India's New Politics: Understanding the rise of Sri Narendra Modi

In an epic election in India in May, in which over 800 million people voted over a month-long period, the Bharatiya Janata party won a historic victory over the long-ruling Indian National Congress party. The Congress party played a pivotal role in the Indian independence movement and had been in power for decades. Sri Narendra Modi, a controversial figure during his time as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, now stands as the prime minister elect. America asked an Indian Jesuit, Ambrose Pinto, S.J., to offer an on-the-ground perspective of what the election means to Christians and other religious minorities in India. 

The recent victory of Sri Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party in India’s general elections has disturbed a large section of India’s populace. Why? For many people, Modi does not represent an inclusive India. The idea that he won a decisive victory is a myth created by some in the media. The voting results clearly indicate that minorities and liberals, progressives and secularists did not vote for him. Many voters preferred their regional leaders.  

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In spite of winning the largest number of seats in India’s parliament, Modi and his party garnered only 31 percent of the country’s votes. BJP leaders have been at pains to claim that all communities, classes and age groups of voters have placed their faith in a Modi government, but this is far from the truth. The previous lowest vote share for a single party was in 1967, when the Congress Party won 283 out of 520 seats with 40.8 percent of the total votes.

The 2014 results show just how fragmented the Indian voters are. There are too many national and regional parties. Not even one in three chose a candidate from the BJP to represent them. It is paradoxical that Narendra Modi enjoys only minority support and yet rules the country. That is how unfortunately the parliamentary system works in India. There have been demands in recent years for changes to the electoral system.

Modi’s Ideology

Mr. Modi represents an ideology that is contrary to the spirit of India’s Constitution. In the preamble of the constitution every citizen of the country is assured “equality, fraternity and justice.” Secularism and socialism are the prime tenets of the Constitution. Neither Modi nor his party subscribes to these tenets. The party to which Modi belongs, an affiliate of the “Sangh Parivar,” has its roots in the political project of Hindu nationalism that goes back to 1914, in the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha, and 1925, in the establishment of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological wing of the party. Their project has reformulated Hinduism as “Hindutva,” which has hardly anything to do with Hinduism, but is used for political mobilization. This Hindutva nationalism has been projected as synonymous with Indian nationalism. Religious minorities do not have a place in this vision of India. M. S. Golwalkar, the founder of the RSS, has cited Muslims, Christians and Communists as three “internal threats.” About Indian Muslims and Christians he says: “Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation. They have developed a feeling of identification with the enemies of this land. They look to some foreign lands as their holy places.” Another celebrated figure, V. D. Savarkar, groups Indian Muslims and Christians together as ones who do not share “the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization—our Hindu culture.” He adds “Christian and Mohammedan communities who were but very recently Hindus cannot be recognized as Hindus since their adoption of the new cult they had ceased to own Hindu civilization (Sanskrit) as a whole... For though Hindustan to them is Fatherland, as to any other Hindu, yet it is not to them a Holy land too. Their holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine.”

This worldview perceives Indian Christians and Muslims as “outsiders” or “foreigners” and continues to be the guiding political narrative of the Sangh Parivar even today. Along with a regional party, VHP-Bajrang Dal, the BJP was in power in Orissa in 2008 during one of the worst anti-Christian riots in India’s history. The violence led to 75 deaths, thousands being displaced and the burning of hundreds of churches. The leadership of the BJP explained the riots by pointing to “conversions as the root cause of violence and social disturbances.” The real reason for exclusion of Christians and other minorities is their egalitarian values that disturb a “Hindutva” ideology premised on hierarchy, casteism and inequality. It is with these feudal beliefs Hinduism has domesticated and subordinated India’s untouchables and “backward class” population to the Brahmanic hegemony. The caste order is what BJP upholds.

Mr. Modi is a Hindutva man. A pracharak for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he enjoys strong support among senior leaders in the Sangh fountainhead. The prime emotions he evokes are admiration and deep distrust. While some have compared him to Sardar Patel, a founding father of India, others see him as the “butcher of Gujarat” for he was the chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead. Arundhati Roy, an author and activist, said at the time, “Fascism’s firm footprint has appeared in India.” As chief minister, Modi did not tolerate dissenters. His treatment of those who differ from him is quite offensive. He has not allowed any leadership from below to emerge.

A New Image

In spite of being anti-democratic, anti-minority and anti-secular, Mr. Modi has made it to the chair of prime minister. How was that possible? The media is partly to blame for manufacturing a new image of Modi and selling it to the masses. Their success was possible due to a combination of factors. The American advertising agency “Apco” was hired by the Sangh Parivar to “rebrand” Modi. The corporate world helped fund the effort. Day after day and week after week, the BJP campaign touted the Gujarat model of development, which favored corporations in a big way.

