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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.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

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