This week, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Washington to meet with President Barack Obama. It will be his fourth visit to the United States in two years, and — not insignificantly — his last in the Obama era. The two men clearly enjoy a relationship that transcends the formalities thrust upon them, as evidenced by Obama’s visit on short notice to India in January 2015 at Modi’s invitation for India’s Republic Day celebrations. But an under-regarded aspect of Modi’s visit to America will be how much the summit means to him domestically.
In the two years since he was elected prime minister, Modi’s stock has fallen considerably at home. Some of this was inevitable. He invited unreasonably high expectations upon himself with a carefully calculated presidential-style campaign, especially since he then became the first prime minister to enjoy a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, in 30 years. But the sense of a missed opportunity also has much to do with how passive Modi has been with his stock of political capital — not just in an economic sense, but also in providing direction and self-definition to a diverse, rapidly liberalizing society and still-maturing democracy.
Two years is enough time for the temper of a regime to emerge. And it’s not a pretty one. Modi’s India has been revealed to be a depressing stage on which the demons of religious bigotry and hypernationalism hover unsleepingly over the vital debates of a society in transition. The prime minister has an unresolved — and on the current evidence, unresolvable — paradox. He wants to modernize India (“vikaas,” or “development,” remains the word he deploys the most) without in any way refashioning or reimagining the Hindu-conservative ideology through which he and his party understand the world. The result is that he drags India forward with one hand and backward with another.
Critics of the prime minister say this, too, was inevitable. But it didn’t have to be this way. For a sense of the alternative path open to Modi in 2014, a short history of Hindu nationalism is in order. Often the movement is traced back to the 1980s, when it began for the first time to make inroads into the comfortable majorities enjoyed in the first three decades of Indian democracy by the Congress party, which gave India its liberal constitutional order in 1947.
But as some perceptive students of Hindu nationalism, such as the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, point out, Hindu nationalism as an organized political force is actually as old as the Indian independence movement and cannot be easily wished away. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu-nationalist volunteer-based organization that serves as the spiritual parent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (and which he first joined as a teenager) was formed in 1925, around the time the Congress acquired a mass base with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s criticism of Hindu society, particularly the iniquities of its caste system, provoked bitter resentment from Hindu nationalists. The movement chose to focus instead — with particular intensity at the time of Partition — on the destabilizing role of minorities in India, particularly Muslims. (India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world).
For close to a century, then, Hindu nationalism has provided an alternative point of view on the past, present, and future of India (supplemented for several decades by a third view from the left, which has fallen away as a pan-Indian political force). In contradistinction to the Nehruvian point of view that Indian history is a kind of palimpsest requiring, in the age of the nation-state, a liberal order that privileges no religious allegiance and actively disables traditional caste and gender hierarchies, Hindu nationalism holds that Hinduism is the real unifying thread of the Indian past, and the Hindu way of life should continue to be the motor that stabilizes and drives the present. Hindu nationalism, like right-wing movements worldwide, deals in religious symbolism, the politics of identity, nostalgia for a prelapsarian order (its imagined ideal is “Ram Rajya,” or the rule of the mythical King Rama of the epic Ramayana), and minority-baiting. It ignores the major battles within modern Hinduism — the tension, for instance, between the traditional caste system and the egalitarian impulses of a modern democracy — and often reflexively labels Hindu reformers “anti-Hindu.”
This narrative was enough, in a Hindu-majority country, to make for a substantial force politically, but never enough to win it an actual political majority — until Modi came along. With his mixture of technocratic zeal, charisma, command over the tools of mass and social media, and ingenious (some would say disingenuous) focus on a political message that made no reference to the party’s majoritarian agenda of the past, he took Hindu nationalism over a bridge it had never managed to cross electorally. Modi’s victory over a supine Congress party in 2014 was, crucially, also a massive victory for him within his own party. No Hindu-nationalist leader had ever stood so high above his peers in the party, or enjoyed such popularity with the youth of the country.
What Modi could — and should — have done upon assuming power in 2014, was to use his extraordinary power and influence to reform not just the economy, but Hindu nationalism itself. Not only were the major themes of the movement almost 100 years old, they were rooted in a crisis — the breaking up of British India into the nation-states of India and Pakistan, the reaction of orthodox Hinduism to the arrival of political and social modernity — that needed to be rethought for the 21st century. And given the movement’s insistence on doctrinal stridency and continuous provocation, it could not be reformed from below, by a cadre or a brain trust, but only from above, by a powerful general showing that the responsibilities of power required a new sense of maturity and grace.
To prevent himself from being gradually undermined by his own side, Modi should have invested the spoils of victory in a new long-term normal for his party — and given the party’s influence in national debate, for India itself.
