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Facing Common Threats from Within: India

In a second article examining the internal threats shared by India and Pakistan, it is argued that Hindu zealots are a drag on India’s great-power destiny. 

The massacre of Pakistani schoolchildren last month forced Indians to confront a critical question: what kind of Pakistan do they want for a neighbour? Prime Minister Narendra Modi must answer an even more fundamental question: what kind of India does he want? One that is trapped in the prison of yesterday’s glory, where ancient Hindu texts replace modern science and technology in the classrooms; or one that puts in place policy settings to achieve and maintain greatness today and tomorrow?

The built-in dilemma finds expression in an on-going tussle between the cultural and economic right wings of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The former helped to bring the BJP to power but only the latter can ensure that power is used for the common good. Modi has thus far failed to confront obscurantists in his own party. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead-end of religious extremism, Modi must act decisively against them and reaffirm that India has no future other than as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.

Just as the dead hand of the state held India back under the misguided socialism and perverted secularism of the Congress Party, so the dead hand of Hindutva (the agenda of Hinduism) may hold back India’s march to greatness under the BJP. A prominent BJP leader openly declares India to be a Hindu nation. A BJP lawmaker praises the killer of Mahatma Gandhi as a patriot. The education minister wants German to be replaced with Sanskrit in central government schools. While one minister suggested in the past that Muslims critical of government policy should move to Pakistan (should I have to go back to India if I criticise any Abbott government policy?), another crudely denigrates Christians and Muslims as bastards.

For fanatics, Hindu girls do not marry Muslim men of their own volition but are victims of “love jihad” aimed at converting India into a Muslim nation. The most recent manifestations of Hindu chauvinism have targeted the reconversion of Christians and Muslims as symbols of ghar wapsi (homecoming), on the grounds that in 1200 years of Muslim (culminating in the Mughal Empire) and Christian (British Empire) rule, state power was used to convert Hindus to these two foreign religions. The campaign aims to ‘purify’ India.

A year ago, analysts of Indian politics could be divided into two camps. The cultural elite in the country (and their spokespersons abroad who were given space in international media commentary that was as faulty in its understanding of India’s political cross-currents as it was unrepresentative of Indian opinion at home or among the diaspora) warned of gloom and doom if the Muslim-bashing Modi was elected PM. The minority, with its ears closer to the political ground zero, reported on the growing disenchantment with the failures of the incumbent Congress Party-led government under PM Manmohan Singh.

No one talked of a sudden surge in Hindu religious sentiment that would carry Modi to power in New Delhi, yet Modi has unwisely allowed Hindu zealots to distract attention and energy from his pressing development and good governance agenda. In an opinion poll for The Times of India, published on New Year’s Day, 68 percent said they want the government to focus on jobs and development, only 14 percent picked the Hindutva agenda, and 16 percent said they wanted both. Moreover, 62 percent believe Hindu hotheads are adversely affecting the government’s development agenda. Sentiment could hardly be clearer and the government will ignore it at its political peril.

So far at least three-fourths of respondents believe the Modi government has done a good/very good job and their expectations of it remain high. The challenge for Modi is how to retain the loyalty of the BJP’s nice Hindu support while responding to and rewarding his broader coalition of the new aspirational classes. He cannot forever finesse the choice.

The apprehensions of those who fear the BJP as the Trojan horse of Hindu fascism are fed by the vitriolic hatred aimed at Muslims by many BJP leaders. The hopes of those who believe the party has exhausted the mobilising potential of Hindu chauvinism and must tack to the centre-right to survive in the rough and tumble marketplace of Indian politics rest on the tradition of Hindu tolerance and the middle ground of politics that imposes the restrictions of respectability and punishes extremism. The genius of India’s greatness lies in a central tenet of Hinduism: sarva dharma sambhava (all dharmas – truths/religions – are equal and in harmony).

By the end of his 10-year tenure, Manmohan Singh was widely ridiculed for being weak and ineffectual in failing to stand up for his beliefs against old-style socialists and interventionists in his party. To escape a similar fate, Modi should send out Bill Clinton’s brilliantly successful campaign slogan to all party members: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And stop his party’s Hindu zealots from subverting a laser-like focus on improving public safety, strengthening the rule of law, building infrastructure, eliminating corruption, minimising the cost inputs and regulatory burden on business, switching priority from stopping imports to promoting exports, and investing in education and skills development for the 21st century.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.

This is the second in a series of two articles published by the Canadian International Council on 8 January 2015. It is republished with permission. The first article is available here.

Published January 15, 2015