Modi’s ambivalence

As he strikes a new balance between secular nationalism and Hindu nationalism.

Narendra Modi. (source: PTI) Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (source: PTI)
Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: June 28, 2014 7:32 pm

Firm judgements about the Modi government can only come later, but can we begin to assess the early signs? Two arguments can be advanced, one tentatively, the other more surefootedly.

The first argument is that a transformative economic agenda seems to be in the offing. In his Parliament speech on June 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used novel policy language for poverty alleviation. Garib kisi ke tukdon per palne ki ichcha nahin karte; unko garibi se ladne ki kshamta chahiye (the poor don’t want crumbs from the table; they need the capabilities to fight poverty). And how will these capabilities be provided? Via shiksha, swachhta and haath ka hunar (education, sanitation and skill development), and by connecting these capability-enhanced individuals to markets. This is a remarkable formulation, but we must wait for the budget next month for resolute judgements.

The second argument is about an obdurate pattern that inevitably attends the rise of the BJP in power. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governments went through it, and Modi’s administration is beginning to experience it. This is the great, undying struggle between two conceptions of India: secular nationalist and Hindu nationalist. Deriving inspiration from the freedom movement, the Indian republic and Constitution are founded on the first conception. Practitioners of the second conception have always challenged that view. But once in power, the Hindu nationalists, despite their first impulse to act ideologically, find it hard to reverse the constitutional core. This creates contradictions that BJP-led governments somehow have to manage. Modi’s administration will be no exception, as the early trends show.

The core of Hindu nationalism is that the Hindus are the primary owners of the Indian nation, and the minorities must defer to Hindu primacy. Calling this Hindu majoritarianism, secular nationalists think it undermines democracy as well as nationhood. They would give equal place to all religious communities in the national family, and seek such equality through minority rights, an idea embraced by virtually all modern-day multiethnic democracies.

Sometimes, in India, this conception of nationhood is called a morbid Western fantasy of Nehru, imposed on the hapless Indian masses. It is often forgotten that Mahatma Gandhi, who could never be accused of harbouring an ideological lust for the West and was one with the masses, agreed with Nehru on nationhood, whatever their other differences. “If the Hindus believe”, wrote Gandhi, “that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen.”

Is the struggle between two different conceptions of India already beginning to emerge in Modi’s Delhi? Let me propose that the relationship between Modi and the RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism, is shot through with ambivalence. Many foot soldiers of Modi’s campaign came from the RSS, but with a few exceptions, his campaign avoided Hindu nationalist themes. Modi has repeatedly called India’s Constitution “the …continued »

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