By setting new limits to what was politically acceptable in the Hindu nationalist movement, he would have, of course, unsettled millions of almost fanatical followers, but they would have had no choice but to follow him. In this way he would have separated them from their worst impulses. By taking a strong public stance on Muslim- and minority-baiting, he could have signaled that if Hindu nationalism actually wanted to win the respect it so desperately craved, it would have to be much more intellectually rigorous and morally generous. From here on, being rooted in the Hindu worldview would not rule out a healthy interest in and respect for the other religions and histories of the subcontinent.
Modi could have stressed the need, when he had the ears of both friend and foe, for Hindu nationalism to lead the task of modernizing a society that leans reflexively on tradition. In fact, he has done this to a small degree with his focus on the construction of toilets. India is the country where open defecation is the most widely practiced in the world. Hindu tradition in particular encourages open defecation to ensure ritual purity, and so there was a real courage and provocation to the party faithful in Modi’s call in 2014 for India to build “toilets before temples.” Had he explored this possibility further, he would have demonstrated that Hinduism is a continuously evolving entity, not a force that hit its high point 2,000 years ago, and therefore Hindu nationalism is one as well and needs to move on from the warlike formulations articulated by the often-splenetic thinkers of its early years. Lastly, by emphasizing that there is no special line between belonging to a religion and being Indian, Modi could have shown to young Indians today that it was time to leave behind the ghosts and resentments of the 20th century, and that Indianness was a natural right given equally to all who live in India. It would have been possible to attempt all this and yet remain a Hindu nationalist.
It fell to Modi to solve, or at least smooth out, a paradox: that an ideology that always insists on demonizing an “other” can by definition never, except by coercion, create a platform on which everybody can be something together. All this would have required genuine courage, rather than the bluster and bravado so characteristic of the Hindu nationalist movement in India.
Sadly, in Modi’s two years in charge, Hindu nationalism has only reverted to type, as it were, thereby adding duplicity to its long catalog of bad faith. Consider the evidence.
In the first winter of the Modi era, the head of the RSS — a longtime friend of Modi’s by the name of Mohan Bhagwat — declared that no matter their actual religious identity, all Indians were “culturally Hindu,” emboldening other right-wing organizations to undertake a campaign of “ghar wapsi,” or the reconversion of Hindus converted to Islam or Christianity in centuries past. For months, the prime minister, who only occasionally gives interviews and then only to the foreign press, had nothing to say on the matter. The controversy festered endlessly in the mainstream media and on social media, disrupting many more important debates — including the important one about toilets — and setting the tone for the Modi era.
This winter, the government set off a new frenzy of nationalist cross-fire when it slapped a sedition charge on Kanhaiya Kumar, a student leader in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Kumar was booked for his role in a demonstration protesting the execution of a man sentenced to death for a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, one at which slogans supporting the freedom movement in the state of Kashmir were allegedly chanted. For the government to charge one of its own citizens with sedition was not only politically unwise, it required a much stronger case than that provided by Kumar’s speech.
Instead, those supporting Kumar’s right to dissent, and pointing to a university as a space where no point of view was sacred, were accused by politicians and intellectuals of the new establishment of being “anti-national,” a word that has by degrees come to be applied to any criticism of the present government.
These are only two examples of many bizarre clashes and conflicts in Modi’s India — ugly not only in themselves, but in their fallout in an age of instantaneous information around the rest of the country. When, for instance, a Muslim man was lynched by a mob late last year on the suspicion that he was in possession of beef, India’s minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, gave an interview in which he called the murder an “accident” and spoke of the “shock to the Hindu soul” when it heard rumors of cow slaughter. As Sharma’s obtuse remarks very precisely prove, there is in fact something frightening about the ruling party’s arrogance and siege mentality. Hindu nationalism manages simultaneously to exhibit a persecution complex and a prosecution complex.
The prime minister has done nothing to stanch this coarsening of public discourse and breakdown of civility in India. When a number of prominent Indian writers, such as the great Hindi poet and intellectual Ashok Vajpeyi, returned their state awards to protest the creeping normalization of religious intolerance in India, the government, instead of engaging with their criticisms, called them “a manufactured protest.”
Modi rode to power on the back of a majority, but on his watch it has refashioned itself into a baying mob, resolutely opposed to religious and intellectual freedom. Allowed to take root, it could set India back many decades. (When released on bail, Kanhaiya Kumar’s remark, “We don’t want freedom from India, we want freedom in India,” struck a chord with many Indians who don’t otherwise share his politics).
When Modi arrives in America, then, he will be given a hero’s welcome, as in the past, by hundreds of thousands of Indian-Americans. They will likely have no sense of the irony of their position: They are at liberty to be both Indian and American, while millions back home must win a “tested OK” sticker from the present regime before they are allowed to call themselves Indian.
All this explains why Modi will this week enjoy greatly his chance for a last tête-à-tête and photo-op with Obama. India’s disingenuous democrat knows full well that he won’t be able to squeeze the same symbolic meanings or endorsements out of a summit with, say, Donald Trump.