As part of the CPPR Talk Series, the Centre for Comparative Studies (CCS) organised an in-house talk on “Hinduism & Political Behaviour in India”, delivered by Dr Ajay Verghese, an author and assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, on August 29, 2019. His first book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016. He is currently writing his second book, which examines secularisation in Hinduism, a project that has been funded by the Fulbright Program and the American Institute of Indian Studies. During the interaction, he addressed how religiosity affects political behaviours in India. 

While people expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be re-elected in the 2019 election, nobody expected a landslide victory. So, what made this historic win? Is it because the middle-class wants the BJP? Is it because of Modi’s charisma and the lack of a charismatic leader in the Congress? The interesting aspect is how seldom we think of religion changing the political discourse and whether there has been a religious style mobilisation. 

In the US, religious studies are focused on the Abrahamic religions and the two questions that are traditionally asked to understand religiosity are — Do you believe in God? and How often do you go to Synagogues/Churches? These questions are problematic in the Indian context as pious Hindus could be atheists and could be someone who never goes to temples. Hence, Dr Verghese created a new measure of Hindu religiosity based on ethnographic fieldwork and consultation with religious studies scholars.

The methodology combines both quantitative and qualitative research. Bihar and Kerala were chosen for this study as they are the least and most developed states (based on human development indicators). With stratified sampling, more than 900 respondents were surveyed in each state. The survey on religion and politics crossed three districts, with a sample proportional to the number of people who lived in urban and rural areas. Women — whose views on politics are often overlooked by scholars — were half of all respondents.

Dr Verghese shared his findings from Bihar, where three central political questions were asked to the respondents. They were — How important is religious neutrality? How important is the government support for temples? How important is the government support for mosques? Hindus overwhelmingly supported all these indicators. Triangulating data from open-ended and close-ended questions on Hindu religiosity, ‘performing pujas’ was the common answer to measure piety in Hinduism. Other markers of Hindu religiosity include visiting temples and fasting. Survey summary showed that on average, pious Hindus are more likely to reject the idea of religious neutrality. While they think the government has a duty to support temples, they do not think the same about mosques. Few Hindus accepted openly bigoted views of Muslims; rather, they simply thought that Hindus (80 per cent of India’s population) deserved preferential treatment over Muslims (15 per cent of the population). It was also observed that the more educated the individuals are and have more income, they are more likely to vote for the BJP. While the data showed that religion matters in the national elections that is not the scenario in the state elections. The scepticism of the pious Hindus about secularism shows that Hindu religiosity is not a predictor of voting for the BJP. Dr Verghese concluded that most of the Hindus in Bihar support the ideals of secularism, but if religious politics continues the future of secularism looks bleak. 

CPPR Research Associate Angela Cicily Joseph delivered welcome and introductory remarks. Dr Gopinath Panangad, Projects Consultant, CPPR presented a memento as a token of appreciation to Dr Ajay Verghese.


Report prepared by Angela Cicily Joseph (Research Associate, CPPR) with inputs from Nissy Solomon (Senior Research Associate, CPPR)