Modi, secularism, and the future of Indian democracy

Do you, as a voter, feel trapped by the Modi/Rahul Gandhi binary? Are you questioning the future of democracy in India?  And what does Modi\’s rise say for the nation\’s secularism?

These were some of the questions discussed in a session organised by The South Asian Studies School at Oxford and King\’s India Institute last week (which predictably, began late; \’we the Indians\’). A few points from that were particularly interesting for me:

  • Dr. Matthew McCartney, (\’political-economy macro-economist\’ at Oxford) invoked the idea of \’the developmental State\’ (see Öniş, 1991) and drew comparisons between India\’s growth trajectory and that of the Asian tigers, in particular Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. He  noted that while the civil services in these countries were largely meritocratic and elitist (as he suggested was the case in India too), the wider population was ready to sacrifice short-term goals to achieve the \’vision of development\’ as espoused by their leaders (which is where India is different). For example, McCartney noted, South Korea was exporting colour TVs long before its own citizens were allowed to buy them. Such sacrifices were seen to be in the greater good and the idea of \’development\’ was constructed as the only option to counter the spread of communism. Under this notion of \’develop or die\’, the Asian tigers grew.

  • Dr. Maya Tudor drew on how constructions of national identity fed into the practice of democracy in newly decolonised, multi-ethnic, and culturally heterogenous Asian countries: in Pakistan national identity is closely linked to being a Muslim and non-Muslims and Shia or Ahmediyas are second class citizens; in Malaysia, ethnic Malays are \’true Malaysians\’ while other ethnic minorities are marginalised; in India, a clear choice was made to tie nationalism with secularism. Tudor argued that the rise of Modi (perceived as a strongly Hindu nationalist figure), does not bode well for democracy in a country that is built on the idea of secularism. This is because nationalism then gets tied with \’who\’s a good Hindu\’ rather than \’who\’s a good Indian citizen\’. She said that the clear impotence of the current government had made first-time voters (a segment that is young, aspirationally impatient, and has only seen a >6% growth rate) envision Modi as a promising replacement to the Gandhian/Nehruvian narrative. 

  • Dr. George Kunnath, anthropologist and expert on the Maoist movement in central India, voiced his
    Cartoon from The Hindu

    fears about further marginalisation of disadvantaged communities were Modi to come to power. He argued that Modi had hopped onto \’a fast-moving train that was going in the right direction\’ and thus Gujarat\’s growth story had been scripted even before Modi came to power. Citing statistics, Kunnath went on to illustrate that Gujarat\’s growth wasn\’t as impressive if compared to growth in other states. He crucially touched upon the difficult questions about what does development and democracy mean? Does development as seen in Gujarat, where marginal farmers are robbed of their livelihoods while large landholders growing water-intensive cash crops benefit, the growth we want in India? To Kunnath, democracy should aim towards equality and morality. I found that a critical insight at a time when corruption and what I call disengaged development, are plaguing the country. 

  • Finally Dr. Nikita Sud, who has followed Gujarat\’s growth story over the last decade, critiqued the \’personalisation of power\’ and construction of Brand Modi as a son-of-the-soil cum humble tea seller versus the idea of Rahul Gandhi as a shehzaada born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Sud questioned how a man from an inherently undemocratic organisation such as the RSS, could possibly be seen as a product and preserver of democracy. She was scathing in her verdict of Modi running his government in a dictatorial manner with \’dubious, self-affirming, and questionable characters\’ surrounding him. 

The Q&A round afterwards was thought-provoking and insightful. Some of the interesting ones were:

  • Has secularism as an idea been hollowed by Indian politics? Yes and no, replied all the panelists. (A recent debate on this here.) 
  • Has ideology been replaced by identity (similar to personalities been pitted against each other as one sees in the US Presidential race)? No, replied Matthew McCartney, Modi in fact comes from a powerful ideology of Hindu nationalism and capitalist growth. 
  • An IAS officer questioned why Modi\’s rise was considered undemocratic, since he had been voted to power thrice. Wasn\’t that a win for democracy? Maya Tudor pointed out that while the electoral process was a crucial pillar of democracy, once in power, an elected candidate must uphold the constitutional protection of citizen rights. It is here that Modi, either through the Godhra riots, or through the favouring of industrial growth at the cost of rural livelihoods, fails as a truly democratic leader. 
  • Hasn\’t Gujarat\’s growth shown Modi can be a successful leader? To this George Kunnath, pertinently responded, \’Yes, Gujarat has shown growth but for whom?\’ 
  • Why are we bashing Modi? Isn\’t he a product of India\’s politics which is inherently undemocratic to begin with? McCartney cited the example of the highly publicised Narmada Dam Movement and compared it to the silence around the Three Gorges Dam in China, saying that while Indian democracy was certainly far from perfect, it wasn\’t a complete failure
The session ended on Sud convinced Modi would not come to power, and Kunnath emphasising the need for further discourse on what we mean by development and how can it be inclusive. The most positive part was of course, an announcement of lunch afterwards. Students and free food have an uncanny bond that is hard to define. 

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

3 thoughts on “Modi, secularism, and the future of Indian democracy

  1. I personally feel that pitting Modi (or any personality) against or for secularism is a very bad advocacy of secularism. One needs not do it. This is deplorable for it turns secularism into anti-something. I see secularism as a philosophy, if it is some sort of philosophy at all, of moderation and anything which turns into something rigid is against it spirit. I wrote a blog on this


  2. I agree that pitting secularism 'against' anything or anyone does not bode well at all. In the event in Oxford, participants did discuss that it is almost a test to whet any establishment against. When deciding upon a certain action, a policymaker can ask, 'Does this uphold the ethos of secularism or not?' So I don't think I saw 'Western intellectuals attacking secularism' at all. Found your post very interesting. But I do not agree that the common perception of secularism is that it is 'anti-religious'. Any links to further reading on this? About public perceptions of secularism in India?


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