Nationalism has become a formidable force in India, the world’s most populous democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) portrays India as a once-glorious Hindu civilization whose identity and power were eroded—first by successive Muslim invasions that culminated in the establishment of the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), and thereafter, until 1947, by British colonialism. For more than half a millennium, in the BJP’s telling, many Hindus were forcibly converted to, or duped into adopting, Islam and Christianity. English became the intelligentsia’s lingua franca. Civilizational self-confidence gave way to feelings of weakness and inferiority—or so goes the Hindu nationalists’ narrative.
Independence did not, in the BJP’s view, eliminate this pathology, because Indian leaders (the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remains the nationalists’ prime example) and intellectual class remained in thrall to Western ideas and institutions. Hindu nationalists believe that India can reclaim its greatness only by advancing economically and militarily, while drawing on the past, Hindu civilization in particular, for inspiration, pride, identity and political principles. Modernity severed from history, religion and tradition is, in their eyes, a recipe for deracination and submissiveness, not glory. The BJP proclaims that its elixir, combining modernity and tradition, will make India great again.