The Future of India and the Tide of Hindutva Populism
Maria Tavernini 14 March 2024


As India gears up for the general elections next month, where over 900 million people are expected to go to the polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third term in office, reaffirming the country’s global ambitions. In the past decade, under his tenure, India’s historic pluralism has increasingly been jeopardized by the ruling party’s majoritarian agenda. On March 7th, Reset Dialogues on Civilizations hosted an online roundtable (see video above) with Mujibur Rehman, a political scientist who teaches at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, and Ananya Vajpeyi, fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, chaired by Nicola Missaglia of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). The meeting aimed at analyzing Modi’s triumphalism on the backdrop of the gradual erosion of India’s foundational values and how this poses a threat to its global aspirations.

As Missaglia pointed out in the opening speech, India – the so-called “world’s largest democracy” – has been “under the spotlight in recent years for a variety of reasons.” On the geopolitical level, India is increasingly regarded as a new Asian counterweight, benefiting from the US-China tensions. On the economic level, the country has enjoyed an outstanding growth and has become the world’s fifth largest economy; last year, it has also become the world’s most populous country. Moreover, India is trying to carve its role as a new leader of the Global South and the government has repeatedly stated its ambition to become a great power. Yet, behind this “shining and triumphant surface,” Modi has been widely criticized, also abroad, for the erosion of the democratic institutions and the attack on pluralism, that have been core elements of the republic, he said, opening the debate.

According to Ananya Vajpeyi, a distinguished scholar and writer, “there’s a difference between triumph and triumphalism, between achievement and self-congratulation.” Beside the country’s many achievements, there has been a simultaneous erosion of the core values enshrined in the Constitution. “There was a belief that certain values could not be compromised – like justice, egalitarianism, liberties and fundamental rights,” she said. “These were the cornerstones of the conception of India as an independent nation whose strength was to be so diverse. This narrative has changed in the last decade. Secularism, pluralism, federalism, egalitarianism, have been undermined by the state itself, in favor of a more majoritarian outlook.” Missaglia pointed out that in every majoritarian regime there are victims. In India, victims have become its many minorities, especially the Muslim one who is the largest, which accounts for 14 per cent of the population, or some 200 million people.

“The BJP is essentially an ideological movement,” according to Mujibur Rehman. He dug in the 1920s political landscape, where three dominant political forces wanted to wipe the British out and liberate India. Each of those forces had their own ideology and vision of a new India: the Indian National Congress who believed in multiculturalism; the Muslim League which believed that Hindus and Muslims needed a separate homeland (that led to the creation of Pakistan); and then the Hindu right, which believed that India is essentially a Hindu nation. “When India became independent in 1947, the first two forces became successful. Secular political parties in India came up with a Constitution based on secularism and multiculturalism,” he said. “Today, the Hindu right has emerged as a hegemonic force.”

Rehman claimed that the Hindu right never believed in minorities’ rights and anyway it does not see Muslims as a minority but as invaders, part of thousands of years of slavery. He argues that the BJP’s project is to “de-islamize” India – the Citizenship Amendment Act (recently enforced) was especially designed to exclude Muslims. The message to India’s Muslims is clear: if you want to keep on living here, you have to respect the majoritarian culture and adapt to our idea of a “good Muslim”. He pointed out that keeping Muslims outside of the political sphere is not something that started in 2014, when Modi was elected as the PM, but already when he was the Chief Minister of the northern state of Gujarat, where he hails from and his political career had started: “In 2014 the Gujarat model got nationalized.” Indian Muslims are today caught in what he calls a “modern triangle of violence” defined by lynching, riots, and bulldozer justice, referring to the mounting violence and discrimination against the community.

Missaglia made also reference to a recent article by renewed historian Ramachandra Guha published on Foreign Affairs about the hollowing out of democratic institutions, which is pushing India closer to becoming an “electoral autocracy”. The article goes deep into analyzing Modi’s towering charisma and dissecting the country recent (and less recent) history. Vajpeyi stated that the Hindu nationalism, who has been on the back foot for half a century, has now managed to push out the secular narrative. “I think that secular nationalism was quite robust but this government has shown us that democracy has many different dimensions, or at least that’s true of Indian democracy,” she said.

