The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of the two major political parties in India, along with the Indian National Congress. It is currently the country’s ruling party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP espouses Hindu nationalist and conservative policies and positions itself as a right-wing party.
The Roots of Hindu Nationalism
The roots of Hindu nationalism and the ideology that would eventually lead to the founding of the BJP go back to the 19th century. During British rule, a movement called the Hindu revivalism or Hindu renaissance began as a reaction to both Christian missionary activities and the colonial rewrite of the history of India. Hindu nationalists attempted to reclaim Indian history and culture and promote Hinduism as a unifying force.
In the 1920s, an organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded by K.B. Hedgewar to promote Hindu nationalism and Indian independence. The RSS was influenced by European right-wing groups and promoted the idea that India was a Hindu nation in which minorities should assimilate into the majority culture. It rejected the secular and multicultural vision of India promoted by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. The RSS went on to become the guiding force of Hindu nationalism in independent India.
The Bharatiya Jana Sangh
In 1951, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) was founded as the political wing of the RSS by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He had left the Hindu Mahasabha party in protest against its decision to retain Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister after the death of Mahatma Gandhi. The BJS emphasised unity and integrity of India, presenting an alternative to the Congress party’s secularism. It opposed concessions to minorities, believing that India should be an assertive Hindu nation.
Initially, the BJS performed poorly in elections. But following the still unresolved mystery around Mookerjee’s death in 1953 while in jail in Kashmir, it started gaining momentum. The party won 3 Lok Sabha seats in 1952, 4 in 1957 and 14 in 1962. It supported non-Congress state governments and finally joined a coalition in 1967, with its leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee becoming a cabinet minister.
The watershed moment for the BJS came with the mass civil disobedience movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan against the Congress government of Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s. The BJS was a part of Narayan’s movement and with the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, thousands of BJS leaders were imprisoned along with other opposition leaders. This allowed the BJS to claim the mantle of fighting against the authoritarianism and corruption of the Congress.
The Janata Party Experiment
In 1977, the BJS merged with smaller parties to form the Janata Party in order to fight elections as a united front against the Congress. The Janata Party won the 1977 general elections in a landslide following the Emergency. Moraji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India. But the Janata government soon collapsed due to infighting. Charan Singh split to form the Janata Party (Secular) while the BJS reconstituted itself as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980 under Vajpayee.
The New BJP
The newly formed BJP departed from the BJS in some respects while retaining its Hindu nationalist core. It adopted a more moderate stance on contentious issues like the Uniform Civil Code and Scrapping Article 370 in Kashmir. The BJP also expanded its support base from largely urban upper caste Hindus to include other caste groups like OBCs and Dalits. This helped broaden its appeal.
In 1984, the BJP won only 2 Lok Sabha seats following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. But it quickly regained ground. Under L.K Advani, the BJP made the controversial Ram Janmabhoomi issue its spearhead. The demand for building a temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri Masjid mosque energised the Hindu masses. From 11 Lok Sabha seats in 1984, the BJP increased its tally to 86 seats in 1989.
Rise to National Prominence
The watershed moment for the BJP came in the 1991 general elections. Following L.K Advani’s Rath Yatra and the Mandal agitation, the party expanded its vote share dramatically. It won 120 Lok Sabha seats and formed governments in the major states of UP, MP, Rajasthan and Bihar. This marked the BJP’s rise as an alternative to the Congress at the national level.
The 1990s saw the BJP become the largest party in the Lok Sabha by 1996. But it lost elections again in 1996 and 1998 as regional parties refused to ally with it due to its perceived controversial policies towards minorities. Finally, in 1998, the BJP was able to lead a broad-based coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and form a government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that lasted for a full term from 1999-2004. This was the first non-Congress government to complete a full five year term.
In power from 1998-2004 under Vajpayee, the BJP focused on economic growth and infrastructure projects rather than contentious ideological issues. But its India Shining campaign backfired and the Congress-led UPA defeated it in the 2004 election. The BJP then spent 10 years in opposition until 2014, when under Narendra Modi it won an outright majority for the first time. Modi leveraged his image as a development oriented leader along with Hindu nationalism to lead the BJP to power again in 2019.
