Modi: Democrat or divider
India’s 815 million voters started the five-week voting cycle earlier this week. It’s already being celebrated as a triumph just for taking place — “the largest collective democratic act in history,” according to the Economist.
The winner will matter. India now punches far below its demographic weight — its 1.24 billion people are served by just 600 diplomats, about the same number as the Netherlands. The United States, with 314 million people, has 15,000. But that apparent lack of interest in making a mark on the world seems about to end.
What had seemed a likely victory for the first minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, has now hardened into a near certainty — at least for much of the Indian media. Modi, self-made, ambitious and energetic at 63, has the ability to project India’s latent power. He wants growth, which India greatly needs to raise more of its citizens out of poverty and to provide jobs for its expanding population.
That could be a cause for fear — first within, and then outside of, India. For Modi is marked by a dark shadow that he cannot — and perhaps has no wish to — shake. His political affiliation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his membership in the right-wing , paramilitary Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) signals he may have less loyalty to the multi-ethnic country that is India and more to the dominant ethnicity: the Hindus.
The charge against Modi that casts the longest shadow involves days of mob violence in Gujarat in 2002. A train caught fire in a town called Godha, causing 59 deaths — and rumors quickly pointed to Muslim extremists. In revenge, Hindu extremists slaughtered between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims. There is no final clarity to this incident. A local commission has, 12 years later, yet to publish a final report on the train fire. Another commission, set up by the central government, concluded the fire was accidental.
Modi, then in office for less than a year, was accused of passivity, even complicity, in the massacres of the Muslims. This accusation has stuck — in spite of a Supreme Court finding that there is no evidence to support the claim. It has done so largely because much of Modi’s political career before being elected Gujarat premier was as an organizer for RSS — a group dedicated to Hinduism and anti-Muslim agitation. Some Western states took the accusation seriously enough to deny him a visa. Britain changed that policy last year, the United States earlier this year.
We live, sometimes uneasily, in rich and increasingly multi-ethnic democracies, with the legacies and current realities of mass immigrations. We stick to the necessary fiction that we are all equally engaged and loyal citizens. In the United States, for example, political analysts talk about the “black vote” and the “Latino vote” — or even, more precisely, the “Jewish vote” and the “Irish vote.” That’s the political fallout of a society built by immigrants, and ethno-nationalist politics have long been the way of reconciling vying communities with American society.
The horror created in Nazi Germany has served, for the past seven decades, as something of a prophylactic against ethnic division. But it’s just beneath the surface — sometimes erupting, as in Rwanda 20 years ago, in hideous massacres perpetrated by the majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi. At least 500,000 people died, perhaps as many as 1 million. The United Nations commemorated that massacre this week — as are the many nations and organizations that resisted calls for intervention. President Bill Clinton has futilely lamented that refusal to act as his largest mistake.
And this prophylactic of Nazi Germany may no longer be powerful. In the heart of Europe, the Hungarian election on Sunday saw a surge in the vote for the Jobbik Party. More than 21 percent of the electorate supported a party that remains fiercely anti-Semitic, though it has made attempts to soften its positions. Yet, the party campaigned most recently to investigate Jewish officials and members of parliament for disloyalty to the Hungarian state. This in a country where an estimated 565,000 Jews were deported and slaughtered during World War Two.
Racial affiliation now also informs the thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has made clear that he sees ethnic Russians, wherever they may be, as his responsibility to protect and, where possible, re-integrate into Russia. This was his explicit rationale for seizing Ukraine’s province of Crimea. The pro-Russian demonstrations and seizure of Ukrainian security offices on Sunday point to a continued determination to divide Ukraine by ethnic affiliation.
Putin is strongly influenced by the ultra-nationalist Alexander Dugin, now given prime time TV exposure, who routinely cites the “virtues of the Nazi practices.” Dugin posits an ethnically pure Russia, against what he sees as the mongrel, multicultural chaos of the United States — a state of affairs that the election of a black president would only confirm in his mind.
A former U.S. ambassador to Russia recently told me that he believed Putin held Obama in contempt because of his racial origins.
The primacy of the ethnic over the democratic is gaining ground once more — though in diverse societies. The lessons of the past fade. As democracy appears to falter, an older, harder form of social organization emerges.
Modi embodies a principle that has often struggled against democracy — at times even destroyed it. He has in the past been a racial nationalist. The question now is, if he wins the Indian elections, how much he will act like one.
PHOTO (TOP): Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, waves towards supporters in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, December 28, 2013. REUTERS/Amit Dave
PHOTO (INSERT 1): People wait in line up to vote at a polling station in Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Supporters of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, hold placards during a rally being addressed by Modi in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave