There was a time in early 2014 when Western media was greatly preoccupied by the rise of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, Narendra Modi. Many column inches were spent worrying about the implications of a newly ascendant Hindu nationalism, and telling the world about the darkest moments of Modi’s time as Chief Minister in Gujarat. But since the BJP won (as expected) an electoral landslide in May of that year, Indian politics has largely slipped off the radar again.
If we were expecting the worst – a repeat of the large-scale anti-Muslim violence that wracked Gujarat in 2002, with Modi complicit at the very least through complicity – then the lack of attention is perfectly justified.
But the more likely scenario was always a more subtle and pervasive extension of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology throughout Indian life. The BJP’s rapid political growth since the early 1990s has centred on an awkward coalition of traditionalist Hindu organisations and a growing, globally-oriented upper-middle class. The glue that keeps these elements together is a vision to remake India as a strong, muscular nation, with a powerful economy and military built on the power of cultural unity.
This ambition manifests itself in three policy agendas: a pursuit of rapid, disruptive economic modernisation, military and political escalation against Pakistan, and the depiction of Hinduism as essential to Indian identity. As Modi’s government draws to the end of its third year in office, all three have been proceeding apace.
On the economic front, the government has finally succeeded in pushing through a national Goods and Services Tax, meant to come into force in April and replace a range of state and federal sales taxes. No doubt a sensible reform, it was heralded by Modi as putting an end to ‘tax terrorism’. The same kind of overheated rhetoric has surrounded the even more controversial ‘demonetisation’ policy, Modi’s bolt-from-the-blue announcement that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender. The chaotically implemented move appears to be aimed at jolting Indians to keep more money in banks and use electronic payments rather than cash, in order to modernise the country’s economy by increasing financialisation. But government figures have defended the policy – and the immense pain it’s inflicted, particularly on the poor and those in rural areas – as part of a national campaign against corrupt, ‘anti-national’ elements. Demonetisation is increasingly referred to as ‘note bandhi’, recalling the similarly disruptive (though much more violent) ‘nas bandhi’ policy of forced sterilisation implemented in the 1970s. In the week after announcing demonetisation, Modi gave a speech darkly commenting that “the forces up against me … may not let me live”. Nobody knows quite what he was referring to – certainly there hasn’t been any attempt on his life – but the language fits perfectly into what is, across the world, a common nationalist theme: that the country needs to be restored to its past glory by a period of shared sacrifice to fight a common enemy.
The most obvious enemy for Hindutva, of course, is Muslim Pakistan. The BJP is yet to follow through on its election promise to review India’s no-first-use nuclear policy, aimed at deterring Pakistan fromsparking a conventional conflict. But there has been escalation by other means. After a September terrorist attack along the de facto border in Kashmir, the PM gave a speech in which he claimed to be ‘reaching out’ to Pakistani citizens. In reality, Modi’s words – “Pakistan, ask your leaders that both the nations became independent at the same time, but why is that India exports software while Pakistan exports terrorism?” – were aimed at the old Hindu nationalist goal of portraying Pakistan as a constant menace to Indian security, to unite Indians against it. A few days later, the Indian Army launched a military operation inside the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir, widely feted as a ‘surgical strike’ by BJP politicians. Firing across the border has occurred at an increased rate ever since; in the aftermath the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association has banned Pakistanis from working in Bollywood and a number of sporting associations have cut off bilateral ties.
And demonising Pakistan as an object of national anger is a short step from the continuing Hinduisation of Indian life. When Modi announced a crackdown on irregular migration from Pakistan and Bangladesh, he made an exception: Hindu and Buddhist migrants would be allowed to stay, but not others – that is, Muslims – who he accused of having ‘political purposes’, leaving implicit what those nefarious purposes might be. By and large, the government itself has been cautious around religious issues, but the broader family of Hindu nationalist organisations – the Sangh parivar, of which the BJP is one part – has stepped up its activity. The Bajrang Dal, a youth Hindu organisation, has engaged in vigilantism to enforce a ban on cow slaughter. The RSS and VHP have organised a series of mass conversions to Hinduism, often under a cloud of coercion when people were brought to ceremonies on the pretence of signing up to receive government benefits. Revealingly, the campaign is titled ‘Ghar Wapsi’ – Hindi for “homecoming”, reflecting nationalists’ view that all Indians are Hindu by rights and that conversion to Hinduism isn’t conversion at all, just a return to your origins. Modi himself maintains silence on most of these issues, but a number of other BJP politicians have been enthusiastic supporters of ‘reconversion’ and bans on cow slaughter. The Hindutva goal of fusing Hindu religiosity with India’s national identity has not been so far advanced since the demolition of a major mosque in 1992.
Nationalist victory, that is to say, has not plunged India into theocratic authoritarianism. But it has caused a steady advance of a militarised, aggressive idea of Indian nationhood and the increasing marginalisation of those outside the religious majority. It may be a worrying sign for the rest of the world 2017 that the West’s fear of the worst can seemingly blind us to a less extreme but still deeply troubling reality.