India on the global stage: will religious tension hold it back?

Weeks after Obama’s visit, Prime Minister Modi has yet to heed his advice on secularism. By Irum Khan.
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February 10, 2015
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Political admirers of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi are zealously reiterating that U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India on Republic Day late last month was an outstanding diplomatic coup for Modi. To his credit, his efforts to alleviate India’s relations with her global partners have been significant since he took charge.

From inviting heads of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to his swearing-in ceremony to his multiple overseas trips in his first seven months as Prime Minister, Modi clearly understands what it means to be a global thespian.

Also, he now smartly forges unilateral friendships with important people across the globe. His coveted list of friends includes Obama, China’s president Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Unarguably, Modi is doing everything to assert his presence on the global arena.

And Obama’s acceptance of his invitation to honour the Republic Day parade was a clear jackpot for Modi. Needless to say, a grand show of public relations was inevitable. But undeniably, the meeting wasn’t merely an opera of grand gestures. It went beyond optics to yield some agendas on the economic front. The two leaders pushed aside their differences of recent years to clear trade routes and regain their lost friendship.

Although the blueprints of the deals exchanged between India and the United States haven’t been released, some vital takeaways include the latter’s offer of $4 billion in loans and investments in India and towards its Make-in-America initiative and leveraging renewable energy in India. The shift in nuclear policy was also the centrepiece of economic transaction, with both countries promising flexibility in dealing with the norms related to supply and distribution of nuclear energy.

However, Obama’s visit to India wasn’t all about mutual admiration and trade exchange. At the end of his three-day stay in India, when Modi began to celebrate his unprecedented diplomatic feat, the U.S. president decided to play party-pooper by advising India on its constitutional responsibilities.

The advice was direct: If India wants to maintain its growth momentum, it must not compromise on a solid social environment. He went on to quote Mahatma Gandhi, who said that the different religions were akin to the branches of a magnificent tree.

Obama’s advice is relevant, given that in recent months, the two Houses of India’s Parliament have witnessed repeated adjournments, because of uproar by the opposition over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s failure to rein in the rise of anti-secular elements in the country.

The stalling of Parliament has delayed the passing of several important bills, including the Goods and Service Tax Bill and Land Acquisition Bill, which were drafted to carry forward India’s growth momentum.

Interestingly, on Republic Day, while Modi was calling for global unity by connecting different countries through their distinguished leaders (for instance, Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin), his own government was busy advertising the preamble to the constitution by dropping two words — socialist and secular. The blunder was well in alignment with the idea of a Hindu nation, rigorously being promoted by the government and its political affiliates.

Republic Day commemorates the adoption of India’s democratic constitution, which upholds freedom of religion to all. However, over the last few months, India’s internal social fabric has constantly been challenged. This is contradictory to Modi’s global agenda of showcasing India as a progressive nation.

Since he took charge, the excesses of the right-wing elements have been ignored. At every given opportunity, Hindu nationalists have been overpowering the minorities on non-issues like “love jihad” (marriages of Muslim men and Hindu girls) and ghar wapsi (forcible reconversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism).

Just four days before Republic Day, it was reported that 50 houses belonging to Muslims were either ransacked or set ablaze in the state of Kerala, while the police were mere spectators.

The excesses of Hindu nationalists, within and outside the government, have increased to such an extent that Modi’s own Members of Parliament don’t hesitate to use expletives at public rallies targeting the minorities.

The Prime Minister has selectively overlooked acts like these. It was also unusual for him to omit speaking about the constitution and the rights it invokes while celebrating the day of its inception.

Instead, Modi offers good governance as a solution to disharmony. If development is seriously on his mind, social stability should be an intrinsic and natural demand.

Aptly, Obama’s advice to India on Republic Day insinuated that Modi’s condoning of right-wing excesses was being critically assessed by the world. When India looked upon its Prime Minister to uphold principles of diversity, it was Obama who reminded Indians of Article 25 in their constitution, which guarantees them freedom to practice what they believe in.

Whether his statement was a pacifier to the Christians in the U.S. or the Muslims in India, it was certainly a reason for Modi’s discomposure. As long as the Indian Prime Minister chooses to look the other way while those on the fringes wreak havoc, India’s progress, in the true sense, would remain a distant dream.