The Multiple Ideas of India: Narendra Modi and the Meaning of Indian Secularism – By Benjamin Siegel

Benjamin Siegel: Narendra Modi’s election as India’s sixteenth prime minister demonstrates how the celebrated “idea of India” has always been but one contingent idea about a multiethnic state and the aspirations of its citizens.

Seven months ago, in the shadow of the turbines of India’s largest dam, Narendra Modi stood barefoot in yellow shirtsleeves, the Narmada River rushing behind him. Below the dais where the Chief Minister of Gujarat stood, flanked by organizers from his rightist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lay the stony island of Sadhu Bet, a craggy mass of rocks and trees barely distinguishable from the riverbank itself. That October morning Modi had driven from the state capital of Ahmedabad, where gleaming high-rises vie for space with Dickensian slums and where, a dozen years earlier, a chilling outbreak of mob violence saw some two thousand Muslims butchered as officials turned a blind eye.

There was no talk that morning of the events now indelibly sutured to Gujarat’s recent past. Modi had come instead to speak of the rocky island before him and the towering figure that would soon be erected upon it. Within a few years, the Chief Minister vowed in a choleric roar, construction would be completed on the world’s tallest statue. A six hundred foot “Statue of Unity” would be erected of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — the Gujarati freedom fighter who, from India’s independence until his death in 1950, had served as Jawaharlal Nehru’s fiercely independent deputy prime minister. Patel’s administrative vigor would be captured by an American sculptor best known for his work designing Batman and Catwoman action figures, and two elevators would shoot up the statesman’s legs to an observation deck in his skull for a panoramic view of nearby mountain ranges.

Given that the flashiest memorial to his life prior to Modi’s announcement was a ramshackle museum on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Sardar Patel might have seemed an unlikely choice for this enormous statue. Yet Modi no doubt saw much of himself in Patel, whose death three years after independence left many conservative Indians feeling robbed of the only sympathetic statesman whose stature rivaled that of Nehru himself. Where Nehru had trumpeted the promise of state-led development, Patel had cozied up to the young state’s capitalists. And while the Prime Minister had urged Congress in the aftermath of partition to facilitate the integration of Muslims into the fabric of political life, his deputy had demanded that Muslims prove to the state they would not be fifth columns in national life.

Modi’s speech at the groundbreaking hinted at the parallels the BJP leader wished to draw with a long-dead statesman whose conservative vision for India had been firmly pushed aside at the moment of independence. It would be a fitting tribute to India’s “Iron Man,” the Prime Ministerial candidate declared, that the iron used to raise this memorial would be collected from Indian farmers’ donations of their old tools. And after an international competition drawing bids from South Korean and Chinese contractors, Modi declared himself pleased that the American construction firm responsible for the tallest building in the world — Dubai’s lofty Burj Khalifa — would be helping to raise Gujarat’s imposing new memorial. A tribute to Sardar Patel, Modi proclaimed, his Hindi lilting as marigold garlands fluttered behind him, should be seen as a reminder of the perfectly “secular” leader which India now required. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had tried to claim Patel for the reigning Congress Party, Modi reminded his audience that Patel’s heritage was bigger than any one party. “Today,” he declared, “the country needs Sardar Patel’s secularism, and not the secularism of vote-bank politics.”

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The distinction Modi drew has a complex lineage in India, whose secularism bears little similarity to France’s laïcité or to the United States’ separation of church and state. Colonial jurists and their postcolonial successors framed secularism as the equal treatment of different religious communities by the state, a definition that required upholding the “personal laws” of Hindus, Muslims, and other groups alongside civil law. India’s increasingly assertive Hindu right has come to see India’s state secularism as an iniquitous “pseudo-secularism,” privileging Muslim interests (“vote-bank politics”) above those of the nation’s Hindu majority. In contrast, champions of Indian state secularism declare that eliminating special consideration for Muslims and other minorities would enable religious majoritarianism and fuel the possibility of violence.

A reminder of how Modi and his ideological peers interpret “Sardar Patel’s secularism” was present at the dedication in the person of L.K. Advani, a senior party leader who sat behind Modi, nodding approvingly. Two decades before, Advani had cheered on a crowd of more than a hundred thousand Hindu pilgrims in the city of Ayodhya as they tore apart a medieval mosque with their bare hands. The question of whether or not Sardar Patel’s supposed secularism would have had room for the rioters in Ahmedabad or Ayodhya was left untouched as the plans for his memorial were unveiled.