Core Philosophy and Ideological Journey
The BJP started out in the 1950s as the political arm of the Hindu nationalist RSS. Its main goal was to preserve Hindu identity and culture and oppose the Congress’ secular state and minority appeasement. It advocated Hindu causes like building the Ram Temple and scrapping Article 370 in Kashmir. Socially, the BJP adhered to a conservative worldview.
But over the decades, the BJP has moderated many of its positions as compromises needed to expand its voter base beyond upper caste North Indians. It now accepts secularism, minority rights and reservations. The party is more development focused under Modi. Yet its core remains a strong nationalist ideology that believes in preserving Indian culture against Westernization, promoting Hindu causes and taking a tough stance on national security including Pakistan and terrorism.
Ideological Differences with Congress
The key differences between the BJP and the Congress centre around secularism versus Hindu nationalism; minority appeasement versus cultural nationalism; dynasty politics versus meritocracy; and socialism versus free markets.
The Congress adheres to Nehruvian secularism designed to preserve India’s pluralism. In contrast, the BJP believes this has led to minority appeasement and pseudo-secularism at the cost of the Hindu majority. While both parties accept secularism now, the BJP is still viewed as majoritarian on issues like the Uniform Civil Code.
The Congress sees India as a multi-cultural mosaic that celebrates diversity. But the BJP sees this cultural pluralism as a threat to Hindu identity. It believes minorities should assimilate to the mainstream. For the Congress, India’s identity is not rooted in one culture but pluralism.
The Congress has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty while the BJP proudly advertises itself as a meritocratic party. BJP supporters feel dynasty politics leads to sycophancy and corruption.
Economically, the Congress started out as a left-of-centre socialist party while the BJP was always more aligned with free markets and entrepreneurship. The gap has narrowed though with both parties now supporting liberalization and market reforms.
Major Leaders and Their Contributions
Here are some of the most prominent leaders of the BJP and their key contributions:
Syama Prasad Mookerjee: Founder of the BJS, the precursor to the BJP. Left the Hindu Mahasabha to start the BJS as a nationalist alternative to the Congress. His death in Kashmir jail made him a martyr.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Moderate face of the BJP who helped expand its appeal beyond traditional voters. Served as India’s first BJP Prime Minister from 1998-2004. Known for his pragmatism and oratory skills.
Lal Krishna Advani: Architect of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that propelled BJP to national prominence. Served as Deputy PM under Vajpayee. Remained prominent Hindutva icon and senior leader for decades.
Narendra Modi: As Gujarat CM, led BJP to first outright parliamentary majority in 2014. Transformed BJP’s image from hardline Hindutva to a development oriented party. Led BJP to historic repeat win in 2019. Massively popular leader.
Rajnath Singh: Served as BJP president from 2005-09 and 2013-14. Held cabinet posts like Agriculture Minister and Home Minister. Known for organizational skills.
Amit Shah: Architect of BJP’s dominant election strategies. Served as party president 2014-20. Led expansion in eastern and northeastern states like Bengal. Currently Home Minister.
Yogi Adityanath: Face of militant Hindutva who led the Ram Temple movement. As CM of UP since 2017, has focused on law and order, development and welfare schemes.
These leaders helped build and expand the party through their specific contributions spanning ideology, election management and governance. They made the BJP India’s most dominant political force.
Electoral Performance Over the Years
Here is an overview of the BJP’s electoral journey from its debut in 1984 to its current pre-eminence:
1984: Wins just 2 LS seats in post-Indira Gandhi assassination sympathy wave for Congress.
1989: Wins 86 seats riding the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and becomes main opposition party.
1991: Wins 120 seats due to Mandal protests and Advani’s Rath Yatra. Forms governments in major states.
1996: Becomes single largest party with 161 seats. Atal Bihari Vajpayee becomes PM but lasts only 13 days.
1998: Wins 182 seats and forms NDA coalition government under Vajpayee which completes 5 year term, a first for non-Congress government.
