DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The world's biggest democracy, India, is holding elections right now. Voting actually began earlier this month, and it lasts for five weeks. During these elections, we're looking at a big trend in India. As its economy has opened to the world and grown really robustly, so has Hindu pride. Some call it Hindu nationalism. A lifetime after India cast off colonial rule, it is embracing a new identity, and its majority-Hindu faith is a big part of that.
NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer joins us now to talk about this theme and also tell us about the story she's going to be bringing us in the coming days. Hi, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: So can I start with a really basic question? What is Hindu nationalism?
FRAYER: Sure. So Hinduism is the biggest religion in India. Polytheistic. That means that there are many gods. And it's historically been open to embracing of diversity of traditions. About 80 percent of Indians are Hindus. Now, Hindu nationalism is political. It's the idea that the Hindu faith and culture should shape the state and its policies. And the movement has its roots in the 19th century, in opposition to liberal Hindu reformers, colonialism and Christian missionaries.
GREENE: OK. So this is something that started in opposition to something else a long time ago. Why is it on your mind now? Why are we thinking about it?
FRAYER: Because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist. He belongs to a Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. And he spent his formative years working for this group called the RSS. Some members call it, like, a Hindu version of the Boy Scouts, focusing on values in civic life. But, you know, they also train with weapons and have participated in anti-Muslim riots. Modi is running for a second term, and many see this election as a real turning point for India. Milan Vaishnav, who directs the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., says this election will determine...
MILAN VAISHNAV: India's future as a secular republic that embraces pluralism and, you know, kind of adheres to the founders' notion that India's unity is strengthened by its diversity. And over the past five years, we have seen the rise of a Hindu Nationalist Party and the spread of this kind of nationalist ideology.
FRAYER: And that ideology is often at odds with the secularism that is enshrined in India's constitution, the whole system that India has really had since independence from Britain in 1947.
GREENE: So this is really quite a moment in this country. I mean, it's been secular for - I mean, I'm just doing the math - for, like, 70 or so years. Where's this drive to change that coming from?
FRAYER: Right. So let's go back to India's founding - 1947, freedom from the British, India decided to become secular. And here's why. India is so diverse. I mean, there are hundreds of languages, ethnic groups, castes and the founding fathers, among them Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that really only a pluralist democracy could hold such diversity together. Hindu nationalists, though, were really miffed. They wanted a Hindu state, and they didn't get it. And it was actually a Hindu nationalist who, less than a year later, assassinated Gandhi.
And so Gandhi's death sort of shut down this whole debate, and secularism took hold. And now, a lifetime later, the debate is opening up. India elected a Hindu nationalist, Prime Minister Modi. Right now, like, even secular parties are scrambling to brandish their Hindu nationalist cred because it's just so popular with voters.
GREENE: OK. You have a prime minister who's a Hindu nationalist. I mean, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream. This party's been in power for five years. How has India as a country, as a culture, changed?
FRAYER: Beef bans, for example. Cows are sacred to Hindus. I can get a hamburger in my Mumbai neighborhood, but it's buffalo meat. Ayurveda is all the rage. That's food, health and beauty products based on ancient Hindu healing traditions. You know, in the U.S., you've got this wellness craze, Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. Well, here it's a Hindu wellness industry, and it's absolutely booming. The very map of India is changing. Cities and landmarks with Muslim-sounding names - Allahabad, for example, a city in northern India built by Muslim kings in the 16th century, they've changed its name to Prayagraj, a word that refers to a Hindu holy site there.
I went to that city, and I spoke with Yogeshwar Tiwari. He's the head of the local university history department. And he calls those Muslim kings invaders who forcibly converted Hindus, and he says now history has to be revised.
YOGESHWAR TIWARI: People now certainly feel history has not been presented and narrated and understood in the way that it should have been understood. Every nation goes through course correction.
FRAYER: And that makes Indian Muslims pretty uncomfortable. This is their heritage. One in 6 Indians is Muslim. They're a bigger minority than African-Americans are in the U.S. We're talking about 180 million people here.
GREENE: So if India moves farther and farther away from the secular past, and Hindu identity really takes hold even more, what does that look like? What are the implications?
FRAYER: So some say India could become a Hindu homeland in the way Israel is a homeland for Jews worldwide. In fact, Modi's government has introduced a new citizenship amendment bill that would give Indian citizenship to anybody persecuted in neighboring countries, except if they're Muslim. So India would be using religion as a criteria for citizenship for the first time. Another possible model is Turkey, a secular republic that's seen its majority-Muslim faith brought into public life in a more overt way under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
GREENE: Well, so you're covering an election right now, and this whole conversation seems very central. I mean, it's really a debate about getting to the heart of who India wants to be. And a lot will ride on whether Prime Minister Modi wins this or not. What do you think? What are the polls suggesting?
FRAYER: So most observers say he will win, and the question is by how much. And that would really determine his mandate to change the country. But it's not just Modi. Tanika Sarkar is a historian, retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and she says Hindu nationals have grown these really deep roots into Indian society.
TANIKA SARKAR: They have associations among students, trade unions, retired army people. You know, religion, of course, temples. They have penetrated the everyday lives of Hindus in a very big way. Whether they win the election or lose the election, this work will go on.
FRAYER: India's still a young country, 72 years old. It's still really working out who it wants to be. And increasingly, Hindu nationalism is going to be a part of the answer to that.
GREENE: Such interesting stuff. Well, you have me interested in this election very much now. I can't wait to follow your stories as you bring them to us later this week.
FRAYER: Thanks so much, David.
GREENE: Thank you. That's NPR's Lauren Frayer speaking to us this morning from Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.