Narendra Modi and Indian Secularism

Back from India. The only political question that seems to preoccupy all the political commentators is whether or not Narendra Modi will be the next Indian prime minister. If the “NaMo effect” still needs to be confirmed in the polls, there is definitively a “NaMo wave” sweeping through the Indian media community.


Modi: you like him or you hate him.

Modi is hailed by his supporters as the charismatic leader India needs. He is also remembered by his detractors for the anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat in 2002. (Even the Bush administration was reluctant to grant him a visa!). On a TV channel, one commentator suggested that Modi incarnated the bad-side of democracy: populism, demagogy and the tyranny of an unenlightened majority over the minorities. A senior columnist from the right answered by a neoliberal hymn to NaMo, who will make India a 21st century superpower.

It is little to say that Modi is a polarizing, almost Schmittian figure. Since the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Indian politics and elections at the national level have been no longer dominated by charismatic figures. The challenges were more at the levels of the regional States, with their deeply contrasted ethnic and economical situations and endemic problems of corruption, nepotism and bad governance. The choice of the prime minister at the Center was often a matter of cohabitation building. It remains to be seen if Modi is able to renew with the older pre-1984 dynamics and to make the2014 election a truly national election. It cannot be ruled out that even in the case of a (likely) BJP landmark victory, the Sangh Parivar will prefer a more consensus prime minister or even a third-party figure as head of government. At the same time, a very important factor to keep in mind is that the political landscape is characterized by the exhaustion of the Congress. Manmohan Singh (although not necessarily a bad prime minister despite his low-profile style) has definitively turned into a lame duck. Sonia Gandhi had the potential for becoming a new Indira Gandhi, but her Italian origin forced her to leave the position to Manmohan Singh. With his handsome look, Rahul Gandhi has more the profile of a Bollywood star than the profile of a national-level politician. His rapid political rise was largely due to the fact that he is the last descendant of the Gandhi dynasty.

Toward a return of the Indian/Pakistani conflict

The return to power of the BJP in Delhi could have disastrous consequences for minorities in India. Maybe one day, it will be as bad to be a Muslim in India as to be a Hindu or a Shiite in Pakistan. But a BJP rule in Delhi will have also important geopolitical consequences. The Pakistani military can justified its control of Pakistani institutions only by playing on the myth of an existential Indian threat. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pakistani military and the ISI will have to keep busy the jihadist groups they continues to support more or less openly. Manmohan Singh may lack charisma, but to present him a warmonger is like … portraying Mickey Mouse as a sexual predator. Under the leadership (or lack of leadership) of Manmohan Singh, Pakistan was sent back to its own domestic failure. The coming to power of a BJP leader who advocates a hardline posture against Pakistani-sponsor terrorism may precipitate a new conflict between the two nuclear rivals.

Secularism and “Hindu” Politics

Maybe it was just me but during this trip I also realized more than ever how Indian consciousness was fractured. Most Hindus, especially in urban areas, have a limited grasp of their own tradition. They saw neo-Hindu gurus being interviewed on television and the average Indian often seems unable to distinguish them from an authentic teacher of traditional Hinduism. A phenomenon like Baba Ramdev, who sold yoga classes and Ayurvedic medicines before turning into an anti-corruption agitator and a NaMo supporter, illustrates this sorry state of affairs. In fact, neo-Hindu gurus are often close to the Sangh Parivar. They bring a “religious” aura and the Sangh brings media attention to them. A win-win deal …

As I was watching the TV political debates, I remembered a remark from a Varanasi pandit. He was lamenting that today there was no political force representing Hindu traditionalists. The sad truth is that neither the Congress nor the BJP seems capable of reconciling modern India with its millenarian-old tradition. On the Left side, the Congress embodies a religious-friendly secularism (as opposed to the French laicité), but the intellectuals close to it remain trapped in a Marxist rhetoric that equals religion with superstition and simply wants to catch up with the western form of modernity. On the right side of the political spectrum, the Sangh Parivar whose origins goes back to the anti-colonial movement but was also influenced by European fascism, is above all an ethno-nationalism that makes religion part of a cherished collective identity. Sometimes its leaders feel obliged to quote Aurobindo or some post-colonial theory but only to give some intellectual substance to their rather crude rhetoric. But as Swami Karpatri clearly saw it, the religion of the Sangh Parivar is not the Sanathana Dharma but the modern ideology of the nation.

A religious idiom for nationalism

To measure the level of disconnection of the leaders of the BJP with traditional Hinduism, I will end with a telling passage from the memoirs of A. K. Advani, My Country, my life. In the early 90s, Advani organized a Rath Yatra that ended up with the destruction of Badri Mosque in Ayodhya.  For Advani, the Rath Yatra was politically motivated. In his autobiography, he explains very candidly that organizing it was part of the Sangh Parivar strategy to promote cultural nationalism and to fight what they refer to as the “pseudo-secularism” of the Congress that favors minorities at the expend of the Hindus. Advani quite frankly acknowledges that he was surprised at the time by the religious response of the average Hindu in rural areas:

“I was truly overwhelmed by the response to the yatra … I had never realized that religiosity was so deep-rooted in the lives of Indian people. I had read about the phenomenon, and even seen glimpses of it. But never had I witnessed such a spontaneous manifestation in each village, town, and state I passed through. … It was the Rath Yatra that made me realize that, if I were to communicate the message of nationalism through the religious idiom, I would be able to transmit it more effectively and to a wider audience.…  Although the people’s response to the Rath Yatra was mainly religious, the focus of my speeches was on nationalism. I dwelt on how a perverse understanding of secularism was being used by certain political parties as a cover to deny the cultural and civilizational roots of Indian nationhood [and on how] the power of a positive approach to religious faith can contribute greatly to social transformation and nation-building.”(p. 377)

Truly, Hindu nationalists are as Hindu as Charles Maurras was a catholic.

