Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 4 December 2023



India’s Identity Is More Hardline Hindu Than Ever

Key state elections indicate support for Modi shows no signs of softening. Prepare for more religious-driven laws if he wins a third term.

Another big win.
Another big win. Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg


When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, his party had three key ambitions: To remove the special status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state; build a Hindu temple on the site of a centuries-old mosque; and introduce a single code to replace the maze of civil laws that govern personal issues like marriage, divorce and guardianship.

Each one is deeply controversial, seen by critics and minorities as an attempt to Hinduize India’s diverse 1.4 billion population, not the necessary step toward further unification the Bharatiya Janata Party would have us believe.

Modi has already achieved one: Kashmir was forcibly brought under the control of the federal government in 2019, although the Supreme Court in September reserved judgment on a series of petitions challenging the constitutionality of that move. And in January, he is expected to open a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram in the northern town of Ayodhya, built on the site where, in 1992, Hindu extremists tore down a 16th-century mosque, sparking riots that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

That just leaves the so-called uniform civil code. To anyone who cares about the rights of women and children, abolishing the faith-based laws that dominate day-to-day life would seem like an obvious step in the right direction. And it would be, if undertaken by a government committed to democracy and upholding the rights of religious and tribal minorities. But this is not that government.

Instead, many fear that Modi’s hardline Hindu-nationalist administration will put a Hindu stamp on the civil code, and deal with the illiberal parts of other faiths — such as polygamy in Islam — while leaving the worst practices of Hinduism in place, Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. Take inheritance laws, which despite reforms can still allow sons to inherit ancestral property and leave widows and daughters with nothing, or the outlawed but still-widely practiced dowry system and its relation to deadly domestic violence.

Under Modi, the simultaneous growth of Hindu dominance over all aspects of society, and the country’s inflated importance as a counterweight to China’s influence in the region, has been remarkable. Nations like the US, Australia and Japan — India’s partners in the Quad alliance — appear determined to ignore the government’s more toxic elements in favor of their strategic goal of containing Beijing. That, of course, gets more difficult when faced with accusations of a state-sponsored campaign of extra-judicial killings of Sikh separatists, first in Canada and then the recent revelation of a thwarted plot in the US.

Modi is seeking a third term in office next year — and his party’s victory in key state polls announced Sunday will be read as a barometer for how the prime minister and his ruling party will fare in nationwide elections.

Each campaign has been hard fought, with Modi and his powerful right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, attending at least 108 road shows and rallies between them in the weeks leading up to the vote. The BJP retained power in Madhya Pradesh and won control from its rival, the Indian National Congress, in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Congress took the southern state of Telangana from the Bharat Rashtra Samithi party, while results for Mizoram in the northeast, also governed by a regional power, will be announced Monday.

The BJP is leveraging Modi’s enduring personal popularity as it works toward the 2024 poll. As Vaishnav says, it is notable that the party has not named a chief ministerial candidate in any state — even Madhya Pradesh where there’s an incumbent — as they have traditionally done. “We cannot deny that there is the Modi factor in play,” he says. “When you have the most popular politician in India by a landslide, you go to the election with him.”

While the BJP is widely expected to win in the national elections next year, opposition parties, which have pledged to join forces, are not out of the race yet. But they face an uphill battle.

India’s economy is set to be the fastest growing of any major nation this year and next, with investors increasingly looking to put money there as an alternative to China. Should he retain power next year, we should expect an India that is more hyper-religious and even less tolerant of minorities than ever before. These state polls cannot be viewed as a proxy for what might happen at a federal level, but they do tell us one thing: Modi is a force to be reckoned with.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

  • India’s Denials on Sikh Plots Are Sounding Hollow: Mihir Sharma
  • The West’s India Problem Isn’t Getting Any Easier: Pankaj Mishra
  • India’s Northeast Is on the Brink. Where’s Modi?: Ruth Pollard

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

(Corrects the date the 16th-century mosque was demolished in the third paragraph.)

To contact the author of this story:
Ruth Pollard at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Patrick McDowell at

Ruth Pollard is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia government team leader at Bloomberg News and Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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