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.
India achieved political independence in 1947, when the British colony was divided into largely Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan. Twelve million people abandoned their homes and hundreds of thousands of them died in the process. Nevertheless, many religious minorities remained behind. For instance, India’s Muslim population runs roughly 177 million, the 3rd largest on earth — behind only Indonesia and Pakistan.
Throughout the Cold War the Delhi government kept its people poor by mismanaging the economy. Indian officials followed Stalinist economic nostrums to develop and depended on foreign aid to make ends meet. Politics was dominated by the dynastic India National Congress Party, which treated the system as the property of the Nehru‐Gandhi family. Eventually change came to India: 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,” intending to “outrage religious feelings,” insult “religious beliefs,” and more. In these cases, noted the State Department’s report on religious liberty, Delhi restricts “minorities’ freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.” 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. Explained the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Despite the country’s status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, India has struggled to protect minority communities or provide justice when crimes occur due to a lack of political will, political corruption, and religious bias by government officials. This exacerbates the climate of impunity that already exists in the country.”
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. Mobs even torched a Christian orphanage, killing a 21‐year‐old Hindu teacher. The pogram was long in the making. In 2007 Human Rights Watch reported: “For several years, extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti‐Christian campaign that has grown violent at times, while government officials have looked the other way.”
Earlier this year Hindu radicals attacked a house church in the southern province of Karnataka — police then arrested the minister and several church members for allegedly coercing conversions. A report from the Mumbai‐based Catholic‐Secular Forum and several Christian organizations estimated that roughly 4000 Christians were targeted by acts of violence last year, most committed by Hindu extremists.
Unfortunately, India’s presumptive prime minister, Narendra 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. Eventually the Indian military and national police restored order. Critics charged Modi with both encouraging the violence and failing to stop it. Investigations and court cases went on for years.
Several cabinet ministers were found to be involved, but specific evidence of Modi’s culpability was lacking — or perhaps destroyed. So Modi was absolved of responsibility, though prosecutors may not have looked very hard. He defends his conduct, saying he only wishes he had handled the media better.
In any case, 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 was involved in activities leading to communal violence in 1992 when a massive Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya. He refused to condemn riots last year in the state of Uttar Pradesh primarily directed against Muslims. This year he received strong backing from the RSS and ran for a second parliamentary seat from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which is seen as a center of Hinduism. A number of his closest associates are pronounced Hindu nationalists.
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 — with 5 percent of India’s population it accounts for 16 percent of industrial output and 22 percent of exports — 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. Doing so also could be politically costly: Indian voters just demonstrated their impatience for results by slashing the Congress Party’s representation in parliament by roughly three‐quarters.
Relations with the U.S. will be a key issue. The Bush administration took a dramatic leap by formally acknowledging Delhi’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Doing so significantly improved bilateral ties. Since then, however, relations have stagnated, and recently suffered from trade disputes and criminal allegations against an Indian diplomat in New York.
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. James North of the blog Mondoweiss argued that resolute American opposition to Modi before the latest vote could have forced Indians to choose another prime minister. In fact, such a public stance almost certainly would have increased his support. Even Indians who don’t like Modi would not allow Washington to determine who ran their government.
Instead, the Obama administration has begun a diplomatic dance with Modi. The U.S. ambassador to India met with him in February in a visit presented as normal outreach to Indian political figures, signaling recognition that he was likely to triumph in the upcoming election. 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.
And none too soon, since Beijing also has formally welcomed Modi’s victory. While Washington has nothing for which to apologize — whatever Modi’s exact conduct in 2002, he has contributed to sectarian hatred — the U.S. cannot ignore the incoming head of the government of one of the world’s most important nations. Indeed, the U.S. long has dealt with far worse political leaders. And Washington’s embrace doesn’t mean Modi will have smooth sailing. Some Indian‐Americans blame Modi for the Gujarat violence and helped establish the Coalition Against Genocide, which has threatened to file suit against him should he visit.
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 with many activists in both the RSS and BJP promoting Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” 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. Then he must live up to that promise. Political commentator Neerja Chowdhury argued: “Many people in India and around the world will be watching whether he reaches out to minorities in the coming days.” Doing so would enable Delhi to don the moral mantle of the world’s largest democracy, despite past communal strife.
Modi has a historic opportunity. His party carried both rural and urban areas, as well as younger voters, who now predominate in the electorate. 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.
However, he must get economic reform right. Although pro‐business, he has not always been pro‐market. Kleptocratic or crony corporatism may buy votes and reward friends, but it does not grow economies and increase wealth. 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.