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PM Modi and the ‘Saffronization’ of India

When Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in the Indian general elections in 2014, political pundits foresaw the advent of a new era of Hindutva politics for the country.

On one hand, positing himself to be the new face of Indian politics with his nationalist economic policies to assuage the positions of the common man in a capitalist India; and on the other, as a man strongly aligning himself with a Hindu religious majority, many had feared the undertones of the exclusionary vision that Modi’s BJP seemed to offer before it even came into power.

This new brand of ethno-nationalism and political direction, of seeing Hinduism as a way of life, rather than through the prism of a religion in a secular state meant that Muslims, as the largest minority in India have come under swift ideological attack. Modi’s BJP mentored by the umbrella organization Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) is the political wing of the movement that calls for an aggressive political mobilization of the ‘lagging’ Hindu community in India, which could lead to material and social progress of the masses.

Any Modi doctrine according to political theory, therefore, will have to be located within the context of the larger Hindutva Strategic Doctrine as perceived by the RSS.

Today RSS leader, Mohan Bhagwat, repeatedly declares that anybody living in India is a Hindu. Tellingly, Modi’s primary electoral campaign slogan too reflected his main political goal upon entering office – “Congress-mukt Bharat”: an India free of the Congress Party.

Since BJP’s ascent to power in 2014, across India’s political and social life, patterns are emerging that seem to justify the fears that minorities in the country are feeling. Islam for instance is the second largest religion in India with roughly 172 million people identifying as adherents of Islam as an ethnoreligious group.

In the Lok Sabha, the directly elected house of India’s parliament however, there are just 22 Muslim legislators out of 543 –– the lowest ever since India’s independence, and much less than the community’s 14 percent strength in the country’s population.

In practice too, Modi’s politics has meant that minority communities, in particular Muslims, are expected to defer to the cultural and social primacy of the Hindu community, as defined by the Hindutva organizations.

Four years since his election and vying for another four-year term in 2019, there is fear that Modi is steering the country to that binary ideological position where nationalism is defined in anti-Muslim terms, with “Pakistan” and “Muslim” being used interchangeably. According to data journalism site IndiaSpend.org, 97 percent of the attacks on Muslims by cow vigilantes since 2010 have occurred after Modi assumed office in 2014.

India under Modi has featured new domestic and foreign policy pivots that have meant social restrictions at home banning the slaughter of cows and eating of beef, vigilante attacks on the Muslim community on various fabricated pretexts relating to cow smuggling and cow slaughter and its international policy hostile to Pakistan and its ‘Islamist’ roots.

At the same time the BJP has actively promoted the supremacy of upper castes and attacks on Dalits, who are still largely confined to poorly paid, dangerous and stigmatized menial occupations.

Modi has sought to promote social reform in the Muslim community on his own terms, such as outlawing the practice of “triple talaq” whereby a Muslim woman may be divorced simply by chanting “talaq” thrice. In his most controversial statements, the PM has offered derogatory remarks on the Muslim youth, who carry computer in one hand and the Quran in the other, aiming to suggest backwardness as an inherent Muslim trait at odds with the progressive mandate of Hindutva India. One of the key items in the Hindutva agenda has been the need for a uniform civil code for all Indian citizens, instead of separate family laws for Muslims and other minorities.

Brazen and public displays of violence, however, have been an unprecedented, but inevitable outcome of Modi’s muted complicity in anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit crimes.

The BJP’s openly divisive rhetoric has seeped into the social fabric of the country and Anti-Muslim sentiment has morphed from discussions of closeted, right-wing extremists into an open ostracization of the community under Modi, most profoundly seen in the treatment of Muslim-majority states. In 2014, Yogi Adityanath, then a parliamentarian and today chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, sparked nation-wide controversy coining the term “Love Jihad” to allege that Muslim men were duping non-Muslim women to marry them, with the aim of getting them to convert to Islam. In 2015, Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP chief minister of Haryana state, asked Muslims to stop eating beef to ‘live’ in India. That same year, a mob lynched 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq in the capital New Delhi, on allegations that he had stored beef in his refrigerator. A powerful editorial by The Guardian UK wrote earlier this month ‘In Modi’s India, simply being a Muslim is enough to invite violence. 15-year old Junaid, for example, was beaten to death on a train when out for Eid shopping or Afrazul Khan, a migrant worker,  killed with an axe and his body burned while a 14-year-old filmed the horrific scene..’

It is more appalling for international media to note that the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the revered icon of the Hindu right, defines Hindutva ideology and the notion of a ‘pure, Hindu nation’. In the context of rape, for example, he writes that the rape of Muslim women is justifiable and that not to do so when the occasion permits is not virtuous or chivalrous, but cowardly.

In New Delhi too, there is overwhelming, growing concern that in ‘Modi’s India’ voices of dissent have come to equal patriotic treason. Those who raise concerns over challenges to civil liberties are silenced or worse in the current political atmosphere, deemed anti-Indian.

When Hamid Ansari, India’s former vice president, expressed unease among Indian Muslims in a TV interview, users on Twitter — one of them a member of the BJP –– insinuated that he was being an ungrateful Muslim.

With a majority of its own, the BJP now doesn’t need regional parties for the survival of its government. It has also turned the criticism it faces into an electoral magnet, discrediting the opposition and projecting itself as a development-oriented party.

A few months shy of election, the RSS is more determined than ever to unite Hindu votes under its leadership, which would provide another unassailable electoral majority for the BJP.

At home, under fire for not being able to create enough jobs and GDP growth at a three-year low of 5.7 percent, there are concerns that the BJP might whip up religious sentiments for political gains. “The fear is that, if the economy falters, Mr. Modi will try to maintain his popularity by stirring up communal tensions,” wrote The Economist in June. “That, after all, is how his Bharatiya Janata Party first propelled itself to government in the 1990s.”

Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy believes the BJP’s governments’ failure to deliver on its electoral promises and Modi’s subsequent loss of popularity presages dangerous times. Modi and the BJP-RSS will try to divert attention from their failures by a “continuous circus of arrests, assassinations, lynchings, bomb attacks, false flag attacks, riots (and) pogroms”. In March 2018 with India’s agriculture sector struggling from years of declining earnings and large scale farmer protests in the capital, the Indian Parliament debated a no-confidence motion moved by the opposition against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for failing to create even a quarter of the 20 million jobs promised during his term as PM.

A recent national CMS study in India conducted within 13 states, including six which are ruled by BJP, revealed that corruption has not only increased during Modi’s tenure but that the PM’s attempts at truly fighting it are questionable.

In the face of the increasing trust deficit in the state and a looming economic crisis at home, Modi’s electoral strategy has largely come to depend on riling right-wing nationalist, anti-Pakistan sentiment.

There has been remarkable consistency in BJP’s approach to Pakistan and Modi’s government has aimed at strategic isolation of Pakistan and a close, political alignment with President Trump to ensure the designation of Pakistan as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, the route that is being most vigorously promoted by the Indo-Pacific 2+2 dialogue.

Thus, under Modi, politicization of the military often substitutes marketing for tangible achievements. For example, the BJP’s consistent glorification of cross-border raids on ‘terrorist camps’ in Myanmar and Pakistan shies away from allegations of BJP’s widespread corruption in the recent Rafael Deal, where PM Modi is alleged to have made an economically detrimental decision while giving pecuniary advantage to a private party that he is personally set to benefit from.

In this vein, analysts predict inflammatory rhetoric on account of Pakistan and Islamist terrorism is set to gain momentum in the run-up to the elections. Citing Lashkar-e-Tyyaba behind every `terror’ act in Kashmir or elsewhere in India since 26/11, the BJP views all forms of alleged terrorism through its Pakistan lens. However, an unpopular majority opinion including German intelligence-based documentary analysis shows secretive Mumbai trials were translucent (‘Betrayal of India: Revisiting the 26/11 Evidence’).

Common sense would dictate that an entire nation should not be punished for individual acts of terrorism. For the new nationalism-oriented world order however, in which PM Modi squarely resides, the concept of dubbing one’s adversary, whether Kashmiris or LeT ‘terrorist’ enables home-grown state terrorists to eliminate freedom-fighters.

As a result, Pakistan in the past decade particularly in the latter years, has faced more LoC violations than any other period in the history of the two states. Modi’s economic anxieties have been further aggravated by China’s staggering $46 billion investment in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, which promises to be an immense economic and strategic windfall for Pak-China relations.

This has directly resulted in a surge of low-scale terrorist activity in the Balochistan region and there is evidence to suggest that Indian intelligence agency RAW, which has historically funded separatist groups such as the BLA is looking to disrupt the security framework required for CPEC installations.

This has meant covert and overt support for hosting violent activity in neighboring states, evidenced by more than just the admissions of spy Kulbashan Yadev on Pakistani territory in previous years.

In 2016, after ignoring the turmoil in Kashmir that left 66 killed in a month due to Indian police atrocities in Indian Occupied Kashmir and a brutal attack in Quetta that left an entire generation of Pakistani human rights lawyers dead within the same week, PM Modi took to vocal support of his ‘supporters’ in Balochistan – issuing an opportunistic statement which firmly established India’s support for the Baloch insurgency as far as the Pakistani establishment is concerned.

But while Modi’s use of anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the lead up to state elections in Kashmir and Bihar, or his claim that India had a role in breaking up Pakistan in 1971, can be shelved as jingoistic political sloganeering, his barefaced aggravation of turmoil in South Asia’s two major conflict zones showcases his willingness to sacrifice human rights at the altar of geopolitics, in turn negating his self-promotion as a regional and global leader.

PM Modi’s dismantling of the SAARC summit in 2016, India’s brazen cancellation of meeting between the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers to be held at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and this week, India dismissal as “posturing” of a  Pakistan foreign office invite of the upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad confirm the assertion that for Modi, any flexibility towards Pakistan would mean a loss of all the popularity he has gained through his anti-Pakistan narrative.

The opinion in New Delhi seems to suggest that Modi’s is a foreign policy, much like Trump’s, that is by whim, not by design.

Many in New Delhi then argue that India under Modi is not predisposed to take up a truly global role. While heavily concentrating on beefing up military arsenal, it is notable that Modi is completely disinterested in receiving a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. While he defends the official position that India is vying for such a seat, there are claims in New Delhi that he is privately dismissive of it. Modi’s professed Hindutva doctrine limits his vision to the subcontinent and, at best, a few countries in the region.

This coupled with Modi’s inability to partake or appreciate China’s OBOR as a catalyst for economic connectivity and integration in Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia and attempting to pit the Chabahar Port Agreement with Iran and Afghanistan against China-led development despite Chabahar’s limited economic brevity has circumvented India’s capacity or hope to live up to its image as a global state under the BJP’s rule.

Instead, there is increased focus on a restricted nationalist agenda: a strong economy, a strong military and defense ties, weapon modernization programs — of hard power with a nuclear arsenal— skip any real political, multilateral concerns.

For Indians today, the mire is deep and complicated. There is debate in Delhi as to what lies behind Modi’s ‘India first’ slogan. Is his top priority to continue building political support by championing a regressive, far-right ideology aimed at polarizing the world’s ‘largest democratic state’ or is his goal to redefine the secular contours of India according to the RSS’S xenophobic tune? Simply put, is he driven by Hindutva nationalism or reform? Recent Parliamentary decision to rename cities with Muslim names to their rightful Hindu titles and erecting the world’s largest monument to glorify Hindu warriors is an open attempt at ‘saffronizing’ public spaces and rewriting India’s shared Muslim history. These cosmetic and hollow moves defy any true social reform under Modi’s time at the expense of taxpayers’ money in the face of a lagging economy at home, suggest that Narender Modi is still more interested in winning votes on religious lines with short-sighted culture wars and identity politics rather than any real reforms in the economy as he had promised.

In the forthcoming elections, Hindu nationalist sentiment will not dwindle, but rather flare up during the state assembly election campaigns. Prime Minister Modi will seek to temper these sentiments. And if the BJP secures another emphatic mandate, India will move dangerously close to becoming an irreversible, majoritarian state.

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