Is Indian secularism in danger? This question is asked by a number of secular friends since the Rashtriya Swayamsevakh Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP), led by Narendra D Modi, was elected to power earlier this year. Those who have always been sceptical about Indian secularism believe that India has voted on a communal basis by electing the candidate who exploited religion, proving that the Muslim League’s pre-independence communal politics were right. Most Pakistanis are apprehensive about Modi having a belligerent policy against Pakistan.
In my recent visit to India to attend the Bangalore Literature Festival, which was unfortunately cut short for some personal reasons, I wanted to explore answers to the above question. Here are my cursory impressions of Modi’s India on the completion of his 100 days rule. Most journalists and intellectuals I talked to are of the view that India cannot be ruled without the state remaining an adherent to secularism. Modi knows that he carries the baggage of the anti-Muslim Gujarat carnage, hence after elections he has been careful about his statements on issues of secularism. Before his recent visit to the US, which had earlier declined to give him a visa because of his role in anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat as the chief minister of the state, he made a statement to appease Muslims. He acknowledged their patriotism by saying that Muslims have given their lives for the country.
But that does not mean that India may not have to pay the price of mixing religion with politics by the BJP and RSS. The Pakistan movement did that and the people are paying a heavy price for that shortsighted policy in terms of intolerance and terrorism in the name of establishing an Islamic ‘caliphate’. The rise of Modi and Hindutava has encouraged all extremist groups. One Indian analyst said, “Nothing highlights this better than the BJP’s ‘love jihad’ campaign.”
Hindu extremists are no different than our Muslim extremists; both are paranoid about each other and susceptible to conspiracy theories. Some Hindu extremists believe that inter-faith marriages between Hindu girls and Muslim boys are a long-term conspiracy to increase the ratio of the Muslim population in India. Notice the gender bias: they are not worried if a Hindu boy marries a Muslim girl. However, the fact remains that the rate of Muslim population growth in India is higher than other religious communities in the country as they are economically backward and more religious. Had the subcontinent not been divided in 1947, the Muslim population would have been around 25 percent of India, making secularism stronger than today,
Most intellectuals believe that the vote to the BJP was mainly driven by the poor performance of the incumbent government of Congress instead of its religious propaganda. The younger generation moved to Modi as they were tired of slow development of infrastructure, unemployment and economic growth. Congress’ lacklustre leadership was unable to give confidence to the people, who were looking for a strong leader. Rahul Gandhi, who lives under the shadow of his mother, does not inspire much confidence. The party is split between Sonia’s old time loyalist advisers and the younger foreign educated advisers of her son who have little political experience.
On the other hand, Modi’s image builders presented him as a man who would be able to deliver by exaggerating his contribution in managing Gujarat. Like Shahbaz Sharif, Modi is also running his centralised government through the bureaucracy. This, these intellectuals believe, would be counter-productive for him in the longer term as managing a huge country with so much diversity is different than managing a small state. Modi’s shine is coming off quite quickly if the results of the by-elections of three states are any indicator. In UP, where the BJP swept the general elections bagging 73 seats for the Lok Sabha, in the by-election it lost eight seats out of 11; in its strongholds of Rajasthan and Gujarat it lost three seats each out of four.
So far, Modi has spent most of the time on successfully building relations with the countries that matter. This is also to gain international legitimacy that he needs because of his tarnished image in view of his role in the Gujarat riots. His first visit to Japan to meet his friend Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was successful as he shared the favourite nationalist line of showing India’s support for Japan over its disputes with China and in return got promises of over $ 35 billion Japanese investment in India. This marred the routine visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is said to be the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong and the reformist Deng Xioping. It is still an open question whether the movement of 500 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers across the line of control was deliberately timed with Xi’s visit. The Indian media, which is no less jingoistic than ours, if not more, made a big issue of this and Modi had to tell Xi that the border issues need to be resolved as they are affecting the whole body of relations. However, in spite of these irritants, China signed $ 20 billion in investment deals to mark the visit.
The next crucial question for Pakistan is: what are the implications of the Modiiled BJP for Pakistan-India relations? From all the statements he has made and his RSS roots, it is quite apparent he will focus on accusing Pakistan of supporting anti-India terrorist groups on all forums. The most recent example is his joint statement with Obama: both have named the terrorist organisations that are based in Pakistan. It would be foolish to deny that. Pakistan has to dismantle these organisations and develop an extensive deradicalisation programme for the rank and file that has been misled to the golden path of heaven through intensive jihadi indoctrination. We have to accept that they are not assets but liabilities, giving the country a bad name in the world and giving a diplomatic edge to India. Political instability in Pakistan at this juncture when India and Afghanistan are likely to play tough and religious militancy is on the rise is going to have long-term ramifications. Unfortunately, all the leaders who are playing this dangerous game of poaching power and their covert supporters-cum-instigators do not care!