Does India Still Need a Hindu Nationalist Party?

A look at the future prospects of India's controversial right-wing politicians.

It's been a tough 12 months for India's Bharatiya Janata Party. Last spring, the center-right political counterweight to the Gandhi clan's left-leaning Congress Party was routed in India's national elections, losing two dozen seats in the country's lower house after mustering just 19 percent of the national vote. The results continued the BJP's slide, wiping out a third of the seats it had amassed during its political high a decade earlier.

After last spring's crushing defeat, the party vowed to rise again. But then more losses followed in state elections. Most recently, a top BJP figure's testimony about his role in 2002 religious riots in Gujarat that left nearly 2,000 Muslims dead highlighted the lingering image problems the party faces. It also pointed to a larger issue plaguing the BJP: Can the party survive while still holding on to its founding ideology?

So far, there have been no easy answers. The BJP rose to power a decade ago brandishing an assertive brand of nationalism called Hindutva. Hindutva -- meaning, essentially, "Hindu-ness" -- stirred a potent mix of cultural nostalgia and aggressive religious nationalism that proved to be political gold. Hindutva also has a conveniently loose definition: It can imply anything from a fairly benign affirmation of Hindu culture and history to a more virulently anti-Muslim chauvinism. Because of this, the BJP was able to form alliances with hard-line subgroups like Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena, a Maharashtra-based party whose politics were expanded from localized ethnic politics to include a form of Hindutva.

This strategy was immensely productive in driving votes among India's upper castes, particularly the growing middle class residing in the cities. Emotive issues for conservative Hindus, such as the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya and the movement to build a Hindu temple in its place, not only set off nationwide "communal" riots between Muslim and Hindu communities, they also galvanized the BJP's political base.

Once the BJP came into office, however, finally cobbling together a lasting coalition in 1999 after two shorter stints in power, its ties to conservative groups became more problematic. Forced by the realities of a coalition government to tack toward the center, the party was seen by its old allies to be abandoning its Hindutva principles. Meanwhile, the RSS and Shiv Sena themselves became political liabilities. Last fall, the Indian government released a report on the destruction of the Babri Mosque and fingered the RSS for fomenting communalism that led to riots across the country. Shiv Sena, too, has a penchant for violence and a willingness to publicly attack even big stars -- recently, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Kahn -- for insufficient patriotism.

Caught between the demands of office and of its old friends, and pushing a feel-good nationalist agenda that began to seem out of touch to rural voters, the BJP was voted out of power in 2004 after just one full term in office.

But instead of abandoning its Hindutva ideology in the wake of defeat, the BJP only retrenched. Sudheendra Kulkarni, the party's former national secretary, told me that a conservative cadre read the 2004 election as a sign that a return to first principles was in order. "There is a vocal view within the party that has a Hindutva-only approach," he said. Caught between the desire to appease its Hindutva ideologues and the need to appeal to a new set of voters so far unswayed by nationalist appeals, the BJP has appeared to be listing and unable to do either.

Internal slip-ups have only made things worse. Last year's election seemed to be the perfect chance to reach out to a wider demographic, as the country went to the polls less than six months after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The BJP emphasized its national-security credentials, charging that the Congress government's response was weak and indecisive.

In the elections, the BJP's support declined drastically among its base of Hindutva supporters. Urban voters, the party's traditional base, abandoned the BJP-run National Democratic Alliance, dropping by 13 percent from 2004. This is a troubling sign for the BJP, given that the party's ideological makeup excludes pretty much all non-Hindus in the country -- some 230 million people. The BJP has essentially ceded the sizeable Muslim vote in India (13 percent of the population), and the country's 26 million Christians (2.3 percent) are also skeptical of Hindutva.

But the BJP also faces obstacles to reaching new Hindu voters. While the vast majority of the country is notionally Hindu, religious affiliation is often trumped by other forms of caste, ethnic, and regional identifications. So when the party trumpets a form of cultural nationalism that can overheat and turn violent, it faces a perception problem: namely, that it is anti-minority.

Recent events have only hammered home this image. Gujarat is a success story that the BJP can ill afford to forfeit as it tries to position itself as the party of better governance. Under RSS favorite Chief Minister Narendra Modi's leadership, the state has become a model of development in India: a business-friendly state with an efficient, responsible bureaucracy. But the 2002 Gujarat riots continue to blunt the political impact of the party's successes there. Last month, Modi was questioned about his alleged complicity in the violence by a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (his testimony has not been released since the inquiry is still in the early stages).

Although it still seems unlikely that Modi will see jail time or even the inside of a courtroom, the issue still taints him, as well as the party, given his national stature and outspoken support for Hindutva.  It's bad timing for the BJP, and there are reports that the party's restrained backing of Modi during the investigation is due to a cooling of support for its most controversial member. Meanwhile, the BJP is taking steps to distance itself from Shiv Sena, publicly condemning the hard-line group's opposition to immigrants from northern India settling in Mumbai.

