The nationalist undertow in India’s politics

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

As the celebrations subsided on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, many Indians might have been wondering, we then wrote, what they had done. Above all they voted decisively for change from the elitist Indian National Congress-dominated politics of the past and for a new openness in the hope that Modi would lift the country out of low-level growth and political scandal and corruption. Indian voters demanded a move away from a government by the few for the few. They voted for can-do decisiveness rather than policy timidity.

Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) take part in the ‘Path-Sanchalan’, or Route March during celebrations to mark the Vijaya Dashmi in Ajmer, India, 30 September 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Himanshu Sharma).
Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) take part in the ‘Path-Sanchalan’, or Route March during celebrations to mark the Vijaya Dashmi in Ajmer, India, 30 September 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Himanshu Sharma).

There were lingering worries, nonetheless, about Modi’s Hindu-nationalist origins. Modi was a product of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu organisation whose original inspiration owed much to the fascist mobilisations in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The RSS has thousands of disciplined, ideologically inspired members and many of them have powered the BJP’s election successes. Modi’s controversial handling of ethnic violence as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 — when 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died, 2500 people were injured, and 223 more were reported missing — still hung in the air. Though a subsequent Indian Supreme Court investigation in 2012 cleared him of complicity in the violence, he continues to be associated with a Hindu-nationalist agenda that remains divisive.

Modi’s huge mandate and the BJP’s absolute majority were thus both a blessing and a burden. The fear was that he would inevitably come under pressure from hardliners to implement the RSS manifesto, which calls for the establishment of a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu polity) with uniform treatment of religious groups in its civil code, the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, and abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Hardliners, such as M G Vaidya, a top RSS leader and ideologue, were already rallying for these objectives.

The abiding hope was that the end of the coalitional era in Indian politics would not overturn the notion of India as a tolerant society. Modi’s challenge was to demonstrate unequivocally that he was leading for all of India not just the nationalist forces that supported him.

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