Modi and the illiberal India
THE right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Bharatyia Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi is likely to defeat the “progressive” and “secular” Congress Party, and may form the next government of India. Modi, who is alleged to be a Hindu-fundamentalist, is likely to lead “secular” India as its prime minister.
This year, a total of 814 million Indian voters were registered to cast their vote. There are two remarkable points to note about this number. First, the total number of voters increased by 100 million compared to the previous general election. Second, about 20% of total voters have voted for the first time. These young Indians, who are millions in numbers, were expected to play a crucial role in determining the winner. Most likely they did.
Critics of Modi have argued that he played a dirty role in the Gujrat riot in 2002, which saw over 1,000 Muslims being massacred. This allegation against Modi, however, is yet to be proved in a court. Despite that, his critics even compared him to Hitlar to underscore his alleged fanatic nature. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist and a Harvard Professor, is among Modi's strongest critics who publicly said: “Minorities have reason to fear Modi.” In short, the central premise of mounting criticism against Modi is based on his non-secular worldview.
Modi's non-secularity seems to be a matter of least concern for the Indian public, including millions of first-time voters. They seem to have become frustrated with the poor governance record of “secular” Congress Party. Modi, on the other hand, was successful in convincing Indian voters about his commitment for development. In election campaigns, he sold, or maybe oversold, the Gujrat development model where he claimed that he had improved Gujrat's infrastructure and law and order situation, ensured uninterrupted power supply and so forth, when he was the head of Gujrat state.
Another important but inspirational point about Modi is that he is a self-made man. His rise to the position of the BJP leader, and may be the Indian PM, from a boy who used to sell tea in train stations is more than inspiration to ordinary Indians. By contrast, the Gandhi family represents the elite of the elites. Ordinary Indians have little in common with them. Weak governance of Congress further alienated voters from them.
Disturbingly, Modi's election campaign, alongside selling 'the development model,' was somewhat anti-Muslim. BJP's allies, hardline Hindu fundamentalists, too, used hateful rhetoric against Indian Muslims. It is noteworthy to mention that about 150 million Indians are Muslims. Despite this particular campaign pattern, Indians might vote for Modi and BJP. Why does there seem to be no reaction among Indian voters about BJP's anti-Muslim campaign? How important is secularism to Indian masses? Or how realistic is the carefully crafted “secular” image of India that academicians like Amartya Sen want the world to see? Is secularism in India a chimera?
Following the inception of the War on Terror, at a time when terrorism was almost a synonymous word for Muslims, India's “secular” brand received a boost with particular help from the administration of President Bush. With Muslim majority Pakistan and Muslim majority Bangladesh on its two sides, India seemed to constitute the beacon of liberalism in South Asia in the West's eyes. However, the euphoria was short-lived. The recent Modi wave that is seemingly sweeping across the country confirms that India, in reality, hosts a highly illiberal society similar to almost all South Asian countries.
Finally, three elements can be identified for Modi's success. First, millions of Indians are poor. They are not happy with their lives and they long for development. It is a fact that despite its impressive growth, India remains a highly discriminatory country. According to a WHO estimate, about half of the Indian population does not have access to sanitary toilets. The Guardian reported that 50% of Indian children are stunted, the vast majority due to undernourishment, and 50% of women have anaemia for the same reason. In one survey, no evidence of any teaching activity in 50% of schools in seven big northern states was found, which explains the terrible academic underachievement. When people are hungry and angry secularism makes little sense to them even if the Ivory Tower academics of India want the world to see India through that lens. That India does not exist.
Second, most of the development works in India do not go ahead as per plan due to corruption by politicians. There is a positive correlation between lack of development, unhappiness of the people, and corruption by politicians. Finally, corrupt politicians manipulate religious sentiments of the public to blame the other -- the minorities -- for their misfortune and joblessness and promise that if they (politicians) come to power they'll develop the lives of poor because it is their religious duty. In most cases, the poor remain poor and unhappy. This is the recipe behind the formation of India's illiberal society and the story behind BJP's possible win.
The writer is Founder and CEO of alochonaa.com. He is currently completing his PhD on Liberalism, Islam and Political Islam in Bangladesh at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University.