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Held back by Hindutva

Resurgent anti-modernism could derail development and India’s global ambitions.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: December 23, 2014 12:05 am
It is easy to forget that domestic stability holds the key to a successful foreign policy. It is easy to forget that domestic stability holds the key to a successful foreign policy.

In his frequent travels across the world over the last few months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has continually affirmed that India can re-emerge as the “Vishwaguru”. Modi’s global dream for India, however, is at odds with the deeply divisive religious agenda and the anti-modernism that have been unleashed by the RSS and its affiliates.

That India, as one of the world’s oldest and continuing civilisations, may have much to teach the world is not a new proposition. Different schools of Indian nationalism, including those which focused on India’s past and others which understood modern India’s future potential, believed that an Indian leadership role on the world stage was inevitable. Even those who were deeply suspicious of nationalist passions, both religious and secular, were convinced that India’s spiritual civilisation had much relevance for the contemporary world.

India’s higher economic growth rates in the reform era and the steady expansion of its relative weight in the international system have lent new credibility to the notion of an Indian international leadership. The example of China has been difficult to miss. After three decades of rapid growth, China is now the second-largest economy in the world and its aggregate GDP will soon be larger than that of the United States. Beijing is also the world’s largest defence spender after America.

The dramatic expansion of China’s comprehensive national power has allowed Beijing to now begin reshaping the Asian and global orders. A similar prospect awaits India if it continues to modernise and grow its economy at a reasonable clip. Much of the international enthusiasm for Modi, like that for his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, in the middle of the last decade, was based precisely on that expectation.

Faster growth rates of the last decade triggered international calls on India to become a responsible global power and a “net security provider”. Yet Delhi has been hesitant to accept a leadership role. Many in Delhi interpreted these calls as a pressure point rather than the recognition of India’s expanding weight in the world. Modi, in contrast, is discarding this defensiveness and embracing the prospect of a leadership role. Whether Delhi actively pursues such a role or not, India’s democracy, which thrives amid extraordinary diversity, religious, ethnic and linguistic, is a source of quiet optimism in a world that is being torn apart by multiple tensions.

Modi’s hopes for India as “Vishwaguru” are inspired by Vivekananda. The swami spoke of the contributions that India’s rich vedantic heritage could make in addressing the spiritual challenges of the contemporary world. Modi, of course, is stretching the idea a bit when he speaks of how India’s democracy and demography can be deployed in the service of the world today.

Modi also believes the diaspora that has spread around the world and has impressive resources, intellectual and financial, can help realise India’s potential as “Vishwaguru”. He reminded his audiences in Sydney that Vivekananda had urged his countrymen to forget their gods and goddesses for 50 years and worship only “Mother India”.

His suggestion that development might be more important than religion is obviously not shared by the extremist outfits of the Sangh Parivar, which have lost no time in pushing their polarising politics on the nation. Modi is surely aware that the growing assertiveness of the Hindu right will complicate the development agenda that was at the heart of his successful election campaign. At equal risk is the BJP’s promise — “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” — to put development for all above the sectarian Hindu agenda.

Given his own experience in Gujarat and the political consequences of the 2002 riots, Modi has every reason not to let religious controversies overwhelm his prime ministerial tenure. In his maiden Independence Day speech this August, Modi declared that casteism, communalism and regionalism were obstacles to development and called for a 10-year moratorium on divisive issues.

The last few weeks have shown that the RSS and Hindu-right outfits are not ready to heed Modi’s appeals to avoid derailing his government’s development agenda. Modi should also be aware that the new Hindutva agenda at home will also seriously complicate India’s external relations, a domain in which Modi has surprised everyone with his passion and effectiveness.

It is easy to forget that domestic stability holds the key to a successful foreign policy. A nation that is at war with itself will inevitably be diminished on the world stage. When a nation turns faith into a contentious question, it invites intervention from religious extremists from around the world. It will also draw into the debate secular forces around the world that want freedom of faith and a separation of religion and state in India.

