Will Modi Drive India Away from Democracy?

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If he wins reelection, it could move the country further from its founding principles.

You got some bad dudes coming in,” Donald Trump told the West Virginia crowd. It was the end of September, and the president was trying to rally his base before the midterms. Democrats, Trump warned, wanted open borders. They wanted sanctuary cities that “unleash violent predators” and leave “innocent Americans at the mercy of really ruthless animals.”

Several days before—and thousands of miles away—the president of India’s governing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) delivered a similar address. “There are illegal infiltrators in Delhi,” Amit Shah said. “Like termites, they have eaten the future of the country. Shouldn’t they be uprooted?” The audience cheered, and Shah pointed his right arm toward the crowd. He accused the BJP’s rivals of being too cowardly to deal with undocumented immigrants, a people who “enter here, throw bombs, and kill innocent citizens.”

Indian politics can seem impossible to follow. There are more than thirty-five parties with seats in the country’s national parliament, many specific to particular linguistic communities. Together, they serve nearly 900 millionregistered voters, an electorate more than four times the size of America’s and close to twice as large as the population of the entire European Union.

But as the country conducts its seventeenth general elections, there’s a lot that Westerners will recognize. The country’s current leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a right-wing nationalist who, experts say, has made India a less tolerant place for minorities. Religious hate crimes have increased more than fivefold since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014. Most of the perpetrators are part of the country’s vast Hindu majority. Most of the victims belong to the country’s population of 190 million Muslims.

“The BJP has always been known for its Hindu nationalism, which, more often than not, translates into anti-Muslim ideology on the ground,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a prominent Indian journalist, told me. When the party and its supporters speak about immigrants, “the whole idea is to whip up a kind of xenophobic, jingoistic sentiment, where the enemy is perceived to be the Muslim refugees who are reportedly taking over.”

This isn’t just through speeches. India has right-wing TV networks where anchors angrily berate liberals as unpatriotic. The country is experiencing its own fake news epidemic. And recently, activists and journalists reported that millions of Indian citizens may have been purged from the voter rolls. Most of those missing appear to be Muslims, low-caste Hindus, and women.

“India is several years further along down a path of vicious nationalism than we are,” said Audrey Truschke, a professor of Indian history at Rutgers University. “It’s a wakeup call to be more proactive.”

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an avowed progressive. “It is the duty and responsibility of the majority community, whether in the matter of language or religion, to pay particular attention to what the minority wants,” he declared in 1955. “The majority is strong enough to crush the minority, which might not be protected. Therefore, whenever such a question arises, I am always in favor of the minority.”

These beliefs were, by all accounts, genuine. They were also critical for Nehru’s project: creating a stable and democratic India. The country hosts dozens of languages. It is the birthplace of multiple religions and is home to hundreds of millions of people who practice non-native faiths. Nehru knew that keeping India free and whole required tolerance.

It’s therefore no surprise that he clashed with Hindu nationalists. After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru’s government temporarily banned a far-right group with which the assailant was associated, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Historians say the RSS was associated with the fascist organizations of interwar Europe. The group’s godfather, for example, visited Italy in 1931, where he met Benito Mussolini and toured the National Fascist Party’s military schools and educational institutes. He was impressed. “The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people,” he wrote. “India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus.” The RSS, he continued, “is of this kind.”

For decades, the RSS’s direct political impact was limited, kept in check by the electoral hegemony of the Indian National Congress—Gandhi and Nehru’s political party. Instead, the group operated in the background, with a particular focus on teaching kids its Hindu nationalist ideology. “To mold the minds of our youth towards that end is the supreme aim of the Sang,” wrote Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the group’s first leader.

Narendra Modi was one of those youths. Born into a poor family in the westernmost part of the country, Modi first joined the RSS when he was eight. During his early twenties, he led the party’s regional student wing. By age 31, he was one of the group’s principle leaders in his home state. At the end of the millennium, he was the national secretary of the RSS’s political wing. In 2001, the BJP tapped Modi to serve as chief minister (akin to a U.S. governor) of the state of Gujarat, where the party had a parliamentary majority. It’s a position he would hold for the next twelve-and-a-half years.

As Modi tells it, he led Gujarat through a period of great investment and development. The state’s economy did in fact grow steadily under Modi, although economists say that may have more to do with its coastal location and history of trade than with the chief minister’s policies.

