PREVIOUS INDIAN governments have certainly contributed to the Indian secular state’s erosion. Yet their decisions, though corrosive, were aimed at winning votes. The BJP’s Hindutva project, by contrast, is an ideologically driven movement to remake India’s polity and society by taking aim at its cultural, religious and intellectual pluralism.
Some of Modi’s critical political appointments make this abundantly clear. For example, in March 2017, Modi chose Yogi Adityanath—a firebrand Hindu priest with a number of criminal cases pending against him, including a charge of attempted murder—to serve as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which contains nearly thirty-nine million Muslims, more than any another Indian state. Infamous for his inflammatory statements, Adityanath has, among other things, compared the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist, declared that if a Muslim kills a single Hindu then a hundred Muslims will be killed in retaliation, and claimed that Mother Teresa “was part of a plot for [the] Christianization of India.” Within hours of becoming chief minister, Adityanath ordered the closure of two slaughterhouses in the state. Ostensibly he did so on environmental grounds. But the real reason was all too apparent: these slaughterhouses were owned and operated by Muslims. Not surprisingly, online applications for RSS membership soared soon after his appointment.
The atmosphere of hostility toward Muslims that has emerged under Modi has seen a rash of attacks on hapless Muslims transporting cattle in various parts of the country, even when the animals were not intended for slaughter—which most Indian states ban. Among the egregious examples was the killing of a Muslim man, Pehlu Khan, in Rajasthan in April 2017. Even though he and his associates were legally transporting dairy cattle, a mob attacked their trucks and proceeded to beat them. Khan succumbed to his injuries. The police then registered cases against Khan’s associates, as well as his assailants. Modi has spoken out against such attacks, but has also made clear that he adamantly opposes the slaughter of cattle for beef—even though cow-slaughter bans in every BJP-ruled state deprive Muslims, Christians and a substantial portion of Dalits of a vital source of cheap animal protein.
Although the BJP’s anti-secular offensive operates at multiple levels (political, social and cultural), it is alarmist to draft requiems for Indian liberal democracy. The BJP has doubtless acquired considerable clout, but it nevertheless faces a range of obstacles. One is Hinduism itself. Ironically, the Hindutva faithful seem blind to the pluralism that marks their religion. Unlike most other faiths, Hinduism lacks a common scripture or universally agreed upon places of worship, and its capacious pantheon accommodates as many as 330 million deities, many confined to particular parts of India and unknown beyond them. As the American anthropologist Milton Singer argued decades ago, while some Hindus in northern India pay homage to the Sanskritic “great tradition” of Hinduism, what animates the lives of millions of Hindus across the country and beyond are the religion’s “little traditions.” They cannot easily be effaced or even absorbed into the monolithic Hinduism envisioned by the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar.
The BJP’s efforts to create a Hindu state have also faced vigorous resistance from many quarters within India—and will continue to do so. Prominent Indian writers, public intellectuals and courageous journalists have spoken out against its anti-secular agenda despite risk to their own professional reputations and even personal safety. The new stories and nationwide protests that followed the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh attest to the continuing feistiness of India’s civil society and press. Hindutva-inspired efforts to restrict Indians’ freedom of speech, religious practices and diets will encounter legal barriers as well. In August 2017, the Indian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the right to privacy constituted a constitutional right, and is moreover essential for securing other freedoms. In a similar vein, in a 2016 judgment totaling more than one hundred pages, the Madras High Court rejected the petition to ban Perumal Murugan’s book. The jurists declared archly, “If you don’t like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary—what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others.”
The BJP also faces a range of powerful regional political parties, reflecting India’s political and cultural diversity, that have gained prominence in recent decades. The sharp reaction in Tamil Nadu to Modi’s directive that Hindi should be used for official communication shows that the state will resist the BJP’s cultural program, precisely because it embodies the centralization and uniformity they reject. And because these parties have strong regional roots, the BJP will find that they are formidable opponents and, indeed, that it cannot govern effectively without their cooperation.
HINDU NATIONALISM can only do so much for Modi and the BJP. Their staying power will depend on whether they can deliver on the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to Indians. In the run-up to the 2014 election, Modi touted the “Gujarat miracle” and promised to do for the country what he had done for the state. It was not an empty boast: India’s economic growth averaged an impressive 7.5 percent from 2014 through 2017, and foreign investment increased substantially. But economic growth slowed to 5.7 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2015). While most countries would envy even this lower rate, India’s economy must grow more quickly, because twelve million people enter its job market each year. Even if the economic slowdown proves to be a blip, a revival must produce substantial increases in job creation. Modi’s record on this front has not matched his rhetoric, and the outlook is not promising.
That’s not the only problem: economic reform has stalled. Indian national banks have $180 billion in bad debts on their books. The country’s infrastructure remains decrepit. Most notably, the BJP’s sudden move in 2017 to stanch corruption by suddenly invalidating five-hundred- and thousand-rupee notes (roughly 86 percent of the total in circulation) proved to be a blunder; shops refused to accept them, people swarmed banks to exchange the suddenly useless notes and employers were unable to pay workers. Slogans about a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Polity) won’t count for much if the BJP cannot meet the expectations created by Modi’s economic promises.
The BJP’s threat to Indian secularism, though serious, may not prove fatal. India’s cultural and political diversity, the robustness of its press and civil society, the continuing strength of its judiciary, and its strong regional opposition parties and plethora of civic groups serve as counterweights. Much has been written about the ways in which India’s size and unwieldiness hamper thoroughgoing reform and efficient governance. Thankfully, they also provide a powerful defense against chiliastic schemes of homogenization and centralization such as Hindutva.
Sumit Ganguly is professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. Columbia University Press will publish his next book, on the evolution of India’s defense policies. Rajan Menon holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in International Relations at the City College of New York/CUNY and is a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His most recent book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, was published in 2016 by Oxford University Press.
Image: 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