Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: India's 2024 General Elections

Wednesday, May 15, 2024
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves towards his supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, India. Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security

Director and Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs; Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations

CASA: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I am Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach Department at CFR. Thank you all for joining us.

As a reminder, the webinar is on the record, and the audio and video and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the Apple Podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Lisa Curtis, Milan Vaishnav, and Alyssa Ayres with us to discuss India’s ongoing general elections, the role that religion has played in the process, and the elections’ geopolitical implications.

Lisa Curtis is a senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia, where she coordinated the implementation of the South Asia Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework. Ms. Curtis has published commentary on CNN.com, NPR.org, Foreign Affairs, and other media outlets.

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, which was published in 2017, and co-editor of Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India, published in 2018. Dr. Vaishnav’s work has been published in scholarly journals, and he hosts the Grand Tamasha podcast.

Alyssa Ayres is the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at CFR. She previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia. Dr. Ayres is the author of Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, published in 2016; and a forthcoming book, Bright Lights, Biggest Cities: The Urban Challenge to India’s Future.

Welcome, Lisa, Milan, and Alyssa. Thank you very much for speaking with us today. I’ll now hand the conversation over to Alyssa, who will moderate today’s discussion, before we open it up to participants for Q&A. Alyssa?

AYRES: Thank you, Maria. Thanks for convening this conversation, and I think we’re pretty lucky to have both Lisa and Milan with us today to think through India’s election. It’s the world—every time India has a national election, it’s the world’s largest.

For colleagues who are joining, we’ve got—just to sketch out what’s at play here procedurally, it’s a multiphase—a seven-phase—election in sequence to elect 543 members of India’s lower house of parliament. The Indian Election Commission reaches every single hamlet, every single village to make sure that eligible voters can cast their vote, and that’s really an inspirational thing. You’ll see a lot of public-interest stories about the election commission reaching those far-flung voters to make sure that everybody does have that opportunity.

But it is a huge-scale election. More than 960 million people are eligible to cast their votes. And I think you will all have seen recent press that assumes that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party of the current government of India, Prime Minister Modi’s governing party, will succeed again. So that is an interesting question. Prime Minister Modi and his party currently enjoy a single-party government in a country that previously had had a series of coalition governments, making governing more challenging. It will be interesting to see what happens with the results of this election. Again, it is a parliamentary government, so if a single-party majority cannot take place then a coalition can form. And India has many parties. It’s a very federal country—parties that are present nationally and parties that are present at the state level as well.

So I think to kind of set the stage for how we understand this current election, the 2024 election, its implications, the role of religion in domestic politics, why don’t we ask Milan to sketch out for us sort of the last decade of India’s domestic politics, in which the BJP has been governing from the center. What do you see today? And how has the country evolved?

VAISHNAV: Thank you very much to Alyssa, and it’s great to be here with two friends, Alyssa and Lisa. We go back a long way. And thank you to Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this and bringing us together. It’s a real pleasure.

Yeah. So, you know, it’s a big question, Alyssa. Let me try to kind of break it down into bite-sized pieces, right, and just remind our participants that, you know, India has been an independent country for a little over seventy-five years. And for the vast majority of that time, its politics have been dominated by a single national political party, the Indian National Congress, or the Congress Party. And that dominance came under threat in the late 1980s. We saw a twenty-five-year period of coalition rule when no single party was strong enough to form a parliamentary majority on its own. And then you had in 2014 the renaissance of a political force, the BJP, of Prime Minister Modi, which many people—including people within the BJP, for that matter—thought had peaked. It had tasted national power in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and many people thought that it was a spent force. But on the backs of, I think, a lot of economic upset, pretty scandalous allegations of graft, and a general feeling of kind of policy paralysis that affected the Congress-led coalition which was in power from 2004 to 2014, voters swept in the first single-party-majority government in three decades in 2014, and that was a government run by Mr. Modi and his BJP. And we are now finishing a decade of political dominance that India has not seen for quite a long time.

And so I think if you were to go back just a couple of months ago, most political pundits and observers would have said, you know, this is kind of a boring election. The BJP looks like it’s going to win a handy parliamentary majority for the third consecutive time, which, you know, just to put that into context, the only other time that one party under the same leader has won three parliamentary majorities was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and the Congress Party starting in 1952, right? So this is—this would be truly historic.

I would say as the election has gone on, the confidence of political observers has waned a little bit. I think the consensus still is that the BJP will win a majority and, with its alliance, will comfortably be able to govern, but that some of the most ambitious projections—the BJP itself has been talking about winning 400 of the 543 seats on offer—those ambitious projections have really come down, and I think for a couple of reasons. And also we can maybe go into this later during the Q&A as well.

I think the opposition has managed to hold together. This is a motley opposition coalition of dozens of parties which have come together with the express intent of keeping the BJP out of power. These are parties which had previously been fighting one another which have agreed to lay down their arms to focus their ammunition on the BJP.

