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SIGNS AND PROMISES
- What will Narendra Modi do?

What will Narendra Modi do with his mandate? The Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters ask, not unreasonably, that critics wait upon events. Spokespersons for the party reiterate that Narendra Modi has promised development for all. They rather ruin the effect of this by tacking on ‘and appeasement of none’. The word ‘appease’ is a curious choice in this context. Appeasement is generally used to describe the propitiation of all-powerful beings, mortal or divine, but the BJP always uses it to describe the republic’s treatment of its most depressed and marginalized community, Indian Muslims.

If there is one obvious feature of this election, it is the BJP’s successful consolidation of the Hindu vote in a whole range of constituencies. Not one of the BJP’s 282 successful Lok Sabha candidates is a Muslim, and it’s fair to say that no one is surprised. The party’s spokespersons argue that the BJP has no time for tokenism, that Muslims will draw closer to the BJP once they experience the Modi-inspired development that lifts everyone’s boats.

We must hope they are right but even if they are, republican democracy is about fraternity and an election which sees the BJP hugely expand its footprint in India geographically while remaining, in its personnel and its voters, a near-exclusively Hindu party, should be a cause for real concern, not least for the party.

The flip side to Hindu consolidation is the political marginalization of minorities. I use the word minorities advisedly because the well-publicized failure of the BJP to win Muslim votes has been explained away as a form of false-consciousness peculiar to Muslims. The BJP’s explanation is that the Muslims have, yet again, been brainwashed by pseudo-secular propaganda into believing the worst.

But Muslims weren’t alone in their repudiation of the BJP. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ polling data (which is the only access we have to estimates of community-wise voting), tell us that Christians were even more emphatic in their rejection of the party. According to the CSDS, 9 per cent of Muslim voters voted for the BJP and the equivalent percentage amongst Christians was even lower, at 8 per cent. Given the BJP’s refrain that Narendra Modi’s campaign was centred on growth and governance to the exclusion of all things sectarian, someone needs to explain why Christians didn’t respond to the universal economic rationality of the BJP’s message.

The simple explanation might be that India’s minority citizens felt threatened by the BJP’s majoritarianism. Five years ago, the BJP in Odisha justified and explained away violent attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district. Subramaniam Swamy, now chairman of the BJP’s strategic action committee, demanded in an article written as recently as 2011 the disenfranchisement of all non-Hindus (not just Muslims) who didn’t defer to their Hindu origins.

It follows, then, that the expectations raised by Narendra Modi’s campaign are mixed with foreboding, not just amongst Muslims and Christians but for those Indians who think that majoritarian politics is a bad fit for a diverse country and who dislike the BJP’s brand of paranoid nationalism. The BJP might, of course, mutate into an Indian version of the German Christian Democratic Union, a centre-right party mindful of the niceties of a liberal democratic republic, but given that the party is led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, it’s fair to say that this ‘remains to be seen’. In the interim it’s inevitable that the new government’s composition, its initiatives and pronouncements will be parsed for clues that might reveal its nature and its intentions.

The first signs aren’t reassuring. Modi had 71 BJP members of parliament in Uttar Pradesh to choose from for ministerial office and he chose to make Sanjeev Baliyan, the MP from Muzaffarnagar, a minister of state. Baliyan was accused of violating prohibitory orders and promoting enmity between communities during the riots in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013. Thus not only did the BJP win western UP on the back of communal rioting, one of the riot-accused is now part of Narendra Modi’s first ministry.

The BJP has argued that Baliyan was framed by a hostile state government and it should be noted that he hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but it’s worth remembering that Narendra Modi has form in this matter. Maya Kodnani, who was widely believed to have been involved in the killings in Naroda Patia in 2002, was made minister of women and child development in 2007, five years after the riots. She served for two years till her past caught up with her; she was convicted of murder and conspiracy to murder in 2012 and was sentenced to 28 years in prison. A Modi sarkar looking to put its sectarian past behind it, wouldn’t have doubled down on Sanjeev Baliyan; it would have waited for him to be exonerated of these serious charges before elevating him to ministerial office.

