Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 22 March 2023


India’s BJP Is the World’s Most Important Party

It combines market economics, traditionalist values and populist rhetoric.

BJP supporters in Kolkata, India, March 2.PHOTO: SAYANTAN CHAKRABORTY/ZUMA PRESS

New Delhi

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is, from the standpoint of American national interests, the most important foreign political party in the world. It may also be the least understood.

It’s important because the BJP—which came to power in 2014, won a second term in 2019, and is headed for a repeat victory in 2024—sits securely at the helm of Indian politics at a time when India is emerging both as a leading economic power and, along with Japan, as the linchpin of American strategy in the Indo-Pacific. For the foreseeable future the BJP will be calling the shots in a country without whose help American efforts to balance rising Chinese power are likely to fall short.

The BJP is poorly understood because it grows out of a political and cultural history unfamiliar to most non-Indians. The BJP’s electoral dominance reflects the success of a once obscure and marginal social movement of national renewal based on efforts by generations of social thinkers and activists to chart a distinctively Hindu path to modernization. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the BJP rejects many ideas and priorities of Western liberalism even as it embraces key features of modernity. Like the Chinese Communist Party, the BJP hopes to lead a nation with more than a billion people to become a global superpower. Like the Likud Party in Israel, the BJP combines a basically pro-market economic stance with populist rhetoric and traditionalist values, even as it channels the anger of those who’ve felt excluded and despised by a cosmopolitan, Western-focused cultural and political elite.


Morning Editorial Report

All the day's Opinion headlines.

American analysts, particularly those of a left-liberal persuasion, often look at Narendra Modi’s India and ask why it isn’t more like Denmark. Their concerns aren’t wholly misplaced. Journalists who are critical of the ruling coalition can face harassment and worse. Religious minorities who fall afoul of the resurgent Hindu pride that marks BJP India speak of mob violence and point to hostile official measures like broadly drafted anticonversion laws as well as occasional outbursts of mob violence. Many fear the power of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a nationwide Hindu nationalist organization with close ties to BJP leadership.

But India is a complicated place, and there are other stories as well. Some of the BJP’s most striking recent political successes have come in predominantly Christian states in India’s northeast. The BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, a state with a population of about 200 million, enjoys strong support from Shia Muslims. RSS activists have played a significant role in efforts to fight caste discrimination.

After an intensive series of meetings with senior BJP and RSS leaders, as well as some of their critics, I am convinced that Americans and Westerners generally need to engage much more deeply with a complex and powerful movement. From a fringe of mostly marginalized intellectuals and religious enthusiasts, the RSS has become perhaps the most powerful civil-society organization in the world. Its rural and urban development programs, religious education and revival efforts and civic activism, staffed by thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, have succeeded in forming the political consciousness and focusing the energies of hundreds of millions of people.

The movement seems to have reached a crossroads. When I met with Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk serving as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, considered one of the most radical voices in the movement—and sometimes spoken of as a successor to 72-year-old Prime Minister Modi—the conversation was about bringing investment and development to his state. Similarly, Mohan Bhagwat, the spiritual leader of the RSS, spoke to me about the need to accelerate India’s economic growth, and disavowed the idea that religious minorities should suffer discrimination or loss of civil rights.

How these statements by top leaders to a foreign journalist will percolate down to the grass roots is impossible to predict. But I did get the impression that the leadership of a once-marginalized movement wants to position itself as the natural establishment of a rising power and is looking to engage deeply and fruitfully with the outside world without losing touch with its social and political base.

The invitation to engage with the BJP and RSS is one that Americans can’t afford to reject. As tensions with China rise, the U.S. needs India as both an economic and political partner. Understanding the ideology and the trajectory of the Hindu nationalist movement is as important for business leaders and investors seeking to engage economically with India as it is for diplomats and policy makers wanting to put the strategic relationship on a stable footing.

No comments:

Post a Comment