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Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 8.45 GMT

Narendra Modi and the rise of Hindutva

Towards a new terrain in Indo-Lanka relations

By Lucien Rajakarunanayake


Although the campaign in the national polls across the Palk Strait gets hotter each day, the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils will be out of the debate in the contest, with Tamil Nadu having finished its polling earlier this week. The Tamil Nadu politicians, as well as Narendra Modi and Congress leaders, will now put the Sri Lankan Tamils on the back burner. This issue will come up next after the results of the poll in mid-May, when most possibly the they will shout about Sri Lanka and the Tamils here, if there is bargaining for a coalition in New Delhi, and also if Tamil Nadu would play a key role in building it.

If such silence by those who are using the Sri Lankan Tamils as political bait in the Indian election, with no genuine interest in the welfare of the Tamils here, is cause for some relief, there are other causes for worry. This comes from the growing signs that the BJP candidate Narendra Modi's chances of being India's next prime minister keep rapidly increasing.

In February this year, when the current Chairman and former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, Mr. Narasimhan Ram spoke in Colombo on the pre-polls political situation in India, I asked him a question about the strong Hindutva movement in India, and the likelihood of a future BJP led government linking the Hindutva mood with the pro-Tamil politics that was dominant in Tamil Nadu, and the effects of such a combine for Indo-Sri Lanka relations, if a major Tamil Nadu party, such as Jayalalithaa's AIADMK comes to an alliance with the BJP to form a coalition in New Delhi. Mr. Ram's response was that there need be no such fears because secularism was well entrenched even in the larger political parties of Tamil Nadu. (On My Watch - Feb. 17, 2014).

With his thorough knowledge of Indian politics, Mr. Ram's response is still possibly correct, vis--vis Tamil Nadu politics in the post-election situation. But the situation that is emerging is not one of a BJP alliance with a Tamil Nadu political party, but the much bigger issue of the overall rise of Hindutva politics in the entire electoral campaign.

Clear strategy

As the campaign proceeds, there is increasing evidence of the BJP and Narendra Modi working on a clear strategy to retain and build on its core agenda of Hindu nationalism, leading to a struggle within the BJP and its allies, between its Hindutva base and others seeking to reach out to wider sections of Indian society. The events now show it is Hindutva that is on the rise.

In an important analysis of current BJP strategy, Zoya Hasan, ICSSR National Fellow and formerly Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, writing in The Hindu of April 11 said: "The much delayed (BJP) manifesto is full of rhetoric on economic development, reforms, good governance and jobs and so on to satisfy India's privileged classes as well as appeal to the changing aspirations of the emergent middle class. At the same time, it recommits the party to three core Hindutva issues: a Ram temple at Ayodhya, scrapping of Article 370 which guarantees special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and the demand for a uniform civil code issues which can polarize the nation.

"To be sure, the double focus will not please everyone. Anyone who has followed Mr. Modi's campaign trail cannot miss the larger strategy which is attempting to polarize the electorate. The manifest ideology and the oral tradition communicated through speeches delivered by him and the word of mouth propaganda by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are more important than the manifesto. Mr. Modi might avoid the Hindutva language for which he is known, but through signals, expressions, and symbols he has kept intact his image as the mascot of the Hindu right.

"At a rally in Ghaziabad he accused the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of promoting cow slaughter and promoting meat export adding further that the number of slaughterhouses is increasing, and incidents of cattle being stolen from villages are also on a rise. He said: "when the country was waiting for another green revolution, the Congress was planning for a 'pink revolution (meat export)'." While there is no overt display of Hindutva here, the undercurrent cannot be missed as the same political message is being conveyed in a subterranean fashion.


"The BJP's campaign in Uttar Pradesh unmistakably exposes the doublespeak. It is not restricted to economic growth, price rise and corruption and the Gujarat model of development as the panacea to the country's despair with sliding economic growth; rather, it focuses on both development and division. Mr. Modi talks about development, but allows other leaders of his party and the Sangh to raise communal issues. After Mr. Modi's close aide, Mr. Amit Shah (former Home Minister of Gujarat) took charge of the party's U.P. campaign, it took a decisive turn toward Hindutva which has since become the main plank in the election. While Mr. Modi proclaims that he is interested only in economic development, Mr. Shah is telling Hindus in western U.P., not surprisingly in by-lanes and not public speeches, that this election was an opportunity to seek "revenge" for the "insult" inflicted during the (recent) communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, and "that they must not vote for those who give compensation to those who killed Jats."

