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India's religious minorities wary in wake of Modi's landslide win

The country needs a 'gentle democracy' that unites all people

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • May 16, 2014
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India’s 1.2 billion people celebrated democracy with hope, and some anxiety, on May 16, 2014 as initial results from voting machines showed an absolute majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP-Indian People’s Party) and its National Democratic Alliance. Its leader, Narendra Modi, was the man to finally rout the Congress party, which has ruled for nearly all of India’s post-independence history.

Modi will take oath of office as Prime Minister next week, succeeding the phlegmatic Manmohan Singh who led India into a globalized economy, passed several pro-poor landmark legislations, including the right to food, but floundered on the incompetence of his party and the corruption of his government.

For India’s 200 million religious minorities, including some 27 million Christians, Modi’s stunning victory brings with it some dangerous baggage, most prominently the stranglehold that the extremist Hindu group called the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS- national volunteer corps) has on the new ruling party. Whether Modi, who is proud of his career in the Sangh, will allow it to dictate policy remains to be seen.  

An early analysis of the election results shows that Muslim voters remain wary of the BJP and Modi. Christians on the other hand have voted in different manners, with older voters backing Congress, while many youth and others supported the Aam Admi Party (AAP – Common People’s Party) that campaigned against corruption in the Congress government. Some young voters backed the BJP, supporting the slogan for change.

A division has therefore been exposed among Christians. The Dalit Christians have been angered at Congress’s 10-year denial of their Scheduled Caste rights. Their votes may therefore have gone to parties they hoped would correct this.

They may therefore have voted for other parties, especially in Tamil Nadu where Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha supported their rights. But there is realization in the community that at the end of the day, they seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

“We respect democracy and the voice of the people. We accept the results with grace and with optimism even. We will have to find out how we can tell the new government of our problems and our fears, and our expectations of a strong secularism, and hold it accountable for its misdeeds whenever it falters in giving us our security and our freedom of faith”, the All India Christian Council said in its first post-election statement.

But early pronouncements by Modi associates in the party and the Sangh have provided little reassurance that security and freedom for Christians and other minorities would be high on the list of priorities for the new administration.

These include abolishing Article 370 of the constitution, which gives special status in federal policy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its predominantly Muslim population, the erection of a Lord Rama temple at a contentious site in the city of Ayodhya and the enactment of a Common Civil Code at odds with the Sharia personal codes currently permitted for Muslims.

Christians, too, have resisted the Common Civil Code, preferring instead a more universal code that would incorporate the personal laws of all religious communities and that would not be Hindu-centric.

Of equal concern is Modi’s record on human rights. The massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 continues to cast a long shadow over Modi, who has been accused of all but presiding over the violence and resisting all attempts to bring the perpetrators to account. Add to this allegations of extrajudicial and custodial killings by police and the ongoing penetration of Sangh ideology in the country’s vast educational system, and Modi’s win gives much food for thought to civil society and human rights groups.

Modi’s electoral promises of “good governance” will be examined with great care in the early days of his rule and in the formation of the new government. The BJP has scoffed at the pro-poor agenda of the Congress party for the last decade.

The new administration will have to contend with strong provincial satraps who defied the “Modi Wave” during the election and that have considerable influence in the south and east of the country. Their presence might offer a mitigating influence on the Modi government.

Not so for the dalits, whose Bahujan Samaj party made a dismal showing in the election and thereby disempowered the voice of India’s former untouchable castes which have after 67 years of independence not yet been fully integrated into the mainstream.

Modi with his dominant persona will face no hurdles in government formation and policy making, but will still have to go out of his way to mollify the many egos he has bruised in his race to the top. Among them are some very prominent leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

How he accommodates them will be the first signal of his skills at taking people along with him. His election campaign, aided and abetted by a huge war chest and a galaxy of technocrats based in India, the US and the UK, made his social media and grassroots campaign a close approximation to a US presidential race. It is time for him to come down to the Indian reality of a more gentle democracy where the poor have to be looked after even as industry and business are given their opportunity for growth.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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