The 2014 election of Narendra Modi as prime minister brought hope and worry to India observers, who were made nervous by Modi’s past association with Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist organizations. The 2002 Gujarat riots that left over a thousand people dead—mostly Muslims—during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat severely harmed his reputation. Yet throughout the elections, Modi did not campaign on a Hindutva agenda. Instead, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to bring economic development, growth, and corruption-free governance to India.
After 10 years of corrupt governance by the Indian National Congress (INC) party, the BJP obtained an absolute majority in parliament with the biggest victory seen by any party in 30 years. The hope for a strong prime minister who could successfully reform India’s slowing economy and help the country live up to its potential seemed vindicated. Although Prime Minister Modi’s first months have not brought the expected pace of economic reform, he has managed to implement other initiatives that are energizing his supporters and detractors alike. However, some of the fringe elements of the BJP party need to be reined in, lest they derail Modi’s economic agenda.
The concept of Hindutva, also referred to as Hindu nationalism or Hindu chauvinism, runs counter to the India envisioned by its founders. Despite Gandhi’s use of Hindu symbolism, neither he nor the INC party wanted to establish a Hindu state. Indeed, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist. The various Hindutva organizations (collectively called the Sangh Parivar) want to establish a Hindu rashtra—a Hindu state. Members of the Sangh Parivar see Muslims and Christians as foreigners who threaten to one day make Hindus a minority in the country. Praveen Togadia, a senior leader with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the largest Hindutva organizations in the country, echoed this mindset with statements that called for increasing the number of Hindus from 80% to 100% of India’s total population. Demonizing religious minorities has been a frequent tactic for these groups, whether by using the myth of a Muslim vote bank—the idea that Muslims vote as a single group for a specific party or candidate—and by accusing Muslim men of launching a campaign to woo and convert Hindu girls (“Love Jihad”), or even recent attempts to reconvert Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism, sometimes through coercion.
Modi has used his time in office to reach out to all Indians regardless of religious or caste background, focus on domestic development, and attract foreign investment. Many of his Hindutva supporters have used the opportunity to try to implement their agenda of Hindu supremacy. Since Modi was sworn in, Hindutva organizations and members of the BJP have used the specter of Love Jihad as a campaign tactic, honored Nathuram Godse (Gandhi’s assassin), attempted to promote the Bhagavad Gita as India’s national book, and pursued ghar wapsi, the conversions of religious minorities. Besides inviting criticism from observers and the general public, these actions of Hindutva supporters have brought together what had been a fragmented opposition to block Modi’s legislative proposals from passing through parliament. Religious minorities, as well as Indians across the political spectrum, have not responded well to the actions of these Hindutva organizations.
Despite Modi’s past association with the Sangh Parivar, he has shown no desire to impose a Hindutva agenda. Indeed, he even reached out to his opponents in public statements, once referring to the Indian Muslim community as “loyal.” Similarly, Modi’s international image underwent a significant change. In 2005, Modi was denied a visa to the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. In 2014, he drew massive crowds at Madison Square Garden, and his visit was considered a great success. Many argue that Modi no longer adheres to the Hindutva ideology and instead now focuses on development. Yet Hindutva organizations have been crucial for getting him to power and providing an easily tapped support base.
However, power has changed in the last couple of months. Modi’s popularity propelled the BJP into India’s most powerful political party. This should not be mistaken for as a BJP wave. It is Modi’s agenda and public image that allowed the party to win. Shortly after the national election, the BJP had a poor showing in by-elections held in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a state the BJP overwhelmingly won in the general election and in the 2012 state elections. Elections since then have been more favorable for the BJP, partly because the party returned to a developmental agenda and a focus on Modi himself. By contrast, the Delhi elections perhaps show the worst case scenario for Modi if the Hindutva elements are not reined in. Recently, the Aam Aadmi Party won the city elections in Delhi, leaving the BJP with only 3 seats in a 70 seat legislative assembly. Part of this loss can be blamed on increased public attention and opposition to Hindutva action associated with the BJP party.
Modi needs to take this opportunity to rein in the Hindutva elements of his party. He must firmly denounce the activities of Hindutva extremists and ensure party officials toe the line. The Hindutva ideology threatens an already fragile communal harmony in India and hampers Modi’s economic development agenda. The Indian public elected the BJP to rejuvenate India’s economy and provide corruption-free governance. Recent reports indicate that Modi has privately told the various Hindu organizations to stop the reconversions, but this is insufficient. Such actions by extremists unite the opposition and have the potential to ward off foreign investors, thus negatively affecting India’s economic development. President Obama has even commented on this situation. Although some Indians have argued that Obama should not lecture them on internal matters, it is noteworthy to recognize the impact that such extremist actions have in international public opinion.
During his campaign and his first Independence Day speech as Prime Minister, Modi criticized sectarianism and appealed for communal harmony. Modi has public support and BJP backing. He must take a public stance against the actions of these Hindutva groups.
Hari Prasad is a first-year graduate student in the International Affairs program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He focuses on the Middle East, South Asia, and Security Studies. He received his BA in International Affairs and Economics at Marquette University. He can be reached at email@example.com.