On the Arab Spring, post-Islamism and other forms of wishful thinking

The descent of Syria into what looks more and more like a regional religious war between Shiites and Sunnis (comparable in some respects to the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe) and the military coup (How do you want to call it?) against the first democratically elected president of post-revolutionary Egypt may be interpreted by future historians as the end of the historical phase inaugurated by the Arab revolutions. These fateful developments invite us to revisit the narrative regarding the Arab Spring in a more sober manner and to reconsider some common assumptions about it.

“The Arab Spring was a democratic revolution”: There is little doubt that all revolutions are messy and stabilization takes decades. It can be argued for instance that it took France a century (until the fall of Mac Mahon) to reach a collective (and only relative) political consensus regarding the shape of its institutions. Yet, the rosy narrative of a democratic wave sweeping through the Middle-East, the prospect of seeing the Middle East catching up with western democracies seem more and more like wishful-thinking. The consensus (if ever there was one) was on collective discontent with the state of things, not on values. The idea of a somehow necessary progress of human freedom through history is a vestige of an Hegelian mythology that only distorts our understanding of contemporary events.

“Social Media promote liberal democracies”: Social Media (the famous so-called “Twitter-revolution”) seem to have favored more than anything else the rise of a generation of revolutionaries without real political program. Old power structures in the region (and across the globe) appear more and more vulnerable to these forces coming from a largely mythical global civil society. But the degree to which these global activists are representative of the larger society is at best doubtful (see the recent unrest in Turkey). The new strategies of collective disobedience seem to be inspired by an anarchistic imaginary, by nature unable to translate into a stable order. In this perspective, the difference between the (good) global activists and the (bad) jihadists may have been largely overstated. The two find their inspiration in the same unruly and romantic individualism that soon or later leaves the room for authoritarianism, be it secular or theocratic.

“The Arab Spring was part of an American, Israeli, Qatari (whatever you want) conspiracy”: Conspiracy theories, which have multiplied with the first disillusions regarding the Arab Spring, seem also less and less credible. The truth is that nobody is still in charge. Western powers in particular have lost most of their influence in the region and are mostly spectators rather than actors. There is in fact a foreign intervention in Syria … by Iran-backed Hezbollah. This decline of western influence can be traced back to the Iraq War. It seems also that the Obama administration has come to the realistic conclusion that the US can do little to channel the new political forces and prefers to retreat into a form of isolationism. I am not sure he should be blamed for this. A painful lesson from the Libyan war is that Western powers shall be deemed responsible for whatever evil comes out of a revolution they did not initiate but in which they intervened. The same who were stigmatizing Gaddafi as a tyrant massacring its own people, started to praise him as an anticolonial hero once his fate was sealed by the NATO bombings. Not to deny the share of historical responsibility of Western powers in the tragedies of the region but anti-imperialism should not be an excuse for collective schizophrenia, political incompetence and blatant hypocrisy.

“Islamists are becoming good democrats”: It was believed that the beginning of the Arab Spring created the opportunities for a Hegelian reconciliation between the discourse of religion and the discourse of freedom in the region. The apparent failure of the Muslim Brothers, the larger historical force representing political Islam in the region, and the revival of Jihadism (Mali, Syria and tomorrow Egypt) call into question the post-islamist hypothesis. The scenario of a conversion to democracy of local Islamist parties seems less and less reflecting the actual course of events. A few months ago the AKP was the model to follow but the recent unrest in Turkey even casts a shadow on the success of Turkish Islamo-conservatives. It is not Hegel who is winning but rather Carl Schmitt …

“Iran is the biggest threat to regional peace”: The US strategy in the region since the 2003 Iraq war has been to contain Iran at any cost, leaving even open the option of a military intervention to destroy its nuclear program. It cannot be denied however that in the regional context Iran, with its strong tradition of centralized State, appears more and more like a pole of stability in the midst of weak or rapidly disintegrating States (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in the West, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East). In the light of these geopolitical realities, Western powers should reconsider their posture toward Iran and opt for a more balance approach to the Sunnite/Shiite conflict in progress. As unpleasant as it may sound, Iran could play the role of a barrier against regional chaos and it is most certainly a key to any political solution in Syria.

Maybe I should leave the final word to an old reactionary though wise man, one immune to revolutionary enthusiasm: “The more one examines the apparently more active personalities of the Revolution, the more one finds something passive and mechanical about them. It cannot be too often repeated that men do not at all guide the Revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. It is well said that it has its own impetus. This phrase shows that never has the Divinity revealed itself so clearly in any human event. If it employs the most vile instruments, it is to regenerate by punishment.” (Joseph de Maistre)