The economy, despite the impressive headline numbers, is not firing on all cylinders. There is a—there is a sense that inequality is on the rise, that unemployment is a big issue. People are quite worried about inflation, as they are in many countries including our own, the United States.

And a feeling that, you know, there isn’t a single animating issue that’s really kind of driving this election, right? If you look back at recent Indian elections, in 2019 we had a very hot conflict between India and Pakistan that mobilized voters. In 2014, you had this outrage against corruption and economic misgovernance. In 2009, you had a huge spend on rural areas trying to lift them up that helped lift—that lifted the Congress Party’s fortunes. And we don’t really have a single issue, right?

So I think many people are hedging their bets, but I think still firmly on the side of the BJP coming back, but perhaps, you know, with a slightly lower seat total.

Let me just say one final thing. In any other universe, this would be kind of a remarkable feat, right? I mean, the fact that Mr. Modi won a single-party majority in 2014, after five years of incumbency and a shaky economy not only won reelection but increased his mandate; the fact that he may, you know, go back to the levels he—the BJP saw in 2014 may be pitched as a kind of defeat, and I think it is because the BJP had such outsized ambitions, but in fact is still remarkable, I think, in a comparative perspective. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.

AYRES: Thanks, Milan.

Let me—let me follow up. Having watched the evolution of the BJP as the governing party at the center, 2014 coming in with a platform that was built around the idea of economic development for all, as you mentioned 2019 a strong campaign focus on defending India against terrorism, we’ve now seen in this campaign and prior to the beginning of this election a greater emphasis on Hindu-Muslim issues, the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple. The prime minister has just recently been pushed to respond to accusations that he made a speech a couple weeks ago that was divisive in nature. How do you see the use of religion as evolving in the elections in India?

VAISHNAV: So I think it’s a great question. Let me kind of try to frame this with some historical perspective, right? The BJP has always had two key objectives as a party. There’s been a pillar of kind of policies around economic upliftment and then a pillar of policies/agenda behind the Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, by which I think we can—you know, the party means that Hindu culture and Indian culture are essentially coterminous, right? They’re synonymous with one another, right? And if we go back to Mr. Modi’s tenure as Gujarat chief minister, these were his two claims to fame, right? He was in Hindi referred to as the king of the Hindu’s heart because of the policies he put into place when he was chief minister. But he was also seen as the CEO in chief who presided over an economy which boasted the fastest GDP growth rates of any Indian state, right?

Now, when we go to 2014 when Mr. Modi made this transition from being a state-level politician to making a pitch for himself as the prime minister, the emphasis really was on the latter more than the former, at least I think in the national theater of politics, right? And I think this was partially for strategic reasons. He didn’t really need to brandish his Hindu bona fides, right? They were well known. And he was trying to attack a Congress Party which was tarred by, you know, corruption, graft, scandals, a slowing economy, a sense that policy had come to a standstill.

After the 2019 election when the BJP won a renewed mandate, we did see a much more muscular pro-Hindu approach, right? And I think the party felt like, look, we’ve had five years in power; we now have the mandate to move on some of our core religious nationalist objectives. And it accomplished two of its longstanding objectives.

Number one, it succeeded in abrogating Article 370, which has long given the state of Jammu and Kashmir a sense of semi-autonomy under the constitution. This has always been a kind of sore thumb to people in the BJP because they have, you know, viewed this as an attack on national unity, particularly because Jammu and Kashmir has been, you know, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

But we also saw, as you mentioned, Alyssa, the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, you know, one of the most-contested legal disputes that has been festering for decades where India has now built a Hindu temple upon an old fifteenth-century Muslim mosque which was razed to the ground in the early 1990s. But it also did things like it passed Citizenship Amendment Act, which tweaked citizenship laws in ways that people would view as, you know, anti-Muslim, right?

This all brings us to the 2024 election, where, you know, I don’t think there’s been a single issue. And I think if you look at the initial phases of polling, you will see that turnout is lower than it was in 2019. Now, we’ve had two successive elections with record-high turnout, and that record-high turnout has boosted the BJP’s electoral fortunes. And so I think we saw a little bit of shakiness—one, that there was stronger-than-expected political opposition; but number two, that the BJP’s own cadres were very mobilized. Maybe they, too, thought this election was kind of a foregone conclusion.

Into this breach steps Mr. Modi making a number of speeches which have been religiously divisive, right, harping on the idea that the Congress Party wants to take the wealth away from Hindus, redistribute it to Muslims, playing up tropes that there’s a conspiracy underway for Muslims to grow the size of their families so that they can eventually outnumber Hindus, right, which is a kind of ridiculous proposition in a country that’s 80 percent Hindu and only 14 to 15 percent Muslim, right? So I don’t see this as a sign of desperation; I see this more as a sign of trying to guard against complacency and trying to mobilize the BJP’s own cadre, right?

Remember that this is a country and a polity where, you know, 80 percent of the population may be Hindu, but that is not a monolithic group. They are divided on caste lines. They are divided on regional lines. And the opposition has been trying to widen those cleavages to try to pull support towards it, right? So the BJP has every incentive to try and get this 80 percent of the population to act as one.

AYRES: OK. Thank you. That was a lot. We’re going to come back, I think, to this set of questions.

Lisa, let’s pull you in. And let’s move in the direction of foreign policy and geopolitics. How do you see the evolution of Indian foreign policy under Mr. Modi, U.S.-India ties? I know you’ve been a key player in the U.S.-India relationship. And what do you think this election suggests for the evolution of the U.S.-India relationship going forward?

CURTIS: Well, thank you, Alyssa. It’s great to be here. Thank you to CFR for inviting me. And it’s great to share the dais with Milan as well.

So the U.S.-India relationship under Modi, over the last ten years has really thrived. It’s really just gone from strength to strength. And a lot of people would not have predicted this. I don’t know if you remember, but back in 2014 when he was first elected there were questions—there were even questions, would he get a visa—a U.S. visa? Because, of course, he was denied a visa for his role in the Gujarat riots in 2002. Not only did he get a visa; he came to the United States for a historic visit when President Obama was in power. And really, that kicked off, you know, a new era for the U.S.-India relationship. And, you know, much happened under the Obama administration. A lot happened during the Trump administration. That I witnessed firsthand.

You know, some of the things that happened during the Trump administration were the lifting of technology controls, giving India access to things like armed drone technology, elevating its trade status so that it could more easily access dual use goods, the conclusion of several defense-enabling agreements. I won’t go through all of them, but all of these defense enabling agreements were, you know, hard fought. They took a long time to negotiate. Many of them spanned different administrations. And so this really took bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats just to get some of these defense-enabling agreements concluded.

Also during the Trump administration you have the launching of the 2+2 Dialogue, where you have the secretary of state and secretary of defense meeting with their Indian counterparts. And, you know, this has continued into the Biden administration. And, you know, the Biden team has launched the initiative on critical and emerging technologies, has announced that the U.S. and India will coproduce jet engine technology, which is really something we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago, that this would move forward. So I think we can see there’s broad, enduring support within the United States to build a closer relationship with India. And I don’t really see that changing.

And, you know, we have seen challenges to that relationship over the last couple of years. We’ve seen India’s neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a bit of a challenge to the relationship. And the alleged assassination plot against a U.S. citizen in the United States has also challenged the U.S.-India relationship. But I think the fact that these two developments have not thrown the relationship off course in any way, that shows there is a very strong foundation to the relationship that, you know, has been built up over time and, you know, really is sustaining the partnership, even through some of these challenges that that we have seen in the last couple of years.

And I think, you know, it’s clear that India is going to play a very important role in determining what the future global order looks like. Some people refer to India as a swing state because, of course, it has a very good relationship with the United States, which would like to preserve the current global order, but India also has a good relationship with Russia who is working with China, you know, in more and more ways to try to undermine U.S. influence and the current global order. So, you know, the role that India plays is going to be critical in, you know, how we see the evolving global order take shape.

And I think that, you know, India does participate in organizations that the U.S. is not part of—the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, SCO, which China initiated with the Central Asian states many years ago. But, you know, when people wonder if that means that India is contributing to, you know, undermining U.S. global influence, I would say, no. I think, you know, the opposite. India being involved in some of these organizations that perhaps China has goals, you know, to use it to further its own influence, well, certainly India does not want that to happen. It does not want a global order where China is calling the shots.

So, I think, you know, when India argues that being part of these organizations is, you know, actually helpful, I think I would have to agree. India, of course, favors a multipolar order. That is true. And I think, you know, maybe ten years ago that idea would have not been looked upon favorably by U.S. officials. And it would have been seen as unhelpful to U.S. interests. But given the realities that we currently face, I think that, you know, there is U.S. interest in seeing India play a strong hand in this evolving world order that we see. So I think that—you know, overall, I think the U.S.-India relationship has thrived under Modi. And, you know, I think that trajectory is likely to continue, no matter who’s elected in the United States. Whether it’s, you know, a second Biden term or a second Trump term, I think, you know, there is a logic to the U.S.-India relationship that will continue.

AYRES: But, Lisa, let me just ask as a follow-up, what do you think—what do you think the implications are for India’s foreign policy and/or for India geopolitically from a more muscular Hindu nationalist self-definition? Again, as this becomes more overt in India, what do you think that means for how India’s positioned in the world?

