In India, Intolerance Undermines Modi's Reforms

A girl dances to celebrate Prime Minister Modi's defeat in a key election in India's third most populous state, Bihar, signaling the waning power of a leader who until recently was seen as a winner. Modi’s BJP lost key elections in both Bihar and Delhi because he pushed the nationalist anti-Muslim agenda. But that has not deterred his party's hard-liners. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

"Misinterpreting nationalism—BJP's swing to jingoism does not augur well," said a headline earlier this week in the Business Standard, one of India's leading newspapers. It reflected concern in India and abroad over what the paper called the governing BJP's "disturbing drift towards hyper-nationalism."

The only word slightly wrong there is "drift," because there is a growing suspicion among observers that this is not some gradual meandering, but a determination to develop divisive politics, driven for vote-catching reasons by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, notably Amit Shah, the party's hard-line president, Rajnath Singh, the government's rather stern looking home minister, aided occasionally by Smriti Irani, the voluble minister for human resource development.

The latest example of their drive has come with a strident demand for people to prove their patriotism by declaring "Bharat Mata Ki Jai," which means "Victory to Mother India" (or the motherland).

Originally triggered a couple of weeks ago when a Muslim member of a regional assembly refused to recite the line, this is really a non-issue because a wide spectrum of the population (including Muslims) have no problem with saying it (nor with others not saying it), though many would prefer the conventional "Jai Hind" which means "Praise be to India." It is also the slogan used by the Indian army.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has led chanting of the Bharat Mata slogan at his big overseas Indians' rallies in places like London's Wembley Stadium, and this could have been a harmless debate until Shah and others said that not chanting it was "anti-national." After a week of growing controversy that dominated the media, a meeting of the BJP's national executive last weekend passed a resolution that said, "Refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our Constitution itself."

The BJP ministers seem to believe that polarizing opinion around such Hindu-driven nationalism, especially the word Bharat (Hindi for India), will be a vote winner for various assembly elections next month, followed by a key election in Uttar Pradesh state next year and then the next general election that is due in 2019. For them, even opposition to the government is anti-national.

Modi presumably agrees, though he and they know that the BJP won the general election almost two years ago because of his image as a leader who would bring development and efficient government, not rampant nationalism. The BJP has lost key state elections in Bihar and Delhi in the past 15 months because Modi and others pushed the nationalist anti-Muslim agenda, but that has not deterred the hard-liners.

Modi and Development

Modi is now stressing development. "Vikas, vikas, vikas [development] is my only focus and it is our country's solution to all problems," he said at the party's executive meeting. He does not, however, seem to have tried to rein in Shah and the others, so maybe he and Shah will each run their own lines so as to broaden the party's appeal to voters.

That gels with reports that the RSS, the BJP's ideology-driven parent organization that steers the behavior of the party's leaders and government ministers, wants development to be included in the message. (The RSS has also recently softened its image by replacing its uniform of khaki shorts with long trousers.) Arun Jaitley, the government chief spokesman and finance minister, said last weekend that both nationalism and development could proceed together—which is, of course, correct if the nationalist angle is not turned into social divisiveness.

It seems, however, as if the Hindu hard-liners are continually seeking new ways of polarizing opinion. This started late in 2014 when a government minister soured the government's image by implying that non-Hindus (i.e., Muslims) were illegitimate. It continued through 2015 when eating beef, or rather not eating it, became a cause célèbre.

A 50-year-old Muslim farm laborer was killed in September by a mob at Dadri, a town in Uttar Pradesh 56 kilometers from Delhi near the Noida satellite city, after the local Hindu temple broadcast a rumor that he had killed and eaten a cow. There have been other outrages over beef since then, though, like the Bharat Mata, this need not have built up into a crisis because many, many Indians have never eaten beef, including those who would never vote for the BJP.

Around the same time, a 76-year old renowned Kannada writer and prominent academic in southern India was shot dead, allegedly by right-wing extremists who objected to his rationalist views on idol worship and Hindu ritual and had frequently issued death threats. Lack of official concern for the writer's killing (and two earlier murders of rationalists) led to country-wide protests, with many writers returning awards they had received in the past.

Last month, there was a row at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University between left-wing leaders of the university students union and the ABVP, the BJP's student organization that wants to gain control of the union. That led to violent protests and arrests on charges of alleged sedition and has now spilled over into unrest at other universities.

There have been more violent scenes and arrests this week at a university in Hyderabad over unrest that was triggered by a student committing suicide in January after clashes involving the ABVP.


The intolerance of the hard-liners was demonstrated a week ago at India Today magazine's annual conclave in Delhi, where the opposing sides in the JNU debate appeared together. The JNU students' union president Kanhaiya Kumar, a left-winger who was jailed for three weeks last month for alleged sedition, and his deputy, Shehla Rashid, were calm and rational, whereas the representatives from the BJP, the right-wing ABVP leaders, bellowed their messages and did not make a sound case.

Alongside these high-profile campaigns, there is a more insidious invasion of freedoms, especially in academia, which has always been a target for Hindutva activists. The most recent include reports of Urdu books being specially vetted to ensure they are not anti-government "For Urdu Publications, the Government's Default Setting is Suspicion," said a recent headline on The Wire website. Lecturers in a Delhi college were recently reprimanded by the university management for signing a petition supporting the JNU students.

It was inevitable when the BJP came to power in 2014 that there would be an onslaught on academia—for example, with attempts to rewrite textbooks to reflect Hindu nationalists' views of history and patriotism, and to remove the dominant narrative of the Congress Party's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. That happened during the last 1998-2004 BJP government, even though Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a moderate, was prime minister.

What was not foreseeable, however, in 2014 was that divisive ultra-nationalism would become a primary aim of the BJP and senior ministers. Shah and his colleagues seem to want to change society so that India becomes a strict Hindu nationalist nation, and dissenters are given short shrift. But that is not what the government was elected to do.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).

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