October 27, 2015

Financial Times: India’s Narendra Modi must rein in his Hindu supremacist allies (Ramachandra Guha)

Financial Times - October 26, 2015


India’s Narendra Modi must rein in his Hindu supremacist allies

Ramachandra Guha

A realist might say the PM is too weak to override his extremist supporters, writes Ramachandra Guha

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Last month, in a village just 50km from New Delhi, a man was lynched by a mob claiming he had eaten beef. The villager, a 50-year-old labourer, was Muslim; the mob was made up of Hindus, whose religion deems the cow sacred.

At first Narendra Modi did not respond at all, despite outrage across the country and beyond. This was compounded when the minister in whose constituency the village fell — from the prime minister’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — referred to the lynching as an “accident”.

Mr Modi issued a tweet congratulating a billiards player on a tournament victory; and one offering condolences to a singer who had lost her son. But on the lynching of an ordinary Indian there was silence. Finally, 10 days after the incident, he asked, in anodyne terms, for harmony. It was too little too late.

This is a pattern that is becoming established in Mr Modi’s premiership. Before the 2014 general election, under pressure to distance himself from accusations of links to Hindu religious extremism, he focused on the pitch that he would govern as an economic moderniser. Yet economic reforms have lost momentum, while social and religious division looks unchecked, at best.

As a candidate, Mr Modi played down his links to the reactionary, not to say medievalist, mindset of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a “cultural organisation” founded in 1925 on the belief that India is a Hindu nation. MS Golwalkar, its long-serving head, identified Muslims, Christians and (godless) communists as the nation’s main enemies.

Mr Modi joined the RSS as a boy. His ideological education was conducted entirely under its auspices. In 1985, he was seconded to the BJP, the RSS’s political arm. Sixteen years later he became chief minister of Gujarat, his home state. In last year’s campaign, he spoke of his economic achievements there, such as new industrial investment and provision of water and power to farmers. He is a superb orator and younger voters disgusted with the corruption and cronyism of the ruling Congress party flocked to him. The BJP won an overall majority in parliament’s lower house, the most decisive mandate any party has secured in more than 30 years.

Once elected Mr Modi was expected to move quickly to usher in much-needed economic and institutional reforms. But his mocking of opposition leaders in the campaign proved counter-productive. The BJP was in a minority in the upper house. The cross-party support needed to bring in a land acquisition law and a goods and services tax was absent.

Meanwhile, Mr Modi’s party men were reviving the“Hindu first” agenda. A BJP minister of state declared that non-Hindus were untrustworthy rascals. One BJP MP accused Muslim men of marrying Hindu women and converting them to Islam. Another demanded a mass campaign to “reconvert” Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.

Looking back it appears that early in Mr Modi’s premiership the RSS was testing the water. When statements by Hindu supremacists went unchecked, the group seems to have been emboldened. The cynical view would be that, deep down, Mr Modi shared these views; the realist view, that he is perhaps too weak to override the RSS.

It may also be that he does not have the time. Since taking office last year he has been to dozens of countries and is due in several more soon. While Mr Modi is feted at state banquets as leader of the world’s largest democracy, within India sectarians continue their dirty work on the ground.

Making India more visible is important. So is garnering capital for infrastructure and industrial projects. Yet economic renewal can scarcely flourish amid conflict and uncertainty. Mr Modi needs to speak out clearly for religious pluralism and social harmony — to reassure investors and, perhaps more important, the citizens of India, too.

The writer is author of ‘India After Gandhi’

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015.