Hindu nationalism is central to Modi's identity.

Photographer: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

In India, New Tolerance for Intolerance

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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In May, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government swept to power on his promise to revive investment, boost manufacturing and create jobs. “Acche Din Aa Rahe Hain,” his election slogan claimed: “Good days are on their way.” Many influential commentators -- from U.S.-based economists and center-right think-tankers to Madhu Kishwar, a well-known Indian feminist writer--- vigorously endorsed Modi’s credentials as an economic modernizer or Vikas Purush, “Development Man.”  

Six months on, Modi's scorecard on the development front is mixed. India’s GDP slowed from 5.7 percent to 5.3 percent in the first full quarter of his prime ministership. Industrial output is down, and Modi’s plan to imitate East Asia’s export-oriented economies with a government-directed push to “Make in India” looks anachronistic at a time of increasing automation and slow global growth. It was left to Raghuram Rajan, the well-regarded governor of the Reserve Bank of India, to point this out tactfully earlier this month.

India's Aspirations

Fixed investment has barely budged in recent months. An industrialist asked the Times of India, “Why will foreigners come to invest here when Indians are not investing?” The Economic Times, India’s biggest business daily, reports that even some of Modi’s corporate backers, who bankrolled his rise to power, are full of disquiet.

Critics of “Development Man” are arguably being unfair, or at least hasty. India’s economic problems are structural and deep-rooted; they stem from, among other things, poor investments in education and infrastructure, and excessive reliance on crony capitalism. As I wrote in my column after Modi’s election, any euphoria over a singular “reformer” or “modernizer” at the top -- whether named Modi or Manmohan Singh -- can only be a prelude to disillusionment. 

However, Modi’s extended family of Hindu nationalists assesses his six months as prime minister differently. It measures progress by the steps India has taken towards purging foreign influences and becoming a “Hindu nation.”

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists (Modi is a lifelong member), has long wanted India’s religious minorities to call themselves Hindu. Members of the Bajrang Dal, a militant RSS affiliate, claimed this month to have “reconverted” 200 Muslims in Uttar Pradesh to Hinduism. Senior RSS ideologues hailed this “homecoming.” The RSS, whose members fill 19 positions in Modi’s cabinet, is also seeking to Hindu-ize India’s Christian-majority northeastern states.

A senior minister in Modi’s cabinet claimed recently that there are two kinds of Indians: children of Lord Rama (Hindus) and bastards (Muslims and Christians). Though she was forced to disavow her comments, Modi criticized her mostly for distracting from his focus on development. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has advocated that the Bhagavad Gita, the favorite text of upper-caste Hindus, should be declared the “national scripture” of India.

Rajnath Singh, the home minister, claimed recently that Werner Heisenberg (whom Singh called "Eisenhower") had derived his uncertainty principle from the ancient Vedas. Leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party now routinely propose revisions in modern science as well as history. According to some, bodily emanations of the holy cow -- from milk to urine -- can cure corruption as well as dysentery. Apparently, the Hindu nationalist assassin of Mahatma Gandhi was a "patriot," and the Taj Mahal a Hindu temple.

How to reconcile this eruption of know-nothing chauvinism and sectarian lusts with the great expectations from Modi’s Development Man? Kishwar now claims that prime-ministership “has damaged his brain because he was not like that.”

Modi as prime minister has actually toned down his rhetoric, and the demand that he focus on economic modernization and suppress his followers’ retrograde cultural politics may sound sensible. But it betrays a perilous naivete about Modi’s past as a missionary of the RSS, as well as disregard for the organization’s openly-avowed long-term project: the Hindu nationalization of Indian society.

In the minds of many politicians, think-tankers and journalists, pragmatic interests (narrowly defined as economic) trump ideological beliefs. But such quasi-rationalistic assumptions have led to a consistent failure to appreciate the potency of ideological zeal in the world today.

It should not be surprising at all that Modi has failed to deplore wholeheartedly his supporters’ statements, let alone to make them firing offenses. A politician called Giriraj Singh who earlier this year advocated banishing Modi’s critics to Pakistan has been rewarded with a ministerial position. Banned briefly during the elections for hate speech, and still facing trial for murder and kidnapping, Amit Shah, Modi’s closest aide, is now president of his party.

For these implacable culture warriors who have spent their lives fighting for a Hindu nation, “acche din” -- good days -- have been here since May. And regardless of what the GDP figures say and investors think, they are getting better all the time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net