CURTIS: I think it really depends on what happens domestically, right? Because it’s one thing to try to use this Hindu nationalist idea to put forward a stronger India, which seems to be the goal of the BJP leadership, and Modi in particular. But if that translates to, you know, undermining respect for religious minorities inside India, I don’t think that will be helpful because I think, you know, India’s strength on the international stage has always been the fact that it is a multireligious, multiethnic, you know, thriving democracy that valued protecting its religious minorities. So I think it really depends on, you know, whether this is, you know, kind of a way of, you know, asserting more strength internationally, or whether it actually ends, you know, up playing out as discrimination against Muslims inside India.

And when that starts to happen, then I think there would be concerns about stability inside India. Let’s face it, there’s a history of communal violence in the country. Milan referred to the razing of the mosque in Ayodhya in the early ’90s, which led to horrible communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. I mentioned the 2002 Gujarat riots, also another horrible incident of communal violence where nearly a thousand people were killed. So I think it really does matter how this idea or ideology of, you know, a strong civilizational state plays out in real terms within India itself, if that makes sense.

AYRES: Thank you. I’m conscious of the fact that we’ve gone about six minutes over our initial talk time. So I think, Maria, we should open it up to our webinar participants for Q&As. I’m happy to also ask follow-ups, because I always have many.

CASA: OK. (Laughs.) If we have a pause between questions, I will certainly let you know.


CASA: Thank you, Alyssa, and thank you to our speakers.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll start off with a written question, referencing back, Lisa, to what you were just speaking about. This is Michael Strmiska from Orange County Community College in New York: I am personally horrified at the rising tide of Hindu nationalism led by PM Modi. How is his involvement with the new Ram temple built at Ayodhya playing out in the election? I’m sure that many Indians are happy with this development, but what about Muslims and others who are not so happy? Are there any areas where this could rally anti-Modi votes?

CURTIS: Great. Did you want me to take a first stab, or no?

AYRES: Sure.

CURTIS: OK. Yeah. And then I think this is really Milan’s area, so I want to give time for him to speak. Yeah. look, I would just say, you know, clearly, Muslims account for 14 percent of India’s population, you know, translated to over 200 million people. There, you know, clearly needs to be sensitivity given to their political desires, their cultural norms, their religious sentiments. And so I think, you know, the quality of a democracy is largely determined by the treatment of its minorities. And so, you know, that—in terms of internationally, I think, you know, that is what people are looking at.

And I think, you know, you raised, you know, how the Muslims feel in India about this. And, you know, I think—I think it’s difficult to say. I think there is an overall sense that, you know, the freedom of speech is not something that, you know, is there for the Muslim population right now. So, I think it’s difficult to sort of get a sense of how they’re feeling, how they’re reacting to some of these developments. So I would just say, you know, I agree with you that the religious sentiments of, you know, the very large Muslim minority population in India needs to be taken into account. And that that will show a strong India. I think, this idea that the way India, you know, proves its international strength is to assert this Hindu nationalist identity is short sighted, in my opinion.

CASA: Thank you.

VAISHNAV: Yeah. Just add a quick word to that to just say that, you know, I think, undoubtedly, for a lot of Hindus, the inauguration of the Ram Mandir was a seminal moment, right? And I think it extended beyond just the Hindi heartland. I think, you know, even to the south, which is a place where the BJP has not been the dominant political party. It has a lot of—it had a lot of resonance. And in surveys that were done prior to the start of these elections, large numbers of Indians said, if you look back at the past ten years of the Modi government, this would be one of their most important legacies, right?

But I think as we’ve entered the kind of rough and tumble of the campaign and campaign issues, and electoral politics, I think the Ram Mandir has a bit receded in people’s minds, right? And I think for a couple of reasons. One is, again, a lot of bread-and-butter issues that people care about, right? Putting food on the table, thinking about, you know, what’s going to happen to their children, and, you know, having adequate access to good paying jobs, with social security net, and so on and so forth. So I think it can act as a—as a kind of, you know, a mobilizer. But I think it’s often hard once you’ve accomplished something, right?

I mean, it’s like that old saying about the dog in the ambulance, right? I mean, the dog is chasing after the ambulance, and once you catch it you don’t really know what to do with it. And you’ve got to find something else to go after, right? So I think the challenge I think the BJP is facing a little bit is this has been a multidecade-long objective to try to bring this temple into existence. And now it’s done that. And, you know, one of the dangers or challenges of using religious nationalism as an axis of mobilization is that you constantly need to sort of feed that beast, right? And I think we haven’t seen a single issue that can kind of do that, which is why, perhaps, to get to Alyssa’s earlier question, we’ve been seeing some of this more communally divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail.

CASA: Thank you. Next we’ll take a raised hand from Dr Shaik Ubaid from the Muslim Peace Coalition. Dr. Ubaid.

Q: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. Can you hear me?


