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The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the strongest political force in India today. It was able to assert itself in the general election in autumn 1999 for the second time in a row and is the current prime minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The ideology and development of the BJP are only to be understood in connection with the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).


The RSS was created in 1925 by K.B. Hedgewar was founded with the aim of "awakening" India, which was understood as a Hindu nation. The RSS saw its task not in direct political activity, but in cultural and social work. Hindutva, Hindutum, became the catchphrase of cultural renewal. Indians, i.e. Hindus, according to the Hindutva ideology, are all those who venerated India as their holy land, who descended from the Aryans and shared the culture that is rooted in Hinduism. All those to whom this does not apply, in particular Orthodox Muslims and Christians, are therefore not Indians, but at most second-class citizens. (See also V.D. Savarkar. Thought leader of Hindu nationalism) With an estimated five million members, the RSS is today a real mass organization that promotes the Hindu national cause nationwide in its 40,000 local groups. Since the late 1940s, the RSS began to build up a number of front organizations, including a trade union, a student association, women's groups, charitable and religious organizations, etc. This loose network is held together to this day by the loyalty of its leadership cadre to the RSS, through whose ideological school they are in their youth gone. It is therefore called Sangh Parivar, the "family of the Sangh".

The founding of a party in 1951, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), was of outstanding importance for the development of the Sangh Parivar. Originally founded with the help of a conservative Bengali politician, the cadres of the RSS took control of the party in the 1950s and, thanks to their disciplined and self-sacrificing work, ensured a rapid expansion of the party organization. The party achieved its first successes in the northern Indian cities among the petty-bourgeois upper castes, but soon also won its first rural voters. By the late 1960s it had become the strongest opposition party in northern India, but it also seemed to have reached the limits of its growth. The election failure of the Congress in 1967 brought several coalition governments to power in northern India, with the participation of the Jana Sangh, but they soon fell apart.

The Hindu nationalists took an active part in the anti-Indira movement in the mid-1970s and, like other political groups, fell victim to the emergency regime. In the overcrowded prisons, many of the imprisoned opposition politicians came closer and took the decision to found the Janata Alliance, in which the Jana Sangh was absorbed in 1977. After the election victory, the Hindu nationalists formed the strongest group in the now ruling Janata Party, and Vajpayee became foreign minister and L.K. Advani Minister of Information. But as early as 1980 the Janata government failed due to its personal rivalries and ideological differences - especially the dispute over the membership of the Hindu nationalist Janata MPs in the RSS. After the end of the Janata Party, the now politically homeless Hindu nationalists formed anew and founded Vajpayees under the leadership the BJP. Vajpayee opted for a more moderate course. Willing to turn the BJP into a people's party, he tied the Janata experiment both with the choice of the party name and ideologically. But the new course did not pay off: In 1984 the BJP only won two lower house seats.

Thereupon the hardliners in the party prevailed against Vajpayee, again took a clear Hindutva course, and L.K. Advani took over the party leadership. A clear expression of this change of course was the participation in the Ayodhya campaign led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the large religious front organization of the Sangh Parivar. In the north Indian town of Ayodhya, a conflict over the Babri Mosque has been simmering for several decades, which was supposedly built on the ruins of a temple in honor of the mythical god-king Rama, which was razed by the Mughal emperors. Radical Hindus demanded that the Muslims hand over the mosque in order to build a new Rama temple in its place. Ayodhya and Ram Rajya ("The rule of Rama") became the most important election campaign topics of the BJP, which instrumentalized religious symbols for its political goals with merciless populism. The strategy paid off: in 1989, the Hindu nationalists moved into the ninth Lok Sabha as the third strongest force with 89 MPs. Despite all ideological contradictions, the BJP and the Communists supported the minority government of the National Front under V.P. Singh from outside to drive Congress out of power. But when the Singh government arranged for party leader Advani to be arrested at a mass demonstration near Ayodhya in 1990 because it justifiably feared an escalation of events, the BJP withdrew its trust in the National Front and the government fell. The BJP emerged stronger from the 1991 elections. With 120 seats, it became the strongest opposition party, while it is now also the government in four north Indian Union states and Delhi.

Even under the new Congressional-led government under P.V. Narasimha Rao, the BJP continued the Ayodhya campaign, which finally peaked on December 6, 1992, when hundreds of thousands of fanatical Hindus stormed the Babri Mosque and razed it to the ground in a few hours. Bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims followed across the country, and secular India was experiencing its darkest hour. The Rao government responded by temporarily banning RSS and VHP and overturned all BJP-led state governments.

The new elections to the state parliaments resulted in the loss of power in three union states. It seemed as if the escalation of events had turned against the Hindu nationalists, which prompted them to take a more moderate stance again from now on. New topics came to the fore: Social harmony between the castes was propagated, the creation of a uniform civil law demanded and, under the motto of economic self-determination (Swadeshi), warnings against the sell-off of Indian interests in the context of economic liberalization. It was soon possible to build on earlier successes: in several state elections in the 1990s, it became the strongest or at least the second strongest force - now also in the South and West Indies.

In 1996 the goal seemed almost achieved. In the elections for the eleventh Lok Sabha, it won a good 20% of the votes and outstripped the congress for the first time with 160 seats. Vajpayee was tasked with forming a government, but had to resign from the office of prime minister after only 13 days because he could not find enough partners for a coalition with a majority. Instead, the party alliance United Front formed a minority government tolerated by Congress under the leadership of Deve Gowda, who was later replaced by Inder K. Gujral.