The new push for a Hindu rashtra, then, is bound to generate many costs for Indian diplomacy. Just when Modi appears to have succeeded in reducing the fears of the neighbours and the world about India’s internal orientation under the BJP, the RSS and the Hindu right seem determined to revive them. Equally problematic for India is the resurgent anti-modernism of the Sangh Parivar. Its leaders, including the prime minister, have made extravagant claims, ranging from the proposition that astrology is superior to science to the suggestion that Vedic India conducted nuclear tests.

While asking his countrymen to take pride in their rich cultural inheritance and appreciate its relevance to the modern world, Vivekananda had also insisted that India must sit at the feet of the West to learn about improving the nation’s material condition. India, then, must strive to be a good teacher and a better student. It must invest in the serious study of its ancient heritage and master modern knowledge. But if Hindu extremism prevails, India will have little to give the world and be in no mood to learn. Unless he acts now to check these negative forces, Modi and the agenda for India could end up being a minor part of the vast collateral damage.

The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’


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More From C. Raja Mohan
  1. G
    Jan 8, 2015 at 7:19 am
    Completely agree. If Mr. Modi is not careful a golden opportunity will be lost to take the country to new heights. At this point the Congress Party may not have to do anything and let the BJP and the Sangh Parivar implode with their narrow minded agenda. Great hopes and expectations of the BJP will be shattered.
    1. A
      Dec 23, 2014 at 9:02 am
      When will this anti Hindu Jingoism stop! More like kitchen gossip than clear analysis of any issues.
      1. M
        Dec 23, 2014 at 7:53 am
        All the slogans by Modiji is jeopardized(silenced) by Hinutuwa right groups, so those educated Hindus all over the India will realize this is a political gimmick only ..Those educated right wing hindutuwa agenda group will support and they will publish this to canv millions of poor and uneducated Hindus all over the India , that is the secret of RSS/BJP/VHP. Like UPA , BJP is following same game behind billionaires only..ALL THESE ARE FORGETTING MILLIONS STARVING AFTER AFRICA IS INDIA ..THEY ARE PLAYING GHAR VAPSSE GAME
        1. N
          nishit sahay
          Dec 23, 2014 at 5:44 am
          Conversion was legalized by Nehru.. Millions have been converted to Christianity.. If they were dealing with India in the past, they should be doing it in future.
          1. M
            Dec 23, 2014 at 4:26 pm
            Mr. Raj Mohan, I really salute you. We need people like you who is dare to write against religious fundamentalists. We are lacking that courage to fight against these illiterate fundamentalists.I was born and raised in a Hindu aristocratic family.That doesn`t mean I don`t have to mingle with other people belonging to another communities.That is lack of knowledge. All my friends are Christians, Muslims , and Hindus. I really enjoy being with them. I have seen lot of articles about conversion " bringing back to Hinduism". No Hindus say a single word against this topic. I think it is the same way like no muslims say a single word against Muslim militancy. I am not seeing any difference between muslim and hindu (SANGHAPARIWAR) militancy. They both killing innocent people. So there is no difference. Religion is for the sake of the people not for ruining the people.God doesn`t need any ones help to protect himself. He doesn`t need any human help. We are living in 21st century not in 17th century. We should act like that. Otherwise we are going to be very far behind.We should think forward.Think about it .our people are all around the world.I s it because of our hinduitsm. No.No! My cousin Dr. Murthy is the surgeon general of the entire US. If they were narrow minded like us he wouldn`t be in that position US you can worship any god. No restriction but inside your four walls.I am thinking about a quote of swami Vivekanandas "metamorphor in the well". It is exactly the same way these people are doing.Think about the people which is living in poverty.Lot of them are hindus . For being a hindu are you providing food and shelter to them? Are these leaders who are crying for hinduism willing to give their daughters to marry the poor caste hindu man?. It definitely shows that I want others to practice but not me. Is it fair? for being a hindu am i getting anything in my life.We have lot of things to fight like poverty, unemployment, diseases, cleanliness etc.we should fight against all those things which i mentioned above.we should be a model to our future generations.Please read and understand what is hinduism. Because of the good values of hinduism we accepted all other religions. We should keep up those and work for the prosperity of our country. India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country. jaihind
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