Business Standard. July 30, 2014
Ambient intolerance goes up
With the temperature of Hindutva rising in the Indian social discourse, Narendra Modi is yet to become the inclusive leader that the high office he occupies demands of him
Something has changed in our society after Narendra Modi became the prime minister. Today, speaking carelessly about other religious communities has become acceptable. A new "normal" is being defined about how India talks to herself and the world. Election campaigns tend to accentuate political differences to appeal to voters and draw them away from others. Modi's campaign also gained from polarising voters. After a handsome victory, however, as prime minister, he has failed to heal the polity. If he lets the situation drift, differences could grow into deep social divisions.
The tendency towards this is evident from several disturbing developments - of which Modi is a silent spectator.
The testosterone-charged grey eminences of Hindutva, such as Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia, are openly threatening the Muslims. Singhal claimed that Modi's victory was a blow to Muslim politics because it showed elections could be won without Muslim support. He saw Modi as the "ideal" RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) volunteer who would implement the Hindutva agenda. Modi's invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his inauguration was explained as the necessity of resorting "to deceit at times".
Togadia went much further in threatening the Muslims. He claimed that they may have forgotten the Gujarat riots of 2002, but they should remember the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. Referring to the mythical Ramayana tale he warned, "If you set Hanuman's tail on fire, Lanka will burn." He did not receive even a rap on the knuckles. Even legislators openly speak of a Hindufication agenda, with one from Goa claiming that under Modi India will become a "Hindu nation", and another countering that it already was one.
As if this were not enough, obscurantists like Dinanath Batra are crawling out of the woodwork. Now that his claptrap has made it to the reading lists in schools in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Gujarat, he wants the school curricula for the entire country changed. The RSS has been emboldened to set up an education commission of its own - the Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Ayog or Indian Education Policy Commission - to suggest changes to make the curricula more "Indian".
Even parliamentary proceedings are getting a Hindutva tinge, with the Lok Sabha Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, concluding obituary references in Parliament with "Om Shanti, Shanti". Should India get a Christian or a Muslim speaker in future, would we then expect them to say "Amen" or recite a "dua" or prayer for the departed?
In communally sensitive western Uttar Pradesh, BJP MPs are making an issue of the installation of a loudspeaker in a Hindu temple to broadcast the prayer rituals. They claim that if mosques could broadcast their call to prayer, then there should be no discrimination against the Hindus.
The ally of the ruling BJP, the Shiv Sena, sees nothing wrong in its legislator force-feeding a Muslim during his Ramzan fast. The BJP fielded spokespersons on TV who sermonised about the public behaviour required of peoples' representatives, without once specifically criticising the Shiv Sena MP. Even the home minister did not ask the Delhi Police, directly under his control, to register a criminal case against the loutish MP. It was left to L K Advani, marginalised in the party and Parliament, to mutter that what happened was wrong. In a break with political tradition, the new government's ministers have also pointedly shunned the goodwill gesture of holding "iftaar" for the minority Muslim community leaders, sharing the evening meal after their daylong fast during the month of Ramzan.
With the ambient temperature of Hindutva rising in the Indian social discourse, the question is whether Modi is letting the situation drift deliberately. He has not yet become the inclusive leader that the high office he occupies demands of him. There seems to be a mismatch between Modi, the man, and the image he is forced to adopt as the prime minister of an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse nation. Modi, the man, is a Hindutva icon and a long-time RSS worker. His experience of Gujarat and the last general election - especially in Uttar Pradesh - is that communal polarisation wins elections.
His world view, shaped by his long tenure as a full-time RSS worker, his political success and experience, is expected to be sympathetic to the Hindutva agenda. In his motion of thanks to the President's address to Parliament, he referred to "1,200 years of mental servitude" that afflicts India. Since the British ruled over India for only 200 years, Modi was including a further 1,000 years of rule by the Ghoris, Ghaznavis, the Sultanate and the Mughals. This is a conception of Indian history that Hindutva votaries believe in.
Historians can debate whether he is factually right or wrong. But the political question is whether such a view of history, which sees religious and cultural diversity as vestiges of those who "enslaved" India and proselytised it, will allow him to see these as desirable inclusive qualities of the Indian polity and tend them. What emboldens the Singhals, the Togadias and other Hindutva activists to raise the threshold of hate speech is perhaps the knowledge that with Modi at the helm, they are safe.
If this is indeed the case, then the minorities might choose to become inward-looking, more ghettoised and to withdraw from active political participation. A large section among them might be satisfied if they are left unharmed and allowed to live their private lives. While a section of youth might be attracted to militancy, another section could be won over by the loaves and fishes of office. The larger segment of the minorities might simply become indifferent to public life. This enforced political passivity would help the BJP electorally - it needs this to happen desperately in states with sizeable minority population such as West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
On the other hand, Modi could embolden himself to live up to the image of an inclusive prime minister - a leader of the entire country. Such a transformative leadership would mean questioning his long-held beliefs. At this point, given his indifference to the hatemongers within his cheerleaders, this seems too much of an ask.