Mr. Modi’s election has also helped to reinvigorate Hindutva ideology. With the politics of identity gaining ground in recent years, groups of “backward classes” have been demanding a larger share in India’s development. They are becoming more aware of their caste identity. For many voters economic interests have become more important than religious allegiance. As a result, Hindutva was rejected in several states. Other than a few North Indian states the BJP agenda had become irrelevant. Most mainstream parties were unwilling to align with the BJP given the sizeable minority population in their states, whose support they needed to come to power. With the success of Modi all that has changed. The religious has taken over the socio-economic and political.

India is moving into a new kind of politics, one dominated by the corporate and industrial forces backed by the corporate media. The victory of the BJP sent the value of stocks soaring and prompted an increase in the value of the rupee. BJP received the largest contributions from the corporate world. The BJP spent four times as much on the election as the Congress party. BJP reportedly spent about 50,000 million rupees on all media—print, television, outdoor, Internet and radio—“to block out all other political parties.” Add to this all the other election-related expenses, especially those on private aircraft and helicopters, and the figure would exceed what Barack Obama spent on his presidential campaign, according to Siddharth Varadarajan. Surely all this has influenced the electoral outcome, and will sway the policies of the BJP-led government. Money and wealth, and the associated power they bestow, have hijacked the electoral process.

The Demise of the UPA

Why was India’s ruling coalition unable to hold onto power? The United People’s Alliance (headed by the Indian National Congress, India’s longtime ruling party) governed during a deep economic and political crisis. The economy did not perform well. Poverty increased. Today the poor are restless. Chaos in governance and confusion in politics has paralyzed the administration. Violence of Naxalites and Maoists in several states has threatened the country’s stability. Every day the media has been highlighting one scam after another of the regime in power. The weakness of those who govern, with no clarity of an agenda and a lack of determination to address issues of violence, are evident. During the election, the nation was presented as rudderless with a weak leader at the helm. Sri Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India, was a technocrat, unable to speak the language of the people. As a leader of the nation he was perceived as the representative of the international financial institutions. He lived an isolated existence with a grand vision for the country without fully understanding the context of the land.

In contrast Modi was presented as a strong “deshi” leader with an imposing stature who could bring order out of this chaos, stability out of this instability and transparency out of the countless scams and scandals. Portrayed by the media as a person above corruption, he was offered as a messiah for a nation that is in search of rectitude and transparency. A lot of his sins were covered up and he was exalted by the propaganda machinery as a leader “par excellence.” A new message was spread that the only solution for the many problems of the country was a strong leader. To some of the urban elite it is an inviting image and through information technology they were able to sell that image. Voters who have been alienated by the policies of the UPA were quick to buy into that image. It may not take long for them to see that they are fooled.  

The United People’s Alliance should take major part of the blame for the emergence of Modi. An ideology can be fought only through another ideology. While the BJP along with the Sangh Parivar has been very clear of its “Hindutva” ideology, it is the Congress and the secular parties that have failed the country. Their commitment to secularism was shallow. With the acceptance of neo-liberalism as a policy of the government, the party was hardly committed to the socialism of the Constitution. The subalterns had abandoned the party. There were no more party cadres to disseminate the ideology of the party at the grassroots. Everybody wanted to be in power. When a party loses its original inspiration as an organization that fought against colonialism and freedom from slavery (the Congress party played a pivotal in the Indian independence movement) it cannot carry on for long. The Congress party will have to re-discover its roots before it can assume power again.

It is unclear how Mr. Modi will govern on the international stage. His association with the Gujarat riots is not going to simplify diplomacy in the Islamic world. And India is totally dependent on these countries for oil. The relations with Pakistan, the United States and China are also of concern. Pakistan is, of course, is a nuclear power with a long history of enmity toward India. The administration of President George W. Bush denied Modi a visa in 2005 under a 1998 U.S. law barring entry to foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” A boycott by senior U.S. officials was only lifted earlier this year, when the U.S. ambassador to India finally travelled to the state capital of Gujarat to meet its chief minister. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Modi on the world stage will be China. Indeed, for Modi, China may appear to be less a rival than an opportunity. He has been there four times on official visits—more than any other country—and, he admires what has been achieved in the country in spite of border conflicts.

With Modi at the helm and the RSS as a controlling force, it is not going to be easy for the BJP to govern. Their exclusionist ideology must be abandoned if they are to serve as a legitimate government for all of India. Whether a party that has thrived on this ideology for so long can change course is very much an open question.

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