She also pointed out that there is an arithmetic electoral dimension to be taken into consideration: while the BJP has secured the majority of the votes, electoral numbers vary a lot from North to South of India. The BJP is indeed very strong in what is called the Hindu-belt but not so popular in the South. The North-South divide in India can be summarized by using the words of analyst Rohan Venkat, “‘North’ is used as a short-hand for populous, poor, Hindi-speaking states that feature sputtering economies, miserable human development indicators and immense support for the BJP and Modi. In contrast, ‘South’ refers to economically developed, socially progressive non-Hindi-speaking states where the Hindutva agenda has struggled to take root.”

What Modi and his party are trying to do is to shift the narrative from a thousand of years of diversity, coexistence, pluralism and toleration to a thousand years of slavery and colonization by the “Muslim invaders”, according to Vajpeyi. “Shifting the narrative is taking time and a lot of intellectual, cultural and ideological effort. But it’s not yet a done deal. This narrative has been contested and will continue to be contested.” The strength of secular, liberal and democratic institutions have been continuously assaulted by centralization, majoritarianism and populism under Modi. “It’s been a fight for the BJP to take over the judiciary, the parliament, the universities and the media” she said, “yet this house was not built in a day and it’s not a house of cards. I don’t think it would be that easy to actually create a Hindu Raj.”

Missaglia pointed out that despite the erosion of democratic institutions and values, the crackdown on dissent, Modi still enjoys a lot of consensus. According to Rehman, there is something that Modi represents that people are fond of – whether it is ideological or rhetoric – and makes him so widely popular. “Modi is the first Hindu right leader who understood that Hindu right agenda cannot be a front door agenda,” he said. “The BJP created an unequal structure of institutions in which electoral outcomes are predetermined. They understood that elections are basically capital driven, so other political parties should be deprived of capital. Modi is the first prime minister of India who had a direct access to big capitals,” he argued. “The BJP’s message to voters is that no matter who you vote, we are going to form the government.”

While India is not new to authoritarian rule, the question is whether today’s majoritarian trend will influence India’s pursuit of great power status. “The Nehruvian ambitions of consensus, minorities’ protection and equality have been replaced by a new set of ambitions, namely military power, economic power, which resist being hold back by environmental concerns,” Vajpeyi said. In the G20 meeting hosted by India last year, the Indian leadership played the soft power card, priding itself of being the nation of Mahatma Gandhi. “Modi said that India is going to be a vishwaguru, a global teacher to the world, riding on the reputation that India enjoys based on a very different set of ideological and political principles while trying to assume a more aggressive posture,” she said. “In this respect, we do seem to be becoming more like China in a sort of open assertion of autocratic, authoritarian, and culturally homogenizing tendencies.”

Talking about the role of the opposition and civil society in mitigating the effects of Modi’s majoritarian agenda, Vajpeyi claimed that the Congress has no program to oppose the Hindu right while Rehman said the Gandhis have lost their ability to win elections. There are a lot of very brave civil society activists but they are mostly confined to big cities, making it a marginal force, according to latter speaker. “While their voice found some global platforms, the government is quite indifferent to civil society’s concerns. Since the BJP is an ideological movement, it looks at secular civil society as an ideological threat,” he said. The media, who used to be free and vibrant, is no immune from this trend. “The media has played a huge role in mainstreaming the Hindutva-led narrative, partly through collaboration, partly through co-option and all kinds of infiltration. There was an active effort to silence many sections of the independent media,” according to Vajpeyi. Social medias too have been crucial in spreading (false) news and creating consensus.

Discussing about the future of India in the coming years, Vajpeyi said that the future isn’t that bright with growing inequalities, with more and more people being deprived of their fundamental rights, and the blindness about the sustainability of growth-oriented policies. “We cannot afford this way forward, unless we course-correct,” she said. On a closing note, Rehman claimed that “an ideological renewal is possible, but India requires a new ideologically committed political class, and this is not going to happen overnight. It will take time, with the precondition of a massive disenchantment with the Hindu right.” A disenchantment that seems still faraway and for the time being lets India in the clutches of its Hindu nationalist leaders. Whether India will become a Hindu Rashtra or not, only time will tell. But many foresee turbulent times ahead.



Cover photo: A man is watching the Ram temple ahead of its opening in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, on January 19, 2024. (Photo by Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via AFP.)



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