The South Asia Channel
Toilets First, Temples Later: Modi’s Promising Act
Modi was molded by Hindutva, but he mobilized a national campaign on reviving India's economy, not religion. Can he deliver on his promise? Are these two on a collision course?
Before Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister, he caught many by surprise in New Delhi when he said to a group of young voters during a pre-election speech in 2013, “I am known to be a Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] leader. My image does not permit [me] to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is – [build] toilets first, temples later.” On the campaign trail, Modi promoted his development vision with the slogan, “sabka saath, sabka vikas,” meaning, together for all, development for all.
Modi’s inclusive development vision has provided a vital point of re-convergence between the United States and India, and garnered strong political support from the Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry last year called Modi’s development agenda, “a great vision… exactly the vision that we need to embrace now.” After a positive first meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi last September in Washington D.C., within less than six months, Modi invited Obama to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. The recently concluded summit produced agreements on civil nuclear and defense cooperation, and includes plans to jointly develop and produce defense technologies.
Behind the reviving ties and grand parade, however, not everyone in India has favored Modi’s focus on development. In recent months, some Hindu nationalist leaders have criticized Modi for his comments, while others have stepped up their political discourse and engagement in Hindu nationalist issues on the electoral and the legislative front. As the Modi government consolidates its vision and agenda in 2015, will it be able to focus on implementing its development vision, or will proponents of a broader Hindu nationalist agenda overshadow these efforts?
As the Chief Minister for Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, Modi was known as a Hindu nationalist – from his lifelong ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization and a crucial provider of Hindutva ideology for the BJP – as well as a forceful champion for business and development. But his overriding emphasis on economic revival and inclusive development during the national elections appeared to be a public shift as he prioritized inclusive development themes over Hindu nationalist ones.
After leading the BJP to a landslide victory, Modi further articulated his bold development agenda for India. In last year’s Independence Day speech, Modi highlighted broad development themes, such as “Make in India,” to promote India’s manufacturing sector, “Skilled India,” to promote skills development, “Digital India,” to promote connectivity, and reiterated the need for improved sanitation. In addition to his development agenda, he also spoke about the poison of discrimination based on caste, religion, or ethnicity, and called for a “moratorium on all such activities for ten years.”
Still, some proponents of Hindu nationalism have continued to emphasize Hindu nationalist themes. In the run-up to last fall’s by-elections (special elections), Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member of parliament and a priest known for his provocative Hindu nationalist rhetoric, was a leading campaigner in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Yet, granting a platform for Hindu nationalist rhetoric did not result in a winning electoral strategy, and the BJP ended up doing poorly in the special election in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in several other states.
After the BJP’s poor electoral performance in the by-elections, the BJP did stunningly well in a series of assembly elections in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand, and also significantly expanded its electoral presence in Jammu and Kashmir. This is likely because in each of these state elections, the BJP did not focus on Hindu nationalist issues, and instead campaigned predominantly on a plank of development, good governance, and stability. Indeed, the recent electoral win by the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi can be interpreted as additional evidence that the broader Indian electorate seeks a candidate that will deliver on practical issues.
These electoral events were followed by recent efforts by Hindu nationalist activists in the RSS calling for a campaign aimed at religious reconversions to Hinduism, known as “ghar wapsi.” The upheaval created by the “ghar wapsi” campaign temporarily sidelined the government’s legislative reform agenda during the recent winter session of the Indian Parliament. Modi resorted to issuing ordinances, a form of executive decree, in order to pass temporary legislation relating to land acquisition, insurance, and coal reforms, and to make headway on his development agenda.
The potential benefits to implementing this development agenda for India are great. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund estimate that India’s economic growth is likely to outpace China’s growth by fiscal year 2017. But this is predicated on a confluence of factors, including expanded trade and investment, and enacting economic reforms.
While some Hindu nationalist elements have been emboldened by Modi’s electoral win, it is unlikely that those who advocate a greater Hindu nationalist agenda will be able to overshadow Modi’s development agenda. Until recently, Modi has been criticized for not publicly speaking out about controversial issues such as the religious reconversion campaign. What looked like inaction on Modi’s part may have been a quiet but firm behind-the-scenes strategy of sidelining more hardline voices. For example, after the disruptions caused by the “ghar wapsi” campaign upended Modi’s legislative reform agenda in the winter session of parliament, it is no coincidence that the RSS removed the point person leading the “ghar wapsi” campaign.
Any question about Modi’s position about religious freedom and intolerance was clarified last week during public remarks he made at an event to celebrate the canonization of two saints from the state of Kerala. During his speech, Modi declared, “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” Modi said. He then reiterated the theme that his vision of a modern India is based on the realization of inclusive development, “sabka saath, sabka vikas.”
Although there was some displeasure about President Obama’s reference to the twin themes of religious freedom and intolerance made during his final speech at the U.S.-India summit and again during remarks he gave at the National Prayer Breakfast, the administration has predominantly focused its public efforts on supporting Modi’s development agenda. This focus is a prudent strategy for guiding U.S.-India ties after a bilateral high, and also for enabling Modi to keep the focus on reviving his nation’s economy.
Allison Berland is a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies South Asia Studies Program.
SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images
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