India's Narendra Modi and the threat of Hindu nationalism

India's next prime minister has never disavowed his right-wing roots. What does that augur for the country?

The Bharatiya Janata Party has come away with a dominant victory in India's election, according to early results, all but ensuring that Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of the state of Gujarat, will become the country's next prime minister.

The results cap a marathon election season — nine voting days spread out over five weeks — whose celebratory air also bore a distinct current of unease. For while it was yet another testament to the endurance of Indian democracy, it also heralded the ascendance of a figure whose history displays a fundamental antagonism toward the democratic project established by Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress party upon India's independence in 1947.

Born in 1950 as the son of a tea vendor, Modi reportedly began working for the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as early as the age of 8. The RSS rose to prominence in 1948 when one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi over his tolerance of Muslims, and the group remains a stubbornly influential source of right-wing extremism in the country, infamously inciting the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya that led to riots that killed 2,000 people.

Modi — a card-carrying member of the RSS, which has historical ties to the BJP — has been strongly implicated in a Muslim pogrom of his own. He was chief minister of Gujarat during anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that killed as many as 2,000 people. Modi has been accused of instigating and organizing the rioters, then allowing them to run wild; he denies the charge.

It is has also been widely reported that Modi is something of a natural-born autocrat. From Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay's biography Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times:

There was one observation routinely made by almost everyone I interviewed while researching for this book — that Modi did not like to listen to any other viewpoints besides his own, that he was authoritarian and did not allow any of his peers to acquire a distinct identity and thereby even remotely pose any threat to him. Most people said that this also reflected a basic insecurity in his personality — a major flaw — and that he was using power to demand — and secure — subservience from those around him. On this matter, most people I interacted with felt that Modi was among the least democratic leaders. [Boston Review]

And now this unapologetic Hindu nationalist is about to become the leader of one of the most religiously diverse countries on Earth, home to about 140 million Muslims, 25 million Christians, and millions of other minorities.

How did we get here? It was only five years ago that the Congress party won control of Parliament for a second straight term, prompting near-jubilant commentary, both in the country and out, that the Indian political system had at long last achieved the kind of maturity and stability that promises sustained growth and development. The preceding decade had seen the Indian economy grow at a rapid rate, lifting millions out of poverty and setting the stage for long-term reforms — expanding education, improving infrastructure, dismantling the remnants of economic protectionism — that would one day allow India to get over that perilous hump that separates the developed and the developing worlds.

India even seemed to have the perfect man for the job, Manmohan Singh, a mild-mannered technocrat who helped liberalize the economy in the 1990s as finance minister.

But as the effects of the global financial crisis set in, the economy began to slow. Singh's government was plagued by corruption scandals. In what will ring bells for American voters, a recalcitrant opposition did little but block legislation and turn the legislature into a site of embarrassing political theater. Most of the big, bold reforms never happened.

Not so long ago, India was billed as a democratic counterweight to that other rising Asian giant, China. Now the comparison is almost laughable.

The myth of Modi only grew as India slid into a malaise. A self-made man, he brags about the size of his "56-inch chest," a bit of puerile machismo that couldn't be more removed from Singh's demure style. He claims that he can rejuvenate India's economy by slashing red tape and bringing the bureaucracy into line, as he did in Gujarat, though there are doubts that his strongman style, which relies heavily on his intimidating clout and deep roots in his home state, will work at a national level. He also touts his chasteness — he acknowledged his estranged wife of 45 years for the first time only in April — as evidence that he is free of corruption.

For an expatriate who lived in New Delhi in the late '80s and '90s — an era that swung between the revanchism of the Ayodhya riots and an opening up that introduced millions of people to Coca-Cola, European soccer, and Asian cars — it has been surreal to see friends on Facebook, boys I grew up with, buy into the propaganda of a possible mass murderer. Even worse is their dismissal of Modi's critics, who are all supposedly part of some nefarious cabal of foreign journalists and NGOs. I even heard a story about a top Indian media magnate who claimed that Gujarat didn't matter because the Congress party did nothing to stop anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, as if to say that's just the way things are done in India. That's not exactly what you'd call progress.

Still, the BJP played down Modi's nationalist background. It was a change election, with Modi playing the role of a Mitt Romney-like turnaround artist — nothing sinister in that. There is also some speculation that Modi could distance himself from his right-wing roots once in power. And the fact that the BJP kept its chauvinistic id in check could be a sign that it has come to respect the vision of a secular, pluralistic society laid out by Gandhi and Nehru.

Or it could mean that an unreformed fascist has managed to take control of the country.


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