The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most influential and powerful nationalist political organization in India. Its name translates to Indian People's Party, and it is one of the two major Indian political parties along with the Indian National Congress. Since 2014, it has been the ruling political party in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP is aligned with right-wing politics, and its policies adhere to Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist ideology. It has close ideological and organisational links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer paramilitary organisation. As of September 2023, it is the country's biggest political party in terms of representation in the Parliament of India as well as state legislatures. [Source: Wikipedia]

The BJP is unique among India's political parties in that neither it nor its political predecessors were ever associated with the Congress. Instead, it grew out of an alternative nationalist organization — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS — National Volunteer Organisation). The BJP still is affiliated with the network of organizations popularly referred to as the RSS family. The BJP is an arm of the RSS and is still regarded as such. The relationship between the BJP and the RSS has be compared to the relationship between Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA)

The BJP has its roots in the Hindu national parties of the 1950s and began in 1952 under the name Jana Sangh, the political wing of the RSS. Its present incarnation was created in 1980 and was founded on the belief that India is a Hindu country and should be ruled accordingly. The BJP began as a fringe party of upper-caste businessmen. in 1983. The rise of the BJP is closely linked with discontent over the quota issue. The BJP is widely blamed for the demolition of a mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya that lead to riots and thousands of deaths in India and Pakistan in late 1992 and early 1993.

BJP Members and Seats in Parliament

The urban middle class has been the traditionally supporters of the BJP. Much of the party’s base supporters are upper caste members who want India to be made into a Hindu state called Hindustan. BJP became a national phenomena when it branched out from it power base in the northern India and established itself in the west. In the early 2000s, the BJP controled the city governments of Delhi and Bombay and controlled the states of Rajasthan and Maharahstra (Bombay's state).

Representation in the Lok Sabha (India’s main legislative body): Party Name, Number of Members, Percentage ( percent)
1) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — 282 — 52.13
2) Indian National Congress (INC) — 44 — 8.13
3) All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) — 37 — 6.84 [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Elections for the House of the People (Lok Sabha) were last held April-May 2019 in 7 phases. The next ones will be held in 2024. Seats by party: BJP: 303; INC: 52; DMK: 24; AITC: 22.

Elections for the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) were last held by state and territorial assemblies at various dates in 2019. Election results: seats by party — BJP: 97; INC: 34; AITC: 13; DMK: 10; other: 2; independent: 2.

In the 1990s, Lak Krishna Advani was one of the most hawkish and reactionary of the BJP’s leaders. In 1990, he toured the country on a chariot and called on Hindus to destroy the ancient mosque of Ayodhya — an ancient monument purportedly built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. In 1992, he looked on as a Hindu mob tore down the mosque at Ayodhya and consistently opposed better relations with Pakistan. He served as home minister under Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India from 1998 to 2004 and was named deputy prime minister in 2002 and was expected to replace Vajpayee as prime minister,

BJP Positions

One BJP slogan is "one nation, one people, one culture." It want to restrict the rights of Muslims and abolish separate Muslim civil laws for marriage, divorce and property rights and has supported violent pogroms against Muslims. For a long time the party wanted to build a temple at the site of the former mosque of Ayodhya, a goal that was realized in the early 2020s. BJP cabinet minsters were charged with complicity in the destruction if the Ayodhya mosque.

The BJP is committed to maintaining the caste system status quo and preserve the privileges of the upper classes. One BJP politician told the Financial Times, "Why should it be abolished...With caste each level of society is preserved and those who have extraordinary minds and intelligence can get a life...Caste, the feeling that each one performs his duty, has kept the country and society together.

The BJP also wants to end the special status and autonomy for predominately-Muslim Kashmir and Jammu. They reject all talk about independence for Kashmir. The BJP wants in Gujarat wants to change the names of Allahabad, Faizabad and Aligarh because they sound too Muslim.

The BJP at one time promised to protect Indian industry from foreign competition and discourage foreign investment in consumer goods. One of their slogans was "Coca-Cola is not a drink but a sign of American machismo." This view to a large degree has been left behind as the current BJP has embraced freer trade as it benefits Indian companies doing business abroad.

A BJP-supported group called the National Council of Educational Research (NCERT) asserted that young Indians need to become more religious and equate that with patriotism and achieve this through 'value education." The group advocated the teaching of Sanskrit and referring to Muslims as a minority. While the BJP has been in power, BJP official have tried to rewrite textbooks and history and give them a pro-Hindu stance.

Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh (RSS) — Forerunner of the BJP

Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Corps) is a powerful Hindu fascist, supremacist movement made of around three dozen social. educational, cultural and political organizations and 48,000 “shakas”, or local chapters, in the early 2000s. RSS members say that their goal is to create ideal Hindu citizens. They look back on the Muslim-Mogul and British periods as a source of humiliation.

The RSS was founded in the central Indian city of Nagpur in 1925 to instill pride and unity among Hindus and create a militant Hindu state, and closely modeled in the early days on fascist movements and the Nazi party in Europe. The group helped fund a succession of political parties.

A former member of one of these political parties and the RSS killed Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Many believe that RSS leader Gowaklwar ordered the assassination.Hindu nationalist organizations were banned for more than 20 years after the Gandhi assassination in January 1948.

The RSS was banned for few years. It was revitalized in the 1950s by M.S. Golwakler, a supremacist who admired Hitler and once said that "non-Hindu people in [India]...must entertain no idea of but those if glorification of the Hindu race and culture."

Founding of the RSS

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS — National Volunteer Organisation) was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Until 1928 a member of the Congress with radical nationalist political leanings, Hedgewar had grown increasingly disenchanted with the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Hedgewar was particularly critical of Gandhi's emphasis on nonviolence and civil disobedience, which he felt discouraged the forceful political action necessary to gain independence. He established the RSS as an organization that would provide training in martial arts and spiritual matters to rejuvenate the spiritual life of the Hindu community and build its unity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

Hedgewar's successor, Madhav Sadashiv (M.S.) Golwalkar gave the RSS a powerful voice and identity. Gowalkar dismissed Muslims as "foreign elements" who should assimilate or leave. He said that Nazi Germany offered “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by” and that the Nazis themselves manifested :race pride at its highest” by ridding Germany of the Jews. He called India Hindustan and said it was a land of Hindus, where Jews and Parsis were “guests” and Muslims and Christians were “invaders.”

Golwalker wrote: “The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, mis learn to respect and hold n reverence Hindu religion, mist entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture...or may stay in the political, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges.”

Early History of the RSS

Hedgewar and Golwalkar, scrupulously endeavored to define the RSS's identity as a cultural organization that was not directly involved in politics. However, its rapidly growing membership and the paramilitary-like uniforms and discipline of its activists made the political potential of the RSS apparent to everyone on the political scene. There was considerable sentiment within the Congress that RSS members should be permitted to join, and, in fact, on October 7, 1947, the Congress Working Committee voted to allow in RSS members. But in November 1947, the Congress passed a rule requiring RSS members to give up their affiliation before joining. The RSS was banned in 1948 after Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. The ban was lifted in 1949 only after the RSS drafted an organizational constitution that was acceptable to the government. Intensely loyal RSS members refused to give up their affiliation to join the Congress and, instead, channeled their political energies to the Jana Sangh (People's Union) after its founding in 1951. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

The Jana Sangh grew slowly during the 1950s and 1960s, despite the efforts of RSS members, who quickly took control of the party's organization. Although the Jana Sangh succeeded in displacing the Hindu Mahasabha (a communal party established in 1914 as a counter to Muslim separatists) as the preeminent party of Hindu activists in the Indian political system, it failed to develop into a major rival to the Congress. According to political scientist Bruce Graham, this failure occurred because of the Jana Sangh's inability "to transcend the limitations of its origins," in particular, its identification with the Hindi-speaking, northern heartland and its Brahmanical interpretation of Hinduism rather than the more inclusive and syncretic values of popular Hinduism. However, the experience of the Jana Sangh during the 1970s, especially its increasing resort to populism and agitational tactics, provided essential ingredients for the success of the BJP in the 1980s.*

In 1977 the Jana Sangh joined the Janata Party, which defeated Indira Gandhi and the Congress (I) in parliamentary elections and formed a government through the end of 1979. The rapid expansion of the RSS under Janata rule soon brought calls for all members of the RSS family to merge with Janata Party affiliates. Ultimately, intraparty tensions impelled those affiliated with the Jana Sangh to leave the Janata Party and establish a new party — the BJP.*