Narendra Modi, of course, is now India’s Prime Minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party having delivered on May 16 the most crushing blow to the reigning Congress Party in the nation’s sixty-seven years of independence. Modi’s victory — unthinkable a decade ago — is being heralded as a radical new chapter in the nation’s political modernity, a menacing elevation of religious majoritarianism and neoliberal economics over the “idea of India” centered around liberal pluralism and state-directed planning. Yet the triumph of Narendra Modi — which, owing to India’s parliamentary system, stems from the capture of just 31% of the popular vote — must instead be seen as stemming from other resonant “ideas of India,” which have not infrequently found political voice in New Delhi and elsewhere.

There was little surprise in the election results themselves. In the course of two five-year terms, the outgoing Congress government enacted a number of showy welfare schemes for India’s poorest and presided over India’s fastest-ever decline in absolute poverty. Yet its authority had been eroded by a series of embarrassing scandals, pervasive corruption, and a Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, whose silence forced onlookers to decide whether the respected economist was either oblivious to or forgiving of the venality around him. The Congress’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi, hand-selected by his powerbroker mother, had run a clumsy, gaffe-prone campaign. Whether bungling his way through embarrassing interviews, referring to himself in the third person, or whiffing softball questions about his constituency and his family, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family gave the undeniable impression of a man who might prefer dental surgery to duking it out on the campaign trail.

Modi’s victory — unthinkable a decade ago — is being heralded as a radical new chapter in the nation’s political modernity.

Yet in spite of the mounting sense of inevitability that heralded its electoral triumph, few observers could have predicted the degree to which the BJP would rout the Congress Party. The party, which has headed the government in all but a few years since independence, saw its tally of seats in the lower house of parliament plummet from 206 to 44 — the first time in history that the Congress garnered less than a hundred seats — and the BJP reveled in achieving India’s first-ever non-Congress parliamentary majority. “India has won!” @NarendraModi tweeted as the election results streamed in, tagging on the Hindi slogan the BJP adopted as it sets to work forming a government: “Ache din ane wale hai” — Good days are ahead. But the formation of that government will be constrained by few of the democratic niceties that have structured coalition-building in the past. “Earlier,” Modi reflected, counting the unprecedented 282 seats that his party had garnered, “one needed to form a coalition in order to head the government. Now, just to form the opposition one needs to coalition-build.”

The triumphant declarations of India’s incoming Prime Minister — a man who boasts of his manly 56-inch chest, whose face has been printed on millions of masks distributed at campaign rallies, and whose speeches call for national pride with the thunder of blackshirt oratory — strike fear in the hearts of India’s liberal intelligentsia at home and abroad. From cafes and correspondents’ clubs in New Delhi to campuses in London, Boston, and New York, journalists, academics, and politicians point anxiously to Narendra Modi’s formative years spent as an organizer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing paramilitary group espousing a muscular vision of Hindu nationalism and decrying the “anti-Hindu” designs they see lurking in the “pseudo-secularism” of the Indian state. Alleging Modi’s tacit approval of the bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002, the Prime Minister’s detractors tally up his campaign trail slights to India’s Muslims: his refusal to don a skullcap as a gesture of goodwill, his unwillingness to use the word “minority” or “Muslim” in his triumphant post-election speech. They fear that, however much the BJP has moderated its party platform in recent years, the new Prime Minister will make good on past promises to help construct a temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, the site of communal carnage, and enact a “Uniform Civil Code” that would do away with the distinct legal systems governing the personal matters of Muslims and Hindus. And they warn that should Modi and his advisers fail to realize the ambitious economic goals they have set out, the BJP will, in the face of little parliamentary opposition, rely upon the tried-and-true idioms of menacing religious majoritarianism. The Sardar Patel that Narendra Modi has invoked in steel and bronze, they fear, will not be the egalitarian Patel who skillfully chaired India’s Advisory Committee on Minority Rights, but rather, the chauvinist Patel whose “secularism” masked disdain for India’s Muslims and others.

