Liberals in India who lost patience with the UPA government and became supporters of Narendra Modi are puzzled by the prime minister's silence over Sangh Parivar's growing communal interventions. They should not be. That is his record in Gujarat over 12 years, it worked for him there, and he has come to power nationally on the back of it. Why change course over the whining of a few bleeding-heart liberals who in any case Modi holds in supreme contempt?
Since Modi came to power, the entire Hindutva agenda has returned to the centrestage of Indian politics. At the heart of that agenda are communal violence, inflammatory statements about the relationship between Hindus and other religious groups (especially Muslims), mobilisation over RamjanambhoomiBabri Masjid, repeal of Article 370, religious conversion, and, most importantly , disrupting and reworking the education system.
Liberals convinced themselves that Modi was all about development sanitation, sustainable urbanisation, education, economic reforms and revitalisation of manufacturing. Surely communalism would get in the way of developmentalism, and, if so, it was a good bet that the prime minister would hold back the right-wing lunatics in this fold.
What head-in-the-sand liberals and Modi's newly-discovered liberal friends abroad (Obama, for instance) missed is that Modi and the right-wing see no contradiction between communalism and development. Broadly , their view is that communalism will unite the largest group in India Hindus and when that happens the basis for long-term development will have been achieved. For you cannot have material progress, in this view, without social unity. Once the minorities perceive Hindus as united, they will “join the mainstream“ as converts or as political junior partners in national reconstruction and we will all live happily and richer ever after. This is classic right-wing politics going back to fascist days and is alive and well today all over the world.
The right wing sees Modi's development agenda as going nicely with communalised politics. As long as the BJP government talks development, with Modi as its leading spokesman, it disarms critics and those who fear communalisation. The right wing is happy to have Modi sweep the streets, regale wild-eyed NRIs in New York with his jokes and sarcasm, gad about the world unfurling the “Make in India“ flag and win elections while they go about their business which is social engineering.
The prime minister wins either way , as he discovered in Gujarat. Communalism kept the right wing at bay and left him alone to do most of what he wanted politically: to grow his personal popularity and move towards a national role. It also helped consolidate a Hindu vote bank which kept him in power in the state and provided the impetus for his takeover of the BJP. The state did fairly well economically , though its development indicators show that the Gujarat story is a very mixed one. Communalism did not in any case get substantially in the way of investor interest or economic growth.
The prime minister's silence over increasing communalisation of Indian life is therefore no mystery. Liberals-for-Modi know this deep down, but they have nowhere to go now and are left continuously scratching their heads over the supposed contradictions in their man on horseback.
In the meantime, India is beginning to look like Turkey under Erdogan or Russia under Putin, with a majority hungering for “pride“ and “progress“ and turning towards a populist majoritarian leader and right-wing politics for its salvation.
The prime minister thus far has achieved quite little. The economy is mired in the 5-6% growth trap. His reforms are fairly puny , mostly things UPA would have done anyway or had already begun. On foreign policy , we are no better off with Pakistan and China, thanks to a series of blunders. His constant traveling threatens to become an international joke. And bureaucrats coming to work on time is not good governance but rather a middle class fantasy come true.
What Narendra Modi has achieved is in fooling a lot of people into thinking that he stands for development against communalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. He will push either or both pedals as it suits him.