View: In 9 Years of Modi Government, Religiosity Trumped the Republic

If Hindutva sells, there is no way that Modi's party will stop trying to leverage it for electoral purposes.

6 min read

(On the nine-year anniversary of the Narendra Modi government, this article takes a look at its failures. Read the "Counterview" here.)

Rewind to when a few days prior to taking oath as India’s Prime Minister in May 2014, Narendra Modi stepped into the Parliament for the first time. After being elected as the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Central Hall, he described the institution as the "temple of democracy".

Even the ones usually cynical of the populist coinages remained silent. The lesser reason was that despite his none-too-inclusivist track record, a significant section of India had concluded that Modi needed to be given a chance, especially after his image had been recast from the Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts) to Vikas Purush (Development Man).

The bigger reason for the non-reaction to his 'temple of democracy' assertion was due to its metaphorical usage. A temple, after all, is a sacrosanct structure, not to be desecrated and if the Parliament was notionally being called a place of worship, so be it.

Latest: The Sengol’s Reintroduction in Political Discourse

Fast forward to when the inauguration of the new Parliament building by Modi had become a full-blown controversy, suddenly, instead of the issues that surfaced – violation of the Article 79 of the Constitution in spirit and the separation of powers between the branches of the State, among others – a new object was added for jaw-dropping chatter: the Sengol, an object that, euphemistically speaking, even Google had forgotten.

But like always, blame for this was put on the door of previous governments, especially the first one headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, for putting away the symbol of the transfer of power from British to the sovereign nation governed by the leaders who were elected, initially by a select electoral college, but universally from the first general elections onward.

The Sengol’s reintroduction in the country’s political discourse and a space being created for the object inside the legislature’s bastion, or the Lok Sabha, is immensely problematic. It is also symptomatic of the nation’s metamorphosis over the past nine years from being a country that despite the herculean nature of the task, never abandoned efforts to forge harmony between various communities, to one where the doubt, dislike, and distrust are not just considered 'normal’, but fanned by elements embedded within the regime.

The Sengol marked the transfer of power from one Chola emperor to another. This process was ritualistically approved by high Brahminical priests. If this stamp of institutional religion was not a sufficient deterrent for a secular state, the inscription on the Sengol removes all ambiguity: "It is our order that the follower of the Lord, the King, shall rule as in the Heavens.”

In the 75th year of India’s independence, giving prime place to a symbol of monarchy that remains in power, that too with religion, marks the conversion of the metaphorical "temple of democracy” into one that is literally and actually a temple.

A Preferred Religion of the State

Quite unambiguously, the government chose this moment in history, its last anniversary before next year’s parliamentary elections, to highlight the change in its Republican temper. As PM Narendra Modi inaugurates the new Parliament building effectively without genuine bipartisan support and presence, memories of the Bhoomi Pujan in December 2020 for this new building come flooding back.

In a country where multi-faith ceremonies were often the norm at official functions, Modi personally performed the Hindu rituals to invoke the blessings of the gods for the new project. At that time too, it was clear that the lines between the Executive and Legislature, and between religion and state, were blurring.

It was further jarring because that religious ceremony on 10 December 2020, was preceded four months ago by the Bhoomi Pujan of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It was all the more disquieting because, on 5 August, memories of the brutal lockdown and the ineptness in managing the COVID pandemic were particularly vivid.

The big question at the end of the first mandate that Modi received in May 2014, was if he had truly recast himself and would prioritise development issues while putting Hindutva issues on the back burner. After all, he had been extremely liberal with promises and stingy with polarising barbs.

But, verbal and physical attacks on minority religious institutions within months of government formation – churches to start with – revived memories of similar attacks in 1998-99 when a spate of attacks included the brutal killing of Australian missionary, Graham Staines. The situation appeared so alarming that during his state visit to India, the then-American President, Barack Obama, reminded the prime minister of the need to safeguard religious freedom.

This was the second time that he had to be reminded of the basic duties while governing, the first instance being Atal Bihari Vajpayee saying in March 2002, that he hoped Modi would follow Rajdharma.


Untrammelled Expansion of the Hindutva Agenda

Although attacks on minorities became a regular feature, Modi kept up the pursuit of non-discriminatory welfare schemes. Furthermore, the Hindutva campaign was not drastically scaled up or widened to new areas and issues, as Modi focussed on overcoming a few electoral setbacks, especially towards the end of the first tenure.

The electoral difficulties of the party became evident in December 2017 when the BJP barely touched the finishing line in Gujarat, winning less than 100 seats for the time in decades. By the end of 2018 and early 2019, it was evident that Modi was struggling to devise a winning campaign. But then, the terrorist strike in Pulwama and the subsequent retaliatory Balakot strike, grossly overstated though by GoI, changed the nature of electioneering and the prime minister returned home with more seats in his kitty.

The four years since the victory in 2019 have seen an untrammelled expansion of the Hindutva agenda, from history and textbooks to law and control of institutions, by overt means – as in regard to the Executive’s intrusion into the territory of the legislature and even unabashed vigilante action, or by covert means – like influencing sections of the judiciary, be it individual judges or the lower levels where institutions can be more readily subverted.

Law has also been used in a manner wherein the process that the accused undergoes, is actually turning out to be punishment. From activists to academics and journalists, none has been spared. Investigations agencies are used to harass critics in an atmosphere where dissent is seen as treason.

The pursuit of policies that suited Hindutva politics started almost immediately after, Modi was re-elected. More teeth were added to the already draconian UAPA by an amendment. This was followed by legislation passed at a breathtaking pace – triple talaq, Article 370 on the status of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship Amendment Act. More was to follow even as the onset of the pandemic was mishandled.


Hate and Distrust Remain Endless

The focus of Modi 2.0 has not been merely on anti-minorities pursuits but the democratic spirit alongside the republican nature and federal character of the country has been systemically hollowed out. The power of one is the slogan and this manifests itself in numerous ways, even party workers are not spared and made to assemble at an unearthly hour at the airport to receive Modi returning from a foreign tour on which bilateral halts could have dispensed with.

There have been additions to the state’s welfare policies, like the distribution of free food in the wake of the pandemic. But in the absence of policies that can transform people’s life and the fiscal crunch, this had to be curtailed. The politics of hate and distrust however remains in endless supply and is likely to be leveraged further for 2024. A beginning has already been made by Modi who equated the Bajrang Dal with Lord Hanuman or Bajrang Bali.

With the inauguration of the Ram temple being due just before the campaign starts, the effort is to secure similar benefits as the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor in December 2021. Among other factors, it contributed to the BJP's victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in March 2022. 

The BJP is unambiguous. If Hindutva sells, there is no way it will stop trying to leverage it for electoral purposes. Besides Hindutva and raising the humungous publicity machinery it has at its disposal, all other issues have become secondary in the second tenure of Modi.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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