Modi’s boosters, by contrast, point to a campaign run with little explicit reference to religion and scant evidence of sinister majoritarian intent. They trumpet the heady promises of solar panels and toilets for every home, of double-digit growth rates, and of roads, jobs, and bullet trains. They identify, correctly, the electoral success of a low-caste former tea-seller over the tone-deaf heir of India’s first family as proof of India’s robust democracy. It was development, they insist, which the BJP promised in election rallies and campaign materials, and it was the middle-class fixation on good governance, economic growth, and entrepreneurial opportunity that fueled the party’s commanding victory. They promise that it is not Gujarat’s bloody past that the BJP will export from Ahmedabad to New Delhi but rather the state’s economic prowess (a promise undermined by Gujarat’s middling record on poverty, education, nutrition, and shared growth). These enthusiastic cheerleaders are to be found among the hopeful industrialists who bankrolled his election, amid young voters with little hereditary affection for the creaky Congress machinery, and in the aggressive online foot soldiers who proffer up profanely creative insults in the comment sections of online pieces that deign to question Modi’s egalitarian bona fides. And in the days after Modi’s election, much of India’s liberal media and its punditry has begun to sheath their swords, as well. The newsweekly Open missed the Teutonic irony in the headline its editors chose to welcome the new Prime Minister — “Triumph of the Will” — while India’s preeminent political commentator made a puzzling about-face to decry Modi’s “demonization” at the hands of his colleagues.

Yet this angry clash of ideas hides a longer set of contestations about India’s democracy and its past. Rather than seeing Modi’s victory as an aberration — or wondering, as many commentators have, if Indian voters have somehow been conned, cajoled, or hoodwinked into supporting the majoritarian designs of a thunderous demagogue — the chattering classes might remember how the seductive “idea of India” has, at many moments, grown perilously close to collapse.

Shri Narendra Modi addresses victory rally in Ahmedabad. Image via Modi's official Flickr account.
Shri Narendra Modi addresses victory rally in Ahmedabad. Image via Modi’s official Flickr account.

In 1998, as the BJP and its allies took control of the national government from the Congress for the first time, the political scientist Sunil Khilnani published a slim but influential book, The Idea of India. The book was a robust defense of the Indian state and the nation’s political modernity: Khilnani saw in the Republic of India the fullest manifestation of a liberal pluralism that had skillfully mediated “an ungainly, unlikely, inelegant concatenation of differences.” Jawaharlal Nehru and the secular modernizers in his cabinet — whose cosmopolitan worldview, legislative capacity, and political long-sightedness ensured an administrative structure and constitutional regime that would stave off the peril of communalism — masterminded that mediation. Communal organizations, Nehru would write in his The Discovery of India, an elegant liberal paean to the historical inheritance of Indian diversity, were the “clearest examples of extreme narrowness of outlook, strutting about in the guise of nationalism,” with no place in independent India.

The Idea of India was a proud vindication of liberal pluralism at a moment when the very idea of the nation-state itself was under academic assault, and it served as an important reminder of India’s democratic past at a moment when India’s first BJP government was inching towards nuclear militarism. Yet there was scant mention in Khilnani’s commanding study of those whose ideas of India had been pushed away from the political mainstream. The book made no reference to C. Rajagopalachari, Gandhi’s protégé and an early champion of free market liberalism in independent India. It gave no sense of the commanding influence that the Hindu supremacist M.S. Golwalkar had held over a wide swath of free India’s population, an influence quickly discounted when, as head of the Hindu nationalist RSS, Golwalkar was arrested in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination. And it made no mention of Sardar Patel — a man who, as Narendra Modi would later recall, might well have been India’s first prime minister, and who would have articulated a very different “idea of India” than Jawaharlal Nehru. The Idea of India instead focused on the democratic vision espoused by men like B.R. Ambedkar, the Columbia-trained lawyer and economist whose vision of low-caste uplift underwrote the drafting of India’s constitution.

Yet Ambedkar and Nehru undoubtedly knew that their idea of India was at odds not only with those outside of the political mainstream — India’s unformed capitalists, hardline communists, and Hindu nationalists — but those within the Congress itself. In the wake of his own stinging electoral defeat to a low-caste dairyman in 1952, Ambedkar lamented — or perhaps gloated: “Congress is like a dharamshala [pilgrims’ shelter], open to all, fools and knaves, friends and foes, communalists and secularists, reformers and orthodox and capitalists and anti-capitalists.”

