As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls to elect its next prime minister, Narendra Modi, the conservative, pro-Hindu nationalist leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian middle class have become entwined in a love affair that is troubling to many people in the country. Modi, a 63-year-old erstwhile chaiwala (tea seller) is running on a platform of economic growth and industrial expansion at a time when Indians are battling a sluggish economy, and are exasperated with systemic graft, never-ending sagas of mega-scams, and the Gandhi family-led Indian National Congress (INC) that has ruled the country for most of the past 70 years.
Even as Modi courts 814 million Indian voters, he comes with an extraordinary baggage of anti-Muslim violence, what famed Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy has called “a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state.” As the chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years, he has repeatedly been accused of allowing an orgy of violence and rape against Muslims in February 2002.
According to investigations, a train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, Gujarat in Feb. 27, 2002, which the local police blamed on resident Muslims. To avenge their deaths, Hindu mobs attacked Muslims across the state of Gujarat. Over a thousand Muslims were killed, scores of women were gang-raped, Muslim businesses were torched, and over 150,000 Muslims lost their homes. While Modi has been cleared of any personal culpability, many believe that he is morally responsible for the reprehensible violence perpetrated against the minority community under his leadership in Gujarat.
Yet the Indian populace, especially the Indian middle class appears to have turned a blind eye to his sectarian record, and instead has embarked on a love affair with his neoliberal economic doctrine, popularly called “Modinomics”. The agenda is jobs, development and economic progress.
The polarizing leader, also called NaMo, has downplayed his anti-Muslim rhetoric in recent months, and instead showcases his leadership skills by focusing on his work as the “CEO of Gujarat”, which is now one of India’s most industrialized states. An economic powerhouse, the northwestern state has shown enormous growth under his management and leadership. As Gurcharan Das, the former head of Procter & Gamble India, wrote in the Times of India, about the trade-off between values at the polls. According to him, anyone who expects secularism to win over economic growth has an elitist and misplaced position.
Campaigning across the vast country, Modi has distanced himself from the Gujarat Muslim massacre, calling it ancient history and has repeatedly refused to apologize for the riots saying he did the best he could. The teetotal vegetarian, who proudly brandishes an aggressive Hindu philosophy, has turned the conversation around, and has accused the INC of dividing the country along communal lines by pandering to minorities, instead of focusing on the economic future of the country.
But this trend of middle class support towards Modi and his politics goes beyond economics. As the Indian middle class has liberalized and become more prosperous, it has also undergone a religious resurgence. Meera Nanda, the author of The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu, finds that the Indian religious landscape has seen a rapid rise in God men, temple construction, and daily rituals in recent year. According to Nanda, this new robust religiosity is steeped in aggressive nationalism.
This combination of bellicose religious nationalism and free market economics, which is being touted by the seasoned politician and his party has found resonance within India’s vast electorate, especially the aspirant middle class. Having reaped the benefits of globalization, they are frustrated by the slowing economy under the present INC government, and are looking towards Modi’s model of development for wealth creation and upward mobility.
Modi’s successful economic agenda is gaining him some international support, even within countries such as the USA, which denied him a visa in 2005, based on allegations of communal rioting. A recent high-profile delegation comprising politicians and businessmen met with Gujarat chief minister and praised his market reforms, while advancing an invitation to visit the US. Similar reactions have emerged from the UK and other EU countries. Such volte-face makes it evident that economic progress can indeed trump a violently anti-secular past.
While many middle-class Indians rue the ascendance of a political party and leader that strike fear in its 183 million Muslim citizens, his talk about releasing the untapped potential of India’s youth, creating jobs, and becoming a global leader, has ignited the huge Indian electorate. This excitement goes a long way in explaining the tight embrace that marks the love affair between Modi and the great Indian middle class.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay