Soon after becoming the prime minister of India for the first time five years ago, Narendra Modi had declared that the guiding light of his government would be “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. On May 25, 2019, he added two more words to that slogan: “sabka viswas”.
On both the occasions, the aim was to stave off the perception that the Modi government pursued Hindu majoritarianism and discriminated against religious minorities. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka viswas” is a much more refined version of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) old coinage of “development for all and appeasement of none” that was used to fight its political rivals who accused the saffron party of being biased against the minorities and erroneously projecting the minorities as being favoured with special treatment from the non-BJP federal government of the day.
That is why Modi bringing in “sabka viswas” was significant in his speech at the very first meeting of the newly-elected lawmakers of the BJP and its allies on May 25, a couple of days after the comprehensive victory in the parliamentary elections. This was the meeting where Modi was elected as the leader of the joint parliamentary party of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) paving the way for his taking over as the prime minister for a second successive term that would shape India for the next five years and possibly beyond. This was the meeting where Modi articulated his broad vision of his government for the country.
The two most important points of Modi’s May 25 meeting were: (a) repeated assertions of commitment to the Constitution and (b) his remarks about how his government wants to deal with the minorities. He said the minorities had been “deceived” and made to live in fear over the years and reiterated in this context how the other parties treated them as their vote bank. The prime minister emphasised the need for winning over the trust of the minorities as well as that of those who did not vote for the BJP. Hence “sabka viswas”.
So, how will Modi go about bridging the trust deficit with the minorities? Is the search for an honest answer to the question possible without asking if the hardline Hindutva ideology and the actions of the BJP and the other Sangh Parivar members have contributed to it or not? The main reason why Modi was seen as a polarising figure was the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister. But no court of law has found him at fault for that and India has moved on.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, well-known social scientist, wrote in a persuasive newspaper article in April that the BJP’s victory in 2014 parliamentary elections “underscored that ethnic democratic model could work in India and Congress appeared reconciled to this. Consequently, Muslims were left with little political choice and a small fraction—especially those who developed stakes—began backing the BJP in a limited way.” Mukhopadhyay would have us believe that “in certain states, the BJP vote share among Muslims has risen…” Perhaps, the same is true of the BJP’s even bigger mandate in the 2019 elections although there are no quantifiable statistics as yet.
At the heart of Modi’s “sabka saath, sabka vikas” is the belief that accelerated economic development is a mighty leveller and a unifying force in Indian society that has the potential to bury caste, ethnic and religious faultlines. The BJP seems to believe—and this belief has been strengthened substantially after the 2017 assembly poll results in Uttar Pradesh and the emphatic mandate of this year’s parliamentary polls—that if economic prosperity of all sections of society is taken care of, even those who do not agree with hardline Hindutva are ready to put up, if not support, with isolated instances of extremism like cow vigilantism and attacks on those consuming beef. The BJP rightly points out that no major riot took place during the first five-year reign of Modi and the Modi government’s development schemes like universal healthcare for the poor, clean toilets, and electricity and cooking gas connections to the villages have not discriminated against any religious group. The BJP believes that only economic prosperity can mainstream the minorities in India’s developmental narrative and there is no need for separate incentives for minorities as distinctive groups with district issues. It is debatable whether this is the right approach because there are problems peculiar to each minority group which need to be addressed separately.
At the same time, one cannot be oblivious of the fact that it was the BJP and Modi who, during the campaign in this year’s election, took a dig at Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi for contesting from minority-dominated Wayanad constituency in Kerala. One also cannot forget BJP President Amit Shah’s high-pitched campaign against “infiltrators” in the northeast and West Bengal and him terming them as “termites.”
Is all this mere election-specific rhetoric or reflection of a prejudiced mindset? No doubt, there are those whose politics thrived on the opposition to the Hindutva agenda. In a way, the perceived allegiance of the minorities of India to anti-BJP forces is reminiscent of the Hindus being traditionally considered as the support base (“amanat”) of the Awami League in Bangladesh. It is estimated that Muslims constitute over 30 percent of the electorate in about 50 parliamentary constituencies across India. But more important than electoral considerations is the dignity of the minorities.
Modi’s “sabka viswas” has the potential to set a new paradigm for an inclusive narrative of nationalism provided it is followed up in letter and spirit. It can help Modi cement a new legacy. What gives cause for hope is Modi’s repeated commitment at the NDA meeting to uphold the Constitution whose preamble contains the word “secularism” even though the BJP’s view on secularism is at variance with that of the opposition.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.