India, with a population of 1.2 billion, is diverse with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other religious groups. It is the largest democracy in the world, holding free and fair elections during the past sixty-seven years, ever since the country gained independence from the British.
Rashtriya Swayamsekak Sangh (RSS), or National Patriotic Organization, is a right-wing Hindu paramilitary, volunteer organization. The RSS was founded in 1925 as an educational group to train Hindu men, to unite the Hindu community. RSS members participated in the Indian independence movement. However, the RSS view of a Hindu majoritarian India is at odds with most Indians. RSS fuels religious conflict, it has a history of inciting and participating in anti-Muslim riots. The RSS claims to uphold Indian culture and its civilization (read Hindu). The RSS was banned by the Indian government in 1948 when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member, and again in 1992, after Hindu mobs, some of them from the RSS, demolished Babri Masjid, an ancient mosque built by the Mughals some four hundred and sixty-years ago.
RSS commands respect among many Hindus for its non-political work, such as charities and disaster relief. It has a network of 18,000 schools and clubs to spread its ideology. In addition, a political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) arose from the RSS cadres. Throughout these many decades, RSS remained the ideological mentor of the BJP. Narendra Modi joined the RSS as a young man and rose through its ranks by sheer grit and hard work. His mentors, impressed by his leadership qualities, encouraged him to play a role in the BJP wing of Gujarat State. Mr. Modi, now 63, is the Chief Minister of Gujarat State. He is one of the longest serving Chief Ministers in India, and very popular in his state. His economic policies have benefited Gujarat, resulting in a high rate of growth of about 10% during the past ten years.
BJP is projected to garner the majority of MPs in the ongoing elections, and Mr. Modi is the party’s prime ministerial candidate. When the founding fathers planted the seeds of democracy in India’s fertile land, it blossomed rapidly. Now, after sixty seven years, there is no turning back; democracy, however imperfect, is alive and well. The strength of this nascent democracy is its diversity—many voices, many views and many philosophies, not to speak of different religions, languages, and traditions. When the pomp and circumstance, the spectacular made-for-media roadshows, roaring helicopters, rose petals, rousing speeches, ceremonial swords and turbans are things of the past, the 2014 general elections over, people will be back to their humdrum lives, and the elected leaders will be in Delhi to govern a boisterous and chaotic country.
In spite of a few minor bumps and humps, the Modi juggernaut seems headed to Delhi, just like the course of a river in its tumultuous and inevitable voyage to the ocean. If the media pundits are right, it is a forgone conclusion that the coronation of Narendra Modi as the next prime minister is but a formality. Mr. Modi will be the guardian of this great country, charged with the sacred duty of shielding the flickering flame of democracy from the evil winds of fanaticism. Even towering figures like Gandhi and Nehru were at times overwhelmed dealing with the country’s many intractable issues. And with due respect, Narendra Modi is no Gandhi, no Nehru, no Sardar Patel, no Maulana Azad, no Lal Bahadur Shastri, no Gopal Krishna Gokhale, no Bhimrao Ambedkar, no Jayaprakash Narayan, no Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, to name but a few architects of Modern India. But, Narendra Modi has the capacity to become a Great Leader. He is articulate, charismatic, decisive, determined, and above all disciplined.
If Mr. Modi becomes the next prime minister of India, he will have to deal with many issues. Revive a moribund economy and create jobs for millions of unemployed young men and women; curb corrosive corruption; revamp and rebuild crumbling infrastructure—roads, bridges, railways and airports; solve the Kashmir conundrum; modernize ageing military hardware and boost the morale of military personnel; defend the country’s borders to the west and northeast; deal with Pakistan, its state-sponsored terrorist outfits as well as non-state actors such as the Pakistani Taliban; and deal with an increasingly belligerent China.
As important as all these issues are, Mr. Modi’s top priority should be to ensure harmony among the various communities within the country. First and foremost, Mr. Modi should distance himself from the extremists in his own party who advocate that Muslims be barred from owning property in ‘Hindu areas,’ and who give vitriolic speeches against the Muslim minority. These fanatics want Indian Muslims to move to Pakistan, which is in itself a ridiculous idea, given that there are some 180 million Muslims in India, almost equal to the entire population of Pakistan!
