Pace secularism, it is perhaps India's longest-running political farce that the Bharatiya Janata Party is a Hindu nationalist political party. Any mention of the party in the print media is usually prefaced with those two adjectives and the international press has also unquestioningly copied the locals in the custom. However, it is difficult to discern any Hindu agenda in the BJP's governance either between 1998 and 2004 or since 2014. Although the party has been using the label to its benefit for years, even fed it with wild rhetoric from time to time, the BJP has hardly taken up the Hindu cause as it is so often accused of doing.
It is disheartening to see that few can even identify Hindu issues, such has been the impact of the jejune blaring from the media houses on India's public sphere. Were an outsider to peek in for a second, he would assume that the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the Uniform Civil Code are two important political issues for Hindus — and he would be wrong. The former is largely symbolic — and yes, symbols do have power — but it does not have a large enough impact on the Hindu community to accord it such primacy among issues. As for the latter, it hardly affects Hindus except in an intellectual way — legal systems of other religions, for all their flaws, do not impact Hindus; the inequality of various communities before a national judiciary is philosophically unpalatable but ultimately of little consequence to the narrower interests of the Hindu community.
Arguably the most important item on the Hindu agenda is the liberation of their temples from government control. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, first passed in Madras in the 1920s, was ostensibly enacted to introduce better management and eliminate corruption in temple administration. The law applied, as its name suggests, only to Hindu organisations; it is farcical to assume that these challenges do not plague religious organisations of other faiths or, indeed, that the government of a weak democracy is capable of better management or is freer of corruption than a private entity.
Although hundreds of temples are administered by the government, it is the rich temples that are the prize. Offerings by devotees run into hundreds of crores annually and the wealth is siphoned off to government coffers. To add insult to injury, the committees in charge of temple operations are not necessarily drawn from the community the temple serves or even pious Hindus. For example, Abdul Rehman Antulay was appointed a trustee of the famous Siddhivinayak Temple in Bombay, and the Marxist takeover of Kerala's devaswoms is well-known. For all the talk of Hindutva by both, the media and the BJP, the party's agenda on making temples autonomous is unclear. If indeed there exists such an action plan, it is so vapid that it does not come to mind.
An equally critical arena of Hindu interests is education. Through the innocuously named Right to Education Act (RTE), the government has essentially commandeered private school capacity to further its populist agenda. Although the Act is portrayed as creating a quota for the economically underprivileged, that number is but a small portion of the total reservation which primarily benefits other categories. Minority institutions are exempt from this state hijacking of infrastructure.
It is far more difficult for Hindus to start their own schools, training colleges, and universities than it is for minorities. Even before the RTE was passed, minority institutions also controlled their student admissions and teacher hiring criteria; they were not subject to any quotas or other regulations non-minority institutions have to follow. This effectively changes the divide in Indian education from private/public to minority/non-minority. The BJP has disappointed many of its supporters by not repealing the RTE or even attempting to put all schools minority and non, on an equal footing.
The problem is not simply about quotas, though the social engineering of the Hindu community deserves attention too. It would be quite entertaining, for instance, to see the Indian government take similar interest in Muslim affairs and legislate quotas for Ahmadis, Shia, Zaydis, Sufis, and women in madrassas.
A greater problem lies in the syllabi prescribed by the various boards of education in the country. Although everyone can agree that there ought to be some balance and rigour in the curriculum, dozens of examples of sycophancy to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and an overly rosy interpretation of the Islamic conquest of and rule over India's overwhelmingly Hindu population fill the pages of history textbooks. In this context, it was ironic to see an MP of an allegedly Hindutva party declare in parliament just a few days ago that she was not guilty of saffronisation.
Finally, a third major plank of a core Hindu agenda would be the reversal of a relentless assault on Hindu customs, traditions, and rituals. The law against superstition and black magic, the ban on Jallikattu, the sudden chorus of environmental appeals timed to perfection around Deepavali and Ganesh Chaturthi, the demand to open up temple entry to all, the call to abolish made snana, are all facets of the same agenda to delegitimise Hinduism. The BJP's record on defending against these assaults ranges from non-existent to abysmal.
It should be noted that there are already pre-existing laws that adequately cover any real damage arising from black magic or whatever else outsiders find offensive. Between them and the voluntary nature of some of the rituals, there really is no need for interference by the state except to socially re-engineer Hindu society; it seems Hindus are the only community not guaranteed protection by the constitution from the arbitrary powers of the state.
Only a party that has a coherent position on these issues can be considered to be a Hindu party. The BJP, sadly, is not such a party, although many of its individual members may indeed be devout. For those who support it on cultural grounds, it is seen more as the least anti-Hindu political party than a Hindutva party; it is the tyranny of There-Is-No-Alternative. Interestingly, the demands on these three core Hindu issues is only for equality with other faiths; no special dispensation is sought from other communities nor any largesse from the state. Were any other party to champion these very reasonable causes, it might even put a dent in the BJP's electoral fortunes. Of course, such a move would also need to take into account media spin and the impact on other votebanks.
As for that other adjective - nationalist - that is hurled as an insult at the BJP, one would hope that all parties that seek to govern India are nationalist. Geopolitics is not a graduate history seminar where one has the intellectual luxury of sitting on the fence, above the fray; rather, it is about clearly picking your team and giving it your full-throated support. So about that Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party... Hindu, I doubt it; nationalist, I certainly hope so.