The other sign that the BJP might default to its gut positions in spite of its growth-and-governance message, is that within 24 hours of taking office, the new minister of state in the prime minister’s office, Jitendra Singh, declared that “[w]e are in the process of repealing Article 370 and are in talks with the stakeholders”. He subsequently claimed he had been misquoted, that he had “never said anything quoting the Honourable Prime Minister”. As clarifications go, this one was mystifying because he hadn’t been accused of quoting the prime minister in the first place, but the MP from Udhampur seemed driven to say what he said by a core agenda that outweighed such niceties as tactics and timing.

What do these signs suggest? I think it’s reasonable to assume that the BJP isn’t going to literally reconstitute the republic in the near future. I can’t see the BJP manoeuvering to amend the Constitution’s preamble to drop the word ‘secular’ for example, a word, incidentally, inserted into it by Indira Gandhi in her most authoritarian phase. Nor can I see Narendra Modi amending Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. The one thing he isn’t going to do is give critics a clear-cut reason for saying ‘I told you so’. Also, as a practical matter, the BJP doesn’t have the votes either in Parliament or the provincial legislative assemblies to make constitutional amendments.

On the other hand, the BJP has a core constituency that is committed to majoritarian consolidation and this base vote will certainly wish to be ‘appeased’. There is a range of Hindutvavadi issues that this government could sponsor without attempting formal amendments to the Constitution.

For example, given Modi’s reference to the ‘pink revolution’ during the election campaign, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the government will move to curb the trade that exists in beef cattle. This has the double virtue of being consonant with the directive principles of the Constitution and attentive to Hindu sensibilities on the subject. There have been attempts to pass a Central law on the matter of cow slaughter that haven’t gone anywhere, so it’s possible that a Modi government could try to move decisively on this.

The BJP could also try to enact an anti-conversion law. Several Indian states have versions of the Freedom of Religion Act, all of which are, ironically, designed to constrain freedom of choice in the matter of religion. They are explicitly aimed at curbing proselytization and conversion. So a person planning to convert has to seek permission from an officer of the state. The officer then makes a judgment as to whether the desire to convert is of the individual’s free will or is in fact coerced or induced.

These acts have clauses that keep ‘reconversion’ to Hinduism outside the purview of the act since re-conversion is seen as a return to the person’s original, authentic state. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that converting others isn’t part of the fundamental right to propagate one’s faith, the BJP, given its majority, might attempt to push an all-India bill to this effect through Parliament.

Which brings us to the matter of the Babri Masjid and the Ram Mandir.

While the Supreme Court has stayed the Allahabad High Court judgement and taken it on appeal, there is nothing to prevent a Modi government, given its mandate and clout to ‘encourage’ the various parties to the dispute to settle. The BJP has consistently maintained that it would like to build a Ram Mandir through a negotiated consensus, which is code for the Muslim parties to the dispute ceding their claim to the site of the razed mosque.

In the past, the BJP has pleaded the compulsions of coalition government as an explanation for not doing anything to fast-track the Ram Mandir. Given its comfortable majority, it no longer has to attend to the sensibilities of less sectarian coalition partners. With the term of the UP assembly due to expire in 2017, there is every reason to believe that the BJP will agitate this issue (which is, after all, a part of its election manifesto) in the run up to the provincial elections.

The BJP likes to argue that its critics are alarmist in an irresponsible way. But these issues (and others, like the uniform civil code) cumulatively have the potential for making minorities feel that they are being singled out for unwelcome attention.

We are surrounded in South Asia by nations that struggle with the violent and demoralizing consequences of a turn towards majoritarianism: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are cautionary tales. India’s principal success as a nation state is that amid these semi-failed countries, it has, in comparison, been an oasis of pluralist calm.

Should government policy and legislation begin to imply that India is, de facto, a Hindu state, this might energize the BJP’s base but it will almost certainly cause a profound sense of alienation amongst large swathes of the republic’s citizenry. So before that happens, we need to consider the point at which the implementation of the BJP’s ‘core agenda’ might become a threat to the cohesion of the nation state. Whether we’re partisans of the BJP or its critics, this is a conversation we need to have today and every day through the duration of this Modi sarkar.