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.

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