Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the head of state of the world’s largest democracy and will be until 2024. His astonishing rise to political, ideological and social prominence reflects an ongoing global trend of populist politics against the continuation of established political norms. The incredible success of Modi’s party, the Indian People’s Party (BJP), suggests that their rhetoric strikes at the core of the grievances of a significant majority of Indian voters. Modi’s rise to power is strongly connected to the establishment of a Hindu-based civil religion; he took advantage of the global trend of conservative populism to full effect by feeding the long burning embers of Hindu nationalism in India. The specific identity politics he is playing to have existed since the Partition in 1947 and were stoked by Indira Gandhi during her time as Prime Minister from 1967-1977. It’s worth noting this rift owes much of its existence to the divide and conquer tactics employed by the British during their time exploiting the land and its people. This aspect of Indian history has been covered by better people elsewhere and it is not difficult to find scholars more knowledgeable than I on this topic.
Civil religion lies at the intersection of the commonly held values of a given society (Gorski 2017, p. 14). It plays a vital role in upholding “democratic solidarity” and “provid[ing] an alternative to a reactionary traditionalism that seeks to restore cultural homogeneity and also to a radical individualism that seeks to dissolve all political bonds” (Gorski 2017, p. 14). As such, the importance of civil religion increases as a civic society becomes more pluralist. The argument being that as more and more cultures join the political community, decision making becomes fractured to a degree of ineffectiveness. Consensus becomes so infrequent and compromise so rare that society needs common beliefs to hold it together at the seams (Gorski 2017, p. 14). It requires the elevation of certain values with civic dimensions to such a degree that they become sanctified. “We all worship something” and core ethical and civic values should be among them (Gorski 2017, p. 15). One key dimension of civil religion is its concurrent existence within religious and secular spheres. In an ideal scenario, the civil religion of a given territory is inclusive of its populace and adapts to fit their evolving cultural, political, and economic circumstances. Alternatively, a civil religion can form an identity that is exclusionary; rather, the people decide to seek democratic solidarity through removing the perceived wedge in the democratic cogs. I believe this is what ties civil religion so intricately to the case of Modi’s rise. In other words, the core ethical and civic values that form the basis of the civil religion do not allow for groups outside of the norm to participate equally. These out-groups can be religious, racial, classist, cultural, or more likely, a complicated mixture of them all. Whatever the case is for them, the in-group perceives the out-groups' existence as threatening or incompatible to their own.
Prior to Modi’s prime ministerial candidacy, the BJP had little sway outside of a socially conservative Hindi-speaking base in the “cow belt” (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 2). Many religious minorities as well as other Hindus were wary of the BJP, in part because it was a Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) that assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. Beyond this historical fear, there was very limited national support for numerous other Hindutva policies. Through populist rhetoric and strategic policy goals, Modi and the BJP have reinvigorated Hindutva on a national scale (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 3). While “Modi’s benign fatherly image” has undoubtedly provided a stable platform from which Hindutva could grow, it is through policy that the BJP will attempt to solidify their values into something more akin to an exclusionary civil religion (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 4). The appointment of loyalists to run state-owned enterprises and the BJP’s coercive relationship with the press are steps to control more facets of Indian life. The “quiet insertion” of loyalists to university posts and the adjustment of grade school curricula to better communicate Hindu values through art, history, philosophy and science are attempts to project cultural power well into the future (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 4). These moves in education have the added effect of erasing histories that would be incriminating, to Modi’s base. This revisionism can be likened to Canadian propaganda that attempts to justify residential schools by pretending their histories of individual abuse and cultural genocide did not occur.
This is not a civil religion for everyone. India is too large and diverse for that but it captures the attention of enough people for the BJP to establish a firm power base. While Modi did not explicitly state his party’s discontent with Muslim minorities early on in his tenure, his language suggests that Muslims were favoured by the previous government and that the BJP will adjust that hierarchy in favour of his Hindu base. On average, Muslims rank lower on socio-economic indicators than Hindus but this is not communicated by the BJP because it does not suit their interests (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 5). Even before the 2019 election Modi was seen as a “shoo-in” to control both houses of parliament until 2024. This prediction has come to pass and there is little indication that Modi intends to dilute his agenda. A handful of policies have ended poorly for the lower castes that Modi claims to fight for and despite the BJP claiming to tackle corruption as a key aspect of their platform, at lower levels of government, corruption remains the same in the BJP as the previous government and (religious) cronyism is a fixture of his regime.
The political clout of the BJP is undeniable but what must not be understated is the social component of their power. Modi and his cohorts dominated elections across the country. Through their campaigning, they have captured the hearts and minds of Indians in a way that has not been seen since Indira Gandhi in the 1960s (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 4). By disarming the established political hierarchies, the BJP has empowered their primarily Hindu base to paint public spaces with “pious orange” (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 4). The Prime Minister of a country with enormous religious plurality responded to anti-Muslim speech with merely an “upheld wagging finger” (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 5). His response to anti-Muslim sentiments and violence has lacked conviction and speaks to the to the pursuit not of equality but of the establishment of a “new” hierarchy, one with Hindus at the top. Modi’s civil religion frames Hindu’s as the victims of neglect and the BJP as the saving grace of India, The Hindu country. Modi carefully stokes the flames of discontent and deflects the heat towards his political opposition and covertly suggests the Muslim minority benefits from the perceived neglect of the Hindu people. For the first time in 30 years, the BJP have captured a full majority without forming a coalition (Rodenbeck 2018, pp. 2). They are popular, they are powerful and the momentum is on the side of the BJP. Their loyalists in state owned enterprises and research institutions will secure their power today while the curricula adjustments and Hindu nationalists in university posts attempt to ensure the BJP’s generational appeal. Modi is using his powers to systematically erode minority protections in the country and the ongoing violence against Muslim and other non-Hindu groups will continue as long as he is in power. With the current COVID crisis in the country, I am curious how this state favoritism has affected the healthcare system and vaccine rollout. While I have yet to see anything to confirm my suspicions, I feel it is prudent to look into whether or not non-Hindu communities are being neglected in the government’s pandemic response and the extent of that neglect.
Outside of this article, the Indian government has allowed COVID cases to reach terrifying levels and people are suffering for it. Hospitals are overcrowded, healthcare workers are overworked, mass burials and cremations of hundreds of people at a time are commonplace. This video will provide a better overview of what is going on and why it is happening and I will also provide links to a few charities below.
Rodenbeck, Max. 2018. A Mighty Wind. Vol. 65 New York Review.
Gorski, Philip. 2017. “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans”
Ghoshal, Devjyot. Das, Krishna. 2021. “Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge.” Reuters. (https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-scientists-say-india-government-ignored-warnings-amid-coronavirus-2021-05-01/)