By Shelby House
Behold, the glib, bigoted politician everyone loves to hate. He is self-absorbed, and he loves to put his name on everything. He is nationalistic. He does not disconnect himself from groups that engage in racially-motivated violence, and he gives a special wink to groups that want to kick Muslims out of the country. But he is attractive because he is an ‘outsider,’ undoing years of dynastic politics. This shakes the party base. Many of the party’s founders disavow him, only to recant when his popular appeal becomes undeniable. His fiery speeches and charisma put him in sharp contrast against the scores of boring, old politicians, with all-too-familiar family names, running against him. And he is economically savvy—based on his record, voters see a chance for growth and development. That is, if you define “voters” as “middle class citizens from the dominant racial and religious group.” If you are picturing Donald Trump’s golden coif, you are not wrong—but the world has seen this phenomenon before in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the reigning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In 2014, the BJP swept the general election and secured 282 seats in the 545-seat lower house called the Lok Sabha. The BJP is a right-wing political organization which explicitly subscribes to Hindu nationalism or Hindutva. According to the party, their conception of Hindutva is not religious or theocratic. Instead, the term refers more broadly to “cultural, territorial, historical concepts referring to a broad-minded, tolerant, catholic, inclusive tradition”—all Indians are Hindus, even the Muslims. Unfortunately, this vague and fuzzy definition does not accurately reflect the actions of the BJP or its partner organizations.
The BJP was founded as the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), which is frequently called a terrorist organization. The RSS has been involved repeatedly in anti-Muslim pogroms, and the BJP has followed in step. In the 1990s, the BJP, along with the RSS and other Hindu nationalist outfits, led the charge to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India. The mosque, built in 1528, had become a flashpoint for Hindu-Muslim violence due to Hindu nationalist claims that the mosque occupied the birthplace of the deity Rama. On December 6, 1992, the BJP and VHP led a 150,000-person rally at the site, and the crowd tore the mosque apart. Following this incident, riots rocked India, resulting in at least 2,000 deaths. Throughout the years, BJP manifestos have reaffirmed a “commitment to the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.” BJP leaders have also called for anti-conversion laws, and the party’s 2014 manifesto proposes a uniform civil code. This measure is seen as discriminatory to Indian Muslims who would otherwise receive accommodation for their religious beliefs. The BJP claims to represent secularism, and the group heavily watered down their Hindutva message to gain electoral support in 2014. However, the party’s history and platforms belie any commitment to secularism.
While the BJP’s history is disconcerting, Narendra Modi’s personal history with religious violence is even more damning. In 2002, when Modi served as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the state witnessed three days of riots against the local Muslim population, which left “most certainly over 2,000 dead,” according to South Asianist Christophe Jaffrelot. In 2011, in a sworn statement to India’s Supreme Court, a senior police officer from Gujarat stated that Modi took no action to quell the violence, instead saying that the “Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson.” Since Modi has risen to power as prime minister, this convenient silence has remained the status quo. For instance, in September 2015, a Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh was murdered by a mob after a rumor circulated that he had consumed beef—angering the Hindu population, which consider cows sacred. Modi was criticized for waiting 2 weeks before weakly condemning the incident. One month later, a 16-year old was beaten to death in Jammu and Kashmir on the suspicion that he had helped slaughter cows. Days after this, a 20-year old was lynched in Himachal Pradesh on suspicion that he was smuggling cattle. Modi has remained silent, and he surely hasn’t taken measures to curtail this type of religious violence.
Nationalism and fear-mongering weaken democracy. While India has a thriving procedural democracy—elections go off without a hitch—Hindu nationalism threatens India’s commitment to secularism. State-sanctioned racial violence cripples the ability of Indian Muslims to live freely, dissent, and prosper in the Indian state, which harbors the third largest Muslim population in the world. As I wrote last April, India’s failure to accommodate its massive Muslim population also exacerbates tensions in problem regions like Kashmir, which is currently in an ongoing “bloodbath” that has been called a “replay of the Gujarat pogrom.” The oppression of minorities, in any state, revokes that state’s right to call itself a democracy. In the words of Dibyesh Anand, a professor at the University of Westminster, “democracy is not a number game… it is very much about minority rights and about individual rights.” If India—or America—wants to play a fascistic game of ethnoreligious majoritarianism, let us be clear about what the political system should be called: a theocracy.
However, much like Trump, Modi gained electoral support primarily on his record of economic prowess. Modi ran on a platform of universal application of “the Gujarat model.” As chief minister of Gujarat, the state’s economy boomed. On the whole, the province was richer, more job-wealthy, and more rapidly developing than the average Indian state. Indian voters hoped that Modi would apply this model to the whole country, leading to prosperity for all. However, while Gujarat could be lauded for its strong infrastructure and high GDP, the state lagged behind in poverty reduction and inclusive growth. With Modi at the helm, India’s growth has mirrored Gujarat’s. Modi’s economic policies have left behind the poorest of the poor and exacerbated wealth inequality in the country. India sacrificed social cohesion for the promise of development—and Modi has not followed through on this agreement. And while Trump can say he will be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” there is little evidence that he will live up to that promise. Even if he could, America should not sacrifice everything—particularly tolerance and secularism—for that flimsy promise.
While many on the America left see Donald Trump as a disturbing political joke, his trajectory is not unprecedented. When Donald Trump says that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any voters, we roll our eyes. Narendra Modi was complicit in the slaughter of 2,000 Muslims, and he still rose rapidly to power. Fears about development increase tolerance for ethnoreligious cleavages—which ultimately weakens the quality of democracy, society, and development. Paradoxically, successful development-only platforms have harmed development in the long run; typically, such agendas cater only to the upper-middle class and aggravate gaping inequality. Surely, this analysis should be taken with a grain of salt; Narendra Modi has more political savvy and eloquence than Donald Trump ever will. However, the similarities should prompt closer reflection about how much America could lose if we gamble democratic values for an economic quick-fix.