Pandemic cushions India’s Modi for Hindu-nation agenda


The PM’s failures have created a space for opposition parties, but they look ill-prepared to take him on

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi June 03, 2020

Migrant workers and families walk below a billboard depicting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump as they wait in Ahmedabad on May 23 to return by train to their hometowns after the government eased a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed the first anniversary of his government’s second stint on May 30, converting the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic to his advantage without moving an inch away from his core ideology of Hindu nationhood.

Modi emerged powerful after his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a second term in a landslide victory in the 2019 general election. The victory emboldened the party and the government pressed on with its pro-Hindu agenda, leaving religious and ethnic minorities antagonized.

He stormed to power for the first time in 2014 after the BJP managed to garner the vote of Indians dissatisfied with the Congress party, which ruled India from 2004 to 2014. These dissatisfied Indians were mainly Hindus in a Hindu-majority nation of 1.3 billion people with long-cherished principles of secularism and tolerance of divergence.

The mandate of 2014 brought new life to the simmering ideology of Hindu nationalism. The next five years saw several violent incidents against Christians and Muslims, often taking the shape of mob lynching. Most episodes of violence were connected with allegations of religious conversion and violent disapproval of beef eating and the slaughtering of cows, a revered animal in Hinduism.

In the 2019 election, the BJP almost wholly ignored the votes of Christians and Muslims but won 303 seats in the 543-seat parliament. They polled only 38 percent of votes but had calculated that it was enough for them to win a thumping majority, supported by their core supporters and gullible working-class Hindus who could be appeased with emotive issues.

The second term started with Modi pressing on with three long-standing demands of Hindu groups that were part of BJP election promises since the 1980s. He succeeded with two within the first six months of the second term. The third one proved problematic, but the coronavirus crisis seems to have saved the situation.

One of the three outstanding promises was to strip the autonomy given to Jammu and Kashmir state, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The government did it through a constitutional amendment and choked protests with a lockdown of the Kashmir region for four months.

The second promise was to build a temple for Hindu god Ram at a controversial site in Ayodhya where Hindu zealots had demolished a mosque built by 16th-century Muslim ruler Babur. Modi’s government managed to end the land controversy through a Supreme Court judgment in favor of Hindus. Work on the temple is already underway.

The third promise was to identify Muslims who illegally moved into India from Bangladesh and Pakistan and strip their citizenship. The Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in December 2019, offering citizenship to all migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan except Muslims. It triggered nationwide protests as Muslims, Christians and secularists came out on the streets to oppose a move that they believed was against the Indian constitution’s principles of secularism.

The protests became riots in some pockets of New Delhi when Hindus and Muslims fought on the streets and clashed with police, leading to 53 deaths.

Cushion effect

The riots and the pandemic came almost simultaneously as Modi’s popularity was already suffering from spiraling unemployment and the worst economic slowdown in the nation’s history.

Modi, who has a knack of turning challenges into opportunities, must have looked at the coronavirus crisis as a blessing in disguise. He seized the moment to build up his leadership and give the impression that he is on the front line of India’s battle against the pandemic.

As the health crisis began, he appeared on television, first to announce a lockdown and then a few times to extend it and explain how to fight the pandemic. Each time he quoted from Hindu texts and reiterated Hinduism’s cultural ethos, overtly presenting his dedication to Hinduism but speaking to “all brothers and sisters” of India.

As the economic and social crisis deepened, Modi donned the hat of an economic reformer and announced a relief package with a slew of liberalization policies. He seemed to have put the Hindutva agenda on the backburner for the time being. He asked Indians to “make the crisis an opportunity” to build up business and industry and push India’s economy to the top.

Modi announced a whopping US$266 billion relief package promising benefits to all — from unorganized laborers and migrant workers to industrialists and business people. But when the finance ministry announced the details, most of the benefits were marked as bank loans without any direct cash benefits to any group.

The announcement also included serious policy changes such as allowing increased foreign investment in key sectors like defense and private investments in nationalized sectors like mining. Experts say these policy changes match well with Modi’s pro-industrialist leanings but have nothing to do with pandemic relief. Many see them as the BJP pushing its economic policies under the cover of Covid-19 at a time when protests and opposition are almost impossible. He saw an opportunity in the crisis.

The most ignored group, by both the state and industrialists, were millions of migrant workers who became jobless and hungry because of the lockdown. Neither their employers nor the state offered them any help. An estimated 40 million migrant workers stranded in industrial towns were forced to walk to their home states. At least 157 died on their way without food and water.

On May 25, the opposition Congress conducted a survey which showed that 76 percent of people were “unhappy” with Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. However, an independent survey by LocalCircles showed that 59 percent of respondents believed Modi’s government was “very effective” in handling the crisis.

Modi’s failures have created a space for opposition parties, but they look ill-prepared to take on the prime minister, says opposition Samajwadi Party leader Dharmendra Kumar. Observers like Tushar Bhadra, from Modi’s parliamentary constituency Varanasi, say opposition parties, except for the communists, lack organizational backing.

“Modi’s strength is his party. The BJP today has a formidable coalition between the middle class, upper-caste Hindus, the forward class and the neo-rich and religious majority,” says political observer Vidyarthi Kumar.