According to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russell Mead, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most important foreign political party in the world from the standpoint of American national interests, but also the least understood. The BJP has been dominant in Indian politics since its successive victories in 2014 and 2019, and is likely to repeat the victory in 2024. India is emerging as a leading economic power and a linchpin of American strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and the BJP’s influence is critical for American efforts to balance China‘s rising power.
However, the BJP’s success is often misunderstood due to its political and cultural history, unfamiliar to most non-Indians. The BJP’s electoral dominance reflects the success of a once obscure and marginal social movement of national renewal, based on efforts by generations of social thinkers and activists to chart a distinctively ‘Hindu path‘ to modernization.
The BJP is often compared to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Chinese Communist Party in its rejection of many ideas and priorities of Western liberalism, while embracing key features of modernity. The party combines a pro-market economic stance with populist rhetoric and traditionalist values, while channeling the anger of those who have felt excluded and despised by a cosmopolitan, Western-focused cultural and political elite.
Despite concerns of harassment and worse for journalists critical of the ruling coalition and religious minorities who fall afoul of the resurgent Hindu pride that marks BJP India, there are other stories to be told about the BJP’s political successes. The party has enjoyed strong support from Shia Muslims and made striking political successes in predominantly Christian states in India’s northeast. The RSS, a nationwide Hindu nationalist organization with close ties to BJP leadership, has played a significant role in efforts to fight caste discrimination.
Mead believes that Americans and Westerners generally need to engage much more deeply with a complex and powerful movement. The RSS has become perhaps the “most powerful civil-society organization in the world”, and its rural and urban development programs, religious education and revival efforts, and civic activism have succeeded in forming the political consciousness and focusing the energies of hundreds of millions of people.
As tensions with China rise, the US needs India as both an economic and political partner. Understanding the ideology and the trajectory of the Hindu nationalist movement is as important for business leaders and investors seeking to engage economically with India as it is for diplomats and policymakers wanting to put the strategic relationship on a stable footing.