1999: Wins 182 seats again as NDA coalition which returns to power. The Vajpayee government lasts full term.
2004: Loses power as Congress led UPA wins. BJP tally falls to 138 seats. Spends 10 years in opposition.
2014: Under Modi, wins outright majority with 282 seats, the first time BJP crosses the 272 majority mark.
2019: Defies anti-incumbency trend and wins 303 seats under Modi’s leadership. Currently in power.
The BJP started out winning just 2 seats in 1984. But through the 1980s and 1990s it gradually gained strength on the back of the Ayodhya movement and became the largest national party. Its best performance came under Modi in 2014 and 2019 when it crossed the majority mark on its own, signifying its dominance. From the fringes to mainstream, the BJP’s electoral journey reflects its political rise.
Prominent State Leaders Over the Years
While national leaders like Vajpayee and Modi shaped the BJP’s national image, strong state leaders helped expand its grassroots presence over the years. Here are some of them:
Kushabhau Thakre – Madhya Pradesh
Sundar Singh Bhandari – Rajasthan
Kalyan Singh – Uttar Pradesh
K.N Govindacharya – Kerala
Shanta Kumar – Himachal Pradesh
Shivraj Singh Chouhan – Madhya Pradesh
Raman Singh – Chhattisgarh
Yogi Adityanath – Uttar Pradesh
Vasundhara Raje Scindia – Rajasthan
Pramod Mahajan – Maharashtra
Narendra Modi – Gujarat
Amit Shah – Gujarat
These state leaders helped expand the BJP beyond its Hindi heartland bastion into southern, eastern and north-eastern states through their organisational and governance skills. Their rise propelled the BJP into a pan-Indian political force.
Key Member Organisations
The BJP has several affiliated organisations that operate under its umbrella as part of the Sangh Parivar or family of Hindu nationalist organisations. These include:
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: The ideological parent of the BJP. Provides foot soldiers and shapes ideology.
Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha: Youth wing of the party. Recruits young members.
Mahila Morcha: Women’s wing that mobilises women voters.
Minority Morcha: Outreach wing for religious minorities that expands BJP’s appeal.
These organisations amplify the BJP’s reach and allow it to penetrate different segments of society from youth to women to minorities. The RSS still provides the ideological direction and volunteer base that powers the BJP’s election campaigns. The coordinated functioning of these Sangh Parivar organisations has helped the BJP spread its influence far and wide.
Significance in Indian Politics
The rise of the BJP has dramatically changed India’s political landscape which was long dominated by the Congress party. Its journey from the fringes as a party of Hindu nationalism to the mainstream signifies a few key shifts:
- The mass appeal of Hindu nationalism as an alternative to secularism among India’s Hindu majority.
- The decline of the Congress and rise of a credible alternative nationalist party.
- Expansion of the BJP’s base beyond urban Hindus to a catch-all party.
- Generational shift from post-Independence leaders to those not linked to the freedom struggle.
- Signalling of a rightward shift in India’s polity from centrist secular politics to assertive nationalism.
- Consolidation of the Hindu vote behind a single party which was earlier split.
- Acceptance of the ideology of Hindutva in the political mainstream.
The BJP filled the political vacuum created by the decline of the Congress. Its rise underscores the resonance of religious identity politics and nationalism among voters disillusioned by Congress governance. The BJP established cultural nationalism as a mainstream idea that can deliver election victories. From the margins to centre-stage, the BJP redefined Indian politics.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has come a long way from its roots in the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS to being India’s dominant political force. The demand for building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya played a pivotal role in catapulting the BJP from a minor fringe player to a major national party. It moderated its hardline Hindu agenda over time to expand its voter base under leaders like Vajpayee and Modi. The BJP’s electoral successes highlight the appeal of nationalism and Hindu identity politics for many Indians. Its journey underscores the rightward shift in Indian politics as it displaced the centrist Congress as the strongest party. From 2 seats in 1984 to over 300 seats today, the rise of the BJP has been the most significant development in Indian politics over the last four decades.