The rise of Bharatiya Janata Party and Cultural Nationalism

A national party is not built in one election; the BJP’s rise from 2 seats in the 8th Lok Sabha to 282 seats in 16th Lok Sabha is testimony to the fact that ideology and organisational rigor are more effective than TRP theatrics and divisive election arithmetic.  

Part One: Cultural Nationalism and its influence on the growth of the BJP

To any Sangh outsider, the rise of the BJP in the last three and half decades is easily understood when attributed to causes like rise in Hindu Nationalism and Hindu consolidation. However, to those who have seen the working of the RSS from close quarters, BJP’s formidable rise is the result of a hard fought battle to politically validate a long-standing and intrinsically nationalistic cultural identity.

For many, the idea of nationalism is elusive: why stop at the nation, why not identify with humanity on the whole, why base our identity on the geographical boundaries of a country? Such questions may seem naive to those who have already immersed themselves in nationalistic agenda. They are valid and introspective questions, nevertheless.  
BJP’s National Vice President, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe points to some answers in a recent article. He writes–

“One can’t deny that all individuals live under multiple identities at any given time and maturity hinges on how skillfully one manages these identities and more importantly, gradually learns to give more emphasis on larger identity without denying the primacy of the primary or smaller identity. This identity helps one continuing with a situation where one feels insecure, threatened, lost, or defeated. Identity is a socio-psychological phenomenon. It is because of this symbolism that imagery, vocabulary and terminologies acquire importance. They connote something and when one is able to decode these, communication happens. Culture enables one to unravel this messaging. And this obviously has several ingredients: language, geography, monuments, persons, music, art, fashions et al. When we in the BJP/RSS talk about cultural nationalism, we mean only this and nothing more.”

The ideologues of the Sangh Parivar, spiritual in their intent yet realistic in their outlook spent time and thought in addressing conflicts regarding the nature of nationalism. In his book Bunch of Thoughts, Guruji M.S Golwalker writes  against the very notion of territorial nationalism —

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“Even to this day, after the British have quit the land, we are witnessing the disastrous effects of the reactionary and perverted concept of nationalism. Our leaders are not prepared to revise and correct their territorial concept of nationalism which has led to the unprecedented tragedy of partition of our motherland, with all its continuing and growing dangers, and the uprooting of over two crores of our brethren resulting in their indescribable miseries of desolation, distress and dishonor.”

Dismissing the very notion of territorial nationalism, Guruji provides insights into his definition of cultural nationalism in India and its inherent relation to Hindu civilization. To understand the ideas of any philosopher, Guruji, Hegdewar or even Savarkar in this context, one must shed preconceived notions of morality and consider the circumstantial and contextual references that define a thinker’s outlook. Those who laid the foundation for the RSS understood that at the time of India’s independence consolidating a national identity was critical to protecting the country’s newfound sovereignty. It was only natural to them that such an identity be based on the cultural fabric that for many centuries defined ancient India. Whether this fabric was inclusive (or secular) in its outer appearance was inconsequential as for the very nature of Dharmic (Hindu) thought has been that of non-discrimination and inclusion.

Naturally perversions to these ideas have occurred: does Hindu Rashtra mean no place for religious minorities, do those with opposing views have no place within the cultural ethos of our nation? Answers to these questions lie again in the fact that Hindu dharma was built on far greater truths of inclusion and acceptance than any other known body of thinking. Dissent is a way of not only allowing for a broad range of views to be accommodated but also for the expansion of the Hindu way of thinking. Those who truly and genuinely want to criticize, learn and better this cultural ethos that exists in the country do so with respect and reverence. In return, Hindu Dharma and therefore our culture adapt to these course corrections while always nurturing core beliefs.

Across these last three decades of the BJP, the message of cultural nationalism has been integrated into the polity in different ways. During the early days of the BJP, it was through an indigenous economic model of Integral Humanism as postulated by Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. During the 1990s it was the vocal Ram Janmabhoomi movement that steered the BJP to form its first ever Government.

Today’s India is far different than the one the British left behind, or even the one that marched to Ayodhya with the Rath Yatra. Our globalized, technologically connected world is allowing for multiple, fluid identities. In such a time, BJP has reinforced its belief in its core ideologies as evidently seen in the words and work of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas to Make in India, weaving threads of cultural nationalism that are relevant for 21st century India is being done subtly, sometimes with confrontations but being done nevertheless.

While cultural nationalism has become the binding factor on which the foundation of the BJP was built, other ideological doctrines have influenced the political party in different ways. Among them ‘ Integral Humanism’, a theory first put forth in 1965 by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya acts as an economic compass to the policies of BJP when in Government. Part two of this series will dwell on the influence of ‘Integral Humanism’ on the economic positioning of the BJP.


– Surabhi Hodigere, a Political Entrepreneur from Karnataka is the Founder-CEO of PQ Consultants Pvt. Ltd, a firm that provides elected representatives with bespoke solutions for constituency development. She is also a Board Member of Kairos India, a internationally recognized organization with a mission to nurture student innovators in the country. Surabhi writes on politics, economics and spirituality.  

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