Q: You know, the country is so much polarized now that even the opposition parties are not giving tickets to Muslim candidates. So that restriction of secularism continues. And why is the U.S. not worried about it? Because, you know, millions and millions of Muslims will be discriminated against, and thousands will be killed if the—if this continues down the road, because it seems to keep on increasing. In 2014, the moderates were still strong in the BJP. That’s why Modi did not use the Hindutva card. But after sidelining them, he has started to use it. And I was in charge of the campaign that led to the denial of Modi’s visa. So we know that RSS was modeled after Macedonia’s fascist party, and then Hitler became their hero.

So it’s not a—it’s not a good scenario. So why is U.S. administrations so short sighted? Because the rise of RSS will, you know, in the long run, will destabilize the region. And also is not good for the U.S. when he says that democracy will be needed to counter China. So this is getting at—and we saw that with Israel, that if we do not hold them accountable, the government will stop caring about U.S. pressure down the road. And we see that already. They are sending assassins in U.K. and Canada, and even the U.S., which Israel does not dare do it. So as we see, the arrogance and the recklessness. So why is the U.S. administration not coming down hard on RSS and BJP?

AYRES: Sir, I think maybe we could ask Lisa to address that from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy. But just—I can say that I do know that the Biden administration cares very much about democracy and human rights issues, but they are very focused on raising sensitive issues in private diplomatic conversations. And you’ have seen the president, you’ve seen the secretary of state very humbly present—you know, acknowledge that the United States also has challenges in our own country, but that we should be able to talk about these issues with close partners. So we have seen that.

Maybe Lisa could address this from the perspective of being a top policymaker.

CURTIS: I think Alyssa is absolutely correct in everything she just said. Many of us, India experts, were pulled over to the White House before the Modi visit last summer. And, you know, it was clear that the human rights democracy issues were very much on the mind of senior White House officials. And they do care deeply about these issues. And they wanted to be able to handle them in an appropriate way that would, you know, have a good impact for the people of India, but, you know, also have a good impact for the U.S.-India relationship. So they do take these issues seriously. We don’t know always what’s raised in private, but I think that we have to safely assume that these issues have been raised.

And frankly, I don’t know if you heard the vice president’s speech during one of the events where she talked about learning everything she knows about democracy and human rights from her Indian grandfather, who I believe was a lawyer and human rights activist. And I think this is, you know, sort of a subtle note calling India, you know, back to its own democratic traditions. So, yeah, I think that, you know, you’re right to raise these issues.

And I would just note that, you know, for India itself, for Indian leaders who pride themselves in being a democracy, the fact that Muslims account for 14 percent of India’s population yet only 5 percent of the parliamentary seats is something that maybe they need to think about or address. But I think, you know, one thing we have to keep in mind is the U.S. also not a perfect democracy. We have our challenges and our issues as well. And so I think that this is another reason why raising these issues privately, quietly, discreetly makes a lot of sense, because certainly, you know, many democracies have their challenges, and the U.S. is no exception.

Q: Yeah. Can I ask a quick follow up?

CASA: Absolutely.

Q: But we know that it is not working. We saw Modi’s speeches, which was so outlandish. So, you know, speaking quietly is not working. And these are not minor problems. I mean, U.S. cannot be compared to India. When the Muslim ban happened, I mean, the whole almost—you know, I mean, all the people who rushed to the airports to help the Muslim passengers stranded were non-Muslims. It’s not happening in India. Even the opposition now is raising issues like corruption and economy, et cetera, but nobody can dare run on secularism or pluralism. So already extensive damage is done. And in the long run, India becoming a completely fascist, Hindu supremacist state will create a major problem for the U.S. So they should realize that the approach so far has been a failure.

AYRES: Thank you, Dr. Ubaid. I mean, I think that was a comment. I’m not sure there’s a follow-up for Lisa or Milon there. But thank you for that.

CASA: Thank you, all.

Our next question is raised hand from Thomas Walsh from the Universal Peace Federation. Thomas, please unmute yourself.

Q: Yeah. Thank you. Great discussion.

You know, as I was listening to these great presentations, I started to think about, you know, Israel, and Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, Turkey and the Hagia Sophia. And what’s my point? That we’re dealing in an era where globalization is somehow no longer a strong focus in global affairs. More nationalism emerging. And some of that nationalism is of an ethnoreligious nature. There aren’t a lot—you know, if you take Islam, for whatever it may be, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has some fifty-five, fifty-six members. So from a certain global vantage point, maybe some religions like Buddhism or Hinduism may look and say, well, look, there’s all these Muslim nations. But where is there a Hindu nation—an ethno-type Hindu nation. And it’s India. And there aren’t a lot of options, as I understand it.