But Modi’s tenure was also defined by disturbing communal violence. In 2002, fifty-seven people were killed when a train coach carrying Hindu nationalists was set ablaze inside a Muslim neighborhood. How the fire began is a subject of intense dispute. What happened next is not: Hindus across the state rioted. They forced children to drink kerosene, stabbed people to death, and electrocuted entire families. Ahsan Jafri, a Muslim member of parliament, was dragged out of his house, covered with wax, and burned alive. All in all, the rioting killed as many as 2,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Muslims (hundreds of Hindus died as well). More than 500 Islamic religious sites were either damaged or destroyed.

Indian politicians continue to argue over Modi’s involvement with the pogrom. But at a minimum, it’s clear he did little to intervene. Legislators from his party helped lead attackers to their targets. A senior minister in Modi’s cabinet told an investigatory tribunal that, in the aftermath of the train coach fire, Modi instructed police officials not to stand in the way of Hindu vengeance. That minister was later shot dead in his car.

In Gujarat’s December 2002 elections, less than a year after the riots, the BJP increased its state parliamentary majority. The party performed best in districts most affected by the violence. It performed worst in the areas least touched. During the campaign, BJP advertisements featured images of the train coach that was lit on fire.

Modi has denied any wrongdoing, and an investigatory team appointed by the Supreme Court decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute him. But the violence rocked the world. In 2005, George W. Bush’s State Department refused to let Modi enter the United States, citing his “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

When Modi was tapped to lead the BJP into the 2014 general election, he made little mention of the riots. Instead, he campaigned as a pro-business politician committed to fighting corruption, liberalizing the economy, and pairing down India’s bloated state.

The message clicked, and Modi won in a landslide. The BJP became the first party in thirty years to win an outright majority in India’s factitious 545-member parliament. The incumbent Congress Party, the storied institution of Nehru and Gandhi, won just forty-four seats.

Modi was now welcomed into the international community. Barack Obama called almost immediately after the elections to congratulate the new prime minister. In September 2014, nine years after he was denied a visa, Modi traveled to the United States to meet with Obama, address the United Nations General Assembly, and hold a rally for 19,000 adoring fans in Madison Square Garden.

Swadesh Singh, a political scientist at Delhi University, told me Modi has lived up to the hype: “Prime Minister Modi has started and provided an ecosystem for entrepreneurship.” As evidence, he cited the array of programs the BJP has launched to streamline and digitize India’s economy. One prominent scheme is bringing banking services to rural areas. Another, called Digital India, will expand high-speed internet and make government services available online.

But many of these programs draw on, or are rebrands of, policies created by Modi’s predecessors. “The positive policies draw on Congress legacies,” said Sunil Khilnani, the director of the India Institute at King’s College London. Much of what’s now in Digital India, for instance, began under the previous government. And Modi’s first signature achievement—streamlining the country’s tax code—was initially proposed by the Congress. India’s GDP growth under the BJP government, while strong, is roughly in line with what it was before.

What’s more, it’s increasingly unclear if the public can even trust the Modi government’s economic figures. In January, one state agency estimated that India’s unemployment rate from 2017 to 2018 was 6.1 percent—a 45-year high. But the government refused to release this data, prompting two of the agency’s officials to leak their findings to the press. The other government department traditionally responsible for employment data, the Labor Bureau, abruptly stopped releasing it in 2016. But outside estimates suggest that unemployment is rising. India’s economy simply isn’t growing fast enough to accommodate its increasing population.

“We’ve had five years of BJP rule in India, and we’ve seen what it means. It does not mean greater economic growth,” Truschke said. “What we have seen is a significant uptick, really a surge, in violence against religious minorities.”

In April 2017, Pehlu Khan was driving home in his pickup truck with cows he had purchased in a city nearby. Khan was a Muslim dairy farmer. According to his family, he had bought the animals in hopes of upping his milk production. 

But while driving through the state of Rajasthan, Khan was stopped in the street by a mob. They dragged Khan out of the vehicle and beat him, slamming him into the pavement. Khan had to be hospitalized. Two days later, he died.

The attackers filmed the incident, and it spread across the internet like wildfire. Civil rights groups protested the murder, but Rajasthan’s BJP-led government mostly blamed Khan. “People know cow trafficking is illegal, but they do it,” the state’s home minister said. “Cow worshippers try to stop them. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a crime to take the law in their [own] hands.”

