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How did Indian women influence Hindu nationalist politics?

The Bharatiya Janata party won a landslide victory in India’s elections in May. What does that mean for Indian women? How did women influence the election? UC political scientist Rina Williams tackles these questions and more in an upcoming book on women’s participation in religious nationalist politics in India

In what’s being hailed as a landslide victory in the world’s largest exercise in democracy, India’s 900 million registered voters overwhelmingly reelected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in parliament last month.  

Modi, a charismatic yet divisive leader, and the BJP push a Hindu-nationalist ideology that holds important implications for Indian women, says Rina Williams, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.  

The party, she says, has historically promoted an idealized Indian womanhood, emphasized by conservative and traditional gender roles, Hindu religious nationalism and hypermasculinity even as it seeks to incorporate women’s participation.

“It’s a political party in a democracy. They cannot ignore women. This is half the electorate; they have to win women’s votes,” explained Williams, who specializes in Indian and gender politics. “But they don’t necessarily have an ideology that will be appealing to all women. So, to me, it felt like a puzzle. How do they negotiate this tension?”

Indian man with white hair stands inf ront of colorful sign

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi arrives at the Sandton Convention Center ahead of the second day of the 10th BRICS Summi on July 26, 2018. Photo: GCIS licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Williams has spent the past six years researching the BJP party’s history to unlock that puzzle. Now, with the help of a recently endowed $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she’ll spend this summer completing the final leg of research leading to the anticipated publication of a book on the subject.  

The project, which looks at how women’s participation in religious nationalist politics in India has changed over time, reflects UC’s commitment to academic excellence and research, as outlined in its strategic direction Next Lives Here.

Williams takes a long historical lens in her approach, going back to the BJP’s roots in the early 1900s when it was known then as the Hindu Mahasabha party. Although women in India didn’t yet have suffrage at the time, two other political parties — the Congress and Muslim League parties — were already incorporating women in political life.

Not so for the Hindu Mahasabha, she says.

“Congress had two women presidents before 1915. These women were really involved in the party and not just token. These other parties had figured it out,” explained Williams. “It’s just that the BJP’s predecessor party, the Hindu Mahasabha, in the early 1900s hadn’t figured it out.”

Large gathering of people holding flags and cheering

Narendra Modi addressed rallies of BJP supporters across Uttar Pradesh in May 2014. Photo by Narendra Modi is is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The BJP’s exclusion of women continued until the 1980s, when party leaders finally realized it needed to involve women to gain influence and power, says Williams. It did so by mobilizing women as “rabble-rousers,” she explains. Women supported the BJP by giving firebrand speeches, at rallies and demonstrations and even in anti-minority violence.

The BJP’s political strength continued to grow until it peaked in 1999, when it led a coalition government until 2004.

“It’s not too far a stretch to say that the BJP’s involvement of gender discourses and women in the 1980s is a major, if not the major, reason they actually finally come to power in 1999,” said Williams. “It’s not just that they figure out the women and gender piece, but that once they figure it out, it finally launches them to national power.”

The BJP considered its five-year run so successful, in fact, that it called for elections early in 2004 expecting to win in a landslide, says Williams. Instead, the party was ousted and the Congress party returned to power.

It’s not too far a stretch to say that the BJP’s involvement of gender discourses and women in the 1980s is a major, if not the major, reason they actually finally come to power in 1999,

Rina Williams

The party regrouped and instead of simply mobilizing women, Williams argues, the BJP began actively incorporating them into political life. The party now has an active women’s wing and women play important roles in the political activities of the BJP, both at the rank-and-file and leadership levels, she said.

Yet, women’s roles within the party remain constricted to certain types, Williams points out. And the party still doesn’t consider women’s issues primary when adopting stances or positions, she adds.

“While women’s participation has helped the movement become more popular, the movement hasn’t helped women as much,” said Williams. “They’ve moved past the idea where women should be in the home, but they’ve moved now to what is often called an ideology of complementarity, the idea that men and women are equal, but have different roles to play in society.”

“Women have an equal status in the party, but their roles are different,” she added. “They’ve moved beyond tokens, but as a genuinely powerful woman, does she have the same level of power as the really powerful men and as much say in the party’s agenda, policies and programs? I haven’t been convinced that is the case.”

Woman stands in front of a world map

Rina Williams has spent six years researching women's participation in Hindu nationalist politics. A recently endowed NEH grant is now paving the way for her to complete the research needed for her to publish a book on the subject. UC Creative Services/Jay Yocis

Perhaps surprisingly, despite being sidelined, the BJP enjoys wide support from women, says Williams. In 2014 — in which the party returned to power and Modi won his first term in office — the BJP commanded a plurality of the women’s vote at 37 percent. Williams chalks the support up to the party’s appeals to Indian nationalism, religion and, to a lesser degree, gender ideology.

“They’re getting support from women, there’s no question about it,” she said.

What’s more, Williams said, is that the BJP’s recent political victories at the polls are reflective of a larger political trend of right-wing populism taking root in countries across the globe — a trend, she says, that was visible early  in the world’s largest democratic country.

Williams expects to finish up her research this summer and anticipates publishing a book on the subject within a year. But there’s no break for this busy political scientist. She’s already started work on her next project tackling the portrayal of religion, gender and nationalism in Bollywood films.

“These movies are sending messages and there are billions of eyeballs on them,” she said. “What can we learn from them?” And then, with a laugh, “Plus, it lets me watch movies for research.”

Featured image: Political scientist Rina Williams specializes in Indian and gender politics at the University of Cincinnati. UC Creative Services/Jay Yocis