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The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism

Jaffrelot, Christophe; Mehta, Gautam; Rej, Abhijnan; S., Rukmini; Sagar, Rahul; Verma, Rahul; Vaishnav, Milan

In the spring of 2019, nearly 900 million Indians will be eligible to cast their ballots in the country’s seventeenth general election held since independence in 1947.1 As is the case with each successive Indian election, this year’s contest will be the largest democratic exercise in recorded history. While the election will influence the direction of India’s economy, the country’s foreign policy, and the dynamics between New Delhi and India’s state capitals, the campaign’s outcome will also determine the contours of India’s future as a secular republic dedicated to upholding the country’s unparalleled diversity and committed to embracing ethnic and religious pluralism.

Around the world, there has been a resurgence of political movements inspired by religious nationalism in many democracies. This blending of democratic politics with religious fervor is apparent in settings as diverse as the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. India is a vital case in this regard, on account of both its size and its democratic longevity. The comingling of religion and politics is hardly a new development on the Indian subcontinent. When India’s founders framed the country’s constitution following independence and amid the horror of the Partition, they decided to commit the polity to a doctrine of secularism that differed from prevailing Western notions. India’s constitution did not establish a strict church-state separation but rather instituted a “principled distance” between religion and the state whereby the state would embrace all of India’s many religious faiths without unduly favoring any one tradition.