And I think Sri Lanka ended up with—if I have this right—more as a Buddhist majority taking control of the country. You’ve had somehow Myanmar, whatever’s going on there, is perhaps concerns of a spread of Islam, because it’s an extremely successful religion, shall we say? And Israel. So I’m just wondering about this sense of, gee, we’re this religion. We don’t just want to be enclaves in other kind of superpower religion countries any more than we want to be under China, or Russia, or the United States. So this whole idea of Hindu nationalism emerging in India over the last forty years or so seems to be a trend that’s not going to be easy to—it’s a part of the Zeitgeist right now.

And—so I’ve just—maybe I’m asking you to kind of reflect a little bit on this kind of broader global rise. I mean, you could even look at Russia and Putin as a kind of ethno-religious kind of desire to create a secure nation-state that has a very dominant religion. China wants a Chinese regime. They don’t really like what they see with the Uyghurs, and the Tibetans, and the Falun Gongs, and even the Catholics. It’s a big issue globally, in my perspective.

CASA: Thank you.

Q: Kind of a comment, and ask for reflection on it.

Thank you.

AYRES: Maybe that’s a good one for Milan, given your previous—or actually, quite recent work, on the question of religion and the civilizational state.

VAISHNAV: Yeah. So I think you’re absolutely right, that this does seem to be part of a global trend, right, whether you’re talking about Turkey or, frankly, you’re talking about the United States, right, when we think about mobilization around White nationalism, right, and kind of—you know, disquiet over a changing demography, and needing to kind of lock in particular communities’ status. You know, India is not somehow immune from these global trends.

But I think it’s important to kind of dig inside India a bit, to try to understand what’s going on. And let me try to sort of do a bit of history, in a very short order, if I can. You go back to 1947 or 1950, when India framed its constitution, right? It had two choices. The leadership could either pursue what was then the kind of well-trodden path of trying to build a nation-state, where the cultural boundaries of the nation are basically congruent with the country’s borders. That’s what Pakistan did, right, it chose to define itself as an Islamic homeland to the subcontinent’s Muslims.

There was a second, more difficult path, which would provide for a multiplicity of nations, coexisting under a kind of unified, democratic political framework, right? And this idea of India, this latter idea of India, was pretty audacious, because it said, you could only attain unity as Indians, if you embrace this unprecedented diversity, right? And we know in the end, that’s the vision that won out, right? Social scientists have come to call this a state-nation, right, unified democratic state under which multiple nations can coexist. And it embraced this idea that, look, you could have multiple complementary identities, as long as we all feel kind of Indian, right?

Now, it’s important to point out that at the time, right, and even going back to the nineteenth century, there was an alternate view, which saw really India more as a nation-state, right? And that’s what—those are the ideas that motivated the Hindutva movement, right? So Savarkar, who was the foremost Hindutva ideologue, has this slogan, right, of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, the idea that you—in order to achieve social cohesion at home, you needed a common language, a common cultural identity, and a common religious character, right? And those are the ideas that have really infused the BJP.

Now, what we’re seeing today is a slight twist on the nation-state idea. It is—it is—it is casting India as a civilizational state, right, which is basically to say that, you know, India really is—today, is inspired by a much older lineage, right, before nation-states were formed, harkening back to a kind of lost Hindu golden age, right, that predates kind of modern forms of political order, right? So the current nationalist project in India isn’t really preoccupied with building something new, as much as it is recovering something that it feels was unfairly erased through centuries of foreign rule. And by foreign rule, they mean not only the Mughal Empire and the British Raj, but also the English-speaking, Western-educated elites who controlled India after 1947.

CASA: Thank you.

Our next question is a raised hand from John Sheveland, from Gonzaga University. John.

Q: Hi. Yes, thank you very much.

I just wanted to ask a question, and really, I guess, a clarification. If I’m hearing correctly, I’m not hearing from our panelists any critical engagement with Hindutva, so from the kind of religious side of what is happening politically right now. And I’m just wondering if I’m hearing that correctly. Are we—are we kind of unwilling to engage Hindutva critically, in terms of the way it’s manipulating religion, both Hinduism, so what counts as Hindu, but then, of course, also the religious minorities? Thank you so much.

AYRES: Sir, I’m just—I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that. So I might ask for a clarification. But just to clarify, we are foreign policy experts. So that—I mean, that does—I mean, a context in which our focus is on foreign policy questions. But do you—could you clarify a little bit more what you meant?

Q: I’m sorry; I had trouble with my speaker just there. I guess what I am meaning with my question is from a foreign policy perspective, if we’re thinking about Modi, if we’re thinking about the BJP and the election, it would seem natural to engage the way in which political maneuvering might be happening, and the way that religion is utilized for those political ends. I’m speaking as a theologian, and so maybe that’s why I’m asking this particular question.


VAISHNAV: I’m happy to—I’m happy to take that on, if you’d like, Alyssa. So I think it’s a good question. And I’m—and I’m happy to go there.

