India contemplates a decade of gradual Hindu nationalist dominance
Municipal elections in Delhi later this month have become politically significant for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party at a time when its political opponents and critics are gradually resigning themselves to maybe as much as a decade of increasing Hindu nationalism in India’s social and political life.
The BJP is launching an intensive vote-winning campaign to ensure it defeats the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that embarrassed it by winning a crushing victory in Delhi state assembly polls just after the BJP had won the 2014 general election.
Following the BJP’s landslide state assembly win in Uttar Pradesh (UP) last month, this is the next step for Modi and his strong Hindu nationalist henchman, Amit Shah, in their drive gradually to dominate the Indian political scene by the 2019 general election.
As has been seen since the UP victory, Hinduisation can involve varying degrees of surges in extreme nationalist authoritarian policies. So far, these have included bans on sacred cow slaughter and police crack-downs both on slaughterhouses (mostly run by Muslims), and on the freedom for young men and women to socialise in public – backed sometimes by genuine Hindu nationalist hardliners, but also by vigilante enforcement gangs that cause communal unrest and extort bribes from those they attack.
The flip side is that UP at last seems to have a government, albeit with a firebrand Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath (above), as chief minister, that is determined to restore law and order to a seriously lawless state, and also to push ahead with development. That is in stark contrast to the last 15 years of rule by two state-level regional parties.
More widely, these developments stem from the legacy of the fading Gandhi dynasty-dominated Congress Party that in 2014 bequeathed, after ten years in power, a country urgently needing clean, efficient and development-oriented government.
As the Modi years unfold – he is now into the second half of his five year term in office – it is clear that the price that India will have to pay for stronger government is growing and often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which horrifies India’s liberals and strikes fear among Muslims and some other minorities, notably Christians.
The five-yearly elections to the notoriously corrupt Delhi Municipal Corporation are rarely significant beyond the city. The BJP is currently in power, so it is not chasing a new victory, but it is determined to defeat its main competitor, the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal, who is Delhi’s chief minister and whose small party grew out of an earlier anti-corruption movement.
Modi’s government has hounded the Kejriwal state administration since 2014, frequently undermining and disrupting its limited constitutional authority in Delhi’s multi-tiered government structure. The municipal election on April 23 will be a test of Modi’s and Shah’s ability to use the BJP’s organisational and financial clout to swing poor voters back from the AAP that they supported in 2014.
The BJP’s triumphant and unexpected appointment on March 19 of Adityanath, a long-standing MP and Hindu monk who always dresses in priests’ saffron robes, as the UP’s chief minister, indicated that Modi is apparently content to give way sometimes to Hindu hardliners providing the development of a strong India remains his government’s top priority.
That balance seemed to have been upset in Adityanath’s early iryys, when enforcement of an existing law (which varies in different states) banning cow slaughter led to raids on slaughterhouses and also on sales of buffalo beef that is legitimately and widely eaten and exported. Gangs of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) became vigilante enforcers, backed by frequently vicious policing. There were indiscriminate raids and attacks on shops selling lamb and on kebab restaurants – at least one Kentucky Fried Chicken shop had to close in Delhi’s UP satellite city of Noida.
At the same time, the government clamped down on hordes of young men who had been pestering women on the streets to such an extent that many young women did not dare go out in the evenings. This action was necessary and had not been carried out by the previous state government but, again, it was done to excess by “anti-Romeo” squads with police harassing couples and even arresting single men who were doing no harm.
Slowly, the situation calmed down. Adityanath warned that excesses would not be allowed and that “only those who do not believe in the law ought to be worried”. Harsh and sometimes violent threats and action have however spread.
The highly controversial construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in UP, where Hindu demonstrators demolished a Muslim mosque in 1991, has become a live issue. Illustrating the extreme attitudes that the UP victory and Adityanath appointment have generated, a BJP state assembly member in the southern city of Hyderabad is reported to have said of those who opposed the temple, “we have been waiting for years to behead such traitors”.
The UP clampdown on cow slaughter spread to five other BJP-ruled states, causing outbreaks of violence and potentially upsetting the sale of cows to farmers and the supply of milk to the dairy industry because farmers’ profits partly come from selling ageing cows to slaughterhouses. Officially, UP authorities were only closing illegal operations, but the campaign spread further and the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation above the BJP, has called for the cow slaughter to be outlawed nationally. The Supreme Court has asked the six states involved to report by early next month on their control of the vigilante squads.
Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Modi’s home state of Gujarat that goes to the polls at the end of the year, tweeted (above) the “cow symbolises all other creatures”. The state assembly had “passed a cow protection bill, among d most stringent in d country, making cow slaughter a life time punishable offense”. Speaking in the assembly, he said he wanted Gujarat to become a vegetarian state which, if taken literally, would mean people not eating buffalo, lamb, mutton (goat) or chicken nor, maybe, fish. The BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh said people who killed cows “will be hanged”.
Recognising the build-up of pressure, and indicating problems facing Muslims in the coming years, the head of a prominent Muslim shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan, has said that Muslims (who only avoid pork) should stop eating beef “to honour the religious sentiments of our Hindu brethren”.
Adityanath has tried in media interviews to present a moderate face – promising to the Times of India that he would tackle “corruption, lawlessness, casteism and the politics of appeasement”. This indicates that the government would not discriminate between castes and religions, though Muslims fear that discrimination will happen.
Farmers’ bad loans waived
In a gesture to poor farmers saddled with bad debts, Adityanath has also implemented a BJP election manifesto promise to write off Rs360bn (about $5.6bn) bad loans owed by some 21.5m small farmers. Political parties frequently make such pledges to win votes, even though the states can rarely afford the costs. The move smacks more of the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress policies than Modi’s approach. The Reserve Bank of India criticised the waiver, saying it would “undermine an honest credit culture” and increase the cost of borrowing for others.
Modi is trying to maintain a balanced image during the extreme actions and threats of some of his prominent supporters. Addressing a student gathering on March 27, he said: “In India, God is not different for Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. The truth is one, only different people may express it differently. We are such a country which does not believe in imposing our views on anyone.”
Tell that, many people will say, to RSS and other extremists in Modi’s Hindu-first and Hindu nationalist political firmament.