Written by Ajay Verghese.

India is a deeply Hindu country, as well as a deeply political country, but the links between the two are surprisingly unclear. Beginning on 11 April 2019, hundreds of millions of Indians have started heading to the polls for the 2019 General Election, and the majority of these voters are Hindu. But what effect does their religiosity have on their political behaviour? For example, is a pious Hindu more likely than others to belong to a political party, attend rallies or vote? And is a pious Hindu more likely than others to support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ostensibly India’s Hindu party?

Hindu religiosity is not highly predictive of the BJP vote

In social science disciplines like political science, economics and sociology, religion has often been analysed as a motivator of political behaviour. Historically, however, existing research has overwhelmingly focused on the ‘Abrahamic’ religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Much of what we know about religion and politics has come with a Western bent. There is surprisingly little research on Hinduism – the world’s third most populous religious tradition with over a billion followers worldwide – and how it affects politics.

Maybe the most important question in this election cycle is whether the BJP will be re-elected. What little work exists which tries to link Hinduism to religious voting finds, perhaps surprisingly, that Hindu religiosity is not highly predictive of the BJP vote. Pradeep Chhibber, for example, notes that ‘the success of the party [BJP] can … be attributed to the ability of the party to forge a coalition between religious groups and the economic interests of the middle classes’. Most other scholars concur, explaining the rise of the BJP as due to non-religious factors. Tariq Thachil has focused on the BJP’s deft use of ‘non-party affiliates’ to provide social services to court poor voters. Prashant Jha sees the party’s success as a mixture of Modi’s charisma, organisational prowess, alliance-making ability, and weak opposition parties.

Over the past two years I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork, surveys and interviews in India to offer a new perspective on the links between Hinduism and Indian politics. The most inherently difficult aspect of this research question is determining what exactly constitutes a pious Hindu. The range and diversity of the Hindu tradition far outstrip what social scientists in Western nations are used to studying, where scholars usually focus on whether or not someone believes in God and goes to church. These metrics are less useful in India, however: a pious Hindu can be an atheist who attends temple daily as well as an atheist who never sets foot in the temple. Without expanding our conception of what religion is, scholars will be unlikely to understand how Hinduism influences politics.

Using open-ended survey questions with village populations in the north Indian state of Bihar – that is, allowing respondents to describe their religion in their own words – I found that Hindus emphasised the following aspects of their religion: doing puja, believing in god(s), their attire, diet, and rules about purity and auspiciousness. Other activities – going to temple, for instance – were mentioned less often, and may not have been considered very important markers of religiosity.

Drawing on these ethnographic insights, I built a novel questionnaire that attempted to measure Hindu religiosity, asking questions about inter-religious and inter-caste marriage, rituals like puja (prayer), fasting and darshan (the sight of a deity or a holy person), and beliefs in rules governing purity and auspiciousness. I then conducted a survey of 900 Hindus across three districts in Bihar. The survey was diverse in terms of the array of caste groups included, and women constituted roughly half the sample. Respondents (only Hindus were surveyed) were asked about their religious practices and beliefs and their sense of belonging to the community. They were then questioned about their political behaviour.

In line with existing work, my preliminary findings show that being very religious is not predictive of voting for the BJP. In short, many Hindus rejected the Hindu party. But my most striking findings dealt with the effect of Hinduism on secular attitudes. Pious Hindus were more likely to disagree that the government should respect all religions equally, which is the Indian definition of secularism. Pious Hindus were more likely to support the government repairing temples, but were opposed to the government repairing mosques. However, Hindus did overwhelmingly support the implementation of a uniform civil code.

My research suggests that Hindu religiosity has a mixed effect on politics in India. It is not right to say that pious Hindus are more likely to vote for the BJP. But pious Hindus definitely seem more uncomfortable with the idea of secularism – that is, treating all religions equally. This is important: while myriad studies talk about the nature of the ‘secular’ Indian state, it seems that many Hindus in the villages and cities of Bihar do not place a lot of value in this principle. As many scholars are concerned with what may happen to India’s secular state in the aftermath of this election, my work finds that the government has a long way to go in getting its citizens to accept the equality of all religions.

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. He Tweets @AjayVerghese.

Image Credit: CNN.

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