History of the BJP

The BJP was formed in April 1980, under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Although the party welcomed members of the RSS, the BJP's effort to draw from the legacies of the Ja-nata Party as well as that of the Jana Sangh were suggested by its new name, its choice of a green and saffron flag similar to that of the Janata Party rather than the solid saffron flag of the old Jana Sangh, its adoption of a decentralized organizational structure along the lines of the Janata Party rather than the more centralized model of the Jana Sangh, and its inclusion in its working committee of several non-Jana Sangh individuals, including Sikandar Bakht — a Muslim. The invocation of Gandhian socialism as one of the guiding principles of the BJP rather than the doctrine of "integral humanism" associated with the Jana Sangh was another indication of the impact of the party members' experience in the Janata Party and "J.P. movement." [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

The new synthesis, however, failed to achieve political success. In 1984 the BJP won only two seats in the parliamentary elections. In the wake of the 1984 elections, the BJP shifted course. Advani replaced Vajpayee as party president. Under Advani's leadership, the BJP appealed to Hindu activists by criticizing measures it construed as pandering to minorities and advocating the repeal of the special status given to the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Simultaneously, it cooperated more closely with other RSS affiliates, particularly the VHP.

During the 1980s, the BJP-VHP combine developed into a dynamic political force through its brilliant use of religious symbolism to rouse the passions of the public. The BJP and VHP attained national prominence through their campaign to convert back to Hinduism members of the Scheduled Castes who had converted to Islam. The VHP also agitated to reclaim the Babri Masjid site and encouraged villagers throughout the country to hold religious ceremonies to consecrate bricks made out of their own clay and send them to be used in the construction of the Ramjanmabhumi Temple in Ayodhya.*

RSS Members

As of the early 2000s, the RSS had 500,000 to 1 million stalwart members and about 20 million less active members. The stalwart ones typically gather for early morning meetings and martial arts drills, wear khaki shorts and white shirts, learn discipline and fighting skills, sing patriotic songs and make salutes that are reminiscent of those made by the Nazis. Members include “swayamsevaks” (volunteers) and “pracharaks” (full time organizers who are expected be celibate and receive no compensation for their work except living expenses).

RSS members are encouraged to be good, law-abiding citizens. The RSS has been involved in charity and relief work and it also formed special groups for farmers, students and workers. RSS volunteers often participate is disaster relief operations such as helping to clean up after floods. Hindu extremist groups sent teams to Gujarat after the state was hit by a devastating earthquake in January 2001. Extremists who belong to non-Hindu religions are denounced and the description of the mosque in Ayodyhas is regarded as a "national shame."

The success of the RSS has been attributed to its superior organization and its ability to infiltrate the highest reaches of power, even the Prime Minister, and have a strong grassroots membership. Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor at Paris University and authority on Hindu nationalism, told the New York Times the RSS hopes “to fashion society, sustain it when the point [is] reached where society and the organization [are] coexistive.”

RSS Activities, Cow Urine and the BJP

Th RSS has been described as being essentially an education and charity organization not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood. It runs a number of Hindu nationalist schools and orphanages and also dispatches “barefoot doctors” who visit villages with first aids kits and medicines to combat dysentery. It has established hostels for children that have to go a long distance to attend school.

At RSS camps khaki-clad young boys in starched white shirts learn hand-to-hand combat in mock battles with turbaned men pretending to be horsemen and firecrackers providing “gunfire” noises. The camps are attended by children as young as 5 as well as college graduates with advanced degrees. Groups affiliated with the RSS have trashed McDonald’s restaurants, staged pretests at the Miss World competitions and sought the banning of films and art deemed un-Hindu.

The RSS operates laboratory that is devoted to developing uses of cow urine, much of it from cows “rescued” from Muslim butchers. Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “In one room, its white-washed walls spattered with saffron-hued posters of Lord Rama, devout young Hindus stood before test tubes and beakers full of cow urine, distilling the holy liquid to get rid of the foul-smelling ammonia and make it drinkable. In another room tribal women in garishly colored saris sat on the floor before a small hill of white powder, dental powder made from cow urine...The nearest, and probably unwilling, consumers of the various products made from cow urine were the poor tribal students in the primary school next to the lab.” Hindu nationalists have heralded the patenting of cow urine as a medicine in the United States as proof that traditional Hindu practices are superior to modern medicine, which is only starting to catch up. Cow dung as been used for centuries as a medicine. it is now made into pills.

The RSS has close links with the BJP. RSS members are enthusiastic and energetic workers in BJP politics. Many BJP officials are members of the RSS. The RSS is also heavily involved in running educational institutions, trade unions, literacy societies and religious sects. It is having a bit o problem recruiting new members because it can’t attract the young middle class anymore and it doesn’t appeal to low caste members because it favors the traditional caste hierarchy. A great deal of efforts has gone into establishing schools for tribals and low caste members.