In the six decades since, these factions and groups have found places within the mainstream Congress Party and have not infrequently broken from it. And while the pluralistic “idea of India” has been a leitmotif for the Congress and its refugees, so, too, have many other ideas of India flourished — some aspirational, some menacing, and some a mixture of both. A year after the drafting of India’s pluralistic constitution, vowing “equality of status and of opportunity” to India’s 350 million citizens, a group of RSS volunteers formed a new party, the Jana Sangh, to promote the ends of Hindu majoritarianism through political means. That same year — in a sterling example of what the political scientist W.H. Morris-Jones once characterized as the “saintly idiom” of Indian politics — one of Gandhi’s acolytes began walking the length and breadth of India, urging individuals to donate land to the poor to subvert the designs of state-led development. In 1959, C. Rajagopalachari founded the free-market Swatantra Party with the aim of unchaining India’s planned economy. Two decades later, a motley assortment of Indian parties from the left and the right grouped together as the Janata party in protest of the Congress’s authoritarian excesses under Indira Gandhi. By the late 1980s, scandal, communal violence, and the maladroit handling of law and religious life had abraded much of the Congress’s ability to claim liberal pluralism as their living political heritage; in the decade that followed, the rise of caste-based political parties began to hint at new models for Indian democracy itself in what has been influentially described as India’s “silent revolution.”

These political transformations have not exterminated the pluralistic “idea of India,” a notion whose resiliency is manifest in the vibrancy of India’s civil society, and indeed, the angry, fearful, and bearish reaction of such a wide swath of the Indian public — the 69% of Indians who did not, in fact, vote for the BJP and the agenda for which it now claims a robust mandate. Yet these transformations underscore the ways in which Modi’s victory is not a sudden rejection of the received wisdom concerning Indian political life and the highest ideals of the nation but rather the predictable outcome of other “ideas of India.” These ideas have often taken concrete political form and are legacies as real as the pluralistic liberalism that is often taken as the dominant vision of political modernity in independent India. Modi’s claim to the legacy of the freedom fighter Sardar Patel is a dubious one — yet the new Prime Minister, in his invocation of a figure the Congress claimed in equal measure as the personification of postcolonial pluralism, is speaking to the multiple and frequently contentious ideas of India rooted in the experience of nearly seven free decades. It is possible to look at Patel, like so many other Indian nationalists, and see preemptive approval for visions of accommodating, tolerant secularism and the hard-nosed secularism that concedes few special provisions for India’s minorities.

Will the “idea of India” be enough to rein in the worst of Modi’s apparent authoritarian impulses?

That Modi’s government will diverge radically from the outgoing Congress administration in its economic approach seems certain, and to careful social scientists will fall the task of calculating the associated risks to India’s precarious welfare schemes. The more immediate question, however, will be whether the “idea of India” as defined by theorists like Sunil Khilnani and manifest in India’s resilient constitutional rule and dynamic civil society, will be enough to rein in the worst of Modi’s apparent authoritarian impulses. The previous BJP government found itself with coalition partners whose own pluralistic ideas of India precluded strong majoritarian legislation, but Modi’s government will find itself with no such deterrent. Too much in his recent past hints ominously at an antipathy towards India’s largest minority group, and Modi has done little to reassure doubters of his commitment to India’s pluralistic tradition. His declaration last summer — that the events of 2002 in Ahmedabad pained him just as a puppy run over by a car might pain an onlooker — was one discomfiting sign; his rush to conduct a recondite religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganges immediately after his election was another, suggesting that the new administration would not hesitate to trumpet religious idioms in public life. Yet the “persistent centrism” which has sometimes been claimed as the hallmark of Indian politics has yoked other governments to the values of pluralistic liberalism before; so, too, may it steer Narendra Modi and his government towards a more moderate course than their right-wing supporters might demand.

Presuming the Gujarat Government’s drive for iron farming implements picks up steam, and the construction tenders continue as planned, the Statue of Unity is slated for completion four years away. The first elevator rides to the observation deck inside Sardar Patel’s head will be taken as India heads to the polls once again, and onlookers will know whether the BJP government has aligned itself with a pluralistic idea of India, and whether or not the statue’s name bears a touch of grim irony or not.

Modi’s opponents, who purport to carry the banner of India’s liberal pluralistic tradition, must recognize that the accommodating, multiethnic “idea of India” has at no point in India’s modern history been a given. It has, since before independence, been in tension with equally resonant visions of India’s public culture, political organization, and economic planning — multiple visions that sometimes, as in the case of Sardar Patel, are discernable in the memory of a single figure. Modi’s detractors are right to see in the new Prime Minister the possibility of authoritarian designs and majoritarian intents enacted in the name of an unaccommodating “secularism.” Yet as they look toward the next elections and the form their opposition will take, Congress and other Indian liberals will need to recognize that accommodating pluralism is but one way of seeing the modern state and its organization; so, too, will they need to explain to India’s citizens the value pluralism holds in the face of more menacing programs. Only if India’s opposition can make this case will the pluralistic “idea of India” be reanimated meaningfully in public life, and the towering Statue of Unity live up to its name.