In India, the problem is deeper than individuals or parties. A purist majoritarian nationalism is increasingly gaining ground among the Hindu majority
It has been almost a year since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made good on his election promise of doing away with Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution that dealt with the special status of Kashmir and barred non-Kashmiris from purchasing properties in the occupied territory, respectively. Since then, he has also led some other divisive undertakings, such as the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Is Modi doing this because he has risen through the ranks of the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and is thoroughly biased against the Muslims of his country? Or, could there be a political point in pursuing the Hindu nationalist agenda? In other words, instead of asking questions about the person, let us question the sociopolitical underpinnings of democracy in India that has catapulted divisive leaders like him to the zenith of power.
The BJP had increased the number of its members in the State Assembly of Gujarat from 11 to 67 from 1985 to 1990, it formed the government in the state for the first time by almost doubling its tally to 121 in 1995. At the same time, its share in the total votes cast in the State Assembly elections rose dramatically from 26.7 percent to 42.5 percent. This enormous victory came on the heels of the party’s role in the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. The BJP was in power in Uttar Pradesh at the time, the state where the mosque was located.
When anti-Muslim riots erupted in Gujarat in February 2002, Modi was the chief minister (CM) of the state. He was widely blamed and condemned in the national and international media for being a silent spectator, if not outright complicit, in the riots.
Owing to the controversy surrounding him in connection with the riots, Modi dissolved the State Assembly months before the expiry of its term and called for fresh election in December. Notwithstanding all the media reporting about his negative role as the CM, Modi’s BJP won a record 127 seats in the State Assembly and bagged 49.9 percent of the total votes cast. While the number of seats won by the party in the Assembly slightly wavered over the next few elections, its share of the votes has remained secure at around the 50 percent mark since then.
When the same Modi, his reputation tarnished by communalism, came to the Centre as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, the story was no different. He raised the BJP’s share in the total votes cast from 18.8 percent in 2009 to 31.3 percent in 2014 and 37.4 in 2019. At the same time, he managed to reduce the share of the Congress in the total votes cast from 28.6 percent in 2009 to 19.5 percent in both 2014 and 2019 elections.
This not only explains Modi’s rise on the Indian political scene but also determines the direction of his politics. If populist majoritarian nationalism hinging on hatemongering against minority communities is winning him elections, he and his party would be taking a political gamble by changing course. So, when his party whisks the CAA past the parliament despite protests or the BJP leaders openly support construction of the Ram Temple, Modi and his party are merely yielding to the aspirations of a large segment of the majority Hindu community of India.
Therefore, the problem in India is deeper than one person’s or one party’s political eccentricities. The problem seems to be that the purist majoritarian nationalism is increasingly gaining ground among the majority Hindu community. It is naturally driving a communal wedge between the majority and the minorities by creating outgroups that do not fall within this brand of majoritarian nationalism.
In case of India, such outgroups do not consist of small populations. The minority Muslim population of India that is being alienated through such an approach constituted 14.2 percent of the total population of India in 2011. Even if it is thinly spread, unlike other religious minorities like Sikhs who are concentrated in a couple of states, it still is around 200 million.
Such purist nationalism was driven in a somewhat similar fashion during the regime of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. The country hasn’t come to grips with its divisive implications to this day. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former union minister of India, once said in a seminar in Islamabad in 2004 that Islam had united Pakistan but Islamization had divided it. His quote has stayed with me and might contain some food for thought for the Indian political forces drifting on the wave of divisive politics.
Perhaps, after winning two terms, it is time for Prime Minister Modi to correct course and prevent the alienation of large segments of India’s minority populations. Alienation sows nothing but seeds of discord for several generations. It is time for the Indian prime minister to heal the wounds of the minorities and inject some sense into the heads of the majority. He can do it if he wants, for he has won their confidence over the years.
The writer is a research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad