Stop the fear mongering over Modi

Author: Rajiv Kumar, CPR

Opinions on Narenda Modi, the current frontrunner for the Indian prime ministership, differ widely. But the question of what his likely victory will mean for the country’s 150 million Muslims invokes the strongest response.

A rickshaw puller, wearing a mask of Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi, transports loudspeakers during a rally in Kolkata on 1 February 2014. Modi, tipped in opinion polls to be India

Many view Modi and the BJP as being anti-Muslim, a perception that has no doubt been strengthened by comments made by Giriraj Singh, a leader of the Bihar state wing of the BJP. He remarked that those opposed to Modi would have to leave India and move to Pakistan after the BJP secured its victory.

Modi has done well to distance himself and the BJP from these remarks: in a Twitter post, he reprimanded his colleagues for their ‘irresponsible’ anti-Muslim rhetoric. This may provide some comfort to those who are nervous about the social implications of a BJP victory in the elections.

But will Modi put his money where his mouth is? Modi will have to reassure Muslims and other religious groups in India that his government will have zero tolerance for bigotry and discrimination along communal and religious lines. In this respect, the battle may have just begun. There is almost certainly a substantial number of radical Hindus who will attempt to take advantage of a Modi government for peddling their extremist views.

The worst instances would be those of petty discrimination by the lower ranks of the bureaucracy and police, who would see a change in the government as a license for either settling old scores, or asserting majority control over a largely helpless population. This has happened in the past, especially in Uttar Pradesh under the BJP, the Socialist Party and the BSP in favour of Dalits, which was welcome. But such ground level discrimination cannot be allowed to fester as it would seriously threaten the very foundations of our democracy. We will have to be extra vigilant and the Modi government will have to show heightened sensitivity to any feedback and certainly not be seen as defensive on this issue. Only then will we initiate the process of de-communalising our society and roll back the pseudo secularism that has thrived only on the basis of spreading fear and insecurity amongst the minorities.

Yet fear mongers, who go so far as to suggest that Modi is a fascist dictator in the making, are either ignorant of the changing ground realities in India or are cynically attempting to boost their own electoral prospects. India is certainly not the same as it was in 1992 and is very different even from 2002. The judiciary is far more independent and will not allow a rogue executive to stay in power. Active judicial oversight, which led the Supreme Court to insist on a nine-hour police grilling of Modi — a sitting Chief Minister — has surely set a new precedent. And we should remember that Modi accepted it without protest and without raising the spectre of a Hindu backlash. If the Election Commission can act with such alacrity to ban speeches and rallies by politicians, there is hope that they can and will be restrained.

Additionally, the media, with its ever-increasing reach and impact on social perceptions and discourse will not permit any leader to step out of line and change the secular and multi-ethnic nature of Indian society. To argue that that the media will succumb to pressures from any budding dictator is to ignore, either naively or purposely, the nature and structure of India’s vibrant fourth estate which is far too diversified in its ownership and regional moorings to be amenable to uniform manipulation. With right to information and public interest litigation mechanisms in place, the bureaucracy is also unlikely to accede to the deviant behaviour of any political leader.

Thus, India’s institutions, nurtured over the last six and a half decades, provide assurance that a dictator cannot emerge and that anyone who attempts to become one will be given very short shrift. India is not Germany of the 1930s. The Muslim population in India is much larger than the Jewish population in Germany in the 1930s. The Hindu middle class will also oppose any political party’s attempt to foment trouble. And the Dalits will also not be mere bystanders.

Accordingly, the sooner the glib and dangerous talk of emerging fascism and dictatorship stops the better. People’s energies and attention could then be focused on the real task at hand, which is to accelerate economic growth and ensure that its benefits are widely distributed through effective governance.

This is critical because the greatest risk to social harmony in India comes not from an individual political leader but from an imploding economy and maladministration. The youth, seeking to apportion blame for their unemployment, will be easy prey for fundamentalist forces of all hues. Modi has correctly emphasised rapid growth and good governance as the central planks of his program. He should be held accountable to that goal. If he delivers, India could finally succeed in its audacious experiment of achieving political, economic and social transition through democratic means.

Rajiv Kumar is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a former Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and former Director and CEO of the Indian Council for Research and International Economic Relations.