The RSS positions on women are almost as extreme as those of Muslim extremists. Women are extolled as mothers and are expected to be worthy of such adoration. At RSS schools females are banned from wearing jeans and shorts and are required to wear traditional Indian dress and encouraged to take courses on how to be dutiful wives. RSS activists are involved on trying to make it mandatory for all school children to learn Sanskrit,

BJP in the 1990s

In the general elections of 1991, the BJP expanded its support more than did any other party. Its number of seats in the Lok Sabha increased from eighty-five to 119, and its vote share grew from 11.4 percent to 21.0 percent. The party was particularly successful in Uttar Pradesh, where it increased its share of the vote from 7.6 percent (eight seats) in 1989 to 35.3 percent (fifty seats) in 1991, and in Gujarat, where its votes and seats climbed from 30 percent (twelve seats) to 52 percent (twenty seats). In addition, BJP support appeared to be spreading into new areas. In Karnataka, its vote rose from 2.6 percent to 28.1 percent, and in West Bengal the BJP's share of the vote expanded from 1.6 to 12.0 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

However, the elections also revealed some of the limitations of the BJP juggernaut. Exit polls showed that while the BJP received more upper-caste support than all other parties and made inroads into the constituency of Backward Classes, it did poorly among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, constituencies that it had long attempted to cultivate. In Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, three state governments run by the BJP since 1990, the BJP lost parliamentary seats although its share of the vote increased. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP also won control of the state government in 1991, veteran political analyst Paul R. Brass cogently argued that the BJP had reached the limits of its social base of support.*

The limits of the BJP's Hindu nationalist strategy were further revealed by its losses in the November 1993 state elections. The party lost control over the state-level governments of Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh while winning power in Gujarat and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. In the aftermath of the Hindu activists' dismantling of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the evocative symbolism of the Ramjanmabhumi controversy had apparently lost its capacity to mobilize popular support. Nevertheless, the BJP, by giving more emphasis to anticorruption and social issues, achieved unprecedented success in South India, where it won 28 percent of the vote and came in second in elections in Karnataka in November 1994. In the spring of 1995, the BJP won state elections in Gujarat and became the junior partner of a coalition with Shiv Sena (Army of Shivaji — Shivaji Bhonsle was a seventeenth-century Maratha guerrilla leader who kept Mughal armies at bay) in Maharashtra. In view of the potential demise of the Congress (I), the BJP stands poised to emerge as India's largest party in the 1990s. However, it is likely to have to play down the more divisive aspects of Hindu nationalism and find other issues to expand its support if it is to win a majority in the Lok Sabha.*

BJP Softens Up Under Vajpayee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became the prime minister of India in 1996, but ruled only a few weeks, and then became prime minister again in 1998, and ruled until 2004. Described as "a good man in a bad party," he was a popular figure known for having more tolerant views than other members of his party and making the BJP palatable to non-Hindus. Vajpayee was more popular and trusted than the BJP. He said the core views of the BJP are more humanistic than religious and Hinduism provided moral guidance for people of all faiths.

Under Vajpayee, the BJP’s hard-line pro-Hindu positions were softened. Critics of the party wondered if this wasn't just a ploy to make Indians complacent and lower guards, allowing the BJP to go forward with their hard-line agenda once they had the power to do so.

The BJP dropped its demand of building a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya and instead raised funds to build mosques. BJP supporters even helped lay the bricks. During the 1998 election the BJP said it supported building a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya but it had to change its position to form a coalition government and pacify its coalition partners. During Vajpayee’s rule the RSS pursued plans to build a Hindu temple at the site in Ayodya and on at least one occasion Vajpayee said he didn’t object to that policy, which brought cries of betrayal from coalition partners

Under Vajpayee, India pursued friendly relations with Pakistan and welcomed foreign — both of which went against traditional BJP doctrine. Vajpayee’s efforts to make the party more inclusive was successful in attracting educated young people and members of lower castes. However, Vajpayee’s positions on globalization, economic liberalism and improving relations with Pakistan have angered many Hindu nationalists.

The BJP under Vajpayee even won some Muslim supporters. One Muslim in violence-racked Gujarat told the Washington Post, “I think Vajpayee is basically a good man. He calmed the hateful rhetoric between India and Pakistan. He takes a long time to do the right thing, but he eventually does the right thing.” Many of Vajpayee biggest critics were within his own party—some of whom wanted India to take military action against Pakistan.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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