Clearly, the BJP is trying to make some changes -- but they may not be the right ones. It selected new leadership, opting for a relatively young face: Nitin Gadkari, a newcomer to the national stage who previously headed the party's Maharashtra state organization.  Gadkari was backed by the RSS, however, suggesting that changes may be more superficial than real. Meanwhile, Varun Gandhi, the party's new national secretary, is also making news. Gandhi, a youthful defector from his family's Congress party, won in his first run for office last year -- but landed in jail during his campaign for making inflammatory remarks about Muslims. Gandhi's ascension to the leadership suggests that the BJP is not leaving Hindutva behind any time soon. Whether the party can win on these terms in 2014, however, is very much an open question.



Why Bosnia Needs NATO (Again)

The country is more divided than any time since 1995. Time to call for reinforcements.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's future looks more uncertain than it has at any time since the end of the war in 1995. The nation's three main groups -- the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats -- are all competing to determine the future of the Bosnian state. The country will hold general elections in October, and if that were not destabilizing enough, its various constituencies are all running in opposite directions: Serbs are threatening to call a referendum on the Dayton Agreement that stopped the war; Croats are calling for the creation of an autonomous entity within the broader state; and Bosnian Muslims are demanding a new constitution giving them more powers, to replace the existing, highly decentralized document. Forming a coalition government after the October polls will be very difficult, no matter who wins. On top of the political crisis, the country is in the midst of an economic and social meltdown.

Paradoxically, this is precisely the time for NATO to forge a closer alliance with Bosnia, a process that began last Thursday in Tallinn, Estonia. A meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers agreed to give Bosnia and Herzegovina a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a welcome step toward maintain the country's tenuous hold on peace and stability. A MAP is not a promise of NATO membership; it does not commit the alliance to defend Bosnia against a military threat or affect its decision-making mechanisms. It is an assistance program through which NATO and its members provide guidance and support on specific political, economic, security, and legal reforms. That is exactly what Bosnia needs at such a tense moment, in part to reassure its various political factions and in part to help push forward badly needed reform.

Until now, U.S. and EU attempts to help Bosnia and Herzegovina by pushing for constitutional changes to make the government more functional have come to naught; no one on the ground is ready to take difficult steps. What’s needed is a common agenda of projects that would benefit all Bosnians, without upsetting the country’s delicate balance of power and the three communities’ individual, vital interests. But Bosnian politicians today lack the common interests and shared values that would be necessary to improve upon what they agreed to in the Dayton Accords. Trying to change the current arrangement would be divisive and time-consuming.

A closer link to NATO can help build up this common sense of purpose and calm things at home. Much of the current tension in Bosnia exists because all parties feel insecure about the future structure of the Bosnian state and their status within it. Having a MAP with NATO can give all sides a sense of security, making them more confident about undertaking necessary institutional changes, even when politically difficult. With NATO's help, reform can also be gradual; Macedonia has been in the MAP program since 1999 and is now ready to start accession talks with the European Union.

Even amongst Bosnian Serbs, the group least in favor of moving closer to NATO, public support for membership hovers at 35 percent -- higher than it was in Montenegro when that country received a MAP in December 2009. Even Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who has proven a difficult partner with other parts of the international community, is in favor of NATO membership for Bosnia. To be sure, more nationalist Serb politicians may rally against it, given NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999. But this is unlikely to have much effect, particularly since Serbia, to which the Bosnian Serbs are closely linked, is also moving closer to NATO.

If reform does happen, it will only work if it is designed by and for all Bosnian constituent peoples: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. MAP is vital for Bosnia because it leaves the initiative and ownership of the reform process in Bosnian leaders' hands. It differs from the international impositions of the past decade and a half, undertaken by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) on a wide range of issues -- from establishing common license plates to extending the mandate of international judges working to investigate war crimes. Too often, Bosnian leaders have hidden behind the OHR to avoid taking hard decisions. This time, the country's leaders must stop asking when someone is going to come to rescue them and start doing the hard work themselves. Left to their own devices, Bosnia's leaders can do the right thing, as they did these past few months by passing new laws to obtain substantial IMF assistance and visa facilitation with the European Union. Still, positive change in Bosnia will only be incremental, and the NATO meeting in Tallinn is a good first step.

The first test for Bosnian leadership will come even before day one of this new NATO engagement. Bosnian leaders have already been told that their MAP will formally begin only when the military bases identified as necessary for future defence purposes have been officially registered as the national property of the Bosnian state -- not as the separate property of one of the country's two entities, the Federation or the Republika Srpska. Until now, the latter enclave has held tightly to its control over the bases on its territory -- part of a broader dispute with the federal state. It won't be easy to convince Republika Srpska to give up its turf, but the lure of NATO ties will go a long way.

If the country slides through another bitter election without good news, its already fledgling commitment to both NATO and to its own reforms may well fracture and collapse. If deadlock continues after the elections, it could become impossible for a new government, which inevitably must include a fair mix of Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, to form, leaving the state government-less or worse. The stakes are high -- which is why now is the right moment for Bosnia and NATO to deepen ties.