistance to Modi’s authoritarianism. Thus, in his third term with a fractured mandate, Modi may slow down his Hindutva project out of political necessity to survive as prime minister. Without a parliamentary majority, he will not be able to pass laws without any debates as he did in his second term. With his cult of personality deeply damaged, Modi has lost his air of invincibility and is slowly becoming a punching bag for a powerful opposition political party.

It’s an illusion that an authoritarian leader like Modi could function in a democracy without dismantling it. Either his government will not fully complete its tenure or Modi will become even more autocratic in running the government.

However, it is possible that Modi may try to intensify his authoritarianism to strengthen his lost grip on Indian politics and society by reverting to his fascist methods and illiberal policies. The outcome of the Indian elections may provide a temporary halt to the shrinking democratic space. However, Hindutva—by its very nature—is incompatible with democratic norms, and can strike at any moment against those who resist it. It’s an illusion that an authoritarian leader like Modi could function in a democracy without dismantling it. Either his government will not fully complete its tenure or Modi will become even more autocratic in running the government, by suppressing the opposition. In both scenarios, the fate of secular Indian democracy and its religious minorities remains uncertain and insecure.


Amit Singh is a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Social Studies (CES), University of Coimbra. He is also a Sylff fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research Japan, the holder of a Slovakian national scholarship, and a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Indian Languages and Society in India. His research interests are Hindu Nationalism, populism, right-wing extremism, human rights, and freedom of expression.

Image made by John Chrobak using “Arvind Kejriwal (portrait),” by RAJINDER PAL SINGH BRAR licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Sitaram Yechury in Kolkata,” by Press Trust of India; “Mallikarjun Kharge briefing the media after presenting the Interim Railway Budget 2014-15 in the Parliament, in New Delhi. The Minister of State for Railways, Shri Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Chairman, Railway Board,” by Ministry of Railways licensed under Government Open Data License – India (GODL); “18th Lok Sabha,” by Wikiuser829 licensed under CC Attribution 4.0 International; “PM Modi Addressing G20 New Delhi Summit,” by Prime Minister’s Office licensed under Government Open Data License – India (GODL); “Hindutva,” by El Mono Español licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

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