Collections > UNC Chapel Hill Undergraduate Honors Theses Collection > "Inclusive Development:" The Secular Framing Efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Role of Neoliberal Rhetoric

Since even before its independence, political leaders have attempted to define India as a secular state. In his writings on the history and development of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, traces the roots of Indian secularism to the ancient civilizations of Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa; he states, “The Indus Valley civilization, as we find it, was highly developed and must have taken thousands of years to reach that stage. It was surprisingly enough, predominately a secular civilization…” (Nehru 1946, 65). The emphasis for Nehru is on the cosmopolitan and advanced trade system of the Indus Valley civilization, as he notes the “many contacts with the Sumerian civilization of that period” (Nehru 1946, 65). The Constitution of India further affirms this secular foundation of India’s society through a legal lens, expressing both “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion” and “protection of interests of minorities” as core principles of the nation (Government of India, 1950). Yet, religiously motivated violence and the narratives of difference that contribute to violence suggest major challenges to a pluralistic vision of the Indian nation. Between 2005 and 2009, approximately 650 people were killed in communal violence while another 11,278 were injured (PRS Legislative Research 2011). Communal violence is defined by Horowitz as “lethal attack[s] by civilian members of one ethnic group on civilian members of another ethnic group, the victims chosen because of their group membership,” although how to adequately measure the intent of violence is contested (2001, 1). In the Indian context, this reality of violence has often been connected to relations between Hindu nationalists and religious minority populations. Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism is a popular ideological stance that grew out of the Indian national movement. Sharma argues that Hindutva’s general supposition is that “the nation is nothing but the physical and emotional outcome of Hindu aspirations” (2011, 4). In this society, “Muslims and Christians are ‘outsiders’ and could be part of India only after they accept the ‘national culture’” (Sharma 2011, 4). Research Questions and Thesis: Given this context of interreligious conflict, I focus this paper on analyzing the emergence and growth of India’s ruling political power and prominent Hindu nationalist force, the Bharatiya Janata Party. I research specifically how the party has changed since its inception in 1980, and how it has shifted its political image from one that promotes Hindutva as its primary political project to a party that frames itself mainly through its promotion of neoliberal economic policy. The main questions that drive this research are: 1) Why has the BJP adopted a more moderate tone in regards to religion since 1996?; 2) What rhetorical strategies have BJP leaders used to construct a more moderate image?; 3) How does this rhetoric contrast with the BJP’s identity before 1996?; and 4) What is the role of economic development discourse in portraying the BJP as a secular party? To answer these questions, I examine the BJP’s political documents and statements in two different time periods, 1980-1995 and 1996-2014. Within these documents, I examine examples of religious and secular content, discussing how the BJP has wielded these ideas over time. Based on this evidence, I argue that the national leaders of the BJP have secularized their message by centering their political emphasis on neoliberal-based economic development policies and rhetoric, minimizing the role of Hindu nationalist ideological elements of the party that have been traditionally critiqued as militant and communal. I characterize the period between 1980-1995 as a time in which the party embraced its Hindu nationalist positions, while the period between 1996-2014 I describe as a time in which this party undertook this shift towards a secular, economic message. In drawing attention to this shift, I am speaking of the general trends of the national BJP party and its leaders who set the primary agenda for the BJP, and am not describing the entirety of the party as uniform in its approach to political messaging nor policy priorities. Indeed, as Chapter 4 and 5 describe, some actions of the BJP continue to connect with strong Hindutva viewpoints in religious terms, contrasting greatly with the rhetorical trends of the party at the national level. Despite the secularization implications of the BJP’s economic focus, I also hope to show how the BJP’s adoption of neoliberal is consistent with its Hindutva ideological goals. I derive several thematic continuities between Hindutva and neoliberalism from Shankar Gopalakrishnan’s (2006) theoretical research on the topic. I utilize three adapted ideas from Gopalakrishnan’s work: 1) the BJP understandings of the role of the state as the implementer and enforcer of social and economic logic, 2) the BJP’s rhetorical emphasis on national unity and an end to social divisions, first through the promotion of Hindutva morality and values and later through the promotion of free-market ideology and neoliberal logic, and 3) the BJP’s grand vision of India’s renewal that recalls a fabled and prosperous past. I use these continuities as markers through which I understand larger shifts in the party as in line with the BJP’s Hindutva ideological foundations, while also recognizing the pragmatic nature of these changes in asserting a new image of the party.