After the United Front government was overthrown by Congress, reelection was held in 1998. Again, the BJP became the strongest force with 182 seats, and this time it managed to form a government in alliance with a dozen smaller parties. Given the heterogeneity of the alliance, the major reforms that had been announced did not materialize. Except for the policy of foreign policy strength, which was demonstrated with the nuclear weapons tests and the proclamation of nuclear power, the first few months were marked by breakdowns and intrigues within the coalition. Errors in economic policy disappointed growth expectations and led to a massive increase in onion prices. In the state elections in November, the BJP itself lost traditional strongholds to Congress. The hardliners in the BJP use this weakening of the moderate wing around Vajpayee and brought classic Hindutva topics back to the agenda with a campaign against Christian proselytizing. Despite everything, Vajpayee pushed through his course of economic liberalization against internal party resistance. In April 1999 Vajpayee was brought down by his South Indian coalition partner Jayalalita Jayaram, so that new elections were scheduled for autumn 1999. In the meantime, the Vajpayee government remained in office on a provisional basis. The election campaign was overshadowed by the escalation of the Kashmir conflict in the high mountain region of Kargil. With the military victory of the Indian army over the Muslim rioters and Pakistani soldiers who had crossed the Line of Control, the BJP-led government made a name for itself as a guarantor of foreign policy strength.

In the elections in October 1999, the BJP maintained its previous year's result with 182 seats, but this time its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won a comfortable majority with just under 300 seats. The re-elected Vajpayee government announced a continuation of its economic reform program, a policy of strength towards Pakistan and an improvement in relations with the US and China. The first measures were then the implementation of unpopular measures, such as the increase in diesel prices or the liberalization of the insurance market, which, however, were acknowledged on the stock exchanges with rising prices. The new administration was able to collect points in terms of foreign policy through the visit of US President Bill Clinton in March 2000, which marked a change of course in American policy on South Asia.

Organization, voter and program

The head of the party is the president, who is elected for three years by the most important representatives of the party, i.e. high-ranking members of the regional associations, members of the parliamentary groups, former party presidents and delegates from the local associations. He is supported in his work by several General Secretaries.

The highest organ of the party is the party congress (plenary session), at which at least every two years around 2,000 delegates meet who can make binding decisions. In the time between the party congresses, the board (National Executive), whose members are appointed by the president, determines the daily policy. Despite elements of internal party democracy, especially at the lower level, criteria such as seniority and reputation play an essential role in the allocation of posts and decision-making at the management level.

With five to ten million members, the BJP is now a real people's party. Many members no longer share the RSS background of the activists from the very beginning. Therefore, despite close contacts with the RSS, the party is now more than the political arm of the Sangh Parivar. Opportunistic political careerists can be found in the BJP as well as criminals or even members of religious minorities. While the Hindu nationalists have long been regarded as a disciplined cadre party, open wing fights have increased considerably in recent years - up to and including splits from the party.

To this day, the BJP's core electorate is among the urban upper castes of northern India. However, the party has long since succeeded in expanding its electoral base to include rural voters, lower castes and the tribal population, who now - since they make up the overwhelming majority of the population - also make up the majority of the BJP voters.

In the 1999 elections, the BJP ran without a program of its own. In advance, she agreed with the coalition partners of the NDA on a joint government program, the "Agenda for a Proud, Prosperous India". The programmatic profile of the BJP can only be guessed on the basis of older election manifestos: The BJP stands for a strong state internally and externally. She advocates an uncompromising stance towards the separatists in Kashmir and the Northeast. She advocates an expansion of the police and military - including nuclear armament. She calls for international equality for India and claims a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. At the same time, however, decentralization by strengthening local government and creating new Union states is on their agenda. Although it supports the liberalization of the economy, it stands for a program of economic sovereignty (Swadeshi). Swadeshi means the full liberalization of the internal market and a selective opening towards the world market, which is summed up with the slogan "computer chips instead of potato chips". So while foreign infrastructure investments are welcomed, the consumer goods sector should be reserved for Indian companies. Overall, it has a positive view of the market economy, but emphasizes the need for the state to play a corrective role. In the old election manifestos no clearly discriminatory demands against the religious minorities can be found, but the BJP rejected any special rights for religious communities and lower castes. Classical Hindu nationalist program items such as support for the establishment of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya or the demand for a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter were also found, but these did not appear in the "Agenda" of 1999.


  • Gurdas M. Ahuja (1994): BJP and the Indian Politics. Politics and Programs of the Bharatiya Janata Party, New Delhi: Ram
  • Tapan Basu et al. (1993): Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags. A Critique of the Hindu Right, New Delhi: Orient Longman
  • Christophe Jaffrelot (1996): The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics 1925 to the 1990s. Strategies of Identity-Building, Implementation and Mobilization, New Delhi: Penguin Books India Ltd.
  • Yogendra K. Malik and V.B. Singh (1995): Hindu Nationalists in India. The Rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, New Delhi: Vistaar Publications
  • Peter van der Veer (1994): Religious Nationalism. Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley: University of California Press


The official website of the BJP with party statutes, election programs, press releases, excerpts from the party organ BJP Today, personal details and addresses.

The Overseas Friends of the BJP - The pages of the BJP's foreign organization that promotes and lobbying for Hindu nationalism among the Indian diaspora in Great Britain, the USA and Canada.

The pages of the Hindu nationalist cadre organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.