HE said it! At a function this week in New Delhi arranged by the Catholic Church in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came out emphatically in support of religious freedom. Speaking in English (his third language), Modi said, “Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions” and, further, that “equal respect for all religions should be part of the DNA of all Indians.”
Many understood Modi’s words — uttered not in parliament but at a ceremony to celebrate the elevation of two priests to sainthood — as a long-overdue response to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu revivalist organisation that Modi served for many years before moving on to a career in politics with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Many also thought that the prime minister had spoken at least two months too late, as far as the nation was concerned, but probably not a moment too soon in other respects.
Since mid-December, Modi has watched the headlines slowly move away from his own government’s “development agenda” to toxic disputes over religion. The decisive moment was a declaration by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat — a close friend of Modi’s — that “all Indians were Hindus”, and that his organisation would embark on a drive to “reconvert” Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Shortly afterward, there followed yet another provocation from the Hindu right: a campaign to celebrate Jan 30, the anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi, as “Heroism Day” in honour of Gandhi’s assassin, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.
These episodes drew no reaction from the prime minister. Outspoken and emphatic on so many matters, Modi revealingly decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Even President Barack Obama, visiting India in January, left his mark on the debate over religious freedom before Modi did.
Finally, last week, Modi was rudely reminded of the substantial erosion in recent months of his political capital when, in New Delhi’s legislative assembly election, the BJP was routed by the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party. It was the first time Modi had ever faced a reverse in electoral politics. “Where Modi has failed is in providing political governance,” Surjit Bhalla, once a firm supporter of Modi, wrote in a biting article last week. “Ever since May 2014, India has been subjected to a barrage of actions oriented towards the encouragement of social disharmony.”
One need not go to the doors of the prime minister’s most prominent critics to conclude that Modi’s long-delayed reassurance to India on the subject of religious freedom is driven more by expediency than commitment.
However, even expedient actions have their uses — politicians are rarely very principled anyway, and they must instead be held to overarching principles — and their meanings. In this case, Modi’s words reveal to many that the country’s democratic institutions (whether the media or elections) and robust public sphere do have the force to keep those in power honest and to hold them, even somewhat belatedly, to account.
Two weeks ago, I went to hear Modi speak at a rally ahead of the New Delhi elections. As always, a vast crowd had gathered to hear the prime minister, one of Indian history’s greatest orators. Modi delivered a rousing speech about the necessity of voting the BJP into power in the capital, and said, referencing his own move from state politics to the national capital, “Brothers and sisters, I speak to you today as someone who has himself become a Dilli-wallah.”
I felt at the time — and perhaps Delhi’s voters did, too — that the prime minister had gotten something wrong. Being a Dilli-wallah— a resident of Delhi — is not simply a matter of domicile. At least since 1947, when it became the capital of independent India, Delhi has also represented, to the Indian imagination as that of the world, a certain set of Indian and republican values, with their roots in realities both old and new. Central to Delhi’s sense of itself is the awareness of being one of the subcontinent’s greatest sites of religious diversity and intermingling, the city having been at the capital (by other names) of at least seven different kingdoms over two millenniums before it became New Delhi, the capital of an independent country.
Delhi’s secularism, one might say, is not just a political doctrine self-consciously instituted by a political elite but also a deeply felt pleasure in the palpable evidence — whether architecturally, gastronomically, sartorially — in its streets and neighbourhoods of many ways of life and ideas of God. When such a city is the capital of an even more diverse republic, a technical understanding of secularism, such as that emphasised this week by Modi, should be the least that the prime minister of the day brings to debates on religion, not the most.
If Modi really wants to be a Dilli-wallah, then, he has plenty of work ahead of him. My own sense is that he will not manage this spiritual, rather than civic, transformation: for him, India’s religious diversity is stressful to his own religious and political beliefs, which were formed early in life by his time in the Hindu nationalist movement.
For him, this is merely the first of many such cycles of religious provocation and political bad faith that will unfold during his tenure, never to be decisively dealt with, always to be finessed. For him, the words “economy” and “development” will serve both as part of a progressive agenda and as a screen for his shortcomings in other spheres — this when he, once a Hindu nationalist pracharak, knows better than anyone else that man does not live by bread alone.