Will India’s Modi resist the lure of nationalism?

May 20, 2014

Nationalism is in vogue in the world’s largest states.

President Vladimir Putin has called upon the specter of nationalism in staking Russia’s claim to Crimea and as a justification for destabilizing Ukraine’s east. He and the Russian military have acted to protect and, where possible, bring “home” his nation’s ethnic kin.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a World War II shrine, in spite of predicable outrage in China. While, in China, President Xi Jinping has emphasized nationalist themes in advancing his “Chinese dream.”

Now India has elected Narendra Modi as prime minister by a landslide. He’ll be sworn in next week. The streets will be packed, the media will be hysterical, markets will rise, and the hopes of the poor will soar.

But it seems unlikely to last.

“The fiscal situation is much worse than is known publicly,” says Arun Shourie, an economist and a former minister in India government. “Maneuverability for the government will be limited,” he said.

It will be tough to turn around an economy with a growth rate that has declined to a little over 4 percent — too low to create the millions of jobs needed.

If Modi runs into trouble, the question is: Will he be the prime minister for all Indians, as he has promised, or will he revert to his divisive roots?

One of the most frequent criticisms against Modi is the anti-Muslim pogrom that resulted in a thousand deaths in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, soon after he became the state’s chief minister. Though India’s supreme court cleared him of blame, others, including the U.S. and the UK governments that have only recently-lifted visa bans on Modi, suspected him of ignoring the murderous riots; or worse, of complicity in them.

The issue still has traction; more so because no apology was made. Modi says that none is required.

Modi has been a Hindu nationalist activist nearly all of his life. At the age of eight, a rebellious and strong-willed child, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a millions-strong network of activists who are united by a belief that India should be a Hindu nation and that minorities, including 180 million Muslims, should accept Hindu hegemony.

Indeed, some go further. A report in India’s Caravan magazine claimed that Yadavrao Joshi, leader of the RSS in southern India, had told a training camp of volunteers in the early 1970s that once the RSS was strong enough, they would tell Muslims and Christians “that if you want to live in India and if you love this country, you accept that some generations earlier you were Hindus and come back to the Hindu fold.”

At that time, a 30-something Modi was rising through RSS ranks. He rose far and fast, displaying a ferocious temper and a desire to dominate and an equally ferocious work ethic and ability for efficiency. The latter propelled him upward, until he was the main liaison between the RSS and the party closest to it — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now the ruling party. Modi was often on TV as India and Pakistan clashed over the territory of Kashmir, which both nations claim. His rhetoric was strongly anti-Pakistani and anti-Muslim.

In 2001, Modi was chosen by the RSS to stand for election as chief minister of Gujarat. He says that he was reluctant at first, citing an absence of six years from his native state. Others say he lobbied hard for the job. In either case, it was the RSS that put him there and which, reportedly, still sees him as its man. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS leader, was quoted last August saying that “Modi is the only person who has remained rooted in the RSS ideology.”

It stretches credibility to believe that Modi will set out to be a divisive leader. He has too many issues in front of him to seek to alienate more than 14 percent of his people. But events beyond his control may push him that way.

The fact that economic improvement will be delayed and may hardly come at all for most of the poor may mean that populist anti-Muslim rhetoric from Modi allies may be used to retain support for the prime minister. It may not come from him and it may even be against his wishes. But it will possibly come from his friends and allies.

Nationalism, if directed at popular hate figures, usually works well, at least for a while. It may become newly-elected Prime Minister Modi’s most obvious temptation. Can he, after a lifetime of encouraging nationalism as an activist, resist it as a national leader?

PHOTO: Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi (wearing a garland), the prime ministerial candidate for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gestures to his supporters outside party’s headquarters in New Delhi May 17, 2014.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Modi’s inauguration would be held Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

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