The Leadership India Needs From Modi

Quiet too long.

Photographer: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

The sectarian climate in India has grown so toxic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been moved to reprimand several officials of his own party for making inflammatory anti-Muslim comments. It's a first step toward calming the situation, but Modi will have to do much more. 

During his year and a half in office, Hindu radicals have assumed a new prominence across India. In Mumbai, the country's most cosmopolitan city, thugs have disrupted events featuring Pakistani writers, singers and sports administrators, and the local Hindu nationalist government has banned dance bars, lingerie-clad mannequins and Valentine's Day. An increasing number of states are enforcing laws against the slaughter of cows (a cause Modi himself has espoused) and in some cases, the sale of beef. Mobs enraged at rumors of beef-eating or cow-slaughter have recently killed at least three people. Three other murders of secular writers and thinkers have spurred high-profile authors to return their awards to a national arts academy, to protest its failure to condemn the attacks more loudly.

While Modi has been careful to keep his own rhetoric measured and to focus on economic development, many of the figures driving these campaigns are members of the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization, which has long provided Modi's most loyal foot soldiers. What's more, several officials from Modi's own Bharatiya Janata Party have made statements that appear to condone the Sept. 28 lynching of a Muslim man less than 30 miles from Delhi. Lower-level politicians and Hindu ideologues have reason to assume party leaders approve of their actions. 

Their extreme pro-Hindu rhetoric threatens to alienate the moderate voters who swept Modi into office last year. An even greater danger is that vigilantism will become accepted. It's up to the government to ensure that police vigorously investigate all the recent killings. And any BJP ministers and legislators who continue to incite hatred should be swiftly removed from office. 

Above all, Modi must put his abundant rhetorical gifts to work against sectarianism. So far, he has hedged -- waiting two weeks to condemn the Sept. 28 lynching and neglecting to reach out to the victim's family. The central government, he told one interviewer, had no role to play in a local law-enforcement issue. 

Leadership requires that Modi move more forcefully against the spreading tension. He should tell his supporters that when Hindus speak or act against Muslims, they dishonor their faith and India's proud multiethnic history, betraying the message of opportunity for all that brought Modi to power. India has much sad experience with unscrupulous politicians twisting and snapping the bonds between its many faiths and ethnic communities. Modi's foremost responsibility is to preserve and reinforce those bonds. 

His vision for India -- a modern, clean, efficient nation in which people focus more on economic opportunity than caste or sect and where foreign investment bolsters growth -- is incompatible with the angry majoritarianism that some of his supporters espouse. Modi has to make sure they understand that.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.