So you know, what we are seeing now is a very different vision from the secular order that was kind of, you know, prevailed for most of the past seventy-five years, right? And remember, the core of that order was to say, look, it would be unwise to privilege any one religion above all others, because if we do so, it could risk further social and territorial cleavages, right? So India’s leaders post-independence wanted to kind of build a legal constitutional framework that ensured that its myriad ethnic religious groups could find a home within the new republic with kind of equal footing, right?

Now, I don’t know if we have time to go into why that vision came on hard times. But it went through a process of being hollowed out, of being cynically and opportunistically kind of used by its proponents. And it basically created an opening for Hindutva, Hindu nationalism, to come about and to say, all these people who talk about secularism; they’re really pseudo-seculars, right? They’re really just minority appeasers. They don’t actually believe in maintaining a principled distance from religion, right?

Now, the ideological hegemony of Hindutva today does have practical ramifications. And I just want to mention two of them very quickly, right? I think the first are legal and constitutional manifestations, right? So we’ve seen, for instance, you know, a gradual evolution of citizenship law, and the administrative rules that underpin that law, move away from a kind of birth-based principle of citizenship, to one based on blood or descent, right? We’ve seen many state governments enact laws criminalizing religious conversions, ostensibly, right, to prohibit forced conversions, but implicitly motivated by a desire to curb even voluntary conversions, or interfaith marriage, right? So there’s a legal policy channel which has been exercised.

But there’s also a civil society channel that’s operating in parallel. And I think this is the one that we often miss out on, because the nature of the BJP as a political entity is so unique, right? The BJP is a—the political expression of a larger family of Hindu nationalist organizations, which are civil society groups. And so that means when the BJP is in power, those groups exercise a lot of street power, right? So whether it is BJP affiliates pressuring universities on hiring decisions, whether it’s engaging in vigilante campaigns against cattle smuggling, whether it’s propagating tropes about love jihad, right, a conspiracy theory about Hindu—you know, Muslim men seducing Hindu women to convert them, those are all things now that we’re seeing through this parallel structure, right?

And I think ultimately, it’s the interaction of the official expression of state power and civil society mobilization that really kind of underpins Hindutva’s transformative potential, right? I mean, we’ve seen a lot of that play out, particularly since 2019.

CURTIS: And let me just add in there, because it just sounds like maybe you haven’t heard the rest of my remarks, because I think I have been very clear that I am concerned by the direction that the BJP is going in, with asserting this Hindu nationalism. And I am concerned about the treatment of the Muslim minority community. And you know, having followed U.S.-India relations for the past thirty years, being familiar with the development of the Indian constitution after India gained independence, and you know, everything Milan just talked about, about India being a secular democracy, I think that is what has made India a great nation, is being a secular democracy.

So the fact that the BJP seems to want to move India away from that identity, I do find troubling. And so you know, I just wanted to be clear about some of the concerns that I personally feel, having been a longtime India watcher, and seeing the direction that, you know, the country is moving in, with this, you know, Hindu nationalist identity. It makes me a bit sad, because I think India’s greatness has always been its secular democratic traditions and foundation. And so I just wanted to be clear with you about how I personally feel about the direction this is going.

CASA: Thank you.

Our next question is a written question—we’ve touched on many areas of it, but in case there are further comments—is from Anuttama Dasa, communications director for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Washington, D.C.: I am puzzled by the contradictory perceptions I hear on India. My Muslim friends and my India Christian friends perceive many challenges and threats. But Hindus in—excuse me—Hindus in India and abroad point to different statistics. Even a session a few months ago with Senator Chuck Schumer and Hindu leaders, he pointed out that—he said the highest percentage of voters in any ethnic group in the last election to support Modi was Muslim women. I recently saw photos of Modi at a Christmas event with major Christian leaders in India. Is he as bad as some think? Or as good as others think?

AYRES: Mr. Modi is very popular. Yeah.

VAISHNAV: Yeah, I mean, I—so I am happy to take a stab at that, Alyssa.

I mean, I think—look, what do we know? We know, as Alyssa said, that Modi is extremely popular. I mean, some would argue he is not just the most popular politician in India; he’s maybe the most popular democratically elected leader in the world, if you go by the Morning Consult survey, which actually tracks this across countries, right?

Just one clarification. I don’t think that Modi saw a big vote surge from Muslim women, but 9 percent of Muslims voted for the BJP last election. But he did see a huge surge from women. Women voters have become incredibly pro-BJP, which reverses the historical deficit, actually, the BJP has had with women. They’ve always done better amongst men than women, until Mr. Modi has come around.

Let me just quickly try to address the kind of crux of your question. I think that’s something that’s really striking to me, which is—and I’m sure Alyssa and Lisa feel this way too—is that you know, the conversation on India is so polarized, right? I mean, you can have one conversation where you are basically talking about how India is in this geopolitical sweet spot, it has the fastest growing economy in the world, it just surpassed China as the largest country, it can do no wrong; and in the next breath, have a conversation about how it’s missing the China Plus One opportunity, it’s democratically backsliding at home, the economic model is not sustainable, right? (Laughs.) I mean, it just—it’s one of these things that I think is kind of an enigma of India, is that it’s so large and so complicated, I think opinions are very—are very divided.

