Will Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi Be Prime Minister of All Indians?

For years India has disappointed expectations.  Tagged as the next great power preparing to challenge China and eventually America, India instead has lagged economically, stagnated politically, and battled religiously.

Now Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won a stunning political victory.  India’s future depends on Modi’s ability to transcend his sectarian roots and govern on behalf of all Indians.

Throughout the Cold War the Delhi government kept its people poor by mismanaging the economy.  Politics was dominated by the dynastic India National Congress Party.  Eventually the Congress Party began economic reforms and the BJP broke the Congress political monopoly.

India is a secular republic in which freedom of religion is formally protected.  However, legislation authorizes government interference in the name of preventing conduct “promoting enmity,” undermining “harmony,” and more.  Moreover, 7 of 28 states have passed anti-conversion laws, which target proselytizing.  Of particular concern is the government’s inability or unwillingness to combat religious violence and prosecute those responsible.

Much violence occurs between the two largest groups, Hindus and Muslims, but other religious minorities also are targeted.  In 2007 and 2008 in the state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) rioting Hindus murdered scores of Christians, forced thousands to flee, and destroyed many homes and churches.

Unfortunately, India’s presumptive prime minister, Narentra Modi, was implicated in one of the country’s worst episodes of sectarian violence.  In 2002 in the state of Gujarat, in which Modi served as chief minister, Hindu rioters killed more than 1200 people, mostly Muslims, and forced 150,000 people from their homes.  Critics charged Modi with both encouraging the violence and failing to stop it.  He defends his conduct, saying he only wishes he had handled the media better.

However, Modi has ridden a sectarian tide to power.  He graduated to the BJP from the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Society”), which he joined young.  He denounced Muslims early in his career and received strong backing from the RSS.

The good news in Modi’s victory is that he was elected to reform the faltering economy, not stoke the fires of religious hatred.  Gujarat has prospered and the BJP is committed to relaxing India’s often stultifying government regulations.  The quickest way for the new government to discourage foreign investment would be to trigger more sectarian violence.

Relations with the U.S. will be a key issue.  The Bush administration formally acknowledged Delhi’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, improving bilateral ties.  Since then, however, relations have stagnated.

Modi’s election poses another challenge.  In 2005 the State Department refused to issue him a visa because of his presumed role in the Gujarat violence.

But the U.S. ambassador to India met with him in February.  President Barack Obama congratulated Modi after the latter’s victory and extended an invitation to visit America.  No doubt the visa ban will be quietly forgotten.

As I point out in my new Forbes online column:  “The responsibility to reconcile is not Washington’s alone.  Set to become perhaps the most powerful Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi three decades ago, he should attempt to set foreign governments and, even more important, his own citizens at ease.”

After the election results were announced, he said that “The age of divisive politics has ended, from today onwards the politics of uniting people will begin.”  It was a good beginning, but he needs to clearly communicate that he will be prime minister of all and his government will not tolerate violence or discrimination against religious minorities.

Modi has a historic opportunity.  His government will be the first in years to enjoy a solid majority in the Lok Sabha, or lower house.  The people he will represent are both entrepreneurial and impatient, demanding the chance to better their lives.  The Indian people need more opportunity, not more dependency.

The choice soon will be up to Narendra Modi.  Much around the globe depends on what he decides.