The Hindu chauvinist face of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi

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by Hans Dembowski

Politics of fear in Uttar Pradesh

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, has two faces. Internationally, he likes to play the role of the reformer who intends to modernise India’s economy. Domestically, however, he also excels in the role of the Hindu chauvinist. This is the one he played first, and his choice for the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state with over 200 million people, proves that it matters to him very much.

Modi chose Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest and religious fanatic, to govern UP, one of India’s poorest states with a Muslim population of about 40 million. Adityanath is known for aggressive anti-Islamic rhetoric and even inciting violence. A youth organisation he started has repeatedly been involved in “communal violence”, as riots of religious fanatics are called in India. What Adityanath is not known for is economic competence.

Adityanath’s action in his first week in office confirms his reputation. He launched a crackdown against meat shops, which tend to be run by Muslims whom Hindu fanatics accuse of selling beef. He also told the police to ensure that young Muslim men do not flirt with young Hindu women. Adityanath has previously stated that Muslim boys are systematically seducing Hindu girls to conversion in what he called a “love jihad”.

Adityanath’s appointment was a surprise. Modi could have picked someone else. In the election campaign, his party, the BJP, had not nominated a candidate for the office of chief minister, emphasising Modi’s leadership at the national level instead. The BJP only won about 40 % of the vote – but that share sufficed to get 312 of 403 seats in the legislative assembly since BJP candidates were first placed in 312 constituencies. The party did not field a single Muslim candidate in the entire state.

Modi’s roots are in the RSS, a radical organisation that wants India to be a Hindu nation. It was started in the 1920 and was inspired by the Italy’s Fascists and Germany’s Nazis. The RSS has spawned many other organisations, including the BJP. The man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 was affiliated to the RSS, but apparently he acted on his own, so the RSS was not directly involved. Mahatma Gandhi was a devout Hindu who preached mutual respect among religions rather than Hindu supremacy.    

In the 1980s and early 1990, the RSS played a key role in the campaign to build a Hindu temple on the site of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, a city in eastern UP. The movement escalated, and in late 1992 fanatics destroyed the mosque. Riots erupted all over India. At least 2000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. In response, there were anti-Hindu riots in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Adityanath, by the way, is from eastern UP, and was involved in the Ayodhya agitation as a teenager. 

Before becoming prime minister, Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, another Indian state. On his watch, communal violence killed at least 1000 people. Riots escalated into a three day anti-Muslim pogrom, after Hindu pilgrims, who were returning from Ayodhya, died in a burning train. Fanatics blamed Muslims. As chief minister, it would have been Modi’s responsibility to stop the massacre.  According to India’s Supreme Court, however, he did not neglect his duties, but scholars argue – rather convincingly – that pogroms of this scale have to be orchestrated. There can be no doubt that Modi was ideologically close to the perpetrators of violence and it does not seem plausible that a BJP leader in charge of the state government would not have any influence on the RSS network, which is the dominant force in Hindu extremism.

Western observers – especially from the business world – like to see Modi as the liberal reformer who will introduce the reforms India’s economy badly needs. They have been becoming a bit less optimistic in the past year or so. The appointment of Adityanath should make them wake up.  

When I visited Kolkata a few weeks ago, I asked friends why Modi was so popular. They did not point out any reforms agenda, but said that many people appreciate that Modi appears to be “strong”. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was thought to be weak. At the end of his second five-year term, he was 81 years old. His government had clearly run out of steam, though it had actually been quite successful in its first term. In 2014, however, Modi won parliamentary elections in a landslide by projecting an image of strength and decisiveness.

While I was in Kolkata, there was a BJP rally in the city’s centre. I got a short impression, coincidentally passing by in a taxi. A man with an imposingly deep voice was speaking, and though my Bengali is really only very rudimentary, the message was simple enough for me to understand. The politician was warning attendees that disaster would strike should other parties form the government: “You will not eat, you will not have work.” It was a message of fear.

Authoritarian leaders like to spread fear, of course. The implication is that only they can protect people from suffering – and that they can make anyone who is not on their side suffer. At the same time, they claim the right to decide who belongs to the people and who does not, and they feel free to attack those they resent. The new chief minister of UP fits into this populist pattern, according to which projecting strength and spreading fear matter more than achieving substantial results.  

P.S.: Concerning the “love jihad”, I find it bit paranoid that an assertive Hindu priest should believe his own faith to be so unappealing that people from another faith can easily lure women away. Such worries do not result from self-confidence, they seem to be rooted in a nagging feeling of inferiority. Such feelings, of course, make people yearn for strength and revenge in a destructive vicious cycle.  

That the pride of populists is so easily hurt indicates that they are afraid of appearing weak, which is something truly strong persons would not feel. Many populists tick like that, including Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Muslim, and US President Donald Trump, nominally a Christian, but more known for anti-Muslim sentiments than deep religious feelings.

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