Why you should care
Because the man about to run the world’s largest democracy comes from a bubbling cauldron of religious tensions and soap-operatic history.
It’d be easy to lose track of all the various death knells that the media predicts Narendra Modi’s election will sound in India: the end of democracy, equality and secularism all seem imminent, if you believe that sort of thing. The 63-year-old Modi, known for the invective he’s hurled against Muslims and his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim violence in 2002, is the prime ministerial candidate touted by India’s conservative party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP — a right-leaning, Hindu nationalist party. And he will almost certainly win India’s election when polls close May 12.
Three decades ago, Modi’s party could barely win two seats in parliament. Today, it is poised to end the rival Congress Party’s nearly half-century of dominance over the national parliament — the key decision-making body in India.
Maybe Modi will win because of his pro-biz tendencies, or because of his strong record in developing the state of Gujurat at a 10 percent annual growth rate during his tenure as the state’s chief minister from 2001–2007. Some Hindu politicians far to the left of Modi have also jumped on his bandwagon. It’s politics after all.
Maybe he’ll win because of a persistent sense brewing within the majority Hindu population of India that they suffer persecution; that their very race is at stake. The BJP has convinced Hindus that despite their demographic dominance (Hindus are 80 percent of the population; Muslims make up 13 percent, Christians a mere 3 percent), their religion and their cultural identity are in danger.
Defensive, aren’t we? Still, the enormous chip on the shoulders of Hindu nationalists comes from somewhere. Here’s their version of history:
The small matter of the maps
In 1947, the British governor general of India and the prime minister of the United Kingdom cast their final colonial act over the subcontinent. As they set the nation free, they split it in two: India and Pakistan.
That map continues to enrage. Some in India’s right-wing have never forgiven India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for conceding Pakistan to the Muslims in his first act as leader of his free nation. In their eyes, Nehru’s party — the Congress Party — continued to appease the Muslim minority for years thereafter.
The Hindu juggernaut
That sense of betrayal and the fear of impending Hindu persecution gave way to a great awakening of a dormant, collective, radical Hindu psyche beginning in 1980 — the year the BJP as we call it today was formed. The newspaper India Today chronicled the rise of Hindutva as it happened, with a tone of breathless horror.
There can be no doubt that the Hindu juggernaut has arrived, its wheels propelled by surprisingly large numbers of Hindus from every corner of the nation who have begun to articulate as — if with one voice — a feeling of persecution. The majority appears to have developed a minority complex. And within the confines of this mass psyche, it is embarked upon a zealous unification — a zeal marked by religious purgation.
Some blame it all on the missionaries. Hindus don’t proselytize as rival religions like Islam and Christianity do. Which leaves plenty of Hindus feeling vulnerable. And around the country, as converts sprung up (often low-caste and therefore low-opportunity people seizing on Islam or Christianity as a way out), Hindus reacted. Poorly. Defensively. Sometimes casting the first stone, sometimes in response to violence.
A political face was overlaid atop old cultural and religious violence. Which lends to ancient grievances a dangerous new institutional legitimacy.
Hindutva, or reactive Hindu nationalism, is the cultural canvas hanging behind the BJP’s identity. Its roots lie in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a culturally radical organization of Hindus. During Independence, it played Malcolm X to Mahatma Gandhi’s MLK.
Immediately after its naissance, the BJP became synonymous with religious conflict — and it was clear that it meant to be more than just an alternate to an unsatisfying majority party.
As the historian Ramachandra Guha tells it, ”The formation of the BJP heralded a wave of religious violence in northern and western India … the riots ran on for days, with much loss of life and property, and were finally quelled by armed force.” A mere scuffle with a pig or a cow in a town square (each animal sacred to a different religion) could light the proverbial match, Guha explains.
Hindu vs. Muslim violence is nothing new. But it’s impossible to ignore what happened in India in the 1980s: A political face was overlaid atop old cultural and religious violence. Which gave ancient grievances a dangerous new institutional legitimacy.
The dissatisfying Congress Party
The BJP has adeptly pointed out the flaws in the ruling Congress Party. BJP’s first iteration — the Janata Party — began as some of the loudest detractors of Congress Party Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma). She had many opponents: Between 1975–77, Gandhi placed a nearly two-year pause on civil liberties, elections — all of democracy — in order to rule directly, without all that messiness of the press and political opponents.
When the Janata Party gave way to the BJP in 1980, it was a magnet for the country’s greatest political grievances. But it didn’t immediately get the traction it needed.
Instead, India chose a young man with little political experience. He was charismatic and good-looking, and he drew comparisons to JFK. He was also Indira Gandhi’s son (darkly, he too was later assassinated). In this manner, the Gandhian political dynasty continued, and the BJP faded to a vocal but impotent minority over the course of the Congress Party’s uninterrupted 49-year rule. And there’s nothing better for grooming a chip on one’s shoulder than remaining a political minority for half a century.
Today the BJP is once more cashing in on a reputation for corruption in the Congress Party — and promising to end the tyranny of a Gandhian political dynasty. It’s an enticing offer.
This sense of persecution, umbrage and, above all, belief the BJP holds that the majority is under attack — not just by Muslims but by all minorities, by affirmative action for low castes, by its neighbors Bangladesh and Pakistan — this is what has been brewing in the dissatisfied minds of the political minority over the three decades leading up to the five-week long voting process currently embroiling India. Which makes the election not just a referendum on business or caste or temples or toilets. The votes rolling in across deserts and more are a kind of vote over Indian history — over whether this nation that touts democracy will more fully admit to its omnipresent religiosity, over whether its very maps were drawn correctly.