April 30, 2020

Hindu-Nationalism: A Threat to Indian Stability and Modernization?

By Tim Hildebrandt

The diverse Republic

There are two things that characterize the population of the Republic of India. On one hand, the population is relatively young, approx. 27% are under 15 years old (World Bank 2019). On the other hand, the population is religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse, so the Republic of India is also called a multi-ethnic state. (Betz 2017, 12)

Despite the diversity of the population mentioned above, the Republic of India has not broken apart like other multi-ethnic states. This (relative) stability of the state can be attributed to various causes. The decisive factor, however, was certainly the democratic order and federal structure of the state, which includes a certain degree of federal autonomy.  Furthermore, it can be postulated that the diversity of the population itself is a stabilizing element since no religious, linguistic, or caste group dominates nationwide.

Even though Hinduism makes up approx. 80% of the population, it is by no means comparable to a centralized religion. Above all, the high proportion of Dalits (casteless) prevented Hinduism from becoming a politically unifying force for a long time. In the past, the situation described led to a political compulsion to compromise across caste and religious boundaries. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also bowed to this compulsion to compromise in governmental responsibility. (Betz 2017, 13)

However, after the Modi government emerged stronger from the 2019 elections, it changed its course.

The secular diverse state under pressure

Half a year after his re-election as prime minister, the Modi government headed for the restriction of the autonomy of the majority Muslim states of Jammu and Kashmir. (Ulmer 2019) In addition, the Citizenship Amendment Act was introduced in 2019, which makes it easier for immigrants (or people living in India without documents) to become official Indian citizens as long as they are not Muslims. (Petersen 2020, 80) The message emanating from these policies is clear: Muslims are second-class citizens. It seems that the Modi government is constructing an antagonist in the form of the Muslim population.

This impression is reinforced, for example, by the statement of the Minister of the Interior that the election victory should be seen as a sign that India’s approximately 200 million Muslims now have to adapt to the majority (i.e. the Hindus). (Petersen 2020, 80)

Anti-Incumbency and Hindu nationalism

In the year of Modi’s re-election as prime minister, India recorded its lowest GDP growth rate since 2008 at 4.2%, with economic growth gradually declining from a peak in 2016. With the 2019 figure, it must finally be postulated that the Indian economy is sliding into a crisis.

Historically, economic development has been one of the key issues in elections. Against this background, the re-election of Modi seems astonishing. India is notorious for voting out governments at the slightest sign of discontent. (Petersen 2020, 80) This behavior can be described as an anti-incumbency factor. So, it is about the tendency (of Indians) to vote out the current official. (Vaishnay 2018)

The electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 could be explained by the fact that the party has succeeded in using Hinduism as an element of political unity by forging for the first time a political coalition across caste boundaries. In addition, Modi explicitly constructed an antagonist to the group of Hindus in the form of the Muslims living in India. (Vaishnav 2019)

The Hindu-nationalist policy of the Modi government seems to be able to create a group identity among the Hindus in India under the construction of an antagonist, which (at least in the 2019 elections) led to the Modi government securing its re-election despite a difficult economic environment. In view of the anti-incumbency tendency illustrated by the history of Indian democracy, this is astonishing.

Hinduism as a political factor: A threat to Indian stability and modernization?

It seems that a transformation of the fundamental structures that characterize Indian democracy is underway. For the first time, Hinduism can be seen as a politically unifying force. If this development is sustainable, it must be assumed that the group of Hindus (which makes up about 80% of the total population) will dominate India politically in the long term. Especially the antagonization of Indian Muslims leads (in this scenario) to an increase of religious polarization. A taste of what the approximately 200 million Muslims of India could expect can be the events of February. On February 23. the worst riots in decades took place in New Delhi. A mob attacked Muslims. 45 people (mainly Muslims) lost their lives (Agrawal 2020).

The federal structure of the Indian Republic is also under pressure in view of the developments in Jammu and Kashmir.

Through increasing (religious) unrest and the modification of the structure of the Republic, the foundations of stability in the Indian Republic would be called into question. Reduced (political/social) stability and above all increased religious polarization could have a significant negative effect on Indian economic growth (Montalvo 2002, 24). Slower economic growth inevitably leads to reduced tax revenues and thus to lower government investment. The modernization of the Indian Republic would slow down. This would be a braking factor not only for India but for the entire global economy.


Agrawal, Ravi (2020): Why India’s Muslims are in grave danger. In: Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/02/india-muslims-delhi-riots-danger/. Retrieved on: 26.04.2020.

Betz, Joachim (2017): Gesellschaftliche Strukturen. In: Indien. Informationen zur politischen Bildung, 335. p. 54-65.

Census of India (2011): SCHEDULED LANGUAGES IN DESCENDING ORDER OF SPEAKERS’ STRENGTH – 2011. Available at: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011Census/Language-2011/Statement-4.pdf. Retrieved on: 27.04.2020.

Census of India (2011): POPULATION BY RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY – 2011-. Available at: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/C-01.html. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

Central Intelligence Agency (2019): India. In: The world factbook. Available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/attachments/summaries/IN-summary.pdf. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

Gohshal, Devjyot/Ahmed, Aftab/Pal, Alasdair (2020): The religious retreat that spared Indias major coronavirus manhunt. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-islam-insigh-idUSKBN21K3KF. Retrieved on: 25.04.2020.

International Monetary Fund (2019): Country Data. Available at: https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/IND. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

Montalvo, Jose G./Reynal-Querol, Marta (2002): The Effect of Ethnic and Religious Conflict on Growth. Available at: http://www.econ.upf.edu/~montalvo/wp/rel_ethn.pdf. Retrieved on: 26.04.2020.

Petersen, Britta (2020): Indien wankt. In: Internationale Politik. März/April, Nr.2. p. 79-83.

Ulmer, Alexandra (2019): Factbox: What does India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party want to achieve? Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-religion-temple-factbox-idUSKBN1XL1PS. Retrieved on: 25.04.2020.

Vaishnav, Milan (2019): The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/04/04/bjp-in-power-indian-democracy-and-religious-nationalism-pub-78677. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

Vaishnav, Milan/Lillehaugen, Matthew (2018): Incumbency in India: More Curse Than Blessing?. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/08/13/incumbency-in-india-more-curse-than-blessing-pub-77010. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

World Bank (2019): Population ages 0-14 (% of total population) – India. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS?locations=IN. Retrieved on: 24.04.2020.

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