Khan is just one of the many people who have been maimed or killed by “cow vigilantes” since Modi took office. Almost all of the victims of these lynchings are Muslims or low-caste Hindus (the mammals are considered sacred by many Hindus, particularly those of higher castes).

India’s cattle laws are almost entirely decided by the states, but the BJP has long made protecting cows one of its aims. Modi has rarely commented on the country’s cow-related violence. Not until several months after Khan’s murder, and after at least three more people were similarly killed, did Modi speak out. “Violence is not a solution to the problems,” he said.

One year later, Modi introduced a nationwide ban on selling cattle for slaughter. But the country’s supreme court, which in July 2018 warned the country was descending into “mobocracy,” blocked the ban from taking effect. The petitioners argued that the law would needlessly undermine industries that employ many Muslims and low-caste Hindus. The chief justice agreed. “The livelihood of people should not be affected by this,” he wrote.

Singh, who helps lead a pro-Modi activist group, argued that these incidents unfairly skew Modi’s record on religious tolerance. “The last big communal violence took place in 2013,” before Modi took office, he said. “Small incidents are a law-and-order problem, which should be tackled by the state governments, because law and order is a state subject.”

But under Modi’s reign, the BJP has become similarly dominant at the state level, giving the prime minister considerable sway over regional politics. The man he picked to lead Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, is a Hindu priest who has been accused of weaponizing the police force against Muslims. Reporting suggests that the state has seen an explosion in orchestrated shootouts against Muslims. It’s a charge the chief minister hasn’t exactly denied. “In 1,200 encounters, more than 40 criminals have been killed,” he said in one speech. “This trend will not stop.”

Journalists say it’s becoming more difficult to cover the violence. “There’s a relatively small section of the media that’s really criticizing the government and holding truth to power,” Guha Thakurta told me. Many newspapers, he explained, are dependent on the government for advertising revenue. One of India’s largest newspapers allegedly sacked its editor-in-chief under pressure from the BJP. That editor had placed a “Hate Tracker” on the newspaper website, which catalogued the country’s hate crimes. After he left, the feature was taken down.

Unlike with the U.S., India’s elections are a multi-week affair. Indians began voting on April 11 and will stop on May 19. The results won’t be announced until May 23.

The country’s polling is famously unreliable. As a result, predicting the outcome is hard. Still, most everyone I spoke with regarded Modi as the favorite. His charisma and majoritarian nationalism form a potent cocktail, and his main opponent is weak. The head of the Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma), was the party’s prime ministerial candidate during its disastrous 2014 contest. He is the great-grandson of Nehru and, if he won, would become the third Nehru descendant to lead India. That doesn’t work in his favor. As Singh put it, a vote for the BJP is a vote for “an aspirational India where there is no dynasty.”

But Modi is more vulnerable than he once was. The high unemployment rate has dented his popularity. Farmers, who voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2014, have been protesting against the government over their decreasing profits and rising costs. Modi’s party has performed poorly in recent state elections, losing three state legislatures to the Congress during December 2018. They were a stark reminder that most Indian prime ministers haven’t served two full two terms.

“It looks pretty unlikely that [BJP] would come back with a clear single party majority,” Khilnani told me. “The expectation is that they’ll come back having to form some sort of coalition government.”

In its final days, the BJP campaign has intensified its focus on religious identity. It has tried to tie the Congress Party to Pakistan, its Muslim-majority neighbor and geopolitical competitor. It has claimed that other competing parties are treating illegal immigrants as a “vote bank.” And on April 11, the BJP promised to take one state’s controversial citizens register—designed to track down “infiltrators”—and expand it to the rest of the nation. “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs,” Shah declared at a rally, leaving out Christians and Muslims.

Singh was sanguine about his party’s fortunes. “We are going to win this election with a thumping majority on May 23, and we are going to fulfill the aspirations of common Indians.” Their victory, he said, would transform the country. “This is not just a battle of votes. This is a battle of ideas and narratives.”

On that last point, Modi’s supporters and critics agree. “This is not really a routine moment in Indian democracy,” Khilnani told me. He’s worried that continued BJP rule will undermine Nehru’s vision of an India that is tolerant, stable, and free. “In the Indian constitution, being Indian was not defined by any particular bloodline or religion or language or ethnicity. And the BJP have been trying to change that,” he said. “Five more years of the current government and India may really start to look like quite a different place.”