"Mr. Modi's decision to contest from Varanasi further underlines U.P.'s importance to the BJP's national strategy and the keenness of both the BJP and the RSS to signal that Hindutva will underpin its campaign in this crucial State.

Zoya Hasan comes to the important conclusion that: "Whether the BJP opts for the path of extremism or that of moderation chiefly depends on its relationship with the RSS from which it has not been able to sever its links. What we can say with some certainty at this moment is that the option of moderation seems doubly unlikely because the RSS has thrown its lot with the corporate-financial elite and policies it promotes."

Marital secrecy

An interesting exposure Narendra Modi's strong personal involvement with the RSS and Hindutva came with the revelation that he had not declared he was married in his electoral candidate affidavit. It has been widely reported that Narendra Modi's strong RSS links at the time of his marriage, with the related commitment to celibacy, made him ignore the existence of his wife, until the story broke out in the campaign. Some lame excuses were given for this "error" or convenient forgetfulness. Commenting on this "Inexplicable reticence" The Hindu said on April 15, that: "Indeed, this delayed disclosure of the crucial personal detail dents Mr. Modi's credibility as a prime ministerial candidate. With the socially conservative RSS driving the BJP's campaign, there is the apprehension of a resurgence of a patriarchal mindset reflecting restrictive approaches to the issue of further empowerment of women.

"The Gujarat model that Mr. Modi is assiduously marketing in his bid to become Prime Minister does not inspire much confidence in his ability to promote gender equality. The 2011 census says there are 918 women for every 1,000 men in the State, below the national average of 940, indicating an unacceptable trend of male-preference... The State's conviction rate for rape and abduction of women is also among the lowest in the country. Mr. Modi's political opponents have naturally seized upon this disquieting impression of a regressive impulse, seeking to make political capital out of it. The onus is on him, given his prime ministerial aspirations, to be more transparent about what prompted this somewhat misogynist reticence in disclosing his marital status. This will put to rest fears that we are about to enter an era of renewed social conservatism, should Mr. Modi become Prime Minister."

One of is close allies in the campaign has recently stated in public that those who oppose Narendra Modi to be the next prime minister should all go to Pakistan, and another leading member of the BJP led alliance. In another cause for worry, the Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia, also an ally of Modi, asked Hindus not to allow Muslims to buy properties in "Hindu localities". It has been observed Togadia's intent was far more sinister than swinging the election mood in favour of the BJP, with a long-term objective: to create a feeling of insecurity among India's Muslims, push them into ghettos, and encourage Hindus to engage in violent action against them.

Call for real politik

It is clear that Sri Lanka has to move on to an important stage of "Watch & Play" in the country's dealings with India in the coming years. We have had good relations with both the Congress and BJP led governments in New Delhi earlier. There has been cause for much concern when the politics of coalition saw Tamil Nadu putting increased pressure on New Delhi in the past three years. The decision of the next Indian government will be made by the Indian public, and all signs today are that what emerges will have a very strong Hindutva approach, which does not serve the concerns and interests of Sri Lanka very well.

What is happening is a major shift of Indian politics to a terrain that Sri Lanka is not familiar with in her relations with her closest neighbour. Nehru and his successor Gandhis, have come and gone earlier, and the BJP too, with Vajpayee, has had its time at the centre in India. But what we are most likely to see is a sharp decline in the secularism that has been a defining reality of Indian politics, and strong rise of Hindutva, that has little to do with secular politics.

The indications are that we will have to move towards a very pragmatic attitude in relations with India. We have to look at much more than the cause for the Congress-led UPA's abstaining in the vote against Sri Lanka in Geneva last month. There is now an urgent and pressing need for studies of Indian politics and foreign policy, both by academics, diplomats, serious politicians and the media; and a call for those who are knowledgeable about India - both of its history, current policies and future trends, to be given a bigger role in identifying and defining new necessities in relations with the land from where the teachings of the Buddha came to us.





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Last modified: April 26, 2014.

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