The fear among the mainstream, secular Indians is that if Mr. Modi is the next prime minister, many Hindu fanatic groups might be emboldened to take matters into their hands, indulge in all manners of abhorrent anti-social activities. Also, the wheels of justice move excruciatingly slowly, and by the time a particular case comes up for trial, witnesses disappear, some coerced to keep quiet, and some bribed to throw a wrench in the judicial process. In some cases, the police, at the behest of their political masters, are tardy in filing a complaint, losing precious time in the process. So, it is imperative that Mr. Modi reins in these Hindu fundamentalists either within his own political party or associated with RSS.
History is replete with many examples to support the theory that the Hindu radical groups become more virulent when BJP governs either at the Center or at the State level. In 1999, in Odisha, a poor and backward state on the east coast, Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two sons, aged ten and six, were barbarically burned alive by a mob of Hindu fanatics. That the main perpetrator was sentenced to life imprisonment is not much of a consolation to the poor mourning widow, who magnanimously forgave those monstrous men. This gruesome incident happened when BJP and its partners (called the National Democratic Alliance, its detractors dubbed it as National Demagogic Alliance) were in charge of the Central Government. Although Mr. Vajpayee, the then prime minister expressed outrage at this heinous crime, the unfortunate fact is that those murderers were treated as heroes by some Hindu zealots.
In 2002, in Gujarat, Hindu mobs marauded the streets, pulled Muslim men out of their homes, raped their women, torched their homes and businesses. The police simply stood by, let the Hindu mobs have their way, resulting in extensive loss of life and property; some estimates put the death toll at two thousand, and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless. All this murder and mayhem was in retaliation for the death of some sixty Hindu worshippers at a train station. It was alleged that a few Muslims set fire to a couple of rail cars and the Hindus were burned alive. However, a subsequent judicial inquiry by the Central Government suggested that the fire was caused accidentally by a burning stove in a compartment. The violence in Gujarat could have been prevented, and that Mr. Modi, at the helm of affairs in Gujarat during that pogrom, did not bring to bear his full powers to immediately stop the bloodshed, to say the very least, is very disturbing.
In 2009, during the short-lived BJP rule in Karnataka State, Hindu fanatics harassed young women in Mangalore pubs, dragged women by their hair, slapped and manhandled them, and accused them of ‘loose morals.’ Those fanatics were intolerant of young women stepping into bars to drink and dance as they considered it unseemly for women to behave in such an egregious manner. These Culture Police frowned upon couples enjoying themselves on Valentine’s Day, attacked them, and in general made life difficult for harmless young people who were just having fun.
The relentless harassment of the world-famous painter M.F. Hussain by the Culture Police is common knowledge. Fearing for his life, he reluctantly moved to Qatar and later died in London, buried in an alien land. Hindus fanatics protested against The Hindus, a scholarly book by Wendy Doniger. The publishers were coerced to withdraw the book and destroy thousands of copies. It was alleged that the author, a respected academic, defamed Hinduism, and desecrated Hindu Gods.
In the recent election fray, it is alleged that thugs in the payroll of BJP operatives roughed up members of Aam Admi Party (AAP). The list of the misdeeds of the Hindu fanatics goes on and on. So, for India to prosper, it is essential that the Hindu fundamentalists are forewarned to stick to their temples and prayers and not create communal conflicts. But Mr. Modi might find it hard to act against the very same people who gave him a leg up in the first place when he was a humble foot soldier in the RSS, and who worked so hard for his campaign. After all, the six million strong, well-trained RSS cadres are the backbone of Mr. Modi’s campaign, and aid in voter turnout.
This is where Mr. Modi’s leadership acumen will come into play. This is where his loyalties will be tested. Will he use his power to channel the enormous energy of the RSS cadres to build a better India? Will he be a steadfast steward to the country he professes to love or will he be just another demagogue sheathing himself in empty rhetoric, pandering to those vested interests that seek to destabilize the country, sowing seeds of detestation and discord? Mr. Modi has been praised as Vikas Purush, a man with a broad vision and progressive ideas. Only time will tell if his vision is broad and all encompassing, whether he will build a better, stronger and prosperous India.