Making India Great Again?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is merely the champion of a larger movement that seeks to push India in a more nationalist direction.

January-February 2018

NATIONALISM HAS become a formidable force in India, the world’s most populous democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) portrays India as a once-glorious Hindu civilization whose identity and power were eroded—first by successive Muslim invasions that culminated in the establishment of the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), and thereafter, until 1947, by British colonialism. For more than half a millennium, in the BJP’s telling, many Hindus were forcibly converted to, or duped into adopting, Islam and Christianity. English became the intelligentsia’s lingua franca. Civilizational self-confidence gave way to feelings of weakness and inferiority—or so goes the Hindu nationalists’ narrative.

Independence did not, in the BJP’s view, eliminate this pathology, because Indian leaders (the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remains the nationalists’ prime example) and intellectual class remained in thrall to Western ideas and institutions. Hindu nationalists believe that India can reclaim its greatness only by advancing economically and militarily, while drawing on the past, Hindu civilization in particular, for inspiration, pride, identity and political principles. Modernity severed from history, religion and tradition is, in their eyes, a recipe for deracination and submissiveness, not glory. The BJP proclaims that its elixir, combining modernity and tradition, will make India great again.

This is the narrative of India’s past and vision of its future to which Modi, the BJP and its kindred cultural organizations are committed. The consequences of their efforts to realize their goals will matter—and not just to Indians. With an area of nearly three million square kilometers, India is the world’s eighth-largest country. Its population of 1.3 billion people will soon surpass China’s, and the Indian diaspora numbers thirty million, including four million in the United States, about half of them Hindus. (This in itself says nothing about the attitudes of people of Indian origin in the United States—whether citizens or not—toward the BJP, but the party and its affiliated organizations have certainly sought to cultivate them.) At $2.3 trillion, India’s GDP ranks seventh worldwide, and its economic power is supplemented by nuclear weapons and a powerful conventional military force. Thus the reverberations, good and bad, of BJP-style Hindu nationalism are likely to reach well beyond India’s borders.

WHEN INDIA won its independence from Britain in 1947, it lacked any of what are now commonly considered the prerequisites for a strong new democracy. The overwhelming majority of Indians lived in villages, and were dirt poor to boot: per capita GDP then was around $618 (in 1990 constant dollars), compared to $6,600 in 2016, which still places India in 160th place worldwide. Back then, Indians could anticipate an average lifespan of thirty-two years, versus 67.8 years now, and only 12 percent were literate, compared to 74 percent today.

Yet Indian democracy, despite its shortcomings (many traceable to endemic corruption), has proved remarkably resilient, defying the early obituaries. At all levels of India’s political order, power changes hands regularly through elections. Voter turnout (64 percent in the 2014 national election) is generally higher than in the United States (55 percent for the 2016 presidential election). India’s central and local legislatures are forums for raucous debate, if not always for efficient or enlightened lawmaking. The Indian press operates in numerous languages and with remarkable freedom. The army, the bane of democracy in many developing countries—including India’s neighbor and cultural kin, Pakistan—has stayed out of politics.

Sixty years on, this record is remarkable, particularly for a country that remains largely poor and is a kaleidoscope of languages, religions, castes and cultures. True, Indian democracy has appeared in peril at times—notably during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” rule (1975–77), when she curtailed democratic rights and jailed opposition leaders, relying on constitutional provisions available to the largely symbolic Indian presidency. But her confidence, based on the claims of sycophantic advisers, that she would achieve a sweeping electoral victory that would enable the consolidation of an illiberal polity, proved misplaced. The voters handed her a stunning defeat, preserving India’s democratic political trajectory.

Now, however, Indian democracy faces a new threat.