The massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar last month forced Indians to confront a familiar question: What kind of Pakistan do they want for a neighbor?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must answer an even more critical 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 ongoing 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 it retains power by using it for the common good.
Secularism as defined and practiced by the Indian cultural elite gave rise to Hindu anger. Hindus had been made to feel for decades that, in their own country, the followers of every other faith could proclaim their religious beliefs with pride but Hindus must never do so.
This is why secularism — treating every religion with equal respect and mutual tolerance with the state being neutral between them in public policy — degenerated into “minorityism,” yet another neologism from Indian English. (Another extremely useful contribution is “prepone,” the opposite of postpone.)
The nadir of pandering to Muslim minority sentiments came in the Shah Bano case, which became a cause celebre for the BJP as a Hindu right-wing party. The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that India’s secular law took precedence over Islamic law and that she was owed maintenance support by her divorced husband. Self-appointed Muslim leaders protested against the verdict, transforming an obscure court case of a woman’s struggle for individual justice into an issue of the right of Muslims to regulate their own affairs.
The Congress Party government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi capitulated to the Muslim fundamentalist demands and rights guaranteed by the constitution were stripped from Shah Bano by a retrospectively valid constitutional amendment enacted with the purpose of overturning the judicial verdict of the highest court of the land.
This came at a high political price. Secularism for the Congress, people said contemptuously, meant endless appeasement by the Hindus of the never-yielding fanaticism of the Muslims.
The BJP ruthlessly exploited the sense of Hindu grievance and increased its parliamentary tally 40-fold in the 1989 general election, from two to 85. The secular credibility of the Congress Party suffered a grievous blow from which it has never recovered, and today BJP supporters mockingly deride “sickularists.”
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 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 criticize 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 1,200 years of Muslim rule (culminating in the Mughal Empire) and Christian (British Empire), 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 doom if the Muslim-bashing Modi was elected prime minister.
The minority, with its ears closer to political ground zero, reported on the growing disenchantment with the failures of the incumbent Congress Party-led government under Prime Minister 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 said Hindu hotheads were 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 that the party has exhausted the mobilizing potential of Hindu chauvinism and must tack to the center-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.
By the end of his 10-year tenure as prime minister, Singh was widely ridiculed for being weak and ineffectual for 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 Modi should stop his party’s Hindu zealots from subverting a laserlike focus on improving public safety, strengthening the rule of law, building infrastructure, eliminating corruption, minimizing 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 director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in the Crawford School, The Australian National University.