Modi Struggles With Hindu Extremists

Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally at Kathua, south of Jammu December 13, 2014. Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

An essential skill for being a successful head of government is to manage the troublemakers in your own party. David Cameron is failing to do that now with the anti-European Union wing of Britain's Conservative Party, but Tony Blair did it successfully in the late-1990s when he curbed the power of trade unions and left-wingers in the Labour Party.

Narendra Modi is turning out to be a Cameron rather than a Blair by failing to curb the unruly and often fanatical Hindu-nationalist anti-Muslim wing of the Sangh Parivar, the family of organisations that embraces his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the primary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Stories about mass Hindu conversions, anti-Muslim insults and activists' dreams of building a Hindu India have mushroomed to such an extent that Modi was reported by a Marathi language newspaper in Maharashtra two days ago to have warned RSS leaders that he could resign if they and others (including at least one government minister) do not curb their extreme Hind rhetoric.

This followed at least two other warnings to MPs not to speak out of turn and not to stir up communal issues. Modi probably did not mean he would resign, if he ever said it – surely he is not the resigning type! But the story, which has spread across the media, serves as a warning to the BJP-RSS family, who know that they are only in government because of his electoral appeal.

The trouble started three weeks ago when a controversial new woman minister, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, reportedly implied at a political rally that non-Hindus (i.e. Muslims) were illegitimate: "Aapko tay karna hai ki Dilli mein sarkar Ramzadon ki banegi ya haramzadon ki. Yeh aapka faisla hai. (You have to decide if you want a government peopled by the children of Ram or one full of bastards.)" She had made similar remarks on earlier occasions but eventually apologised, and Modi persuaded opposition parties, after long Rajya Sabha protests, not to insist on her resignation.

Then the accident-prone human resources minister, Smriti Irani, caused a row when schools and universities were told by her ministry to observe Christmas Day (a religious public holiday) with events marking it as Good Governance Day.

Since then, another BJP MP has praised the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi as a "patriot" and there have been widespread condemnation of mass conversions to the Hindu religion. The BJP says it is prepared to introduce national legislation banning forced conversions. Such a law is already in force in some states (including Modi's Gujarat). It can be used to block freedom of choice (people are usually responding to offers of economic benefits rather than changing religious beliefs), but conversely it does not necessarily stop forced conversions.

There is no doubt that conversion is the aim of the RSS and its supporters. Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, has talked about "bringing back" people who have converted to other religions.

"Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra [nation] by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don't have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here," the leader of an extremist Hindu organisation in Uttar Pradesh was reported to have said two days ago.

"We are going to take percentage of Hindus to 100 in country. Currently there are 82 per cent Hindus in India, and we don't want this number to be halved. We won't tolerate Hindus becoming a minority in the country," a senior Sangh Parivar leader, Pravin Togadia of the hard-line Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), said on December 21, reflecting unrealistic fears of Muslims increasing from the current 12 percent of the population to a majority.

Such statements have often been made in the past, but they have more resonance, and are seen by supporters of a broad-based Indian society as being more threatening, when the BJP is in government and the Sangh Parivar is invigorated by the triumphalism of that power.

Opposition political parties have seized on all this with glee and have been stalling parliamentary proceedings in the Rajya Sabha (upper house), where Modi's BJP does not have a majority, blocking or slowing the passage of key legislation including sales tax, coal mining and insurance bills.

The Congress and other parties had not expected to be able to undermine Modi so early in the life of the government, just seven months after the general election. Nor could they have expected to have such an easy target as Hindu nationalism, which is Modi's most vulnerable point. He finds it hard to stem the unpalatable flow because he himself is an RSS member, as are many ministers in his government, and he has tried to avoid making public statements on the issues. His priority is undoubtedly economic growth, but that does not necessarily go for everyone around him.

This must be galling for Modi, who has proudly paraded himself on the world stage as a new and powerful political figure, befriending world leaders and drawing massed crowds of up to 20,000 overseas Indians in New York's Madison Square Garden and in Sydney. London's Wembley Stadium is rumoured to be his target when he visits the UK next year, and has the capacity to could hold up to 90,000 adulatory and applauding admirers.

Such displays lose some of their sheen however when the star turn lacks authority, and that is what has begun to happen to Modi, though he is still having some election successes.

The BJP is expected to gain control of the Jharkhand state assembly when election results are announced on December 23, and it should win the New Delhi assembly when elections are held there soon. Exit polls suggest however it has failed to win a tougher contest in Jammu and Kashmir, also to be announced on December 23, but it will probably have the consolation prize of ousting the Congress Party and a regional Congress ally as the main opposition in the assembly.

On performance and policy issues, Modi is delivering neither the reforms to change the way that government is run, nor the economic growth, that had been expected by this time. He has launched high profile schemes such as cleaning India, spreading financial inclusion and involvement, and boosting manufacturing (which has slumped along with fixed investment). But he has not shown how these are being, or will be, implemented.

He has new and competent ministers in charge of railways and defence (where substantial progress is being made on urgently needed equipment orders and other initiatives), but changes are evident in few other areas. Bureaucrats are turning up for work on time in some government departments, but this does not seem to have shown many results in terms of policy decisions.

This would have been politically tolerable if the government had managed to dominate the winter session of parliament ending on December 23, but it has not done so. Unless the Rajya Sabha is allowed to operate in the time that is left, two potentially major successes will be among measures that have been stalled.

One deals with urgently needed new coal mining laws and the other raises foreign direct investment in insurance companies from 26 percent to 49 percent, which has been pending for six years. Also awaited is a new Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has also been delayed for years. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, has negotiated compromise legislation with individual states and other political parties and a bill has been tabled in the Lok Sabha (lower housed) but not the Rajya Sabha.

Modi is reported to have told BJP MPs last week: "Our party agenda is development and good governance and we should not dither in it. Nor will we allow anyone to deviate us from that commitment". Now he needs to turn those words into reality – if he can.

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at

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