When you think about the principles of the pre-BJP kind of order, right, I think—you know, they were premised on a couple of principles, right, liberal constitutionalism, right, decentralized governance, federalism, secularism, the idea of India as a state-nation, not a nation-state. And in many of those respects, I think proponents of the BJP believe, actually, that maybe didn’t take us down a great path, right? We were too decentralized. We were too weak. We needed a stronger central government, right? We let democracy run amok. But I mean, look at the East Asian miracle, right? They were able to do that because they were essentially autocrats, right? They knew they had to build institutions first, then they could liberalize, right?

The idea of secularism creates a minority veto in a country where 80 percent constitute a dominant majority, right? If we’re so divided at home, we won’t be able to project power abroad, right?

Now, I think we all have our feelings on which side of this debate we would like to be on. But there is another side of the debate. And I think people on the other side are saying that Modi’s actually making these decisions, that may be an affront to our liberal democratic norms, but they have their own rationale for why they think this is the right path for India. And I think that’s partly why this discussion is so polarized.

CASA: Thank you.

I think we have time for one more question. We have Gloria Chien, also of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Gloria, would you like to ask your question?

Q: Oh yes, can you hear me?

CASA: Yes.

Q: OK. Thank you for this great panel, and the discussion.

So I have—my first question is, could you comment on why the COVID-19 catastrophe in India does not seem to have negatively impacted the BJP and Modi?

And my second question is actually a follow-up from the previous conversation about Muslim women, because that—it just sounds so intriguing and counterintuitive, especially after the destruction of Ayodhya. It doesn’t make sense why Muslim women still support, you know, this mandate in support of Modi. It just—yeah, so if you have time, you can answer both—two questions. But if you don’t, that’s OK. And they can just focus on my COVID-19 question. Thank you.

AYRES: COVID. Who would like to take that one? World’s most severe lockdown.

VAISHNAV: I feel like I have been talking too much. I don’t know. But I’m happy to go. But Lisa, do you want to say something?

CURTIS: Well, I’ll let you talk about the Muslim women issue.


CURTIS: You’ve done a lot more research on that particular issue.

But the COVID-19, you know, it’s a good question. But I think you could ask that all over the world. You know, China had its surge. The U.S. certainly had its surge in COVID. India had its surge, which was devastating. But it seems that, you know, many of the leaders around the world were able to, you know, survive, even though there was devastating impacts from COVID-19. So I think that—you know, it’s been a very divisive issue. It’s caused, you know, a lot of political debate around the world, you know, here in the United States, as well. But I think because it, you know, it was seen as something that, you know, was not completely in control, you know, of the political leaders, that perhaps, it did not impact them politically.

So I think you sort of have to take COVID-19 with all of the other political developments that have happened over the last several years, and you know, it’s—it is—was a major development for all countries. But I think all countries also struggled to control it. So it wasn’t as if there was one right way to handle COVID. And everybody—each country went through the fire in its own particular way. India—it was brutal for India. But it—like you said, it doesn’t seem to have impacted Modi politically. There seems to have been other issues that took the fore.

AYRES: Milan, less than one minute.

VAISHNAV: Yeah, very quickly on Muslim women. We don’t have empirical survey evidence to show that there has been a surge of Muslim women support for Modi or the BJP. As I said before, about 9 percent of Muslims have voted for the BJP in 2019. We’ll see very soon what that number is in 2024.

Women have voted for the BJP, but largely non-Muslim women. So I just want to clarify the record there. There have been some attempts by the Modi government to actually do outreach to minority communities. And one of the things that it did was to pass a law criminalizing what’s known as triple talaq, which is a kind of Sharia form of Islamic divorce, which did have some supporters among the Muslim community, the Muslim female community, in particular. But I don’t think that any data that I have seen suggests that those numbers are large enough to where we can say there was a shift of support towards Mr. Modi.

CASA: Thank you.

AYRES: So Maria, should we thank Lisa and Milan for answering so many questions? Really going deep into the domestic and the foreign policy, geopolitical implications of this election. And—

CASA: Yes.

AYRES: We’ll have to reconvene after June 4.

CASA: Thank you all for this discussion. Very interesting. And thank you to our participants for the questions and comments.

We encourage you to follow our speakers on X, at @lisacurtisdc, at @milanv, and at @ayresalyssa. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program, @CFR_religion, and to write us at [email protected], with suggestions or questions.

Thank you all again, and we look forward to your participation in future discussions.

AYRES: Thank you, Maria.


CURTIS: Thank you. That was interesting.

AYRES: Good questions.


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